Being Alone in the Void and Staying That Way

Image By Flickr user: JBLivin

Dark. Vast. Alien. Alone. Each of these words can inspire fear, as well as describing fears in and of themselves. Indeed, being cold and alone in the darkness of an alien place is perhaps the sum of all fears for many. Yet what is essentially the ultimate combination of these sobering thoughts is the backdrop for many of our most beloved games. That backdrop of course, is outer space. Space enables the exploration of many themes, but these are its pillars. And failure to adequately represent them, has caused many a problem in our space-based scifi games.

Something is always lost when sci-fi game series stray from the aspect of space that most heavily informed its gameplay. It’s true that gameplay should always come first, but the setting must inform the new as it did the old. Otherwise it creates a disconnect; a distinct sense that the game is missing something important. Such issues are of course present games with settings besides space, but because it’s pillars are easily discovered, it is in the realm of space that such lapses are most easily noticed and most keenly felt. So much so that, even otherwise great games cannot escape the consequence.

Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 are widely held up as great additions to the RPG genre. They each had a good story, rounded characters, and engaging gameplay, but players of the original Mass Effect probably felt something was a little off in both games. Plot elements aside, almost all the important aspects were present, all except one: its scale. The vastness of the galaxy had been lost in the transition between games. The ability to skirt around the galaxy map was still there, but gone were the uncharted worlds! It was the emptiness and isolated nature or these disparate chunks of rock that pressed upon us the vastness of space and just how empty and inhospitable it can actually be. Once that was removed, we were never faced with that again. Our missions became self-contained, and the galaxy became that much smaller for it. It tried to make up for it by emphasizing darkness in the plot, but the new theme wasn’t able to entirely replace the old. The Mass Effect trilogy is still excellent, but because the games stepped away from showcasing the vastness of its universe, it lacks the grand sense of scale the first game tried to create.

This can be seen in the Dead Space series as well, though the declining theme wasn’t vastness, but isolation instead. In the original Dead Space, Isaac Clarke was a silent protagonist. He wasn’t so much a character as he was an avatar that we could project ourselves onto. We, through Isaac Clarke endured the choking solitude of the Ishimura’s dark halls. With Isaac becoming full character in Dead Space 2 however, this would not remain the case. Isaac was still off by his lonesome for much of the sequel, but it was definitely Isaac Clarke methodically picking his way through the Sprawl, not the player. He was there with the player instead of it feeling like the player alone, which in turn took away some of the ever-present dread from the first game. Dead Space 3 took this a step further with the introduction of Carver, a partner character. So not only was Isaac accompanying the player through the game, but it was implied that Carver was there as well (always just out of view). Again the sense of isolation was reduced, and the remaining fear-factor along with it. Like the Mass Effect series, the Dead Space games remained good, but they lost some of what made them special in the first place.

This was the case with Metroid: Other M as well. The Metroid series was founded on the theme of the isolation of space. One that had, up until that point been almost unwavering in its commitment to it. Much was changed in Other M. Some hated the gameplay/plot while others embraced it but the controversy surrounding the game centered mostly on the characterization of Samus. While some accepted it, many others were outraged. Exactly what was wrong with her varied from person to person, but all detractors agreed her characterization was bad. This was the first time Samus had spoken or had character development, so it wasn’t simply giving her a personality that prompted the reaction. I suspect it had more to do with the jarring shift of her role and the circumstances. Rather than adventuring alone, Samus had suppoting characters and answered directly to Adam, a former CO. So right from the beginning, the series’ trademark sense of isolation was thrown out the window. An action cemented by making Samus a full character rather than having her act as an avatar for the player as had always been the case previously. Unlike Mass Effect or Dead Space, Other M leaped away from a core theme of its space setting rather than lightly stepping away from it, and as a result still isn’t seen in a favorable light by many a Metroid fan.

Setting must inform gameplay and if that isn’t the case something is always lost from the experience. For the games mentioned here, the concepts of isolation, vastness, and darkness were paramount. Each of these series steps of varying degrees away from these themes and each suffered an equivalent loss. With so much else that goes on in game development, it’s understandable that such oversights would be made. Afterall, in the case of these games, it wasn’t leaving the player alone in the empty void of space, but keeping them there that was the problem.

Did you notice this in these games? What about other games in with other settings?

7 Comments Add yours

  1. duckofindeed says:

    The only game you mentioned that I’ve played was “Metroid: Other M”, and while I enjoyed playing the game, it still just didn’t feel right as a “Metroid” game. It would have likely been more successful if it was not a “Metroid” game. It’s rarely wise to mess around with a successful formula like that, and usually it doesn’t pay off, as in this case.

    And this is not quite the same, but I thought of “Zelda: Wind Waker” in a similar light. Yeah, it does not take place in outer space, but one thing I always felt the game was lacking were the islands. I thought exploring these uncharted islands way out in the middle of the ocean would be really fun, but pretty much none of the islands were interesting or gave any sense of mystery. Even if it’s in another setting, I kind of think of it as being similar to what you talked about in your post, about exploring isolated planets, but in this case, it’s isolated islands. Either way, that sense of isolation would have been really interesting if it was there, and when it’s not, I think it really takes away from a game’s feel, whether it’s the emptiness of space or the emptiness of the sea.

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    1. Hatm0nster says:

      Yeah, they did make a lot of the islands fairly threadbare. Still, you were still out by yourself for most of the game, but maybe that feeling didn’t register as much due to the bright-cartoony graphics. It’s a good look, but I don’t see it helping in that case.

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  2. cary says:

    I have to agree with what you said about Mass Effect. That shift from vastness to containment between 1 and 2 was certainly different. I definitely didn’t feel the need to explore as much in 2 and 3 as I did in 1, simply because there wasn’t much to discover.

    I think one of the best games that characterized the idea of “alone,” (or maybe “solitude”) was Red Dead Redemption, and that’s due to its grand environment. There were large areas of desert that you could explore without a single other soul in site, even animals. It was both isolating and served well as a backdrop for John Marston’s lone “hero” story.

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    1. duckofindeed says:

      Sometimes I like that isolating feel you sometimes get in video games, even if I wouldn’t want to experience it in real life. Your mention of the desert reminded me of the time I got lost in the desert in “FF7”. It scared me so much, and I had no idea how to get out. Even though it wasn’t real, it definitely made me nervous. But, experiences like that sometimes help to make you feel more like a part of the game.

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      1. Hatm0nster says:

        Was that the part with the Giant Snake? I hated that part as a kid. It killed me every stinking time.

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      2. duckofindeed says:

        I think it was the part where you were in the prison in the desert, I think beneath that amusement park or something? And I also hated that giant snake. It killed me when I first encountered it, too. Then, a long time later, when I was much stronger, I came back and exacted my revenge on it.

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      3. Hatm0nster says:

        I did the same. And what sweet vengeance it was! 😀

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