In real life, my experience with fishing began and pretty much ended when I was a kid young enough to be scared by a fish. Which is a perfectly healthy thing to be scared of. When you impale fish on a hook and drag them out of the water, where they frantically thrash and flop their slimy wet bodies and prickly fins, eyes and mouths agape, it’s a horror show. As a kid, I wasn’t sure whether the fish was dying or attacking, but whichever the case, I wanted no part of it. Fish belong in water. “Fish out of water” is an idiom for a reason.
But that didn’t stop my grandfather from trying to make a fisherman out of me. My grandfather was a burly Arkansas good ol’ boy who had retired to a house on a lake partly because he loved fishing. During one of my visits, he resolved to introduce me to it. The process started with the grotesque mutilation of a living cricket. Among the various gear you need as a fisherman is a mesh container with a hole in the top, engineered so that you can stick your hand down in it, but the crickets can’t crawl up out of it. To commence fishing, you stick your hand down in the container and swirl it around until you grab a cricket. Then you squish the cricket’s soft abdomen onto a barbed hook. My grandfather insisted the cricket couldn’t feel it (he told me the same thing about gruesome stuff that happens to fish).
Now I’m no fan of bugs, but on the scale of ick, crickets are pretty low. Somewhere below June bugs but above caterpillars. Closer to caterpillars, because crickets are the things that advise Pinocchio. But I don’t want to stick my hand in a container full of them, and I certainly don’t want to impale them on sharp hooks. Unfortunately, that’s the first step in fishing.
The next step is something I like about as much as mutilating bugs. Waiting. You sit there holding a fishing pole, waiting. Waiting. This is, in fact, what the act of fishing mostly entails. Just hold a fishing pole. Sit there. Keep sitting there. Keep sitting there. Wait. Sit. Hold. Fishing. I don’t really care for an activity that requires sitting and staring at the water. I’m happy to sit and stare at water as an independent activity. Lakes and oceans and whatnot are very watchable. But I don’t want to be compelled to do it as an ancillary part of something else. Besides, when I was fishing with my grandfather, we were in a boathouse, which contains some of the least watchable water you will ever see. Furthermore, sitting and waiting are two activities kids don’t normally enjoy.
Sometimes a fish gets stuck on the string at the end of your fishing pole. This happens when you’ve tricked the fish by making it bite a barbed hook hidden inside food. Oh, aren’t you proud of yourself? You’ve outsmarted something with a brain the size of a caper. You then pull the fish out of the water, appraise whether you have enough fish, and either repeat the process or go home according to your appraisal. That’s the overarching structure of fishing.
Eventually some poor fish ate the mutilated cricket and got himself caught on my fishing pole. At which point the fishing pole got jiggled. Here’s where the fisherman has to engage in activity to remove the fish from the water. This is accomplished by lifting the pole, which creates a physics puzzle that you must solve. When you lift the pole, two things happen spatially. 1) It raises the point at which the string is attached to the pole and 2) it brings nearer to you the point at which the string is attached to the pole. Now keep in mind that a fish is dangling from the string on the end of the pole. The outcome of these two spatially significant events is that the fish on the end of the string comes in close proximity to your facial area. The physics puzzle you must solve involves using one of your arms to intercept the incoming fish.
Upon catching my first fish, I had not been given sufficient information about this part of the process. Instead, I was simply told to lift the fishing pole. Easy enough instructions to follow. At which point the fish was lifted out of the water and began its approach to my facial area. Having not been informed that I would be expected to intercept a fish on a trajectory towards my facial area, I did not intercept it. It moved, unchecked.
It is not a pleasant thing for a unsuspecting child to take a living fish to the face. A wet flopping scaley beslimed ugly gasping thrashing murderous unblinking cold-blooded abomination. It collided with my face. It basically slapped me. I don’t recall the precise details of what happened afterward, or the fate of the fish, or how long it took to calm me down. But for many years thereafter, it was a favorite anecdote told at my expense. The time I hit myself in the face with a fish and then freaked out. As if I was somehow responsible for the way a pendulum works. From that moment forth, fish and physics were no friends of mine.
I’m also a little fuzzy on my fishing career afterwards. I know I tried fishing enough times that I once stepped on a fishhook, which then involved freaking out on the way to the emergency room, where my toe received a local anesthetic so the hook could be pushed deeper through my flesh until the barb curled back out of the other side of my toe far enough to be snipped off so the hook could be pulled back out. That wasn’t pleasant. I also vaguely recall being dropped off at a wharf to go fishing on my own, and being given someone else’s extra fish while unsuccessfully trying to fish from the wharf. When my mother picked me up later, I presented the fish as if I had caught them. I remember her skepticism. She was on to me.
So for most of my life, I have refrained from fishing because I don’t like being smacked in the face, impaled on hooks, or impelled to lie to my mother to make her think I actually fished. Best to just stay home and play D&D. So went most of my childhood.
One of the advantages of videogame fishing is the lack of taking a fish to the face, going to the emergency room and getting a shot in your toe, or disappointing members of your family. Fishing in a videogame is a way to flesh out the game world. The normal mode of interaction with any game world is combat. You punch away the hit points of its denizens. If it’s an RPG, it also has dialogue trees for some of the NPCs. But fishing is a way to turn every body of water into a slot machine. I love fishing in my videogame worlds, because who doesn’t love a slot machine? Pull the lever and see what prize you get. In actual fishing, sometimes you don’t get a prize. Sometimes you sit there all afternoon and the fish aren’t biting. Fishing. But in videogame fishing, you’re always going to get something, and it’s going to happen pretty quickly, otherwise you’ll get bored and go play another game. I don’t think I’ve ever waited more than, say, 15 seconds at a videogame fishing hole.
One of my favorite recent videogames with fishing is Battle Chasers: Nightwar, which has fishing spots highlighted in its dungeons. You can just ignore them if you want. The game knows you’ve got monsters to kill. No harm, no foul. But if you press A at the fishing spot, it moves you to a cutaway view of a lakeside. You can see the shadows of the fish milling about underwater. Cast your line out there, wait for a fish to basically bump into it, then play a brief minigame to land the fish. Because you can see the fish milling around, you know exactly what kinds and how many there are. It’s like a gumball machine where you can see the goodies inside, and you furthermore know when it’s been emptied. Fish are a finite resource on any given Battle Chasers lakeside.
There are different kinds of fish, and you keep a leaderboard of which ones you’ve caught and how big they are. But more importantly, the fish are sold to a fishmonger in exchange for “shadow coins”. These coins are hard to come by, and they’re the only way to buy unique artifacts from the curio shoppe. So while fishing is optional, it is also valuable. If fishing was just the same money I get exploring dungeons or looting monsters, why would I bother? Fishing in Battle Chasers: Nightwar knows to make fishing rewards different from the rest of the game.
I have tried serious dedicated fishing games. Most of them have the name bass in the title somewhere. Serious Pro Bass Fishing. That sort of thing. They’re happy to make you wait for the fish to bite, or even to allow you to fail, because they know they’re not a diversion from dungeons and monsters. They know you just booted up a fishing game and don’t have anywhere else to be. They know you understand the ups and downs of fishing.
There’s a solid free-to-play fishing game on Steam called Fishing Planet. You just have to infer bass from the title. It’s super polished, pretty well documented, and only moderately annoying with its free-to-play business model. It looks pretty good, too. If I’m going to be compelled to look at water, the Fishing Planet water and its ancillary scenery is pretty lookable. It has a variety of different ways to fish, ranging from dropping a lure into the water to doing the whole fancy thing where you reel the line in and jigger it around to approximate the movement of something a fish would want to eat. You can even get fish from a rowable kayak, which is only a stretch of whitewater away from the kind of gameplay I enjoy in Steep.
But Fishing Planet is entirely pointless. You catch fish to catch fish. You must have a solid handle on the ontological underpinnings of waiting for a fish to be tricked into impaling itself on a barbed hook at the end of a string you’ve dropped into the water. Fishing Planet provides nothing in this department. There is no fishmonger to give you shadow coins. There is only fishing. It is pure, which is a tedious thing to be in a fishing game.
Which is why Atom Fishing II would be my preferred serious fishing game. Once you figure out Atom Fishing II — more on that in a sec — you are playing a conventional videogame economy in the context of a free-to-play game. The fish you catch are a resource you must process and spend to catch more and better fish. It’s a classic videogame loop. Kill stuff to take its stuff so you can kill more stuff, all while ignoring a chat window because it’s an MMO. Except the verb here is “fish” instead of “kill”. It is applied to crafting, collecting, consumables, currency, you name it.
I think Atom Fishing II is set in a post-apocalypse, which is how it explains that the fish you catch get ground up into biomass and fuel and fishbucks. The world is in such a sorry state that fish are used for fuel and bartering. Plus, the world is irradiated, so you can only stay outside to fish for so long before your “blargh, I’ve been irradiated!!” bar is empty. I’m pretty sure it’s the orange bar.
As you can see, you have a lot of bars in Atom Fishing II. One of those is hunger. Another is thirst. Use fish to make food and drinks, which sounds pretty gross, but there’s no hunting in the game, so what are you gonna do?
Eventually, you’ll buy better protection against the radiation. Some areas are more dangerous than others. Wouldn’t you know it, some areas require more expensive bait that you can’t afford when you first start playing. But even if someone gives you a lot of ingame fishbucks, which happened to me due to a mistake about my gender related to my last name being Chick, you can’t just pay to win. You might need bait that only works on a level 4 fishing hook, which only fits on level 4 fishing line, which only runs through a level 4 reel, which can only be affixed to a level 4 pole, which you can’t use until you’re level 4. I understand that rationale a lot better than having to buy a license in Fishing Planet, where sometimes the game tells me I better throw the fish back or I’ll be fined! I get level requirements. I don’t get Department of the Interior paperwork.
Atom Fishing II is a Russian game. If there’s one thing I know about Russia, it’s that they can’t get over Chernobyl. I don’t blame them. You’d take it pretty hard too if suddenly you had an irradiated wasteland in the middle of your country. Well, Chernobyl is in Ukraine, so what used to be your country and what you’re working on making your country again. But you can’t just loop yellow tape around a thousand square miles of city and expect people to forget about it. So Atom Fishing II is a game about fishing in an irradiated wasteland. Like Fallout or Stalker, but with no combat. Like Fishing Planet, but with an irradiated wasteland.
Check out my artels.
The lack of helpful English text — the word “artel” isn’t helpful — wouldn’t be a problem if a) I could read Russian, or b) the game was better presented to people who don’t play it. Atom Fishing II is a game for people who already play Atom Fishing II. There’s not a lot of guidance in terms of learning its systems. I didn’t even realize you were supposed to click both mouse buttons to reel in a fish, which is a bit like not being told to lift the pole to pull the fish out of the water. A lot of fish got away while I was figuring out how to play. A lot of stuff like this happens in Atom Fishing II. You’ll be given a quest to get crucians, tenches, or breams of a very specific size. Where do you get those? How do I make sure to get the ones of the right size? Are those even real fish? And where are the bass at? Who can say? Are the fish just not biting or am I in the wrong place using the wrong bait? How long do I wait before concluding I’m never going to catch something? I’ll give it another five minutes of staring at the bobber in the water. Not a moment longer!
Atom Fishing II is free-to-play, so it will occasionally try to sell me something. Thankfully, the lack of guidance and the language barrier makes it hard to appreciate how much more quickly I would grind if I spent money. By the way, Atom Fishing II has registered trademarks for the numbers 60, 370, 1300, 3300, and 700, so everyone keep that in mind lest you get sued in Russian court.
But the gratifying thing about Atom Fishing II is that you’re actually using the stuff you pluck out of the lake. Once you resign yourself to ignoring whatever artels are and that big board in the hub dominated by cucumba, you can get down to just doing some fishing. My experience is that the people in chat are really nice, and not just when they think you’re a chick and sending you free money. They seem happy to explain where you can find crucians, tenches, or breams. With a little patience for game developers who can’t be bothered to document their game, you can plug into that easy loop of fishing so you can fish more. If that’s your sort of thing.
This sense of utility simply isn’t the case in other fishing games that aren’t situated inside a fantasy RPG. None of those pure fishing games has an answer for why you’re doing this to these poor fish. You just do it because that’s what fishing is. But in the irradiated post-apocalypse of Atom Fishing II, you fish to survive, and you survive to fish, and you work your way up a power curve as you do it. It’s less fuss than running around looking for more orcs to kill, more meaningful than unlocking the license for some random lake in Fishing Planet, and cheaper than something free-to-play that you might actually like or understand.