Confronting loneliness with games
The pandemic, the rise of remote work, and the increasing digital isolation of everyday life are taking their toll, but many are finding surprising solace in gaming.
Exhilaration. Anger. Joy. The best games make you feel something.
For independent game designer Madison Karrh, however, motivation came from quieter, more introspective emotions.
You see, Karrh’s game Birth is about loneliness. It’s there in its muted aesthetic, mournful soundtrack, and most explicitly, its mission. A point-and-click puzzle game, you’re tasked with building yourself a companion one organ at a time.
Oddly, Karrh didn’t originally set out to make a lonely game. “I was trying to come up with ideas of why the character in the game would want to build a body,” she says. “And then I was like, ‘Wait, why do I want to make a game about someone building a body? I was like, ‘Oh, because I'm very lonely and I haven’t touched another human for a long, long time.”
It was the height of the pandemic and Karrh lived alone in a tiny studio apartment. Her loneliness was sharp and desperate. But it wasn’t new—Karrh spent much of her 20s feeling disconnected. The world seemed to be full of couples, families, and groups of friends all of whom seemingly possessed a greater capacity for human interaction than she did.
Birth takes this ache and turns it into something solvable.
For video game journalist Christian Donlan, the game transported him back to the summer he spent in his small hometown after all of his friends had scattered. “There’s a sense of moving through space being, not unseen, exactly, but unnoticed,” he says. Playing Birth captured the way “loneliness can make you feel a bit like a ghost sometimes.”
What makes a lonely game?
Intention plays a big role. More than any other medium, games provide “possibility spaces,” which allow the player to control the type of experiences they seek out. An introvert with an appreciation for solitude, Donlan turns all sorts of games into “lonely” ones. Take Crackdown, a third-person shooter in which you play a state agent brutally enforcing the law. On the surface, it’s not a style or subject matter that appeals to Donlan. And yet he keeps returning, not for the violent confrontations (which mostly take place in the game’s metropolis) but for its vast depiction of the natural world. Compared to the urban environments, the mountains and fields feel sketched in. “There's something about being in that game, where you're in these in-between spaces, which is just pretty magical.”
He’s drawn to other games, such as The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and Jet Set Radio Future, for the same reason: he likes the ability to enter a vast space with no established mission that exists outside of the game’s intention. It’s not loneliness, exactly, but a meditative form of solitude. His head empties and his outside identities fall away.
And then there’s Birth, which turns the implicit explicit. “Part of what makes this game so special is that she's created something intentionally that other games can only create by accident,” Donlan says.
All the lonely gamers
Birth’s reception surprised Karrh. People responded to the game enthusiastically and shared their own experiences with social isolation—they seemed to get real satisfaction out of playing Karrh’s unique expression of loneliness. “Not only are you admitting you're lonely, you're like, ‘Oh, and I'm also going to be a Frankenstein character in this and create a little character from gooey bones and organs,” she says.
Karrh’s more aware of loneliness’ ubiquity now. Birth also helped her accept her desire for solitude, which has turned darker feelings of isolation into something more peaceful. “I think I have a lot more comfortability in finding joy in the fact that I want to sit at my desk by myself for a long time,” she says. “And then on the flip side of that, also just really relishing the friendships and relationships that I do have, and the fact that they also probably have been lonely at some point.”
Madison Karrh’s lonely game playlist
The Wanderer: “A terribly lonely little game based on Frankenstein.”
Resident Evil and Silent Hall: “All old survival horror feels really lonely to me. If there are enemies, they're zombies. They're not people you can interact with. You're reading diary entries, but they're from someone who's died from whatever disease is plaguing the town. That's such a trope in old survival horror.”
Stilstand: A hand-drawn, interactive comic about living alone for a summer in Copenhagen. “This one is particularly lonely and terrible, in a very good way,” she says.
When The Past Was Around: A point-and-click game about love and loss.
Christian Donlan’s lonely game playlist
Impossible Mission: The game, written for the Commodore 64 and published in 1984, is about “being a spy and infiltrating this underground base,” Donlan says. “You start the game and there's a little elevator underground; there's no clue to how you got there. There’s a sense of loneliness, of being the only person exploring this world.”
Jet Set Radio Future: A 2002 action game, you play as a member of a skate gang spraying graffiti around a futuristic version of Tokyo. “But what it's really about,” says Donlan, “is climbing very large structures in an urban space, and learning the intricacies of reserved space.”
A Short Hike: You’re a bird climbing a mountain. “I think it’s about learning to be by yourself.”
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom: “It’s really just a nature simulator — it’s quite a lovely game for finding moments of solitude.”
Crackdown: “Crackdown has these lovely under-imagined worlds,” Donlan says. “While on the surface I don't particularly want to drive cars and shoot people, there's something about being in these in-between spaces. You're by yourself. You definitely get solitude—I don't know if it tips into loneliness, but you definitely get loneliness’ slightly more popular twin.”
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