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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Glitchhikers: The Spaces Between Is the Weird, Beautiful Night Drive My Brain Wants to Take

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Years ago, before I got into games media, I had a job that required me to drive around Kansas a lot, sometimes at night. If you've ever driven about a Midwestern state at night, you know the surreal experience of it – the darkness, the lack of cars, the strange, peaceful programs airing on late-night public radio stations, the quiet hum of a roadside convenience store with its eclectic beverage selection. In the midwest, there was also the haunting blinking sea of red lights in the distance. During the daytime, the truth of them would be obvious: turbines on one of Kansas' many wind farms. But at night, they looked like little alien ships landing in the distance.

I never thought I'd find this experience replicated in a video game, but here we are with Glitchhikers: The Spaces Between. Glitchhikers evokes that exact kind of road trip I took in my early 20s while simultaneously reflecting what turns out to be a universal experience of traveling at night. In it, you are behind the wheel of a car, or riding on public transit, or walking alone at night, listening to the weird tunes that only come on during those odd hours. As you travel, you encounter other wanderers who join you for a spell, engaging you in discussions about life, love, and everything else that comes up at 2am when neither of you can sleep, the stars are out, and the mood is just right for the big questions.

Creative director Claris Cyarron and studio director Lucas J.W. Johnson seemed pleased to hear I recognized the exact vibe they and the team at Silverstring Media tried to capture with Glitchhikers. They tell me they wanted to encapsulate every type of late night drive, while still hitting on specific feelings individual audience members might recognize. Unsurprisingly, the entire team has a lot of experience driving late at night.

"I drove around Texas late at night as a teen," Cyarron said. "I suffered from a lot of insomnia, and in that window where I was deep in insomnia, but not yet exhausted, just unable to sleep and needed to spend the hours driving alone and listening to NPR and getting the first breakfast taquito from a fast food place when they open."

Even though The Spaces Between just launched a little over a week ago, Glitchhikers itself has existed for a while. Eight years ago, Silverstring released Glitchhikers (since resubtitled "First Drive") with the intention of recreating the weird, existential experience of driving late at night. First Drive was short and sweet: just driving, six different conversations with hitchhikers, and a small pool of weird radio songs. Despite its size, First Drive did well and had a positive critical response, especially over time.

So with a little bit of funding and support, Silverstring was able to return to Glitchhikers for The Spaces Between and expand on the idea significantly. The Spaces Between includes new journey types, like a walk in the park or an airport on the way to a redeye, and a ride on a commuter train to ensure that even people who don't drive can still have a surreal late night transport experience. It includes 71 different music tracks by music lead Devin Vibert with sound support from A Shell in the Pit, with different styles for each journey, effectively capturing the different vibes of late-night music across public radio or airport sound systems, or even the kind of personal playlist someone might turn on during a midnight walk.

There's a lot of intellectualism that is dismissive of people trying to wrap their head around complicated problems, but these problems belong to everyone.

They also expanded dialogues with passing travelers to 50 different conversations spanning topics like queerness, technology, friendship, relationships, war, hope, and so much more. The dialogues are fairly short and choice-based, and while the choices impact conversational tone and future conversations with the same hitchhiker, there's little judgment in how you respond. They are discussions for their own sakes, rather than finding a right or wrong answer.

"Something that was really important to us…but also myself as a trans woman and as a queer woman, but we wanted to make these intellectual concepts," Cyarron said. "And some of these really thorny complicated issues, the existential questions of our age, we wanted to make them approachable. I think there's a lot of intellectualism that is a bit sneering or a bit dismissive of people trying to wrap their head around complicated problems, but these problems belong to everyone on the planet and they affect everyone on the planet.

"Moreover, philosophy and existentialism and these things that often… There is a proper way to approach this in a philosophy classroom. And there are big, important people you should know about and you should know how to paraphrase their extremely erudite works. Stepping past all of that and just saying that these philosophical questions belong to everyone who's ever looked up at the night sky and been like, 'That's beautiful. What does it all mean?'"

If "driving at night and talking to strangers" sounds like a strange concept for a game, a better way to think about Glitchhikers is as a game about liminality, exploring the concept of being in a transition state or on a threshold – the “Spaces Between” of the subtitle. That, Johnson and Cyarron say, is what was so compelling about driving at night as a concept for a game. It's a fairly mundane activity if you just describe it in plain terms, but if you've ever driven late at night even once, you understand the strangeness they wanted to capture.

"When you are tired, you're almost halfway between waking and sleep, especially on the drive, you're zoning out," Johnson said. "You're not really paying attention when there's no other cars on the road and you can just sort of go. And so I think all of that works together really well to create these spaces where the realities of the world sort of drop away a little bit, right? You're not concerned about your specific destination and what you're going to do when you get there. You're not concerned about the work you have to do or the appointment you have to meet or whatever. You're just sort of in this in-between space that allows you to let your mind go and think about more generic problems that you might be facing in the world, or broader topics that have very specific meaning to you and your life."

Glitchhikers: The Spaces Between Screenshots

As Cyarron adds, that space allows for meditation – but not the kind we usually hear about in wellness conversations. It's not "mindfulness as we often know it," she says, where you're trying to quiet your brain and hold still. Glitchhikers instead invokes a space for holding thoughts as they come and go, and viewing them from a distance that allows new perspectives, or new insight on old perspectives.

"There is a quality to the architecture of a car," she said. "You are enclosed. It is familiar. You're watching the world roll by. You are in this kind of empowered state. You have this vehicle that is this companion, this promise to be able to banish your obstacles and transport you, but you also have to wait. There's a lot of, kind of, architectural thematics and phenomenology about being in these spaces. And, one of the things that's interesting about divorcing travel from actually traveling, and instead you are entering the mindset of travel and you are transporting yourself mentally and conceptually, and perhaps considering the person you are. I think that these are all really exciting things to be able to do with games."

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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