God's Lonely Gamer — Gravity, All Is Lost and Video Game Loneliness
The movies Gravity and All Is Lost have much in common. Both are stories about being stranded, the former in low earth orbit, the latter in the Indian Ocean 1,700 miles from land. Both are stories of survival against hostile, or at least yawningly indifferent natural forces—the silent vacuum of space and the infinite horizon of the sea, respectively. Both begin in medias res and chart a direct course through steadily rising action and multiplying threats as their heroes' struggles to survive are threatened at every turn. Both films portray the solitude of their heroes in terms so stark and harrowing that their ordeal becomes an existential one, as well as a physical one. Both films are about will, the irrational will to do everything in your power to continue existing in a universe hell-bent on your destruction. Both times I sat in the darkness, awash in the tension radiating from my fellow theater patrons as Doctor Ryan and a character identified only as Our Man time and again managed to beat back encroaching oblivion, if only for the briefest of moments, and at great personal cost. The films foster an uncannily intense connection between their subject and the audience, using that most human of emotions, loneliness, to draw us into their impossibly vast worlds and become the invisible audience we all like to imagine silently cheering us on when we've undertaken some heinously daunting task. Both films have received universal (if qualified) accolades, with critics and audiences praising the intense humanity of their stories and the singularity of their vision. Director Alfonso Cuarón was already a much-beloved auteur before Gravity was made, with Y Tu Mamá También inadvertently setting a template legions of would-be indie darlings have gone on to slavishly imitate and Children of Men well on its way to being acknowledged as one of the greatest, zeitgeist-capturing, elegantly humane films of the 21st century—or any era, for that matter. All Is Lost is more of a surprise, with J.C. Chandor's only previous directorial credit being the financial meltdown drama Margin Call, and it's odd that two films so similar in character yet different in content should be released almost simultaneously. The reviews I read effortlessly plucked the filmmakers' various influences from the ether, citing everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Robinson Crusoe, but I believe Alfonso Cuarón and J.C. Chandor are drawing their influence from a different sector of the cultural zeitgeist. I believe they've been influenced by video games.
Video games become more socially integrated every year, but for all the diverse storytelling the last generation gave us, games are still at their best when portraying solitude. This aptitude isn't the product of choice so much as good designers working within limitations that still dog the medium. The writing in video games sucks. Not all writing in video games sucks, and even games with predominantly bad writing can have a redeeming moment here and there, but things are still in a poor enough state that I can earnestly say “Video game writing sucks.” and expect the sentiment to be met with nods of approval from a discerning audience. Dialogue is more often that not stiff, wooden, grotesquely unnatural, leaden with false gravitas, inert, characterless, flat, rote, and stale, and it doesn't help that certain lines tend to get repeated dozens of times over the course of play. As people who love video games in spite of all this we learn to compartmentalize the information we take in from a young age, developing an attitude where we read the deeper sentiment behind the reheated dreck Non-Player Characters spew, lest we grow so insulted by hideous writing that it diminishes our enjoyment of the game. At this point I don't even hear what characters in video games precisely say anymore than I take in every individual letter in a novel, instead the NPCs broadcast huge, Mark Rothko-like swathes of emotion and information that I try to absorb whole, without interpretation. The fact that games are steadily improving their crappy storytelling means that I may eventually be forced to take my dumb therapist's advice and learn to feel things again, but for now, the best moments of many video games are often still those spent in solitary exploration.
I don't remember many conversations in Skyrim, but I remember trekking across the permafrost by my lonesome and discovering obscure ruins that seemed to have been forgotten by time itself. (Also my horse kept dying. Stop trying to fight dragons, Mr. Horse! ((I named him Mr. Horse)) ) I tend to recall Grand Theft Auto 5's story in broad strokes—Trevor is a monster, Michael is an everyman beset by ennui, Franklin really needs to get some better male role models—but when I think of the substance of the game I think of wind farms and redwoods and obscure urban alcoves and flying over a city that's laid out before me like a fabulously complex banquet. The writing of GTA may be napalm-broad satire, but the actual play experience embodies the paradoxical loneliness of life in a metropolis: it's Travis Bickle's New York, it's Phillip Marlowe's Los Angeles.
The theme of a lone character waging a single-minded crusade against overwhelming exterior forces persists in spite of repetition and reinvention. Tomb Raider began life as a relatively simple game that mixed exploration and acrobatics with occasional gun play and watching Lara Croft die a lot. As time passed Lara acquired minions to pour exposition into her ear via radio and the reboot had her encountering NPCs around every corner, yet the new Tomb Raider only felt like a Tomb Raider game on those rare occasions it actually let you explore some ancient ruins. Classic survival horror franchises like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have been struggling because they can no longer sustain the sense of solitary menace that defined their earlier entries, while new indie survival horror games like Amnesia and Outlast are thriving because they maintain the formula of one player and one hostile environment to overcome.
Solitude fosters introspection, and turns the in-game character into a mirror to reflect our own thoughts and emotions. We may begin a game like Fallout 3 wondering what the main character is thinking or feeling as they trudge across the blasted wasteland of Washington D.C., but a few hours in the question fades away as their thoughts and feelings become our own. The heroes of Gravity and All Is Lost follow a similar process of identification, beginning as strangers, then growing more intimate as their stories progress until our thoughts and their thoughts become one, harmonizing in our mutual desire to survive. For all the problems solitude presents: the danger, the loneliness, the tendency to chafe from repeated onanism, there's something authentic about it that makes us wish we had an audience. Hermits like Saint Anthony of Padua didn't believe they were embracing hermeticism to be alone, but to commune with the divine. Since today's deities are much more judicious about screening his calls, we're forced to fabricate our own audience for our own prefabricated solitude.
This is the strange paradox of solitude, and one of the defining traits of the human condition: when we're alone, we crave companionship, and when we're not alone, we crave solitude. When we see someone alone we naturally reach out to them, but once a nascent relationship forms a part of us recoils, alarmed that the idea in our mind has a shape and will all its own. Both Doctor Ryan in Gravity and Our Man in All Is Lost are exiles from their own lives. Doctor Ryan's daughter perished in a freak accident, and by her own admission she spends most of her time driving alone, without a destination. Our Man is likewise wandering, sailing directionlessly like an Odysseus without an Ithaca. We don't know precisely why. We know from the opening narration that something went wrong in his life, though we don't know what, or if his time at sea constitutes expiation or exile. Eventually Doctor Ryan is able to return to earth, where things have weight and losses are permanent. The fate of Our Man is more ambiguous, and even if he survives his ordeal we don't know if he has anywhere to go back to, though it's clear one way or another, his journey is at an end. Video game characters are seldom granted such transcendence.
Dear Esther is a powerful portrayal of mourning and solitude, but the impact of its ending is somewhat diminished by the game's writing. The writing in Dear Esther is not abysmal, but it is extremely uneven, and the author clearly failed to take into account how their words would sound spoken aloud, so we get lines like
My heart is landfill, these false dawns waking into whilst it is still never light. I sweat for you in the small hours and wrap my blankets into a mass. I have always heard the waves break on these lost shores, always the gulls forgotten. I can lift this bottle to my ear, and all there ever is for me is this hebridean music.
that sound like Richard Burton at the end of a week-long bender monologuing to a recalcitrant lamppost. Though the sentiment behind it is no doubt just as real, Dear Esther can't have the same impact of a game like Limbo, which tells its story entirely through atmospherics and mechanics alone, and invites the gamer to transplant their own conclusions into the narrative. Likewise, their approaches to dealing with solitude are very different. The protagonist of Dear Esther broods, he fixates, he makes murals and shrines no one else will ever see and turns his perambulation into self-flagellation via broken limbs and handfuls of pain medication until he finally takes his own life. The protagonist of Limbo also dies, he dies many more times than the protagonist in Dear Esther, but he comes back each time and keeps going, keeps pursuing the character identified as his sister. At his journey's end he walks toward a girl who's facing away from him, digging in the earth. As he approaches her she starts, acknowledging his presence, but the game ends before she turns around. The solitude that had defined the game, that seemed so ironclad, pops like a bubble at the merest prod. Perhaps Limbo is telling us that, the end, all exile is self-imposed.
Video games are good at illustrating loneliness. Movies can be very good at illustrating loneliness as well, but since they're pitched to the public as escapist social activities (It's let's all go to the lobby, after all.) they tend to focus on other topics, like explosions and Nicole Kidman's fascinating inability to have facial expressions. There's still a lot of stigma attached to playing video games, and this stigma allows video games to embrace conditions still regarded in the popular imagination as repugnant, conditions like solitude. Another paradox of the human condition is that portraying loneliness tends to alleviate it. All Is Lost and Gravity aren't the first movies to portray loneliness and they won't be the last—film is a particularly ( but not exclusively) American medium, and loneliness is a particularly (but not exclusively) American phenomenon—but they are the first movies I've seen that appear to draw inspiration from the depiction of solitude in interactive electronic media.
Or maybe I've just been playing too many video games.