As a kid, bored out of my mind on the long train journey from Edinburgh to London, I used to be totally baffled by all the adults just looking out of the window, barely moving for hours. What are they doing? What are they thinking about? How are they not bored? Now that I am older and my head is busier, I get it. When you’re travelling – on a long drive, waiting at an airport, staring out of the window of a train – thoughts tend to arrive in your head that you may otherwise never have time to consider. Given the opportunity, I reckon I could now spend most of a long-haul flight just having thoughts.
Glitchhikers: The Spaces Between plays with this idea, putting you in transitional spaces – a highway, an airport, a train, a park – and giving you nothing much to do. It prompts your thoughts with its strange characters, who sit there calmly until you start up a conversation. They talk about stories and death, post-colonial ideas, the power of the collective, self-determination, our place in the universe and other subjects you might expect to come up in the kitchen at a fresher’s week party. I don’t say this unkindly; these are important ideas, but ones that many people will have turned over in their heads a lot before coming to this game and its in-between places.
The nature of Glitchhikers and the brevity of its journeys means that there’s not much opportunity to go very deeply into any of these ideas. They’re conversation starters, really, and you’re supposed to have the conversation with yourself as much as with any of Glitchhikers’ surreal characters. One of them, for instance, is a dragon whose civilisation went under because all the dragons wanted to hoard wealth, and when there were no trinkets left to accumulate they started inventing new ones with computers, eventually destroying their planet. The allegory here is so paper thin that you could blow it away, but hey, when was the last time you played a game that encouraged its players to Google basic Marxism or think about the morality of cryptocurrency?
Glitchhikers comes across as very thoroughly therapised at times. At one point the cyborg clerk at a roadside gas station wanted to check in with me and my feelings, and suggested I drink a glass of water and have a snack before we examined whether my environment or the people in it were making me feel unsafe. I did not personally encounter any themes, thoughts or conversations in my time with the game that made me feel anywhere near uncomfortable or sad enough to need this little self-care moment, but I’m nonetheless glad that it’s there, along with the links to vetted mental-health resources. Introspection can be hard, sometimes, especially if you’re not used to it.
I’m glad this game exists, but I wish there were more to it. There wasn’t enough variety in the virtual landscapes or in the characters’ conversations to make the long night drives or train journeys appealing beyond the second or third go-around. It is a game that wants us to think about the contradictions and complexities of being alive on this Earth, but also, it doesn’t seem to come from a place of great life experience. I would be fascinated to see what these developers would make in another 20 (or 50) years.