Serotonin: Seeking out safe spaces in digital warzones

April 25, 2014


I didn’t have much luck last week in the health department. I woke up one morning to find myself covered in hives (a disgusting first for me), only to visit the hospital a few weeks later with what felt like a broken toe. So, with my skin feeling like it had a mobile sunburn and my foot not letting me put any weight on it, I stayed home from work for three days. The first day was a blur; a combination of medication-induced hallucinations and not much food. But on the second day I started to feel better. I took a long, three-hour nap and woke up to a magnificent feeling.

I was at peace. I felt safe. Physically, I felt much better, but there was more to it. The sun was just creaking in between my curtains. There was no intrusive noise coming in from the outside world. My couch forced me to question my desire to ever leave it again. Above all, however, the Mass Effect song Vigil was playing as I woke up. It’s one of my favorite video game tunes; it always has a calming, nostalgic effect on me. It made me realize that one of the most important aspects a game can have is creating an environment that makes a player feel right at home.

The Mass Effect series stands out in this regard. As Commander Shepard, you quickly find yourself in charge of an entire ship. It is a brilliant hub, fun to explore and filled with interesting characters and meaningful conversations. Each floor has a different function and design: Wrex is near the weapons locker on the first floor, and Dr. Chakwas hangs out in the medical bay where you can perform augmentations. The end of each mission feels like the end of a great chapter and a sense of relief, as you find yourself standing on the Normandy’s bridge. Do you progress the storyline and embark on a dangerous mission to fight the deadly Reapers? Or do you want to just run around the ship, your ship, and relax? It’s a strength of the game that it’s a difficult choice to make.


Eventually, you get access to your own quarters, and it’s there where I felt the safest. It was a place I could go if I didn’t feel like playing the game, but also didn’t feel like quitting. The ambient ship noise quietly permeates the room. There’s a soothing fish tank on the left, complete with customizable fish and a relaxing blue backlight. It’s a reminder of something from our time, not a household item you’d expect to find hundreds of years in the future. There are models and a computer near the door, and a very sleek-looking bedroom set. The best part? There’s a skylight directly above the bed, giving you a fantastic view of the heavens above at faster-than-light speed.

It’s important to create a juxtaposition like this. It not only allows gamers time to enjoy the valleys, but also encourages them to engage in activities beyond fighting and killing. A safe haven needs to allow the player time to reflect, as well as provide a unique, personal setting. Above all, it has to have that unforgettable music track — one that will be saved to a playlist and stay there. It’s not easy to do, but when it’s done right, it can mean the difference between a totally forgettable experience and a memory that will last.

Another area that I felt calm and relaxed in was the save point rooms in Metroid Prime. Much like the previous Metroid games, Prime only allowed you to save your progress once you reached a specific room. It was usually a breath of fresh air for me. Not only would I not lose out on all the progress I’d made if I died, but I also knew with 100-percent certainty that nothing in this room was going to try to kill me. No building-sized bosses, no swarms of intergalactic bugs and no pools of lava that I’m going to, without fail, fall into a half-dozen times.


The save room has all the ingredients for a “safe haven.” It’s distinct and different from the rest of the game. It contains a welcoming yellow light that heals you completely and replenishes your ammunition. The music fades and you hear just a faint hum of something, not caring what it actually is. The save machine is only ever seen in the save room. It’s a welcome surprise and relief, a perfect complement to the rest of the game’s labyrinthine mazes and heart-stopping battles. A more recent parallel would probably be the fireplaces in Dark Souls, but I don’t think anybody has ever felt relaxed playing that.

When I woke up on my couch, listening to Vigil, it brought me back to all the locations I’d visited in games that made me want to stay there forever. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t feeling perfect; I was warm and welcomed, and didn’t have any lingering responsibilities. Future games would do well to construct a spot that somebody just doesn’t mind hanging around in. It will recharge their mental batteries faster, create a personal connection to the environment and make them feel truly safe. If only every couch offered something like that.