Dstnce. Daniel Coady lonely isolation game work from home 2020 COVID pandemic reflection

Dstnce Is a Free, Despairing Look at the Loneliness of Isolation

If you are here, reading this: good job. You made it through 2020, a year that has presented a challenge like no other. Isolation was playfully approached in March as a great chance to catch up on our favorite books and games, but as the months rolled on, the charm of a solitary existence wore off quickly. Society has been impacted greatly from the need to stay inside. This did have a few silver linings: Work-from-home opportunities have increased dramatically, and I found I quite like wearing a face mask when dealing with crowded supermarkets — but it has also been a terribly lonely time. Dstnce is a short, free adventure game cataloging this experience and how the constant, mind-numbing repetition of this way of living is hard on the soul.

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The opening screen of Dstnce is disarmingly cute. You play as a pink block with boggly eyes performing daily tasks within its pastel-colored room. One day might require working from home, clicking colored lights in a certain pattern. Another has the cube looking after a plant, topping up the water every few days. Chatting with friends is done solely through emojis, an earnest effort that is just not the same as meeting up in person. The house often needs cleaning, a surprising amount of mess made in this low-energy life style.

Before long, the tasks begin to repeat. Watering the plant, tapping away at the computer, cleaning the messes. It is dull and repetitive and entirely the point. The bright, soothing music in the beginning slowly shifts over the course of the game, gaining an ominous tone. Friends rarely return messages, and when they do the sad emojis far outweigh the cheerful ones. After months of living like this, the block has had enough and disappears in a wave of darkness.

Dstnce is a minimalist tale, and it works well due to being so relatable. Everyone I know has had some negative effect from the events of 2020, whether it be cabin fever from doing the same thing every day or health concerns in an already overloaded healthcare system. Isolation has been proven to exacerbate mental health issues, and many like Dstnce‘s protagonist have found it all just too much to cope with.

While things can change in a moment’s notice under all this pressure, I would have liked the block’s decline to have been more illustrated within the game. The musical shift and the player’s frustration at the repetitive nature of the game are pulled off perfectly, but the mechanics could have also been used to show that the protagonist was struggling. Maybe increase the difficulty of the work-from-home minigame each time, or have the block wander over to the plant but completely lack the energy to water it. I enjoyed a few days that play with the format — the world might be much larger than usual, or upside down — and a few more unusual occurrences near the cataclysmic end might help with the impact.

Dstnce. Daniel Coady lonely isolation game work from home 2020 COVID pandemic reflection

As it is, Dstnce is an empathetic look at an issue many of us are struggling through. So much end-of-year celebration stuff takes a tone of “Yeah, 2020 was hard, but I got promoted three times, wrote a bestselling book, and met the person of my dreams so it’s not all bad I guess.” I honestly do not think I made much progress on anything this year, but staying alive through this nightmare is an accomplishment in and of itself. The game is also a good reminder to check in on your loved ones: Even if all you have is smiling emojis to offer, a bit of support at the right time can make all the difference.

If you would like to support developer Daniel Coady, donations can be made on itch.io, and he has other games available.

Next week we will be playing Triangle, a game about exploring an alien planet. The game can be downloaded from itch.io. If you would like to share your thoughts, discussions will be happening in the Discord server.

If you are struggling with mental health or suicidal thoughts, contact your local crisis hotline. For those in the United States, call 1-800-273-8255. Additional international hotlines are available online.

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Amy Davidson
Amy Davidson is a freelance writer living in South Australia with a cat, two axolotls, and a husband. When she received a copy of Sonic 2 on the Master System for her seventh birthday, a lifelong obsession with gaming was born. Through the Nintendo–Sega wars of the ’90s to the advent of 3D graphics and the indie explosion of today, she loves watching the game industry grow and can’t wait to see what’s coming up next.