Fantastic Loneliness in Video Games

What is it about loneliness as a theme found in certain fantasy stories—the stories centered on hapless, solitary figures whose obscure motivations are illuminated by whatever scant (yet meaningful) interaction they have with their environments—that are able to resonate with me like no other? Note that these things I am about to mention aren’t truly about “loneliness” in an individual sense, since you are always at some points accompanied by someone else. It is the kind of loneliness from a grander perspective—the notion that there is a “we” but the “they” is either unresponsive or nonexistent—the notion that touches on the existential musings, “Why am I doing this?” and “What else is out there?”

Shadow of the Colossus is a prime example of this. A lone Wander trespasses into forbidden sacred grounds to do a creepy godlike voice’s bidding by slaying otherwise peaceful giants, scattered across a bucolic landscape strewn with long-untrodden pathways and serene forests and rivers and vast, empty plains, and only speculation could ever hope to envision what kind of civilization exists outside the sacred ground’s walls, how they came across an evil god and sealed it within the temple, what amount of hard work was put into constructing these monumental ruins that stand as a reminder of what once was a thriving ancient culture. But there is no one left—only Wander, and his faithful steed, and this lonely paradise is yours for the taking.

Ico, the precursor to Shadow of the Colossus, also has this, albeit on a much smaller scale. A child imprisoned for simply being born with horns, the eponymous Ico escapes his cell and has to navigate through cavernous chambers, corridors, ramparts, and gardens of an empty castle, accompanied by Yorda, a silent girl with skin and a dress both as white as light. And yet again, the isolated story ever so vaguely hints at an external civilization that is equal parts mysterious and excruciatingly unknowable. Why are children with horns feared? Is it connected to Shadow of the Colossus lore-wise in any way, considering Wander’s transformation into a horned baby near the end? What is the rest of this world like? What do its people think? We will never know, and we’re left to focus on Ico and his wordless relationship with Yorda and their surroundings, in this fantastically ponderous bildungsroman.

In Journey, you control a mysterious robed figure whose only purpose is to reach a mountain, visible in the distance, by trudging through sand and snow and harsh winds. Across deserts are scattered graves and ruins of a dead civilization whose histories remain carved on still standing walls. No words are spoken, but everything you need to know comes to you in dreams and images, and sometimes, that’s all you need to get a story across.

In Souls games, and most recently in Bloodborne, you are always the nameless adventurer who enters doomed civilizations at their worst, be it due to foolish kings who accidentally unleashed the wrath of old gods, damning an entire city, or due to a curse inherent within all humanity that inevitably leads to the world’s degradation. No matter what, in all Souls games, everyone is fucked, and so are you, and every single character is alone in their own way. They each have their own personal battles, and only you can bring yourself to conquer the trial that is a Souls game. And it’s this lonely, oppressive atmosphere that draws me, hopelessly, into worlds like this, like a moth to a flame. Fantastic landscapes that range from the impossibly beautiful to the horrifically grotesque are backdrops that serve as storytelling devices in their own right, and even as you fight your way through beast-infested streets and haunted libraries and ancient battlegrounds, you realize that these places are devoid of any life. NPC interactions are sparse, and they may even turn hostile on you, betraying previous friendships in the onset of madness. The lack of outright narration and dialogue further obscures whatever story you can extract from these places and only an inquisitive researcher will be able to piece together the clues that form a vivid, often mindblowingly revelatory picture of how kingdoms like these came to their demise, how each area and each element played a significant role in determining the kingdoms’ present states, and what sorts of human folly were involved in their descent.

Because the worlds of these stories are so vast and so empty, it only serves to amplify the feeling of “loneliness” despite there being a few other characters you are able to interact with. Even in today’s society, surrounded by so much people on and off the internet, we still manage to feel extreme bouts of loneliness every now and again, simply because of the difficulty involved in understanding what’s outside the “walls” of our bodies—in trying to decode what other people think and mean. Video games like the ones I mentioned have a lot of room for introspection, and these stories give the audience ample time to speculate, to draw conclusions from the barest of hints, to ultimately create their own interpretation. The background comes to the foreground, and the setting and all spaces in between become echo chambers dripping with ambiance—they become lived-in epitomes of what makes fantasy so alluring in the first place: the mystery, the sheer unfathomability, the personal struggles in an unforgiving world that doesn’t even try to explain itself to you. And things like these are reminders, that even in other worlds—those magical other worlds often accused of being “escapist”—not all of our questions are answered, not all wishes are fulfilled. And as much as we try to mull over what it all means, our contexts and the epochs surrounding us, it is always the personal battles that mean the most, and I guess that’s why I adore stories like these so much.

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