Opinion: In Games, Sometimes It's Good to Be Lonely

Games now are just as social as they’ve always been. Online modes and connectivity allows people to compete with each other, explore together, share experiences, and even act as a team. Multiplayer is often turned to as a minable, available resource used to keep games in the hands of consumers, and practically everything is signed online or pinging a remote server to record data that can later be shared with friends.

Even beyond mere multiplayer, so many games are filled with characters used as background filler, romance options, sidekicks, antagonists, and quest givers. Even when you’re in a single-player game, you’re among digital friends made up of pre-recorded dialog and code.

But there’s been a resurgence recently in games that foster isolation, games whose entire worlds are created with the intention of being completely devoted to a single player. Other characters in these games operate in limited capacities, offering items, advice, or story. That is, if they even exist at all. And while it might seem a world devoid of life, these kinds of games actually make for interesting examples of what isolation can do to make a game even more effective at what it sets out to be.

One Man’s Sky

No Man’s Sky is heavily flawed, relying on the same trite mechanics of so many of the survival games flooding Steam’s Marketplace and Greenlight. Confusing and muddied marketing built the game into a bigger and more ambitious project than it could ever realistically be, and the narrow scope of ways to actually interact with the world are tiresome at best and at worst, downright boring.

But No Man’s Sky does one thing very, very well, even if it wasn’t intentional. It feels disconnected, mysterious, and very, very alone. Before you lies a sprawling, open galaxy, waiting for you to set out with the intention of doing something great. And as you stand alone, a tiny spec in the cosmos, you feel a need to explore, to leave your mark, to see everything the universe has to offer.

No Man’s Sky is a sort of humdrum survival game, but its sheer scope is able to offer up a zenlike experience. Wander, collect, appreciate the beauty, and discover, all on your own time and in your own way. Discover new alien species, document them, and on occasion interact--even if in a weirdly stiff, limited way--with the other races and species inhabiting that corner of the universe.

There is a community aspect to No Man’s Sky via planet discoveries and the supposed ability to see other players as they discover the same planets as you (which has yet to happen, but was once said to be possible). But seeing other players and even riding alongside them to visit planets would rob No Man’s Sky of arguably its greatest strength; its emphasis on loneliness and isolation cause the player to focus and reflect solely on their experience as they visit, explore, and discover new planets. Whether or not there’s much to be seen or reason to explore these places is debatable, but the ability No Man’s Sky has to make you feel small is in itself significant.

All By Myself

The sub genre of first-person games negatively called “walking simulators” only work because of their inherent loneliness. These are games in which the player has very little interaction with any other characters, often wandering and completing different objectives while learning story tidbits from written or audio logs.

Regardless of one’s opinion on them, these games are built around their environment filling the narrative void of the missing characters. When done well, it creates a veritable pop-up book of story, filled with nooks and crannies to explore and a world that practically becomes a character in and of itself.

Gone Home is widely credited as one of the best examples of this, but there are many others that stand in its midst. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture drops the player in an empty world in which they must go around and discover what happened to the people of a small village via old memories and ethereal flashbacks. Ether One took place in a charming industrial countryside, weaving in and out of buildings and environments as the player helped reconstruct the ailing memory of an old man.

Even more recently, Grow Up--the sequel to Ubisoft’s Grow Home--showed the strength of a sprawling world explored by only two characters. Grow Up’s approach was significant, because it forced attention to be placed on its plant life, turning the flora of the world into characters all their own and giving them specific applications in platforming abilities.

Horror games also like to use the idea of an unsettling world filled with flavor text and filler fiction over just listening to or reading the accounts of victims who were eventually consumed by whatever entities destroyed the world in the first place, like we’ve seen with Silent Hill. While there are variations in sequel to sequel, Silent Hill is significant, because its use of a practically lifeless world is part of what lends it such a sense of confusing and dread. Especially in the now-defunct P.T., where the only inhabitants are the player and a spectral being stalking the house's eternally-looping hallway. The environment is everything, and having so little else to focus on was part of what made P.T. great. 

Of course, these things can be done poorly, spinning out into half-baked experiences filled with mildly interesting story bits and moments that are entertaining at best. But when done well, sometimes it’s good to be lonely in a video game, pulled by your own sensibilities and sense of whimsy when presented with a brand new world all yours to explore.

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