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He Made a Covid-Zapping Video Game. Then He Fought Covid for Real

The new game from Finnish developer Jani Penttinen, where players murder digital Covid-19 particles, began as a passion project. He had started building games in the 1990s, working for game companies like Remedy and Housemarque in their early days. In 1992, he codeveloped the game Utopos (later renamed Guntech) for the Atari ST computer system.

Penttinen’s newest game, Guntech 2, launched on the Xbox last week. Like its 30-year-old predecessor, the game is a top-down space shooter, where the player controls a spaceship that flits through the cosmos, blasting all manner of alien uglies. Think Asteroids, but with more color.

The decades-old game got some obvious updates to its graphics and gameplay. But it was Penttinen’s wife, Wen Sun, who suggested that he add a more modern element to meet the moment.

“I’m not so into gaming,” she says. “Every time he shows me the game, I feel like there are a lot of similar space shooting games. How are you making people choose yours and not others?”

The answer was to fill a level with marauding spaceship-sized virus particles. They’re just referred to as viruses in the game, but visual references to Covid-19 are unmistakable. The virus particles appear as great bulbous spheres surrounded by red spike proteins. Each is a spitting image of the demonic Koosh ball we’ve all come to know and hate over the past 23 months.

Penttinen says the enemy viruses just showed up on one level at first, but they quickly became a main theme.

“I made sure you can kill a lot of those viruses in the game,” Penttinen says. The giant viruses also attach to your ship and drain it of energy, and you can ward them off by picking up vaccine collectibles.

The boss character that players have to battle at the end of the virus-heavy level is a giant virus named Dr. Virx—a not-so-subtle reference to Deborah Birx, the American doctor who formerly served as the response coordinator on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. The ultimate goal of the level is to destroy the “lab” from which the fictional virus emerged. (Penttinen says he doesn’t believe the controversial Covid lab leak theory, but the concept made for a more interesting video game design.) The boss battle in particular became a way to evoke the Sisyphusian helplessness of living through the Covid pandemic.

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“When you kill it, it doesn't go away, it splits into two to four,” Penttinen says. “It's endless, just like what we are experiencing in the world now. Every time we think it goes away, it comes back and it's stronger.”

For nearly two years, Penttinen and Wen Sun stayed mostly within the confines of their home in Las Vegas, Nevada, working and wrangling their four children. Then in December of last year, Penttinen, who had been vaccinated, decided to travel for the first time since the pandemic started. He flew to Finland for an event with fellow game developers and investors. A couple of days before he left, news about a new coronavirus variant—Omicron—had started to trickle out.

He flew back to Los Angeles for another event and took a Covid test before the flight. It was negative. He got to the hotel on the day of the event but started to feel like he was getting sick. He decided not to go out and took another rapid home test. It was positive. After he'd spend months destroying the virus in his game, Covid had found him in real life.

“It felt a little bit too coincidental,” Penttinen says. “I don’t believe in that kind of stuff, but it feels a little bit like it wanted me.”

After three days, Penttinen felt better. His initial flu-like symptoms had abated, though he still had some difficulty breathing. A friend brought him a pulse oximeter and showed him how to measure his SPO2 levels to make sure his blood had enough oxygen in it. Normal oxygen levels tend to hover above 95 percent. Anything too far below that can be a cause for alarm. When Penttinen’s levels dipped below 90, and breathing became harder and harder, he decided to go to the emergency room. The ER workers tested him again and discovered he had the Delta variant of Covid. The doctor told him he was in too grave a condition to be able to go home. The next morning, the medical staff moved Penttinen to a new room, where his condition only worsened.

“I started feeling really scared,” he says. “Because you hear all these stories about people getting intubated and spending months in the hospital and maybe not even making it. I thought wow, this is not good.”

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Before Penttinen was admitted to the hospital, the Xbox team had rejected his submission to certify Guntech 2 for release on the platform. In order to pass, he had to fix one small problem: The game didn’t display progress bars on the loading screens, which could lead players to think the game had crashed or stalled while the levels were loading. But in his fevered state, Penttinen feared the worst. He has vivid memories, he says, of things that didn’t happen.

“Somehow, I made up these enemies in my mind that turned into this reason why it was rejected,” Penttinen says. In his fever dreams, friends turned on him, telling Microsoft not to publish his game. “People who were sending me messages wishing me well. But I couldn't really read or respond. I just saw a name on the screen, and then it became part of this nightmare.”

Stuck in the hospital, Penttinen wasn’t able to address the issue that was holding up his game’s release. He worried that not being able to fix the one tiny problem would keep his work from ever being published.

“Even if I died, my family at least would get some income. But if I’m completely out, what a waste. You spend a year creating this game, but it’s never even going to come out.”

After eight days, Penttinen was able to go home. Sun picked him up and they returned to their house. For the next two weeks, Penttinen was confined to his room. A friend brought over an oxygen tank after Penttinen’s insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of one. Wen Sun brought him food and took care of the kids. They spent Christmas day like that, in the same household but still apart.

While he recovered, Penttinen knew he still had to submit the game for the Xbox approval process. As he worked on it, he went back through and played the game again. This time, blasting the virus to smithereens didn’t feel as cathartic as it used to.

“Maybe because what I experienced was so real, I didn’t really get that feeling of like, ‘Oh I’m gonna show you,’” Penttinen says. “I was kind of hoping it would feel like that, but I felt a little too serious to really get into that kind of revenge mood.”

Penttinen resubmitted the game and it was approved, and on January 13 Guntech 2 went on sale for $20 for Xbox Series S/X and Xbox One. The developer says he plans to work on versions for other gaming platforms next.

These days, Penttinen says he still can’t do much more than go for a short walk without feeling exhausted and out of breath. But now that his game has been released, he feels a little relief that “people around the world will be able to take on the virus en masse.”


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