I was on my way to Ranger Foxtrot in Fallout: New Vegas, and I decided to take the long way. Having to cross the entirety of New Vegas was a little daunting, but on the way, I saw the lights for the first time. At around 3:00 a.m., amid the darkness and smog of the wasteland, I spotted neon stars. I followed them, working my way towards a new location and my first glimpses of the city of New Vegas itself.
A few years earlier, I walked around the perimeters of Boston, following what is called the Harbor Walk for a view of the Atlantic Ocean. I wasn’t on the lookout for the lights of civilization or crates of loot scattered along my path, but I did find restaurant I had never heard of before, along with a small garden surrounded by cobblestones and brownstones.
The ferociously anticipated Fallout 4, scheduled for release this November, is set in Boston, a fact I find perfect. Boston is incredibly walkable in real, pre-apocalypse life, and wandering the city during the warmer months is a hobby of mine. You can travel from one end to the other and always discover something new outside of the tourist traps in the downtown area. Boston is full of history and landmarks, and my walking there is often aimless. Its layout is centuries old and makes no sense. Some streets run into buildings while others cross the entire city. It pays to not worry about where you’re going or what you’ll find along the way.
“Walking simulators”—an ambiguous term that be good or bad, depending on your perspective—are all about this wandering. The best examples include pieces that capture wonder, discovery, and meditativeness. Over at Medium, blogger “Amsel” states that walking simulators are indicative of the introspective nature of exploration. “A walking sim is discovering the limits of the game, nudging up against the outer edges, realising that there is no breaking free.”
To draw a player into a walking simulator, the developer needs to plant the idea that something can be discovered outside the main story (if there is one). The player goes off the beaten path, continuously keeps moving forward, in an effort to discover something surprising, to find out more about the world they are inhabiting. Most importantly, they want to get the full experience of the game, make sure they aren’t missing anything.
Most games feature some type of walking. Not many actually capture the sense of wonder that comes with discovery and the aimlessness that goes along with pure wandering. But these ones do.
TRAINS OF THOUGHT
The most amazing thing about Dear Esther is what little interactivity the player has as they explore the game’s island. There’s garbage littered everywhere, candles lighting your path, strange chemical diagrams on stone—but you can’t touch any of it. The dialogue is triggered in a seemingly random manner as you walk, popping up on your screen like a spontaneous train of thought. As the player learns more details about the narrative, things become more jumbled, less sensical.
Walking past a cave will give you access to a myth about the island, but climbing up a trail will produce a melancholic tale about drunk driving. The more stories you discover, the less they seem to relate to each other and the less the people involved seem like different characters. Whether you like Dear Esther’s approach to storytelling and passive gameplay, there’s something to be seen in how it replicates the uncontrollable train of thoughts that fill your brain as you get lost in a new environment, especially when doing the exploring by yourself.
’Gone Home’ and ‘Sunset’
The environment of Gone Home is much smaller than in Dear Esther—instead of an island, you’re limited to a house—but it doesn’t eliminate the feeling of wandering from the equation. Being in an unfamiliar place is exciting enough and the house is filled with secrets that are waiting to be discovered. The fact that you also have to search through each room to find out what happened to your family is just added motivation.
Exploratory games don’t have to be “open world,” as proven in games like Gone Home and recent release Sunset, which lets the player explore an apartment, learning tidbits about the owner.
These are more like scavenger hunts, creating a game from the act of wandering. But in each game, the objects that you can find are almost random, whether it’s an audio cassette, a magazine, or a diary. Each has unlimited potential, even if some of the objects seem to have no meaning. It’s all a matter of what you do with the things you find.
’Tonight You Die’ and ‘Sanctuary’
There’s a tingling you get in your spine when walking alone at night. You hear a rustling in the leaves, whip your head around, expecting to see someone behind you. You feel like you’re in a horror movie, being followed by eerie music and sounds. Both of these games are small experiments available on Itch.io and each captures just how terrifying it is to be alone and walking.
Tonight You Die starts off with the player receiving a note with a simple message: “tonight you die.” For the rest of the experience, you wander through a stale city, intense music escalating and following you as you get closer to your destination. You expect something to be hiding in the shadows, to see somebody following you in the darkness. It’s only at the end when you realize how alone you really are. Sanctuary is similar in how it uses sound to convey a sense of paranoia and loneliness. This title is a little less horrific than Tonight You Die, but walking through a familiar yet confusing forest of floating orbs backed by a swelling and fading score brings about a sense of unease. Wandering is wonderful, but it can also be unnerving.
’Dragon Age’, ‘Mass Effect’ and BioWare
Game developer BioWare has been developing franchises that continue to improve on a certain formula. Its games present colorful worlds that are just asking to be explored. Mass Effect has a full science fiction universe at its disposal, with planets, creatures, and relationships to explore that not only pad out the game, but make it fuller as a world and an experience. Dragon Age is in a more familiar setting, taking tips from Tolkien-esque fantasy and medieval tropes, but it carries some of the same wonder as Mass Effect, giving you the need to move your legs, stop over in each town, talk to every person, pick up every quest.
These large and unique universes are the driving force in exploration, keeping the player interested in walking but also keeping them on track with gameplay thanks to quests and combat. They’re more linear than some of the other games on this list, but they’re just as walkable, exploratory, and awesome.
Walking is so much more than just moving from one point to the other. It’s about what you find along the way, how the things you find can make you think, and how you feel as you uncover new places. The Fallout series’ next installment is set in a place that I know well, so I can only hope that wandering through the game will be able to hold a candle to the real thing.
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