I read a post over at Man Bytes Blog today about themes of isolation, how they’re so popular in movies and such these days, and how not enough games intentionally exploit said themes, even despite the fact that games are inherently isolating. And then I felt really really good about myself because lo and behold, my most recent games actually do deal quite a bit with isolation in their subject matter. Of course, being a little indie designer whose work attracts a niche audience the size of a protozoa, no one really cares all that much. Still, maybe that Corvus Elrod dude might get a kick out of the fact that hey, not all proponents of “games as art” lie purely on the side of theory. Some of them, you know, actually make stuff.
Yeah. Anywho. For one thing, ever since I was a teenager, it always struck me how all those adventure games I played involved a protagonist who was so… solitary. I mean, yes, most games in general feature a character who goes around and does his or her own thing, but for some reason, it stuck out a lot more in adventure games because they’re so much closer to what people do in their everyday lives. And when you’re a teenager, and everyone around you is doing things in packs, sometimes it just becomes a breath of fresh air to discover how much fun it is to wander around your world alone to your leisure. Yes, you have the occasional social contact in the form of in-game dialogues, but you’re still an autonomous entity. After the conversation is over, you go off and do your own thing.
The observation that my life sometimes feels like an adventure game was sort of the basis behind The Game That Takes Place on a Cruise Ship. There’s this character who’s a lot like me, walking around, exploring, comfortable with her aloneness. Then, she meets this sheltered prince who’s also alone, but depressed and suicidal because of it. He’s stuck and he needs adventure, and then winds up latching on to the girl, who sort of “saves” him in a way.
In Chivalry is Not Dead, Phlegmwad has his aloneness forced upon him by dint of being born an ugly monster, but he’s grown used to it, and has developed a healthy dose of sarcasm about it as a result. He meets the Queen of Everything, who (depending on how you approach her) reveals herself to be just as lonely, even despite the fact that she’s beautiful and powerful. She masks such insecurities in snottiness, and most players, I’ve found, end up not liking her all that much as a result. Rather like how I feel people tend to perceive me at times, I have to say.
Pigeons in the Park lacks any kind of autonomous wandering around in a physical space; its entirety is a conversation, perhaps the least isolating thing I’ve done, gameplay-wise. And yet, the two protagonists spend a lot of time talking about how out-of-step they feel in relation to the rest of the world. No surprise, really, given that it’s my life in a nutshell.
And finally, there’s When We Were Kids, which is about dealing with the school bully and the cold, harsh reality that you can only do it yourself, that no adult is going to help you. If that’s not about isolation, I don’t have any idea what is.
So, there you have it! If you want to explore the theme of isolation in game form, look no further, because there are at least four games out there that have just what you’re looking for. Isn’t that amazing or what?
Feh. If only it were so cool in real life! I wonder if my lonerism is what attracted me to adventure games. I’ve only become comfortable hanging out in groups in the last few years and still at am a total loss for trying to understand other people…something which fits with adventure games. You meet them, you try and figure out what they want, but you never really ‘get’ them. Only the main character ever fits you.
Anyway, great, though provoking post.
My feelings exactly, Leopold. I’m trying to bridge the gap by creating certain NPCs who the player character really does empathize with in some way, shape, or form (i.e. they aren’t just there because you need them to do something for you), but for most situations, I wind up making distorted caricatures of the majority of people I meet, who I don’t understand at all.
And yeah. I’ve noticed that a lot of the time, I really do make real life sound way cooler than it actually is…
Did you just call me an amoeba?
Yes, I’ve noticed – and appreciated – that theme in your games.
Oddly enough I find that all my adventure games (“all my games” sounds a bit much when I’ve only made one so far, but I include a couple that are not yet made) are team games. It’s not been a conscious choice to make the games less lonely, but on reflection that may be one reason why I like to take that route. When I think about the professional games with sidekicks that I’ve played, I find that almost all of them are among my favourites (Zork GI, Discworld, BASS, the Sam and Max games, Project Eden, Toonstruck… there are quite a few of those games!).
So why do I like your games, if it seems that I like games with a lot of interaction with people, and you make games with an isolation theme? It’s two sides of the same coin. Your games are also about people. That’s a large part of their appeal to me, I think.
I bet that Corvus guy would be interested in hearing that. Someone should tell him.
I’ll be playing your games this weekend and you can expect a bit of a write-up about my experience next week!
Rikard: Oddly enough, games with sidekicks are also something I perceive as having a theme of isolation, though perhaps to a lesser extent. Often times, the two characters feel a lot like two different sides of the same person (Sam & Max come to mind, here), keeping each other company in a world that would otherwise be lonely. A way of coping with isolation, so to speak. On that note, I’ve had ideas for having a sidekick character who’d be a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, which would take the idea of coping with isolation even further.
Corvus: Nice! I can’t wait.
It seems that what you are on the brink of saying is that loners are attracted to adventure games. I, snarky introverted isolationist that I am, dislike multi-player games—they’re too distracting, or shooters, as they’re fancy arcade galleries with little emotional satisfaction (for me). Who but someone who already is comfortable with her/his basic aloneness is going to sit in front of a screen for seven hours straight and walk up and down a (usually deserted) road, or deck, picking up clues, and if the game is good, “learning” something about oneself, or character’s self.
AGs are not the most popular in the gameworld obviously, and haven’t we all heard their death knell tolling several times, only to be revived by a creative isolationist designer with some new tricks.
Even Detective Badbone, whom you didn’t mention, fits into the isolationist category. He does have his extraordinary assistant, and a picture of Mom on the wall, but doesn’t really seem to have any friends on Ekrat Island. I mean, one assumes he’s lived there for some time, right? But it’s as if he’s just meeting the vendors and such for the first time when we visit them as him. And, he’s an alien. So here I am an alienated human playing an alien who doesn’t give a fig for the plight of a mere human until his assistant shames him into grudgingly trying to find her! I was in isolationist heaven.
I’ve played Rikard’s Frasse a bunch of times, and it is a good-buddy game, and feels nice that way. I did feel Frasse and Gurra to be perhaps, two components of one major character as they each have traits or physical abilities needed to reach their goals. I liked this in gameplay as the interaction needed made the puzzles and conversations interesting.
The loneliest game of all was Myst, but it got me hooked on the genre. Whew, seems I have some issues. Thanks for exploring this, Deirdra!
Ooh, thanks for pointing out Cubert, Muse! (And happy birthday to you, by the way.) I admit, my treatment of isolation in that game was a lot less conscious than it became later on; considering that Cubert’s a caricature of a hard-boiled detective, and hard-boiled detectives are generally loners, it just seemed to fit that Cubert was one too. Then again, the fact that I was already a loner back then made me take well to hard-boiled detectives in the first place…
And yes, I have noticed that AGs tend to be most suited to introverts, or at least, people with some speck of introversion in them. I think the reason they don’t sell well is that there are comparatively fewer of us; fortunately, we’re starting to live in a period where niches of that sort can actually sustain themselves, so who knows?