Contemplative Solitude in Games

The most interesting moments of video game solitude are populated by the ghostly presence of the past and future, and they become an integral part of play.

Playing an open world game can be a profoundly lonely and introspective experience. Roaming the plains, deserts, tundras, and futuristic landscapes of fictional lands, my mind wanders. Sometimes I poke and prod the limits of my digital sandbox while I think about my day, zoning out the game world in a moment of zen to actually ponder my real life circumstances. I often pass this downtime thinking about the game at hand, what my characters have been through, or where they are going. These moments of self-reflection take place within a very real, albeit digital, environment that subtly or blatantly shape my thoughts. The most interesting moments of video game solitude are populated by the ghostly presence of the past and future, and they become an integral part of play.

If you really want to see the world of Red Dead Redemption, ride on the train -- literally. Before the train exits the station, climb on top of one of the cars, and stay on while it takes off. You can, of course, ride the train traditionally by taking a seat inside, but then you will only see an assortment of prepared camera angles that mostly highlight the train itself. Instead, on top of the cars, you can watch the world go by from a wider perspective.

Sitting atop a passenger car for thirty minutes was a somber experience. At first I was struck by the ridiculousness of it all. I could not believe the game let me just sit there idly. Here I am, shooting wolves and bandits drive-by style while doing absolutely nothing important. Before long, I set the controller down and just watched. For the first time in a long while, it felt like the game world did not exist for my eyes alone. That train would keep moving right along, with or without me. The tracks cut through the land indifferently, the train stopping only to digest passengers before moving along to its next destination. Tunnels became poignant reminders of the train’s unstoppable forward momentum.

At that moment, my mind wandered to those inhabitants of the western frontier, both fictionalized and real, that must have seen these mechanical beasts and understood the future they represented. While the railroad may or may not have delivered America to modernity, it remains a powerful symbol of progress. In my solitude atop Red Dead Redemption’s designer created tracks, I felt the presence of a future out of reach, and I wondered if the impoverished campesinos that the NPCs represented were ever struck by a sense of loneliness as the train left their hovel in the dust.

Other games mirror Red Dead Redemption’s moments of contemplative solitude in similar ways. The windswept cliff faces and quiet empty fields of Skyrim evoke sensations of loneliness, particularly at night, when wandering an empty forest by moonlight reminds you how insignificant even a brave adventurer can feel when truly alone. Burned out homes and ancient ruins also create feelings of solitude and highlight the relentless forward motion of time. When all is said and done, when the protagonist’s story is over the world of Tamriel moves on. In the lore of Skyrim, even heroes are forgotten.

Dear Esther captures the emotional weight of self-imposed isolation like no other game. It is an isolated representation of these themes in which the act of play is almost thought alone. The latest release of this source mod brought a gorgeous level of detail to an already illustrious game and heightened its feelings of loneliness. Play is limited to the slow exploration of an uninhabited island, a perfect setting for a self-reflexive journey through one’s life. The narrator gradually unravels his grief to the player in somewhat randomly distributed sound bites. While entirely alone, he speaks of others without ever quite revealing his own identity. His presence on the island is seemingly an act of desperation, an attempt to strand himself away from the rest of the world along with the memories that accost him at every turn. The island is a physical palimpsest of a distraught man, completely built for contemplation.

Donnelly, Esther, Paul, Jacobson, the Hermit: they all haunt the island, but never quite reveal themselves completely. The presence of others litters the landscape. An abandoned dock, a ruined home, wall paintings, rusty shipping crates, and empty paint cans all reveal the presence of others long gone. Dear Esther creates loneliness in the discarded remains of life. It is self-imposed solitude on an island built by others. Throughout the game, the narrator rages against, laments, and contemplates the actions of others and his role in a tragedy.

While playing his moments of solitude, I think about fate and regret, both the narrator’s and my own. At one point the narrator states, “My disease is the internal combustion engine and the cheap fermentation of yeast.” He shares in his helplessness with Marston and the hero of Skyrim. And all of this contemplative solitude is my own, forged in the quiet moments between gun battles, atop snowy mountains, or in underground caves. These games make time for isolation, and so through play, I make time for quiet thought.

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