WHY I LOVE
Idon’t like noisy games. The ones where someone is constantly prattling on in your ear about your next objective, or some forgettable orchestral score is blaring over everything. It’s nice when a game just decides to shut up for a while, because as someone who primarily enjoys singleplayer games – and, this may be related, an only child
– I love being left alone.
Some games do loneliness really well, and it’s particularly effective when it’s threaded into the story. In Campo Santo’s fantastic debut Firewatch, protagonist Henry hikes deep into the Wyoming wilderness to escape his troubles. You do spend a lot of the game conversing with fellow watchperson Delilah, but there are long stretches where all you hear is the wind in the trees, twigs cracking under your feet and birds chirping.
Ambient sound design is an underappreciated aspect of videogame development, because it’s something ultimately designed to go unnoticed. But in the likes of Firewatch, Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and other slow-paced narrative games, stopping and just listening to the world around you, soaking in your surroundings, can be enormously immersive – particularly if you have a good pair of studio headphones.
A rich soundscape also heightens the feeling of being isolated, especially in something like the brutal, brilliant survival game The Long Dark, whose Canadian wilderness is absolutely haunting. This is another game built around the concept of loneliness, of relying on yourself in a cold, uncaring place. This might be why the story mode, where you can interact with several NPCs, isn’t as compelling an experience as the sandbox.
When one of The Long Dark’s blizzards rolls in, you’re often forced to run for shelter: a cave, say, or the remains of an old cabin. And as you huddle next to your campfire, the wind screaming, a blanket of white on all sides, you can’t help but be swept up in the moment. Now imagine that situation with some annoying NPC sidekick buzzing in your ear, or another player being annoying, and you can see why sometimes it’s better to be left alone.
This is also why I prefer offline survival games. In something like ARK or Rust, there are always other players sprinting around, usually being a nuisance. But when you crash land on that planet in Subnautica, your little escape pod bobbing up and down in a vast, alien ocean, you really do feel lost and alone. Even in DayZ, where player interaction was, let’s be honest, the only reason to play, some of my favourite moments were spent on my own, hiking deep into the mountains of Chernarus on a hunt for supplies.
Online games can be lonely, too. I always play Elite Dangerous in Open Play mode, which means you can run into other pilots. But the sheer scale of the galaxy means, once you get away from the common starting areas, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see anyone. But that makes those occasions when you do run into someone in some distant, backwater system all the more special. I’ve shared brief, beautiful moments with other players in these situations – usually just a fleeting hello – before we inevitably part ways again.
lost in the plot
Another problem with noisy games is it’s often difficult to absorb the story. Between cutscenes, conversations, radio chatter, audio logs and other plot delivery methods, it’s often a lot to process. That’s why quieter, slower games – the ‘walking sims’ of the world – are so effective when it comes to narrative. As you explore that big, ominous Oregon house in Gone Home you can really absorb the story and, importantly, do so at your own pace. You aren’t being force-fed a story: you’re picking leisurely from a buffet, and that gives you the time you need to process what you’re seeing and hearing.
Think of all the times you haven’t been able to enjoy something because of the presence of other people. Idiots talking in the cinema or at a gig; tourists selfishly hogging something you want to see; people chatting in front of the bread aisle when all you want is a granary loaf. Sometimes people just ruin things, and the same applies to videogames. So I’m thankful there are virtual places where people are an afterthought, and it’s possible to enjoy some quality time alone, away from it all.
ambient sound design is an underappreciated aspect of videogame development
RIGHT: In the far reaches of Elite’s massive galaxy, it’s rare to encounter other players.
RIGHT: Survival simulator TheLong Dark was designed around the player feeling isolated.