We’re always in such a hurry in video games. Most of the time we rush through their worlds eager to reach the next payoff, the next action set piece, or the next narrative beat. When we’re not sprinting through the game world, we’re dropping into an external menu to hop from one city to the next. The onus is less on the journey and more on the destination; the act of traveling is considered an inconvenience. But this is changing.
Some video games are ignoring this tendency within the medium, focusing all their attention on the act of traversal, and the stories that are told through walking. These video games, a new breed of exploration game dubbed walking simulators, all put memory and place at the heart of their thematic concerns, and they get to the crux of how we perceive our surroundings, often quite poignantly.
2015 was the coming-out year for walking simulators. With the redone version of The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter appearing on PS4 in July, and Playstation exclusive Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture released a month later, 2015 saw walking simulators break out from niche PC genre toward a broader console audience. Word count, column inches, pure bulk of writing reflected this as piece after piece debated the worth, merit and nature of walking simulators as a genre.
But even if there was a general critical consensus that the coming of these games was a ‘good’ thing, there were still those who had a hard time swallowing these experiences and what they might mean for video games going forward. Typically the ire directed at these games stemmed from their lack of traditional game mechanics—the designers’ failure to provide a set of systems to be bested. Where’s the challenge in just walking?
You won’t find the arbitrary systems, the micromanagement, of most video games here; the intricate leveling up systems or progression trees are gone. And you won’t find a controller layout that asks the player to do fifty different things; these are streamlined affairs.
In 2012’s Dear Esther, the method of player input is totally stripped back; you can walk, look, and listen, and it gives the proceedings an almost totally unique atmosphere, a strangeness. As a result of being unable to manipulate your physical surroundings, you feel like a ghost wandering through the landscape; you are literally walking through the story. But rather than just walking through the present, you’re also walking through the past, uncovering the protagonist’s memories in the landscape.
There’s a German writer, W. G. Sebald, who should help illustrate the point. He was exploring similar themes twenty years before walking simulators were even a thing. His work is a scattershot of history, geography, and biography, and the reader is never quite sure whether they’re reading fiction or non-fiction; most likely a curious hybrid of the two. This restless form allowed Sebald to really suss out the meaning of place, and in his writing it’s as if reality has been dispersed through a prism, its different colors blending as they’re layered on top of one another.
In Sebald’s writings, particularly The Rings of Saturn, the past coexists with the present, and the narrator moves freely through time. There’s one section where he is visiting Orfordness, a disused military space on the coast of southeast England. Abandoned concrete buildings interrupt the flat landscape and warning signs are still abundant, but the narrator feels a closeness to the space. Certainly he is remembering, but the reader is never sure whether it’s a personal or imagined memory. As he sits amongst the military wreckage he looks back at the mainland and the “long-vanished windmills turning heavily in the wind.”
Sebald understood that it is specificity of place that jogs the mind into producing memories, and the same is true in video games. Dear Esther’s narrative plays out both in the mind and on an exposed Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland (the craggy topography and purple of the heather are unmistakable). The protagonist’s memories are lit up, standing out against the dark of the environment, but there’s also a permanence and physicality to them. By contrast Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture uses parochial Shropshire to tell its story of the end of the world, but memories, and the past, are presented more fleetingly. They’re wisps of energy that lie dormant, ready to be jolted by human presence, remembered into being—and walking is the act that enables this to happen.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter hones in on the transitory nature of memories in a similar way to Rapture. They’re scattered around the landscape, ready to be brought back to life. Further to this, though, it speaks to the layering of realities that Sebald conjured so well. Its picturesque, rural Wisconsin often dissolves before the player’s eyes and as you explore you come across past scenes, fragments of memory, events, and recollections. It’s as if another reality has been laid on top of the present; memory and place interwoven, inseparable. The exhumation of memory occurs as a result of a character’s relationship with the immediate environment.
That was the closest I’ve got to my own experience of walking particular landscapes in real life: how when we walk we see that which is ahead of us, the immediate terrain, but we can also look behind and see our footprints in the mud. If it’s a familiar walk, we might remember what happened when we last took it, or the time before that. Repetitive, commuter journeys tend to blur; past events and conversations surface in our mind’s eye. And if we know the history of a place, perhaps we see, and imagine, events that previously occurred.
The End of the World is a 2D walking game in which the player character revisits past memories when he inhabits the spaces in which they took place. It speaks poignantly and perceptively about memory and place, how the past often lives concurrently with the present, and how ghosts are kind of everywhere we look.
Sean Wenham, the game’s creator, got it right when he told me, “We’re never fully in the present, we’re always thinking of the past.” And it’s the act of walking itself that facilitates that remembering, as the player walks these worlds back to life, step by virtual step.
Lewis Gordon is a writer from the countryside currently based in London. You can find him on Twitter @lewis_gordon
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