An Exercise in Isolation
Somewhere in the middle of the vast, empty sea, a single square of broken planks and plastic bottles floats. A person, alone, sits atop it with nothing more than a hook for scavenging the bits of debris that float by to fashion themselves a better home.
On the horizon, they spot something. Another vessel! They jump to their feet and wait anxiously as they drift toward it. Seconds that feel like hours stretch by until finally, finally, it’s within reach, and they jump desperately into the sea, swimming toward it as they avoid the lurking dangers.
But when they get there, there’s nothing but a makeshift roof and scattered notes, and the long-stored supplies of some unlucky victim of the waters. They take their bounty with a solemn resolve and return to their “ship” as the husk of another person’s life sinks beneath the waves.
Raft is an excellent game. Released in 2018 by Axolot Games after the success of a technical demo published on Itch.io in 2016, it’s theoretically very simple; you are on a raft, in the middle of the ocean, and your job is to improve your raft and find out how you ended up here.
On the surface, it’s like any other survival game, and that’s true, to an extent. You collect materials, expand your blueprint list, and build yourself the best possible base to continue to survive while avoiding dangerous threats (sharks SUCK). But what I find really interesting about Raft is one of its most obvious but overlooked features: while it’s recommended that you play with friends and build a little raft community, the singleplayer option is an exercise in complete and total isolation from society.
The Fear Versus Innovation Born of Isolation
It took me a while to figure out what Raft reminded me of, but when it hit me, it made plenty of sense. Though designed in a completely different style, Presentable Liberty is another game that explores this same idea of loneliness but takes it to a different extreme.
Presentable Liberty puts you in the shoes of a prisoner set aside from a burning society in a cell. Nearly the entire game takes place within the same four walls, which presents very intentional and stylized boredom to the player that has to be pushed through to get the full story.
The most striking difference between the two games is that approach to loneliness. While Presentable Liberty explores the idea of complete helplessness in isolation and the effects that can have on your sanity, Raft explores the innovation that is born out of necessity.
In Raft, you can’t escape your isolation, there’s quite literally no one left, but you can definitely make your own situation better. You can expand your raft, explore islands and wreckage, and learn more about what happened to leave you in this state by directly interacting.
In Presentable Liberty, you are stuck in a fixed-dimensional space, living off of the very few scraps of information that make it to you and the modest entertainment provided for you.
In the end, the most important aspect to consider in these scenarios is agency. Agency, when applied to psychology, is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “the exercise or manifestation of this capacity [to act].” This means basically that if you have agency over a situation, you are in control of what happens to you and have the ability to change that outcome.
It’s a necessary part of motivation; if you feel as if you can control your situation, you are more likely to feel confident and optimistic. The opposite is, of course, also true; the less agency you have over your situation, the less confident you are and the more pessimistic you are likely to be. These games explore both extremes: Raft gives you agency over your situation while Presentable Liberty takes away your agency.
The Interesting Addition of Multi-Player
Raft does definitely have something that Presentable Liberty doesn’t have, other than agency: multiplayer mode. One of the major draws for the game was the fact that you could host a raft with up to seven of your friends.
This certainly does make the actual gameplay easier; being able to divvy up tasks means that you’ll always have enough food, water, and building supplies, and you don’t have to worry as much about shark attacks, birds stealing your crops, and other threats. When you’re playing with others, you can cover bigger areas of exploration in one go and if you are incapacitated, you can be carried back to the raft and healed by your teammates.
This does change the isolation aspect of the game, but surprisingly, it doesn’t eliminate it. It is still just you and your companions; the rest of the world is empty. Therefore, you and your friends become a micro-society. This has been an interesting element of study in psychology and media for a very long time: who are we when the trappings of society fall away? Who do we become when reduced to basic survival?
A popular example of this theme is the novel The Lord of the Flies. Written in 1954 by William Golding, The Lord of the Flies follows the story of a small group of British schoolboys stranded on an island after a plane crash. It’s a very pessimistic view of society; the boys, lacking any proper authority, begin to tear each other apart as the stresses of survival wear on their psyches. Many scholars operate on the theory that Golding’s general purpose was to show that without a structured system of authority to run society, human beings would be reduced to animals to fulfill their basic instincts.
This has been disproven over the years; more recent conclusions are that we are a sympathetic and empathetic species at our base, and are more likely to help each other survive, as that is what we’ve evolved to do, than we are to fall apart. Raft explores that aspect of it; although it is a game whose point is cooperation, it does provide a safe environment to experiment with post-society social interaction. Players have absolute freedom to sabotage their teammates for fun and start over without consequences; instead, more often than not, they’ll help them get what they need, and sacrifice some of their resources for the group’s advancement.
The Draw of the Open Sea
Whatever the deeper psychological resonance of the game, Raft fulfills its most basic purpose: it’s fun to play. In my own playthrough, I have enjoyed expanding and redesigning my raft as I make more and more advancements, finding little hints as to what led to the situation I’m in, and peacefully sailing along through the endless open sea and sky. I look forward to playing through it with my friends and seeing what kind of hijinks we can get into (because when you’re friends with a bunch of mod junkies, you can’t play a normal game).
I love Raft both for what it is, a simple game that even a relatively unskilled gamer (me) can play, and for what it represents. Raft is an example of innovation in the face of difficulty, and a sense of camaraderie in the face of disaster and hardship. It’s an exercise in what isolation can do to the mind, with the unusual slant of exploring the more positive aspects of it. You may be on your own, but you aren’t hopeless. It might be you against the world, but the world isn’t out to get you. You’re alone, but not all together lonely.
I think we could use much more of that optimism in the world.