I'm perched in front of a grave in Assassin's Creed Valhalla. I've just completed a main story quest that propelled the narrative forward in a dramatic way. And now, after everything that's just unfolded, the game is offering Eivor a hand up off the ground with the press of a button. I, as the player, can choose when I'm ready to get up and move on – although, given the atmosphere permeating the world, there are certainly a few reasons to stay stationary. By putting me back in control of Eivor in this seated position, Valhalla presents me with the opportunity to allow the events that preceded this moment really sink in.
After many hours of Viking adventuring and getting caught up in all of the axe-wielding action that comes with it, taking the time to just sit and reflect on what's just happened makes the story hit all the harder. With Valhalla leaning into RPG elements such as dialogue choices, I begin to think about the decisions I've made that have led me to this point in the game, and just how significant this shift in the story is. Could I have changed the outcome? What's going to happen next? All these questions swirl in my mind and drive me to finally get up and find out.
Of course, Assassin's Creed Valhalla's big sprawling open-world gives you plenty of space to soak up the views and capture picture-perfect screenshots in flower-laden fields and sunset-hued skies. But with so many distractions keeping me on the move, being forced to sit down after a cutscene really pushed me to reflect. Whenever I do encounter such an opportunity in a game, it always sticks with me. From letting you digest the story of the game so far, to giving you room to breathe in virtual worlds so you can away from all the noise and chaos of everyday life, moments of quiet contemplation in video games can make an impact in more ways than one.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla certainly isn't the first game to pause its action to give you a space to reflect on recent events, but it did make me consider a few that I had taken for granted in the past. I remember just how effective finding the space to breathe can be in games like Life is Strange. As story-driven experiences that put you in the shoes of protagonists enduring tumultuous and ever-changing circumstances; it's a series that handles heavy-hitting themes and uses its episodic model to give you the space to reflect on events.
In the first episode of Life Is Strange 2, for example, Sean is on the run with his younger brother Daniel, who doesn't know what happened to their father or why they need to distance themselves from their home. As you venture into the woods, you can sit down on a bench and listen to Sean express his inner worries about the situation they're in and how to handle what's to come with his younger brother. Little pockets of time like this let key developments in the story really permeate and sink in all the more.
These moments you share with the characters throughout the series, like the one with Sean in the woods, are all the more impactful because you hear the inner monologue of the character you are in control of. This time lets you better understand how they're feeling, or gain insight as to what they think about their surroundings. As well as having the space to absorb what's taking place, it also makes it even easier to connect with the characters on an emotional level.
The quiet moments don't always involve listening to an inner monologue, though. Music is such a big part of Life is Strange, and so many of these pauses involve sitting and listening to a song from the stellar soundtracks of the series. One example that always comes to mind takes place in Life is Strange: Before the Storm. Everything is uncertain and you don't know where the path you're on with Chloe will lead you next.
On a train with Chloe and Rachel, you can choose to share your headphones and listen to a song. When you do, a scene rolls on for as long as you wish it, with the camera panning to focus on a bird flying in the sky, or the train wheels clunking along, or the swinging legs of Chloe and Rachel. For just that one peaceful moment, your attention is drawn to the song and you're present in the stillness of the scene, so that you can cast aside the uncertainty for a while.
Sights and sounds
Not unlike the contemplative juncture in Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Life Is Strange also lets you actively decide when you want to get up and move on from these quieter periods. By letting you stay fixed in those pensive moments for as long as you want, Life is Strange removes any pressure to keep the story moving forward if you're not quite ready to move past a certain point. By doing so, the games inadvertently allow you to experience the events that unfold at your own pace.
With all of the chaos and noise of the real world, being able to sit back and decide when you're ready to continue can oftentimes provide some much-needed catharsis and room to breathe. As well as slowing down the pace of a story to make its events more impactful, there's a lot to be said about games that give you space to just simply be. I've lately been finding solace in the natural world of Alba: A Wildlife Adventure. Giving off the vibes of a childhood summer holiday, Alba is all about letting you take things at your own pace, and there are plenty of designated spots around the island of Pinar del Mar where you can take in the scenic vistas.
Instead of contemplating the fictional events unfolding in Valhalla or Life is Strange, the quiet spots in Alba: A Wildlife adventure offer an escape from the troubles of my own life – if only for a moment. The ambient sounds of the wildlife even conjure up the feeling that I'm actually outside in the natural world, which is just something I can't really do safely right now in reality. From the soothing sounds of ocean waves to the chirping of birds fluttering nearby, I liken the experience of playing Alba to that warming feeling you get when you catch a ray of sunshine on your face on a cold day. It gives you a summery playground to get lost in, and I've spent a lot of time this year sitting beside its digital ocean for that reason.
For all of its action-packed raiding and adventuring, that one quiet pause in Valhalla made more of an impact for the way it broke up the flow of the game and let me really reflect on everything I'd been through in Eivor's Viking boots. Similarly, the moments of stillness in the Life is Strange series make a lasting impression by giving you the time to process what the characters are going through. Whether it be taking the opportunity to really appreciate a game's story, or simply taking a moment for myself in Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, I know I won't soon forget the time I spent in virtual worlds quietly contemplating.
Look ahead to the most anticipated games on the way this year in our in-depth Big in 2021 preview.