Do you know what it is to be alone? Of course you know what it’s like to be by yourself, but what about absolute, abject loneliness? You are, in all likelihood, reading this with no one by your side, so it seems safe to say you’ve experienced a solitary existence at least once in your life. This enables you to empathize with passive, established narratives. In books and movies and television shows, you are able to share some feeling of desolation with a person because you’ve at some point in your life looked around you and realized there was no one there.
That can incur emotional association when you read a certain passage like when Harry Potter enters any number of his multitude of wizard battles by his heroic self or when you watch I Am Legend and know what it’s like to lose your sole partner in the world pseudo vampires, all of which is despite the fact that you’ve never actually cast a spell with a wand or fought sun-averse abominations of nature before.
That communion is natural to those mediums precisely because they are passive experiences. Video games, however, are active, requiring your involvement to proceed at any rate. Even when the majority of the stories told by video games are predetermined in the same way those of books and movies are, the fact that you have to push a button or move a stick or press a key to propel the entire operation forward is enough to change how your mind perceives the story.
Instead of internalizing bits of your relatable past with something a character is going through, you start down an existential path. Instead of feeling surrogate loneliness, you question the very concept of being alone. Of course, you are still experiencing the actual sensation of rolling stag, but the fact that you are physically interacting with a constructed scenario of isolation, you begin to ponder why such a thing even happens.
This is what I started to think about as I went back and played some of Rockstar Games old titles. In preparation of the impending Grand Theft Auto V release in September (and to provide an analogue for comparison for the recently released Saints Row IV), I’ve decided to replay at least a few hours of each Grand Theft Auto IV-related product—and Red Dead Redemption for good measure. So far I’ve marked GTA IV proper, RDR, and The Lost and Damned off the list, which mostly leaves just The Ballad of Gay Tony, but I’d like to put in some time with Chinatown Wars anyways.
The part that stands out the most from all of these games (besides the great writing, incredible ambiance, and fantastically detailed and interesting worlds) is that at some point, I always came across a moment of crushing loneliness. More than that, they inspire me to question the nature of being alone in these games.
In GTA IV, at certain points in the night, you’ll wander the streets of Liberty City and see no one. Like, at all. Even in faux Times Square, there will nary be a soul walking around and taking in the sights. No drunks falling down in the gutters and no cops patrolling the shadier neighborhoods. And it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying not in the way that Saw makes you watch a guy cut off his own foot or The Ring makes you worry about seeing something that dooms you to a swift and inevitable death, but more that it’s scares you because it makes you wonder why.
Why, for instance, would the streets be deserted? You, knowing that this is a video game, consider several possible conclusions, varying from the game messed up and forgot to populate the area you are in to that’s just how Rockstar decided to play out the nighttime of Liberty City to there might be an impending event happening to where the game can’t afford to allocate resources to nonessential NPCs. It makes you think about the purpose of being lonely in this game, but somewhere in the back of your head, that lingering paranoia leaks out into the real world and you wonder: what is the purpose of being lonely?
Red Dead Redemption may offer an answer. Set in 1911 in the Wild West, there are obviously less people to come across in New Austin than in Liberty City. The wilderness surrounds you—engulfs the entirety of civilization—and provides massive, barren patches of unpopulated nothingness between spurts of people and towns. But in those stretches of dirt and cacti, there is treasure to be found.
As you ride your horse across rocky paths and look out across the star and moonlit night, you see that nothing lies ahead of you but open space for thought and contemplation. But you also know that there is a lot out there to stumble upon. You know, from this being a game and knowing what kind of game it is, that there are animals out there to hunt or avoid. There are people to help or kill. There are cities to find and terrorize. Those moments of solitary play in Red Dead Redemption are meant to punctuate those that are filled with finding the unexpected. The game turns your consideration of loneliness into one of anticipation and eagerness.
That is the answer Red Dead Redemption throws back at the tortuous confinement of Grand Theft Auto IV‘s empty streets. Whereas the modern day setting lingers about and nudges you into wondering how you ended up by yourself in what should be a bustling city, the days of yore tells you that riding through the plains and the desert with just a horse for company gives poignant purpose to the isolation. I doubt this was a purposeful theme in the games, a carefully plotted point spanning two sizable development cycles, but it is impressive nonetheless that Rockstar managed to craft two vastly different sensations of solitary experiences.
More than that, they both force you to wonder the metaphysical implications of what it means to be by yourself in a video game, strangely melding real life with the empathy movies and books manage to elicit through shared experiences. Being alone in real life can inspire real fear or genuine boredom while being alone in a story reminds you of all the associated feelings from your own past, but video games push forth a question of meaning. Is there a purpose to the streets being empty? Is there a reason for me to ride for minutes at a time before reaching another town? Who knows. But maybe the question is more important than the answer.