Emoji summary: 💫☄️⚡️
At some point in the sweet, colourful years before the pandemic washed everything away, I found Naysy online. A content creator I didn’t know yet, she was dancing around inside a video I didn’t quite understand yet either.
This is what I saw.
A real girl was stood with her back to us in a blank digital space. She was wearing a glossy black circle skirt and, unusually, she was holding a virtual light saber in each real hand. The sharp neon pink and green glow of the sabers cut straight through the darkness, and she was busy swinging them around, creating a spray of colour, because there was a stream of virtual shapes zooming straight at her. In time to some menacing piano music that had a quickening pace, Naysy was swiping the light sabers so that they cut through each block as it reached the front of the line, just before it flew over her shoulder. She was shifting her weight from foot to foot and flicking her wrists so that the lights in her hands would glance and slice and bounce easily in a cool, fluid rhythm. It was glorious, unreal. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen.
It was like swordplay. It was like she was fighting something. It was like she was floating over an advanced Dance Dance Revolution machine that was suspended in outer space, and the thing she was fighting was geometry — or music? I don’t know. It was Guitar Hero but also Fruit Ninja and Atari’s Tempest too. A rhythm game like I’d never seen.
I watched her fight one song and then I watched another, just fascinated. I soon found my way to a behind the scenes video that explained the magic: Naysy was streaming herself playing a popular virtual reality game called Beat Saber. She was using a camera to record her movement, she had a headset on so that she could see the game, and then she was using software to overlay her view onto the green screen play-space she had set up in her house. That way, her audience could enjoy an augmented view of Naysy inside the game (or an augmented view of the game teased out of the headset and into our world).
I was mesmerised and it all felt like an impossible, distant love. Like, you know when something is just so good that you can’t imagine coming close to it yourself? Too special to think about ever owning. Too euphoric. And not sensible, for some reason, like looking directly at the sun. The perfect game. Too perfect though! A thing for someone else and not for me in my lifetime. I carried on watching Naysy because in her professional Beat Saber streaming lifestyle, I thought she had it all.
At some point in the dark, miserable years when the pandemic was every headline, I had a conversation about Beat Saber that broke my heart. This is the part of the story that I shouldn’t put online because it is real and miserable. But not including it would make it impossible to write this review, and I’ve started now so I have to push on — I want to.
Having Covid, the thing that’s on the news, is a believable, test-certifiable event. I have learnt that having the post-viral chronic illness that sometimes follows it — Long Covid — is less believable to some people. That seems to be true no matter how devastating it is on the body. My close friends and family have, for the most part, been very, very kind to me since I got sick at the beginning of 2021. They understood from the start that I didn’t understand what was happening. They stayed with me even when my identity became unstable and new. They stayed to help figure it out but they also stayed because they accepted that there might be nothing to figure out. No end, no answers, no getting better — just pain and fatigue and a changed girl in their lives. It has been horrible so I have loved them for that, and I’ll forever be grateful for their care.
When I made it to the 6 month mark, I began to really struggle. Month 6 was the first month I didn’t leave the house because I couldn’t manage it anymore — and I didn’t know this, but I wouldn’t leave the house again for the next 6 months to come, unless I was being driven to doctor’s appointments or walking slowly around the block with my stick, gasping for air. It was during that bad turning point that I had a phone call with the one friend who should have been there and wasn’t. It was strange. They just… hadn’t bothered. Hadn’t reached out, hadn’t asked the questions I wanted them to ask. Didn’t seem to want to know me through this transformation, like it was too gruesome so they just closed their eyes and went about their carefree life without me.
On the phone, they still weren’t asking about it. They were talking about themselves and the outside world. They were going on and on about how much fun they had had recently, visiting this friend and that family member, all things beyond my capacity at this point. Oh and one of these visits, they played a game — a VR game. Oh my god, we couldn’t stop laughing. They set the scene, a happy gathering, and then they started to describe Beat Saber. I felt myself twinge. They said that I had to visit our mutual friend that had just got a headset. You need to go and play. YOU would love it. I told them that I know the game and I know I would love it but I can’t do that. Why? I’m too sick to get there, never mind play it. Oh, don’t be so dramatic.
Don’t be so dramatic.
I’ve thought a lot about this comment (too much probably). It is a funny thing to say because Long Covid, for me, really has been dramatic. At that point in my sickness, I didn’t have the energy to stand long enough to have a shower. How was I playing Beat Saber? I couldn’t have lamps on because my eyes were so sensitive to light. How was I playing Beat Saber? I couldn’t wash the dishes because just a little bit of activity triggered pain in my legs that was no match for painkillers, and I’d dutifully tried everything the doctors had given me. The short, sad walks I did around the block landed me in bed for 24 hours. I’m sorry, how was I playing Beat Saber? I wouldn’t have the reaction time, never mind the joy available to make any incoming pain and fatigue worth it. It has been dramatic. And really, I shouldn’t have been so surprised and upset when I had this said to me — I already knew that this person didn’t care enough to know why saying that was wrong. I guess it was hard because I still wanted them to change their mind. I wanted them to start caring, but that was not in my fate.
After that call, I didn’t want to think about Beat Saber anymore. I stopped wanting the game when I stopped thinking about the world outside my house, where healthy people roamed the streets, danced, and socialised at each other’s houses without consequence. I was too sad.
I stopped watching Naysy, and she was more distant to me than ever before.
At some point in the endless waves of mass disabling infection, the pandemic gods decided it was time to give me a break.
I’d spent the first 6 months trying to stay a part of the real world, followed by 6 more months at home when I couldn’t try anymore. All of the months were terrible. Life was loose, my mind was coming undone. I had had one phone call with the Long Covid Clinic in Liverpool in which they told me there was nothing they could do about pain because everybody’s pain is different. What? They also said that Long Covid was a very British thing and there weren’t clinics in other countries, which is strange isn’t it — it’s also false. I was left to it. I was very still on the couch and I thought that would be where I stayed forever.
And then just as I reached my 1 year anniversary, I got an email from the Long Covid Clinic inviting me to an in-person appointment. I noticed this clinic’s address was different from the first one, and when I arrived, the doctor began by saying the service had changed hands because so many people had complained about the original. Good. Me too. Let’s start again.
This new doctor listened to my long list of symptoms, nodded, looked calm, and he did a test for Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome there and then. I had it. And it explained everything. With his help, I learnt that Covid had sent my autonomic nervous system into disarray. The jobs my body should just get on with, should just assume, were now wonky and wrong. Movement, in particular changing posture, had been speeding my heart up to an abnormal rate; a fast heart had made me breathless and it had made me constantly fatigued as well. The pain I’d experienced in my legs was venous pooling, which solved the mystery as to why painkillers had been useless. And the general, widespread soreness I’d been feeling every day over my whole body was due to dysautonomia filling me with too much adrenaline.
I didn’t even get the doctor’s name because I was so overwhelmed. I left the appointment practically skipping. I also left with a prescription for beta blockers, pills that would slow my heart down to a mortal level. The first day I took them, I felt the change. I asked my boyfriend to walk with me and as we made our way down the street late at night, I told him that I felt dead — dead in a good way, if that is possible, because I couldn’t feel my heart pounding in my chest. How could I know it was still there?
It’s been about 7 weeks since I started taking them and I still feel dead in a good way. I feel grounded, like I’ve been away for a while and I’ve finally come back to Earth. I don’t feel like I used to, though. I am somewhere in between. My body hurts every day with a deepness I’m now used to. But I’m much happier, and people around me are noticing, commenting on it. It is exciting that I can do more. I can stand up without gasping and losing my balance. I can have showers again. I can walk much further than the loop around the block. I can also… move my arms. I am… sharper, more alert. The light doesn’t seem to bother my eyes as much anymore… What I am saying is that now, I can finally play Beat Saber.
My mum got me an Oculus headset for Christmas. It was another month before I would receive a clearer diagnosis than ‘Long Covid’ so I didn’t open it, as good a gift as it was, because I wasn’t ready. I didn’t even google whether you could play VR games sitting down because I was too depressed either way — and the thing is, you can. Even after starting the pills though, I didn’t run upstairs and rip the box open. I’ve been slow to start, slow to move again, scared to find my new limits. In a way, it’s also hard getting used to being happy again. This review and all its nervous caveats probably shows that caution.
But one evening, I just got this brave little urge. Without telling anybody what I was doing, I set the Oculus up. Without overthinking it, I downloaded Beat Saber. I did the tutorial, easy. I bought a set of Linkin Park songs, obviously. I then stood up, dead heart ticking silently in my chest, and I played the game I’d been thinking about for years.
Now, I get to be dramatic because this is dramatic. Beat Saber was everything I had hoped it would be. I felt like I was flying. I felt like I was a spy sliding easily between moving red lasers in an action film. I played one song and then I had to take the headset off because my eyes were full of tears. It was the kind of bubbling happiness that I couldn’t keep to myself; I made a beeline downstairs for my boyfriend to interrupt the film he was watching because I had to announce what I had done and how good it had made me feel. I was honestly, literally vibrating — my head had been such a sad abyss and now there were lights twinkling all around me.
I only played one song — one song — and then I put the Oculus away in its box. The next day, my muscles hurt all over but… it was fine. It wasn’t the mysterious, poison-feeling, unstoppable pain of a condition I didn’t understand. It was the pain of exercise, of dancing. It was the straightforward aftermath of playing 3 minutes of an exciting VR game after barely moving in over a year. And that’s fine! Easy pain. That pain was worth it to feel like I was in Star Wars cosplay at a personalised Linkin Park rave in some fantastical dream void accessible through a portal in my house. I shivered with joy because virtual reality was even better than I thought it would be; and I think I needed it more than I had realised, a new dimension to elevate the housebound reality I’d been wedged in for so long.
When I played, the game felt dramatic. I felt dramatic. I felt my disability; I felt how much my body had changed. I felt the old hope of wanting to get better, and I felt the fate of not knowing if I would. When I played the game, I felt like I knew exactly what to do because I had seen so many videos online; I felt like I was Naysy and how wonderful of an ending is that.