A Season in Hell



Toronto is a desert of the soul. Not ugly, exactly, because ugliness has character. Toronto is a sort of Platonic ideal of the 21st Century North American city, aseptic glass and concrete and sad, domesticated maples piled flush against one another in a war to the finish against the city’s own molding bricks and timber. Vast, car-choked webs of highway lead nowhere across plains studded with show homes and tech parks. Somewhere beyond lies forest, steppe, tundra and taiga, but you will never see them. Toronto is a glossy tumor in the process of smothering reality.

I’m speaking of the city in summer, mind you. In winter, it is the lowest circle of Hell. The sorry parks become exposed boxes of snow and rot. Streets alternate between ice and mud until the two are indistinguishable, a grim, churned slush complemented by dangerous falls. Humans jam themselves into roasting malls and restaurants when not losing their sanity to cabin fever, bar the odd Brutus or Lucifer who wanders the streets with smug indifference and the many living on the streets, whose constantly moving shelters don’t open until it’s -15. Eventually (eventually) the clotted filth will thaw. We’re past all that, now. Waves of rain lash the windows in a fruitless counterattack against the machine, and I listen for the thunder.

In this context, videogames become especially attractive. Open-world games in particular have always appealed to me, and never more than when it’s dreadful outside. Whether it’s Morrowind or Mount & Blade, sometimes I just need to shut the blinds and go for a walk. It’s all very well to speak disparagingly of escapism, with the (completely accurate) implication that there is a grand world out there to be explored if only you could put down the controller and confront your fears. But what happens when you feel that meatspace actively rejects you? When the physical environment is so relentlessly hostile – physically, psychologically, economically – falling into oneself is easy.

Part of the problem is that I’m not a native. There are far worse places than Toronto, but I’ve never lived in them. In fact, I’ve had the profound good luck to have lived in several places with natural beauty, mild weather and generous public space. Climbing a mountain or going for a walk along a river are perennial options in some cities. In contrast, just being able to see a real mountain now seems an indescribable luxury.

I don’t think my dislike of the environment is entirely my fault, though: Torontonians might not all be as morose as I am, but they complain endlessly about the cold, heat, rain and ice. What surprises me is that they don’t complain the rest of the time. Recently, Skyrim has been tugging at my imagination, though I haven’t played it in ages and don’t intend to, because it presents a world where winter is a thing of beauty. Where there are mountains and forests and rivers and seas, snow is nothing to fear. It’s not the cold I want to escape: it’s everything else.
Bad weather here strips away the illusion of life along with the foliage, leaving us to shuffle between a set of boxes. Toronto is a city of homes and malls and workplaces, and aside from the odd park for skating and the obligatory maples, there really isn’t much else.

You’ve been reading an excerpt from Unwinnable Monthly Issue 54.

To read the article in its entirety, please purchase the issue from the shop or sign up for a subscription to Unwinnable Monthly!

Excerpt, Feature, Games, Unwinnable Monthly