Wonderful but Lonely: The Empty Cities of Halo 4, Dishonored and Recent Video Games

Playing Tokyo Jungle reminds me of my insomnia, of all things. The reason I often stay up until I can greet sunrise is because there's this serene calm that comes with being awake late at night.

Everyone is asleep. The streets are empty. It's peaceful to not have anyone around. I can focus. It's kind of like a power fantasy, actually. The world is at once both mine to take and yet beyond me—a not tameable entity whose machinations do not care for, and sometimes defy the going-ons of people. The world keeps spinning whether you're awake or not.

The world also keeps going whether you're alive or not. While playing as a Pomeranian that travels post-apocalyptic Tokyo to kill and eat animals in an effort to stay alive isn't as calming as the velvet of the night, there's still an air of peacefulness that comes with it.

The reasons are ones that I think Hayao Miyazaki, who is behind popular films like Spirited Away and Ponyo, would be enthusiastic about. Noted by academics for his disdain of digital things, a New Yorker profile once quoted him saying that he looked "forward to the time when Tokyo is submerged by the ocean and the NTV tower becomes an island, when the human population plummets and there are no more high-rises." Kind of extreme! Unsurprisingly a good deal of his work was in love with the idea of a Japan that was more in-tune with nature and the spiritual world ruled by Shintoism, Yokai and Kami.

World War 2 changed everything according to Miyazaki—with it came the creation of a consumerist society that destroyed the environment. He didn't like that. An article by the Japanese Times quotes him saying, "I was frustrated because nature - the mountains and rivers - was being destroyed in the name of economic progress." The book 'Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke' also quotes him saying that, "People changed their value system from Gods to money." The people of Japan had lost their way, and the only way things could be remedied was if humanity disappeared altogether.

Wonderful but Lonely: The Empty Cities of Halo 4, Dishonored and Recent Video Games

And what we have in Tokyo Jungle is similar to the world that Miyazaki might've envisioned...if it wasn't likely that he hates video games. No spirits in Tokyo Jungle, but definitely a sense that nature rules supreme. Seen in light of the animator's criticisms of society, it's easy to pinpoint why something like Tokyo Jungle feels calming, almost necessary: gone are the pesky, annoying humans who didn't value the right things. In their place exists not a more ruthless reality of kill or be killed—as one might initially think when looking at Tokyo Jungle—but rather an ecosystem whose participants are well aware of their role in nature. Everything in its right place.

Maybe that sounds nihilistic, but in reality I don't see Tokyo Jungle's premise shying too far away from the type of world that most games present us. Where game spaces might feature well-designed architecture, well-written history, or a game might feature well-designed mechanics, people still feel absent fairly regularly.

Recently Simon Parkin similarly criticized Halo 4 in a review over at Eurogamer for its lack of people:

"But while this one-man army has renewed purpose and a new crisis to tackle, that lack of humanity is hidden in plain sight. For a game so focused on saving the universe, the Halo series is curiously devoid of people to save. It's filled with others to destroy, of course...

It's a universe filled with weapons, more weapons than ever before, the Prometheans adding their armoury of esoteric rifles and machine guns to the already enormous array of killing tools. But people to save? You won't find many of those here."

While I've not played Halo 4, I've felt similarly recently while playing Dishonored—which technically does have people, but hear me out. The game takes place in an Victorian setting based off 1800's London, with a plague decimating a city built to be surprisingly accommodating to a sneaky assassin. So much effort was put into building that city, building a world that fascinates with its politics and history, ultimately leaving you wondering about its society.

But where are most of the people to ground all of that? Why are the people so far out of the frame unless someone needs to be killed or avoided, why am I working so hard to save a city that is basically dead? What in the world is everyone fighting over?

There was a moment in one of the missions in Dishonored, where I endeavored to climb to the highest peak of the level. The streets were largely empty and quiet in this part of town, the only audible thing was the beating of the heart I held in my hands. The vibe was right for climbing crazy high, I decided.

Wonderful but Lonely: The Empty Cities of Halo 4, Dishonored and Recent Video Games

As Corvo landed his final blink, all I could feel was a thrill. Not so much of reaching my summit, but instead of conquering the night, of conquering my skills. A sense of control that came with doing whatever I wanted: the city was mine. But as I looked around from above, everything under me looked empty and unpopulated.

I thought about the kingdom under the tyranny of the lord regent, I thought of the great whale beasts that we killed to fuel our everyday conveniences—both things that I never really got to see in the game. I'm more acquainted with the rats of Dunwall, with the books of Dunwall than its actual everyday citizens.

Instead what we have are thugs, the military, the aristocracy, the weepers and a very small surviving population that I barely got to know—possibly due to the plague and because the point of Dishonored isn't the characterization, rather how we go about eliminating our targets. But what is a city without the everyday people? The thrill disappeared, and in its stead came this overwhelming feeling of destitution.

The thing about insomnia is, once I snap out of the dark spell of the night, once I look past the romanticism of having no people around, I don't feel idealistic or empowered about it anymore. I just feel lonely.

Thought of some empty games or cities while you read this? Share some pictures in the comments!