You know what I love? Dawn and dusk. Sunrise and sunset. I love games with persistent time, with a sun and a moon that circle the sky without a care in the world for my character’s petty little actions. I love that contextualisation that makes the world and its universe feel so much bigger than my little actions. When I play a videogame, I don’t want to feel like the centre of whatever world I enter; I just want to feel like one more visitor in a world that would continue on with or without me.
But most of all, I love the romance of a digital sunset or sunrise. That golden/purple glow of the sun just peaking over or flirting under the horizon before the wonders and the dangers of night come out.
To be sure, there are plenty of good dawns and dusks in games not tied to an open world or persistent time — perfectly authored environments designed to intentionally catch the dying sun rays — but it is the sunrises and sunsets of those worlds with persistent time that I love most. There’s a poetry to the happenstance of it. They can happen at any time, in any place. They aren’t tied down to a certain mission that always happens at sunset and which is designed to look perfect. A sunset of a persistent world can happen anywhere and might not be the most perfect sunset ever because of this, but it’s that natural imperfection that makes them all the more beautiful.
Playing Skyrim recently for the first time in months, I came out of the fog-drenched gullies of The Reach onto the plains west of Whiteguard. It was still dark, but the sun was just starting to peak through the dissipating clouds beyond that giant, distant mountain, The Throat of the World. As the world slowly woke up, segments of stone wall lining the northern path before me caught the sun and glowed like bars of gold in the early morning. I looked east, and the sun was just peaking out from behind the mountain, beaming as its light tried to escape that jagged stone monolith.
It was truly magnificent, and all the more so because it was not made just for me. The game didn’t know I would be walking down this path at this exact time in these exact weather conditions. But because I was, because I was standing in just the right place for the mountain to conceal the sun for just long enough, the world and my vision and the sun and the clouds created this perfect medley of scenic poetry. It was all the more powerful for its fickle, fleeting nature.
There are countless different styles of sunrises and sunsets in games, bringing a different tone with a different tempo. Some come and go fast, like those that border a ten minute day in Minecraft, burning a thick orange from north to south through the leaves of the forest or over the blue of the ocean.
Some come on a bit slower, like those around the twenty-four minute days of Grand Theft Auto IV, washing the entire city in a dulled yellow and the sky a washed out blue as the skyscrapers paint silhouette clock hands across the city. Or the even slower Far Cry 2 sunsets blasting the African setting in a deep orange light and long shadows as an evening breeze picks up and rustles the grassy plains.
And then there are DayZ’s real-time sunsets, less uplifting and more choking, slowly sapping all the colour out of the world, leaving you engulfed in a harrowing blackness.
What makes each of these sunsets so special is that, conversely, they make me feel less special. I am just another person in these worlds. It doesn’t matter if I want the day to end or not, that sun is going to go down. Maybe I’m inside or underground—the sunset is going to happen anyway, even if I’m not there to see it.
Some of my favourite videogames aren’t about me (either as a player or a character) but are about the world the character lives in. Liberty City, Chernarus, Skyrim, whichever of the infinite Minecraft worlds I am currently in. As the sun turns the path to gold before me or has me panicking and rushing back to my house before the zombies and creepers come out, my presence in a world feels all the more special in its insignificance. Stumbling across a stunning sunrise or sunset in a world with persistent time reminds me that I’m just a visitor in a world that would go on without me. My presence within them is as fleeting as the sunrises and sunsets themselves, and the time I spend inside of them is all the more meaningful because of it.