By Sam Coles:
Isolation in everyday life is perceived as a bad thing, which too much of it is as the human mind requires interaction with their fellow man. However in video games isolation is used as an effective tool for exploration, and of course my favourite aspect video games atmosphere. I just want to talk about for a few paragraphs about how isolation in the context of atmosphere is effective in games; I’ll go through a few examples which are horror and non-horror games.
Horror is an obvious start when it comes to building a thick atmosphere with games when being alone, as isolation and dealing with horror whether it be literal or figurative monsters. Dead Space the first to be specific is a perfect example of this; Isaac Clarke is mute throughout with the exception of when he is being torn in half by a Necromorph. He is alone throughout when slowly traversing the dark corridors of the space station, you hear the scratching in the vents as the terrors are plotting what they are going to do to you.
It’s this tension that elevates this game with the use of isolation, until the sequels. Now don’t get me wrong I like Dead Space 2, but all tension is lost when Isaac started to talk and I get he had to have some dialogue to push the story forward but it lost the atmosphere from the first and the less said about Dead Space 3 the better. When they added in co-op and voice acting for the protagonist, you can’t really get a sense of isolation when your main character is constantly giving running commentary, or if you have enough fire power with a friend to arm a small militia.
Now I know I’m about to somewhat contradict myself, but the Resident Evil games specifically the remake on the GameCube utilise isolation for horror. Yes your character talks and you are backed up by support characters, but nine times out of ten you are on your own with the expertly crafted soundtrack and intense sound design. It’s those moments that lack music and all you can hear are your foot steps and the fast and terrifying shambling as a Crimson Head smells the blood flowing through your veins.
Horror is not the only way you can use isolation to craft atmosphere, it is also a great way to craft a sense of exploration. Metroid Prime is a perfect example of this, although you could probably throw any Metroid game in here (not Other M) as they all do it beautifully but Prime in my opinion is the pinnacle of it.
Metroid Prime manages to convey its story and exploration without any dialogue, as you explore the world you get this sense that these ancient alien worlds were once thriving societies but now rot in decay infested with space pirates and parasites. This is not shown through cutscenes where it sits you down for 10 minutes to explain with laborious exposition, no it is done through environmental storytelling coupled with flavour text when you scan lifeforms and objects.
Samus starts off weak and at first the isolation is daunting and almost terrifying, but as she slowly understands the ins and outs of this hostile world she becomes stronger both mentally and physically. Her isolation becomes her ultimate strength to overcome the trials and tribulations of the situation, as she becomes accustomed to the parasitic lifeforms.
The Metroid Prime games (well the first two), have conveyed the situation through the eyes of Samus Aran, and don’t need extra characters to fill out the lore as Samus’ isolation already does that coupled with the haunting musical score that to this day sticks with me ever since I played the first game as a child. It is a testament of how you can use isolation as means to build atmosphere, to help compliment the exploration and storytelling without saying a word.
Isolation goes hand in hand with video games when you want to convey atmosphere, as well as exploring storytelling with certain themes. It is not just a tool for horror tropes, as it can also be used for exploration as you know most of us find interesting things when explore on our own.