Video games allow us to intimately interact with spaces to a degree unrivaled by any other medium. It’s a lesson I think most players learn eventually. It’s learned in that moment when we catch ourselves examining every discarded scrap of paper, every shadowy corner, and the contents of every mug and cup left on a table because we’ve been captivated by a world, whether it is wondrous or horrifying, and we desperately want to know as much about it as we can. I first learned this lesson at a young age via my Sega Saturn when Myst completely captured my attention with its melancholy, mysterious island, but every now and then a game like A Bright Light in the Middle of the Ocean comes around to remind me of it.
This isn’t a game in the traditional sense. There’s no danger or goals or any sort of ending beyond closing the game. It’s close to being in the walking simulator genre, but even those games usually have characters, events, and a general sense of progression. Instead, this is a digital space for players to explore at their own pace in whichever way they want to for as long as they want to. You can explore every inch of this small island or you can spend you time using a telescope to look out at the ocean from the top of the lighthouse. You can turn the lighthouse’s light on and watch it illuminate your surroundings in its bright yellow glow or you could stare up at its somewhat menacing red glow from the base of the lighthouse’s winding staircase or you could even just never turn on the titular light at all. The game doesn’t care what you do and its sheer passivity is oddly comforting.
Minimalism is used wisely here. Yes, there’s some basic environmental storytelling. Your boat is securely tied to a rock on the beach so you’re not shipwrecked. Some empty mugs sit in the lighthouse’s many windows alongside ocean-oriented fiction and drawings of marine animals and star constellations so we know how we pass the time at our lighthouse. Yet there are no diary entries, no signs of writing by the protagonist at all beyond their drawings, no bits of dialogue or family photos, nor any other forms of identity for the protagonist. With so little in the way of storytelling the protagonist becomes a truly blank slate and the setting becomes all the more intimate. You’re not trespassing into a place that belongs to someone else nor does it belong to a character you are temporarily taking on the role of; this is your lighthouse, your home away from home, because in A Bright Light in the Middle of the Ocean you really are the protagonist.
This sense of minimalism carries over into the aesthetics. This is a vibrant and heavily stylized, idyllic setting; you’re not going to see any rust or peeling paint on this lighthouse. There are a few different songs in the game, but they’re all gently atmospheric, blending into the background unless you take a moment to focus on listening to them. Even with the heavy focus on minimalism, there’s still an eight minute day/night cycle and a clock you can look at to check the time. Weather doesn’t change nor is there anything particularly complicated that happens, but with such a circular setting that can be viewed from so many different angles depending on how high up you are there are bound to be a few things going on in the ocean or in the sky that you don’t catch by the end of the first day.
Interactions really are kept to a minimum. You can read the titles of various books, but you can’t read the books themselves. You can look for various constellations in the sky when night falls, but the only tools at your disposal are your eyes, your telescope, and some drawings; there isn’t a constellation-tracing minigame or anything of the sort to be found. On that note, you can even use the stars to determine which direction is north or you can find a good angle from which to look at the lighthouse’s weather vane, though of course the game doesn’t provide you with any sort of reward for achieving a basic sense of orientation. In fact, the only things I found that could be directly interacted with were the lighthouse’s door, a few lights, and a somewhat hidden chest. I would have liked to have been given a few other simple ways to interact with this setting, such as a chair or two to sit in, though the absence of such things doesn’t diminish the setting and tone all that much.
This is a very fragile game and that works both for and against it. There are all sorts of ways in which your sense of immersion can be unexpectedly broken. The ship out in the distance is especially prone to being a bit buggy when viewed from near the top of the lighthouse. Sometimes half of the ship will be gone, other times the ship will vanish completely out of existence if you look at it from a certain angle or through the telescope and reappear after you turn a bit, and other times still the ship looks like it’s sailing in a thin layer of sky slightly above the ocean. Invisible walls are mostly placed in the ocean a fair way out from the island, far enough away to allow for the suspension of disbelief via reasoning that the ocean is simply too deep in those spots, but in a few instances the invisible walls are placed close enough to the island that you can only see them for the barriers that they are. Accidentally falling off of a ledge while making your way up the island also has a high chance of breaking immersion as you’ll almost certainly find yourself caught on the side of a wall and capable of walking along it until reaching a proper path.
oddly enough, this sense of fragility also ends up giving the setting a stronger sense of identity, even if it’s entirely unintentional. Having seemingly run out of intended ways of interacting with and exploring this small island, I found myself seeking out new paths only possible in a digital setting such as this one. Hopping off of the lighthouse railing, I pulled out my telescope and admired the view each time I got caught on the smooth side of the lighthouse as I made my way to the bottom to see if the entrance’s roof would catch me.
The first time I got caught on the side of the island really was an accident, but after that I took a few strolls around the island’s side, getting a better view of its more obscured parts and gazing through the wall I was walking on to see the island from a very different angle indeed. I sought out the best angle from which to watch the ship sail through the sky and get partially devoured by seemingly nothing. I sought out all these seemingly immersion-breaking actions not because I didn’t respect the setting, but rather because this little island captivated me so thoroughly that I wanted to discovery every secret it had to offer, even if those secrets weren’t always intentionally made by the developer.
A Bright Light in the Middle of the Ocean may not be a traditional game, but it’s a wonderful little video game all the same and calling it otherwise would be a great disservice to the medium. It’s a perfect example of the power of these digital places, these spaces we become so entranced by that we push up against their boundaries until we break them, that we love and only become all the more connected to because of their flaws.