Interview with Cornelia Geppert, CEO and Creative Director at Jo-Mei Games
In the industrialised world, social isolation is regarded as a mass phenomenon, as a widespread ill, and as the source of diverse mental and (by consequence) physical ailments. With regard to young age groups in particular, digital games and apps are often accused of fostering social isolation and thus loneliness.
On the other hand, it is digital media who are now addressing this often taboo topic in a range of ways: in terms of style, as a storytelling element or as a problem to be solved. We look at this phenomenon in detail in form 280.
We also talked to Cornelia Geppert, CEO and Creative Director of Jo-Mei Games. Loneliness plays an important role in Sea of Solitude, the latest title produced by this Berlin-based studio, which will be released by Publisher Electronic Arts in early 2019.
How is loneliness and silence used as a style element in digital games?
Modern game design makes use of loneliness and silence first and foremost as a stylistic feature to create an atmosphere that serves the basic idea behind the game’s concept. In order to have a complete effect, both elements need to be introduced and used skilfully and at the right rate. We see loneliness more as a stylistic device that can heighten the dimensions of a game world and bring it closer to the player. The relationships between narrow and spacious areas, momentum or stillness in a world where the player operates creates tensions that are great for creating memorable and inspiring gaming experiences. For example, you can create a sense of loneliness by initially providing the player with companions and then removing them just when you’ve got them really close in terms of the story game mechanics. It has a strong effect on the player's sense of loneliness. Especially in Sea Of Solitude, players find themselves in situations where they are crossing a vast ocean alone in a small boat. Whether players experience this being alone as positive or negative depends on their own personalities. You can use music to intensify or soften the emotions the game evokes or provokes according to what’s appropriate for a given situation in the game.
Silence, on the other hand, is a tool we use in audio design of game titles in a similar way to the movies; it is one of the strongest tools we have to create a sense of tension. The skilful use of silence at the right moment in the right place in the game always has the potential to create or underscore a memorable, highly emotional game situation.
How does (the fight against) loneliness become the central theme of the story and how does the player engage with it?
Sea of Solitude is essentially a story about humanity. Kay, our protagonist, is a young woman sunk in loneliness and inner emptiness – analogous to the sunken game world where we let the player loose. Kay’s loneliness is so strong that the darkness she carries within turns outward and turns her into a monster. The game begins at the moment when she decides to change her situation. In doing so, she finds that she is far from alone. Other “monsters”, each with their own histories and individual reasons for their loneliness also populate the game world. In the course of the game, Kay tries to help herself, and also to help others become human again. In the process, empathy and self-reflection emerge as her most important qualities and she gains important insights into how loneliness comes about, things she can apply to her own situation. Ultimately, this journey helps her to overcome her own personal ocean of loneliness.
How can games help with loneliness in everyday life?
Games can help partly thanks to the nature of the medium: games are usually made to be played together with others. The most famous and most popular games worldwide are games that you play together with others, be they co-operative or competitive. My first experiences with computer games were with friends: it was all about gathering around a computer to work out the game’s puzzles and challenges. Today, players can connect with each other around the world, greatly increasing their circle of friends. Meetings in “real” life then take place for the first time at game-specific events, and often lead to deep friendships. Even so-called single-player games stimulate co-operation, as many people share the hobby of gaming and you can open up new circles of friends. One of the newest additions to gaming is augmented reality, for example. This means that you can use smartphone games to see virtual things in the real world using the phone camera and interact with friends and strangers who are also currently playing the same game. So in recent years, many players who previously sat alone in front of their home computer can now make new friends simply by playing.
Games reach viewers on many different levels. Interactivity requires constant participation and thinking, turning the game itself into a very emotional experience. The player is very involved in the event – and importantly, for a very long time – much more so than is the case with a movie. Active participation in a game also brings with it feelings of achievement or of having made a difference to something – these are also a strong features of games. Add a component such as collaborative gaming and games can help combat loneliness. Games have always opened up worlds that consumers can explore, discover or conquer. This is no different today than it was in the 1980s. However, thanks to technological advances, today’s players have opportunities for collaboration and interaction that allow them to meet people on levels that seemed unthinkable a few years ago.