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What Being Alone Means in a Video Game


Being alone can be a strange feeling for a lot of us. We spend so much time trying to find people to surround ourselves with that it can get to be almost too much when we find ourselves truly alone. Video games have used this feeling as a tool for years. It can be unsettling, it can be empowering, it can be freeing; isolation in video games can put you in a specific mindset depending on the game. In a world that can be crafted down to the most minute detail, there are very specific feelings meant when isolation is used as a tool.

When most of us think of being alone, it's an unsettling thought, something we want to avoid. The very idea of not being able to have people around us is upsetting and scary. No one around to ground us, to make us feel like there's some kind of civilization nearby. This feeling is used in an incredibly effective way in survival horror games like Resident Evil, Siren, and especially Silent Hill.

In the Silent Hill games, you're (most of the time) alone. There are no other people to interact with. No random NPC's standing in place to get flavor text from. Even your environment is sparse, the streets of Silent Hill are coated in fog and enemies are spaced out far. Your senses are taken away from you, you feel helpless. If enemies were constantly assaulting you, that would at least help distract from the isolation but for the most part, you're left to deal with being by yourself in this unfamiliar place. The oppressive soundscape puts you into a low place with a good mix of composed music, auditory expression, and plain dead silence. Even the sound design adds to this feeling of being alone. Oftentimes, the loudest thing in an area is the sound of your own footsteps. There's barely any white noise in the area unless you're near enemies. The only sound you hear most of the time is yourself and that really cements how desolate and abandoned these areas are that you explore. It's only you going through these places. Even when you do encounter other people, they're usually so off-putting and have such strange idiosyncrasies, that you can't get on their wavelength. Eddie from Silent Hill 2 constantly talks in circles and somehow manages to get a fresh pizza delivered to Silent frigging Hill, so he's immediately suspect. The characters you encounter are just as quick to embrace you as accuse you, their temperaments are constantly in flux. So even when there are people, you still can't relate. You still feel alone. All of these things combine to make the Silent Hill games a truly somber and isolating experience. They're about constantly being or feeling alone and having forces beyond your understanding work against you every step of your journey.

RPGs on the other hand are all about having people around you constantly. There's loads of text to read from so many characters and that's before we even get to your party. Most every RPG gives you companions to pal around with during your adventure and the most you can do to get rid of them is to banish them to the dark, untouched reserves on the party select screen. Learning the backstories of these characters and coming to understand their little quirks makes it feel like an actual connection to another person. That connection is the spirit of these games and it's what can keep you going when you feel like you just cannot deal with another forest full of shitting folkloric elk who have a problem with you for some reason. This connection is interesting because RPGs oftentimes like to toy with this and deprive you of those connections. There's oftentimes moments in RPGs where you are separated from your party and you have to fight through on your own to earn that company back. Final Fantasy 8's prison break sequence and Earthbound's Magicant section are two good examples of this trope.

In FF8, you have to break out of jail, taking control of one of your party members to look for hotdogs retrieve weapons for the rest of your party. The segment doesn't last long, but the fact that you are separated from party members that you've come to rely on during the course of the game is unnerving. Not just your companions are taken away, but also their abilities and what they can provide during battle. Essentially, your tools are taken away. Magicant in Earthbound is a bit more substantial of a section and you are thrust into a weird area that your other party members don't even exist in. The area has uplifting music and smiling stop signs and happy flowers and everything is good. But there are other parts to this world and the farther you go in, the more treacherous the battles become, the more somber and unsettling the music becomes, and you start to feel like maybe I could use a little help from the people I've met in my journey. It's a relief once you leave that place and are immediately surrounded by your old team members. RPGs like to tease around with the idea that they have the power and could take away any of your party members at any time. Segments like these ones show that it's an effective power reversal.

But then there are times where you just want to get away. Where you feel like leaving all those people behind and roaming by yourself for a little bit. This is when isolation can be a boon, a freedom. This is what the Elder Scrolls games offer.

Though you can have companions in these games, the general experience is to just roam the lands by yourself and explore whatever caves or mountains you come across. Being by yourself in these games isn't a bad thing. It's serene listening to the ambient sounds of nature without any chatter from nearby NPCs. It's peaceful climbing to the top of large mountain and looking down from it, deciding where to go from here. It's exciting to find another cave or a tomb hidden away, its treasures tempting you inside. Isolation in this case leads to experiences that you can't have with other people around. Growing stronger as an individual until you can withstand any trial out in the world isn't an imposing task, it's just what allows you to explore more. And you need to explore. In any of these Bethesda games, whether it's Skryim or Fallout, exploration is the entire reason for them to exist in the first place. Being bogged down by the real world, it's a satisfying release to load up a session of Skyrim and to just head off in a direction, stopping to check out what only you decide is important. There are no rules that say a certain quota of places need to be looked at. No one is around to guide you or to restrict your movement to another area and that's perfect. This experience isn't for anyone else, it's just for you. The choices are yours. The world is yours.

Being alone isn't so bad. While it can be unnerving and it can eat away at your confidence, it also makes you realize just how much other people matter to you. When you've gone through a long arduous journey, having to fend for yourself and grow stronger as an individual, the thought of being surrounded by people that you care about sounds pretty nice. Video games use these feelings of isolation to trap or reward players, either swallowing them up in loneliness or chumming around with players through other characters. Either way, the loneliness is important for the feel of the game and it makes up the heart of it. Even situations that make you feel the most alone can lead you to discovering what other people really mean to you.

- Just floating through, but maybe I'll write something while I pass by.

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About Corey Gavazaone of us since 1:49 PM on 02.29.2016

I'm just a guy who has played a lot of videogames, thought about videogames a lot, and now writes about them a fair amount. I write for PC Invasion and Ostrog

Founder of Imminent Ban, a videogame blog with a focus on older titles. If you like my writing style here, give it a look-see. We have fun.