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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.
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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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