Great Desolate Adventures
They make for great introspection and even improve your pub chat with friends
Those of you who are around the age of thirty may remember the halcyon days of split screen joy. Maybe you have romantic memories of times where you were mocking your friends as you gleefully traded fired pixels back-and-forth in well-worn locations like Facility or Frigate. Or maybe you simply preferred chasing your big-headed friends around for hours as you attempted to paintball them into submission. It’s worth mentioning, too, that even solo play can be a social experience — albeit in a different way. Ripping through forty hours of a title can lend itself to those every-other-day conversations you have with close friends:
“Which quest did you do?”
“Are you at the final level yet?”
“Oh my god I didn’t see it coming either!”
I love nothing more than discussing these choices and the surrounding games mythology with friends. Usually with alcohol.
Of course, I don’t want to talk to my friends about any old games. I’m especially keen on the experiences that make me feel something — and for me, the worlds that really draw me in have one thing in common: desolation. To be more specific, I’m drawn to those games where I can’t help but marvel at just how miserable the post-apocalyptic shitscape has become. These are games where you flinch at the wet sucking sound of the machete as it cleaves brain from skull; where the morally ambiguous nature of the characters force you to question your own morality.
Oscar-worthy voice acting, arresting soundtracks, and production value better than most Netflix series certainly helps, where these things exist.
I want games that I need to discuss and dissect with my friends, and where I’m genuinely sad to see the end-credits roll.
What games could possibly live up to these lofty expectations, you ask? Well, two come to mind straight away. These titles are thought-provoking, gut-punching, sadness-inducing conversation starters that are absolutely worth either a first-time visit or a revisit.
The Last of Us
I have a confession to make. Don’t judge me too harshly for this: I took three years to finally play The Last of Us. One reason for this might be that I used to be a person who rejected games with tons of hype simply because of said hype. I know, I know; it doesn’t make sense.
It especially makes no sense given that we’re talking about what is perhaps the post-apocalyptic action-thriller-survival game (or as I used to refer to it: “the fungus zombie version of Uncharted”).
So, yeah, I made a mistake; I shouldn’t have needed so much convincing to play it.
The Last of Us is a masterpiece and it’s very much a game that aligns with the values I described above. The opening act is creepy as hell and involves you playing as the protagonist’s daughter, wandering around the family home, interacting with seemingly random objects in the guise of the user tutorial. All the while, a raging storm — punctuated by suitably-apocalyptic news brodcasts — supplies the classic horror movie ambience to ramp up the tension.
Instantly likeable characters — featuring superb vocal talents from voice-acting legends such as Troy Baker — mean that you’ll form an almost-immediate emotional attachment to a cast of characters who are desperately trying to understand and navigate the total collapse of society. As we witness the modern world tear itself apart, I can’t imagine how the emotional climax of the opening act won’t leave you in tears.
Come to think of it, I seldom care when a video game character dies. Hell, I’m usually the one doing the slaying, after all. But in The Last of Us, it’s very different — the early death of a key character will hit you harder than perhaps any other death in a game. And, later on in the game, you’ll face ever-increasing horrors surrounding the implosion of the USA — your character’s survival instinct will force them to do unspeakable things to survive.
When the game finally reaches its climax, you’ll be left with that rare empty-inside feeling that’ll make you wish you could give up another fifty hours of your life to do it all over again. And you’ll definitely be spending just as many hours talking about it, too. Man, I can’t wait for another instalment.
This War of Mine
My husband always asks is if “this is the one with the repeatedly-depressing guitar music”. Why yes, yes it is!
The soundtrack by Piotr Musiał and Grzegorz Mazur is probably enough on its own to make you retreat into your bedroom and ponder the futility of existence. But it’s also just one of several memorable aspects of this stupidly good offering from 11-bit Studios, which takes place in a fictional Eastern European country in the midst of a civil war.
In fact, the game is a not-so-subtle nod to the Bosnian war of the ’90s. It puts you in charge of a group of survivors in a ruined building, trying to wait out a city-wide siege through winter. You view the action from a side-scrolling perspective (with distinct retro-vibes), enabling you to view a cutaway of the entire shelter as you scramble around during the day, trying to keep your eclectic group of comrades alive. You can’t venture outside for fear of snipers — meaning that you’ll need to explore at night in order to collect essentials (food, water, and tools for example), all critical for both survival and perhaps eking out a slightly less meagre existence.
I’ve never played a game — before or since — that so effectively captured the grim horror of warfare from a civilian’s point of view.
In-game decisions really matter, both to the characters themselves as well as a plot which can unfold differently each time you play through. On my first round, I sent Pavel out one night to collect food. He’s a great runner and can carry a decent amount of supplies. So far, so good. I decided to investigate the old ruined house. Stumbling through the ruins, Pavel encountered a frail and defenceless elderly couple. They looked like they had plenty of loot lying around. So, in classic (and morally-dubious) style, I killed off the old couple and took them for everything they had. When discussing this scenario with my mate, he explained that his group of survivors was just as devoid of principles as my own.
So far, this all sounds like traditional video game fare; loot is all-important, there’s no need to let a few pesky civilians get in the way, right? It’s just a game, after all. Well, not quite.
You see, these events preceded a sharp downward spiral of sickness for Pavel — he was unable to reconcile surviving with his heinous actions. Again, I called my mate. This time, I wanted tips in how I might keep Pavel alive. His only advice was to try to get the poor guy to eat.
But Pavel became increasingly desperate — refusing to eat, and sinking into an ever-deeper depression. To my horror, he later committed suicide.
I was stunned. In this game, there’s no opportunity to undo a permanent, game-changing action like this. The game relentlessly auto-saves, forcing you, the player, to live with each and every decision. You are simply left to ponder your questionable actions as you attempt to keep the rest of the group alive; this, after losing one of the most useful characters, too.
I still haven’t managed to complete this game by surviving until the end of the siege, either. I have a bit of an urge — perhaps an obsession — to finish the game with all characters still standing. However, my mate wisely argued that this concept was at odds with the whole idea of a game about war: after all, in war, innocent people will inevitably die.
It may sound callous to suggest that This War of Mine was an “enjoyable” experience; I was sad when it was over, and frustrated that I hadn’t been able to keep all the survivors alive. I was left with a sense of hopeless inevitability, perhaps mirroring the experience of the in-game characters to some extent. But I loved the unique permutations of each story, and sharing the experience with a friend made it all the richer.
There is certainly joy to be found by disconnecting yourself from slick, seamless online gaming sessions and delving deep into the adventure and escapism that solo experiences can offer. And, as I’ve said throughout this piece, a solo game doesn’t preclude a more social engagement — in fact, it can directly facilitate poignant, genuinely thoughtful conversations with like-minded friends.
Your weapon of choice doesn’t need to grim, of course. But beyond the thought-provoking conversations, these darker experiences supply a unique sense of catharsis — at least in the sense that I can live, just for a moment, some of the tension and fear that the protagonists wade through…then I can return to my normal life, and actually reflect on how lucky I am. Also, I greatly admire any game that can make me feel something, especially if that feeling isn’t merely fleeting. Experiencing a sense of deep loss with the death of a video game character might seem bleak, but I find myself greatly appreciating the developers who are able to evoke such powerful emotions through their artworks.