What is the loneliest sound you can think of?
What is the loneliest sound you can think of?
For me it’s…well, this.
There’s something about a train horn in the distance, especially when heard at night, that makes me feel alone, regardless of whether or not I’m around other people. The way it cuts through the quiet darkness, hanging in the air like a whisper on the wind, resonates with something deep inside of me that I don’t fully understand. Everytime I hear one, which is a lot as I live right next to a railroad, I feel a pang of emptiness.
Sounds have so much power to elicit strong and specific emotions from us; our brains are hardwired to recall experiences and feelings that we associate with the things we hear. No reaction to a sound is universal, but there are definitely common responses many of us have, and when looking at games, that is one of the biggest challenges sound designers and composers face: finding a way to evoke a certain feeling from the majority of players. They have to find answers for what various emotions sound like, and of course, the one I find myself thinking about the most is: what does loneliness sound like?
The answer I imagine a lot of folks would jump to is that it sounds like silence, but I think that misses the mark. True and complete silence can be unsettling, but it isn’t something most of us actually experience all that often, so people’s association between silence and loneliness probably isn’t that strong. The feeling of loneliness seems to come more from sounds that break silence. Ones that remind us of the space we are in. One of the most common sounds that do this in games is wind, whether it be whipping around the player or brushing up against a building they’re in. While wind exists almost everywhere, it is strongest in high up and remote locations, creating an association with secluded places. Wind cuts through the silence and shifts in intensity in an unpredictable fashion. Its unpredictability can be unnerving, and hearing it reminds me of late nights where I couldn’t fall asleep and the only thing I could focus on was the wind trying its best to get in. Honestly though, tons of sounds can be used to evoke that sense of loneliness, whether it be rain, the ticking of a clock, the static of an old radio, or even *train horn*. In most public situations we are so bombarded with noise that it can be hard for any one thing to really stand out, so when placed somewhere quiet where there are only a few sounds loud enough to hear, those noises become more memorable.
Oftentimes though the loneliest sounds are the ones made by the player character, the most common being footsteps. Whether it be exploring an old house or moving through deep caverns below the ground, footsteps when paired with quiet noises, create a sense of isolation. To sell it further, designers typically make footsteps, and any noise really, far louder than they’d actually be in real life in order to make them stand out even more. When the primary sound a player hears is one they are making, the message being communicated is that they’re alone…for now at least. Footsteps in this context also usually have a decent bit of reverb on them in order to match the natural sound of a space. Reverb and echoes both give a lonely quality to sounds. They occur most in big empty rooms and long hallways, so when we hear sounds that have them, we are reminded of being alone in those places. The way sound travels and bounces off things defines the feeling of a space.
This technique is used to great effect in Disco Elysium. When the player steps out into Revachol proper, the first thing they hear is a sad and slow horn playing in the distance, echoing across the city. It reverberates off the near-empty streets and rundown buildings. Revachol not only looks like a city on its last limb, but it also sounds like one. Through simply adding a bit of reverb to the horn, it gives far more depth to it; it becomes part of the scenery, sticking in the air making the city feel desolate and lonely. All in all, it isn’t just sounds that can create a sense of loneliness, but also how those sounds are heard.
For instance, proximity to a sound can also greatly augment the feeling it evokes. Continuing with Disco Elysium, when the player enters the Whirling-In-Rags, the bar’s theme plays diegetically from the speakers. If the player goes upstairs, the song continues but now at a distance and with the floor blocking the sound, making the song more muted. Hearing music, conversation, and really any sounds of socializing through a wall can feel surprisingly lonesome. Especially when it is a social situation that you are not a part of, because there is a sense of missing out, of other people having fun and feeling connected to each other, and you just being on the other side of it, alone. It is a loneliness fueled by a sort of envy, and while it seems like knowing other people are close by should bring some comfort, it often does the opposite.
A similar technique is used to a slightly different effect in Hades when entering Eurydice’s chamber. Upon arriving, the player can hear her singing offscreen, seemingly on the other side of a wall somewhere. As you approach, her voice gets fuller and you can even move past the wall as to not have any separation, but even then there is still a lonely feel to it as her voice reverberates around her big, empty chamber in hell. The difference here is instead of the loneliness being directed at the player character and in turn the player, it feels attached to Eurydice. She’s trying to come to terms with death and as the game continues, we learn she also has been separated from greek mythology’s most famous sad boy, Orpheus. While she is a warm person who is capable of living in solitude, she has been cut-off from everything she once knew, and that loneliness can be heard in her singing. By having the player first hear it from a distance, it sets the tone for her character moving forward.
Of course, creating a sense of isolation isn’t always just about how something sounds. In fact, one of the most effective ways to make a sound feel lonelier is through juxtaposition. Take, a game you’ve heard me talk about before, Outer Wilds. When flying through space in the ship, a calm yet driving theme plays in the background that manages to be both reflective and adventurous, which pretty much perfectly encapsulates what the game is about. However, if for one reason or another, the player is separated from their ship while travelling through space, they are met with this: *breathing sounds*. The only notable noise is of the player character breathing and the propulsion of their jet pack, both of which not only illustrate how isolated they are, but also that their two most important resources, oxygen and fuel are being used up. When comparing it to the lively theme that plays in the ship, it is clear that this is not the way to travel. While there is always a bit of a melancholy feel to adventuring in Outer Wilds, it’s moments like this that hammer home the feeling of being alone more than any other.
Another solid example of this can be seen with The Wind Waker. While sailing during the day, the Great Sea theme plays which is bubbly, heroic and makes me want to stand on the bow of a ship and look out at the horizon. However, once night rolls around, there’s no music at all. Just the soft sound of waves, the blowing of wind on your sail, and the creak of your boat as you change directions. This change in tone accomplishes a lot. It helps keep things fresh as despite the Great Sea theme being a certified banger, it would become less effective if it played constantly. The vast contrast between the soundscapes of the two times of day makes each far more distinct. Where the momentum of the day section seems to be pushing players to move to their next objective, the quiet of the night asks for reflection. To slow things down a bit. It also reminds players that not every aspect of adventuring is glorious; that sometimes it is quite lonely. Each section serves to highlight the other, always nudging players a bit off balance so they don’t get too used to either.
In general, music is a great tool to use in order to set a tone, especially a lonely one. I’ll admit now that I know almost nothing about music theory, and in my attempts to research it for this video, I walked away feeling more confused than when I started, so this examination of what makes music feel lonely will be through the very academic lens of Vibes™.
Some of the lonliest tracks I can think of in video games come from titles focused on exploring worlds that have largely been abandoned and many of these soundtracks reflect that sense of barrenness by being stripped back in terms of instrumentation. Breath of the Wild relies heavily on the use of piano, often accompanied by a flute or a few violins. As you walk around various areas, fragments of melodies play, causing the vast, broken world to feel even more so. While any instrument can sound lonely, I’d argue that the piano is one of the lonliest. Not only can it’s easy to reach high register create a haunting feel, but functionally it is one of the few instruments where a single person can play both a song’s harmony and melody. It’s an instrument for people who play music by themselves. My favorite piece in the game comes when riding a horse across Hyrule at night; a piano plays what feels like a haphazard assortment of as many notes as possible; as it goes on, it feels just on the edge of formlessness. It manages to be both peaceful and a bit unsettling. The music almost seems unsure of itself, and it’s wandering in the same way Link is. Then the violins come in to play a small portion of the original Zelda theme, and excuse me for being a bit saccharine, but hearing it for the first time felt like finding an old friend in the middle of nowhere. Almost as soon as the violins come in, they go away, leaving the player once again alone with the piano. The use of the original Zelda theme in this track gives a reminder to fans of the series of all the other adventures they have gone on; hearing it provides a sort of warmth, so when the musical phrase ends so suddenly, it leaves the track feeling even lonelier than before.
Another title that is a masterclass in establishing a sense of loneliness to its exploration through music is Hollow Knight. The first few songs the player will hear have similar instrumentation to Breath of the Wild, using primarily a piano and a viola. However, where the tone in Breath of the Wild is more exploratory, here it is somber. It almost seems like a funeral dirge, making the lonely vibes feel driven by loss more than anything else. As the player reaches the town of Dirtmouth, which is nearly abandoned, the music highlights the current state of the once great Kingdom, Setting the expectation that the world about to be explored is fractured. Entering Hallownest proper shakes things up a bit; the tracks start to feel a little brighter and more instruments join the mix. For instance, Greenpath’s track feels full of life albeit, of an untamed sort, which matches the general environment. Most of the areas higher up follow a similar trend of having songs with a fair bit of liveliness to them, but as the player goes lower and lower, that is quickly stripped away. Heading from the City of Tears to the Royal Waterways brings about a massive shift in instrumentation, going from multiple strings, a harp, and a vocalist to one lone cello. In Deepnest a few strings find themselves in the mix but any sense of melody is lost and they largely are there to play high, piercing notes to accompany the burrowing of lost bugs. And once the player gets all the way to the Abyss, they are met with *abyss*. It is hard to call this an actual song although it does have the occasional string chime in. There are hints of familiarity in the instrumentation, but they have been broken down in an almost unrecognizable way. It illustrates how far the player is from what they’ve gotten used to. How removed they are from any true sense of life. How they are hopelessly alone. By stripping back the music as the player gets deeper and deeper, the game instills a sense of loneliness in them.
While all of the things I’ve mentioned so far are ways to bring a sense of isolation to a soundscape, the most important aspects to making any noise feel lonely comes from the associations each of us have with specific sounds. Our own experiences color what sounds lonesome to us and its largely based on things we heard when feeling alone.
As a kid, I went to camp every summer, and during the day it was the greatest time imaginable. We’d play on the lake, climb rocks, run through corn fields, all while forging friendships that would almost certainly end once we all went home for the summer, but for those few weeks, were close as blood. Every night though, the excitement of the day would wash away, and I’d lie in bed, listening to the snores of my cabin mates, unable to fall asleep. And I’d just think. I’d think home. I’d think about my family. I’d think about my friends. I’d think about how I wasn’t used to being away from any of them. I’d think about how if I could just fall asleep, I’d wake up and it’d be daytime and I could go back to all the good stuff the days had to offer and leave this feeling behind. And then I’d hear *train horn*.
It feels silly that an experience so seemingly inconsequential has stuck with me for this long. However, people really don’t have control over what sounds will have a profound impact on them. So, while loneliness can sound like a lot of things, for me, it will always be the sound of a train in the distance. The thing is, I kind of cherish it. Obviously I don’t like feeling lonely all the time, but it is when I do a lot of my best reflection. It gives me space to clear my mind and focus on where I am at, and, yeah, it can be deeply uncomfortable at times, but without it, the rest of my life wouldn’t feel as sweet. The next morning at camp wouldn’t be as glorious., so I kind of welcome it.
Solitude is a common theme in games, and throughout the process of making this video, I realized that most of my favorite titles ever are ones that cultivate a sense of isolation and loneliness through game design, story, visuals, and, of course, sound. And it makes sense. It’s a way to step into that lonesome mindset without being stuck in it myself. Playing lonely games validates my personal experiences; it’s proof that I’m not the only person who feels alone at times, which should be an obvious fact, but it’s one that’s easy to lose track of. I think part of why I love games that are able to craft such lonely feeling experiences is simply because they make me feel less alone.
If you’re interested in hearing more about how people react to sounds and more specifically music, I’d recommend checking out the show Secrets of the Brain which has an episode that takes a scientific look at how music affects memory and emotions. And the best way to watch it is through this video’s sponsor, CuriosityStream. CuriosityStream is a streaming service that has a library filled with thousands of documentaries on pretty much every topic you can think of. Whether it be the episode of Secrets of the Brain that I mentioned or some other doc, there is something on there for everyone, and right now you can get the best deal of the year. For under $15 a year, you can get a subscription for CuriosityStreams as well as Nebula, which is a creator-owned streaming service filled with some of the best channels on YouTube, and they also let me be part of it. It gives us a place to post our work without having to worry about demonitization or the algorithm, and it also gives us the chance to experiment with ideas that don’t always do so well on YouTube, meaning you get bonus content while supporting creators and it’s all ad-free.
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