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I Am Legend, and the power of aloneness
by Kris Graft on 06/25/13 02:46:00 pm   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


So I saw that Richard Matheson, author of the book I Am Legend and other works, died this week at the age of 87.

I Am Legend is the only book I've read by Matheson, and I only read the book for the first time this year after I saw it for sale on the Kindle store for a couple bucks. I'm really glad I did.

It got me thinking about how in games, there's a lot of emphasis on connecting with one another, playing together, networking. But complete, utter and absolute desolation can also leave a lasting impression on players.

If you're unfamiliar with the book, it's about Robert Neville, a man who's the last-known survivor of a vampire apocalypse that has eradicated Earth's human population. Neville spends the daylight hours killing comatose "vampires," and eventually, unsatisfied with vampire legends involving bats, crucifixes and coffins, he begins applying the scientific method to get the bottom of why vampires exist, and how they live.

Matheson's antagonists are called "vampires," but his descriptions of them inspire today's modern popular zombie, an icon perpetuated in films such as the Vincent Price-starring The Last Man on Earth (based directly on Matheson's I Am Legend) and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Matheson's biological demystification of these ghouls, and his humanization of them and their victims, also influenced Max Brooks' World War Z and zombie franchise The Walking Dead. So if you've got zombie fatigue, it's partially Matheson's fault for playing a pivitol role in defining the undead in the first place.

When I finished I Am Legend, per usual, I was thinking about the book in terms of video games (it's a sickness). But I wasn't thinking of zombies and video games, really -- I was thinking of how effectively Matheson put me in the head of the isolated Robert Neville.

Neville is completely and utterly alone: killing vampires during the day and disposing of their bodies is his mundane, daily routine. At night, classical music accompanies creatures' screeching, scratching and pounding on the doors and windows of his fortified house. Daylight and science are his only allies in physical self-preservation. Alcohol is what he uses to medicate himself, emotionally.

The ghosts of his family live in his memory. When it comes to interactions that make a person human, Neville leads a destitute existence, becoming less and less of a man, then less and less of a human. All of these feelings are deftly conveyed to the reader, and it's difficult not to empathize with the character.

While reading the book, I started to feel a bit crazy myself. Forget the living dead -- being alone is one of the greatest fears we have as human beings. Matheson does a masterful job of conjuring up aloneness, and building upon the fearful implications of it. Neville's fears are twofold, as he is alone in body and in mind. Aloneness in mind is more devastating.

Are there video games out there that effectively leverage this base source of fear? Immediately, I think of games like Silent Hill, which is invites the player into uncomfortable solitude. The eerie isolation of Amnesia: The Dark Descent certainly made me yearn for a companion, as did Slender and Home.

Beyond games in the horror genre, Minecraft also has parallels with I Am Legend's premise -- you're alone (in single-player mode, anyhow), scrounging for resources and fortifying your house during the day to guard against the ghouls who come every night.

Even though the games I mention are good in their own right, none are really effective in making the player feel alone not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Of the games I've played, the best example of complete and utter aloneness in both mind and body is Dear Esther. There's no one else to interact with in that game, and it provides just enough narrative context to make me feel, as a player, a poignant sense of loss, emptiness and isolation.

Those feelings are uncomfortable for players, they're subtle and really difficult to implement in video games. But the games that are able to give players a peek into what it means to be truly alone can prove to be quite memorable.

So, R.I.P. Richard Matheson, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.

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Ramin Shokrizade
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I have the same sickness :/ From a commercial/monetization standpoint, I think the kinds of games you describe here are dead for a while, though multiplayer zombie survival games are really popular. A Google search of "online multiplayer zombie survival game free" gives a pretty good list. I'm waiting for a good multiplayer alien invasion game that is cooperative, I keep trying to get Firaxis to make an XCOM MMO with cooperative elements like there were in CivWorld.

Kris Graft
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A thought I just had: The feeling of being alone is accentuated by previous feelings of community and togetherness. Imagine an MMO that was all about connecting people, then something happens where that connectivity and togetherness is snatched away, and you're all alone. (That sounds borderline Molydeux.)

Also sounds like a surefire way for a developer to lose a bunch of money! But hey, I'm theorizing here.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Tomorrow when I introduce the design/monetization concept of "Reward Removal" in my next paper, maybe we can revisit this. It actually could be a powerful monetization mechanism in a game like you describe. Instead of incentivizing the addition of friends, you could charge people to not lose them!

Alex Belzer
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@Kris, I believe you are describing Dark Souls...

(while not technically an MMO, it's design is about interacting with other to overcome the terror of being alone in the darkness...)

Christian Nutt
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Yeah, Dark Souls is particularly amusing in that regard because most of the time it just shows you replays of ghosts of other (real life) players dying where they died and how they died. It's comically morbid.

Jonathan Jennings
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I think that Limbo does a good job of making you feel the vulnerability of alone-ness, It might even accentuate it since you are a child and you are out looking for your sister truly the one "safe thing" in the entire game that you can actually look forward to finding . Home is definitely another great example as you listed . Alex is also right to bring up the "souls games but i think Demon souls does a better job of making you feel like there's a destitute world and you the and trying to crawl his way out of a never ending hole you have no hope of escaping .

Raymond Ortgiesen
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A game that I think perfectly captures that feeling of being alone / slowly losing your mind is Lone Survivor.

Well worth a play through if you're interested in this kind of experience!

Kris Graft
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I've heard nothing but good things about it, but never got around to it. I should get to it now!

Daniel Backteman
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I'm vouching for this one. The loneliness of Lone Survivor can even be a bit overwhelming. Most of the features and even the sounds* in the game are crafted to make you feel uncomfortable and question your sanity.

If you're going to play the game, do it in dark and with nothing but its own sounds. Having a pet, a picture, a stuffed animal or anything near you will help for emotional support. I very much did not like pushing forward in Lone Survivor, in a good way.

*Stated in an interview regarding the creation of a certain sound.

Giro Maioriello
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I felt that Journey depicted loneliness quite well in its own way; I always felt a little happier when another player turned up.

Maria Jayne
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I think the trouble with loneliness is that marketing can't show you headshotting noobs in multiplayer. Multiplayer is the future remember, nobody plays single player any more....publishers have told me this, it must be true.

You can't convey loneliness in a trailer, they ruined the movie adaptation by filling it with noise. Loneliness is utter silence, there is nothing to distract you from your solitude. Ten minutes of Day Z does more to convey loneliness than anything else I have ever played. At least that was true before it became popular and the hackers and face pnwers joined up.

I think the true challenge of conveying loneliness in a video game is keeping it compelling enough to play, while at the same time creating that isolation. The concept of a multiplayer game that separates you from its community is an interesting one, however I fear the majority of players wouldn't understand why and the publisher/developer would be so afraid of upsetting their players, they would give you a cynical, monetized way of opting out of the blackmail isn't an attractive prospect for a game.

A feeling of fear and vulnerability can help create loneliness but a lack of interaction with other humans is something gamers have accepted in single player games for quite a while actually. We've learned to play music while playing lonely games, have the TV on etc. We actively disrupt the feeling whenever we encounter it now.

Katy Smith
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I would put Myst and Riven on the list of games that do isolation / loneliness well. Those games put me on edge more than I was expecting them to.

Kevin Patterson
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Parts of Fallout 3 had that same feeling, when walking alone through the wasteland and entering some building, to suddenly be attacked by a ghoul. I loved the Omega man, the first movie based on the book.