Transcript — In Defence of Walking Simulators

This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/QgDXMyAs-VY

They plodded on, thin and filthy as street addicts. Cowled in their blankets against the cold and their breath smoking, shuffling through the black and silky drifts. They were crossing the broad coastal plain where the secular winds drove them in howling clouds of ash to find shelter where they could. Houses or barns or under the bank of a roadside ditch with the blankets pulled over their heads and the noon sky black as the cellars of hell. He held the boy against him, cold to the bone. Dont lose heart, he said. We’ll be all right.

A man and a boy push a shopping cart across a dead and blackened American landscape. They scavenge houses and watch for danger and say little to each other as they head south to escape the worsening winter that may soon consume the entire world.

In some ways, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is like any other post-apocalyptic story. All the basic elements are here: a cataclysm, a blasted landscape, empty cities, burned-out cars, other survivors both benign and ghastly, a man trying to protect his family. We’ve seen it all before, a million times. But it’s how McCarthy tells his story that sets it apart. What makes The Road entirely unlike other post-apocalyptic novels, is what it chooses to leave out.

The prose is ruthlessly stark, at times even simplistic. Events are described straightforwardly, with little elaboration. The protagonists, the man and the boy, are never named. They have very few encounters with other people. There’s almost no internal monologue; most of the time we infer what the characters are thinking or feeling by what they do and say, and they don’t say much. It doesn’t have chapters, it shuns quotation marks and other punctuation. It’s like McCarthy decided to take a novel and jettison everything he could while still keeping the sequence of events cohesive and the grammar coherent.

And it’s this unflinching commitment to emptiness that makes reading The Road an utterly mesmerising experience, because what unfolds in between the stillness of its pages is remarkable. The way the gaps and cracks between bits of dialogue speak volumes in and of themselves. How the scarcity of the prose reflects that ruined, empty landscape, that sparse canvas amplifying every little thing that happens on it — every motion in the distance, every snatch of conversation, every log added to the ever-dwindling fire, every small act of love between father and son.

And then, the slow realisation that you don’t even need any of the things that you were so shocked to see were missing. Names are unnecessary when there are only two characters. The dialogue is clear without punctuation. And you don’t need much internal monologue, not when the characters’ actions tell you everything.

He tried to stay awake all night but he could not. He woke endlessly and sat and slapped himself or rose to put wood on the fire. He held the boy and bent to hear the labored suck of air. His hand on the thin and laddered ribs. He walked out on the beach to the edge of the light and stood with his clenched fists on top of his skull and fell to his knees sobbing in rage.

One of the things that makes The Road such a fascinating book is that it explores this question: how much of a story can the author strip away while still leaving behind a meaningful narrative? And in amongst the bare bones of this story, there lies a challenge to the reader: how much of your expectations are you willing to strip away? The Road is a bold invitation to question everything you thought was essential in a post-apocalyptic story. There are no dates or time frames to tell us how far in the future this is happening — but do you really need that? None of the cities or landmarks our characters pass through are named — but what would that have added? Even more brazenly, the catastrophe that destroyed the world is left obscure, the details withheld — but is all that important to this story, about a man and a boy surviving in the ashes of humanity?

And, the biggest question of all: Are you able to appreciate the stark beauty that’s left behind when all the static is filtered out of a narrative, when all the comfort of the familiar is ripped away and what’s left is the pure solid core of a story?

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s noticed how many walking simulators are set in empty places. Country fields, vacant houses, desolate space stations, deserted islands, abandoned towns. In Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the residents of this English country town seem to have not just died but vanished in a cloud of light. Dear Esther is set on an uninhabited island on the Scottish Hebridean coast. Tacoma takes place on an abandoned space station, whereas in Gone Home, you return home from an overseas trip to find your family gone. It’s a setting shared with What Remains of Edith Finch, also the story of a young woman returning to an empty family home.

All these games belong to the genre of walking simulator, an originally pejorative term used to describe games that contain very little interactivity and often omit mechanics that are common in other games, like jumping or running. None of them have complex mechanics that require any kind of skill or dexterity. They tend to feature no dialogue except for a voice-over by a narrator, and it’s sometimes unclear who you’re even playing as. They don’t contain heads-up displays, or combat systems, or more than a handful of in-game actions you can perform. And it’s in their abandoned spaces, their silent rooms, and their sparse mechanics, that I find something remarkable. I find experiences that use space and scarcity to tell stories of loneliness and loss. I find meaning in empty space.

I find it in the beautiful, tragic melancholy that lies in the empty fields and houses of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. I find it in the eerie quiet of Tacoma and Gone Home’s recently-vacated spaces, the disquieting feeling of entering a habitat, a home, to find it inexplicably empty. I find it in the tortured purgatory of Dear Esther’s mindscape, conveying its themes of regret and helplessness through its mechanics — or lack thereof. I find it in that stifling quiet that pervades the Finch family home, a perfect representation of the silence, the distance, and most of all the loss that consumed this family.

I also find something else: the slow realisation that I don’t even need any of the things that I was so shocked to see were missing. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture doesn’t require button mashing to complete — but did I really need that? Tacoma doesn’t have enemies to fight — but what would that have added? Dear Esther doesn’t have a run button — but is that important to this story, about a man feeling powerlessness and grief over the death of his wife?

Your answers to these questions may very well be different from mine, and I’ll explain why that’s perfectly OK in a bit. But it’s my video essay so I’m going to put my cards on the table. I think asking for more mechanics in these games would be like asking Cormac McCarthy to put more stuff in his sparse post-apocalyptic novel — that is to say, it would be missing the point. The Road is a mournful tale about a lonely landscape, a razor-thin existence, the hollow pang of hunger, a desolate life devoid of joy or meaning. The walking simulators I’ve discussed tell stories about, among other things, a silent apocalypse, the grief of a husband for his wife, and the fragmentation of a family following a string of tragic deaths. Their emptiness, echoed in their very structure, is perfectly suited to the stories they tell and their corresponding emotions of grief and loneliness. That vacancy, the conspicuous lack of something that you feel should be there but isn’t, is a feature, not a bug. And interestingly, that’s not where the similarities between these works end.

Here are some of the most common criticisms The Road received from readers: it’s tedious and boring, all the protagonists do is trudge around and do not much of anything, it’s wanky and pretentious, and, my favourite one, the critical praise for this book is hard proof that critics and awards committees are a bunch of corrupt, elitist pricks who only liked it because it was trying so hard to be artsy.

Sound familiar?

These are some of the exact same criticisms that get dished out towards walking simulators. And it’s no surprise, really. The Road and Dear Esther are both singular pieces of media which seemed to come out of nowhere and break every rule in the book about what makes a good novel, or a good game, respectively. The Road shuns punctuation and internal monologue, and walking sims commonly do away with basic mechanics and skill-based play.

But whether these artistic decisions resonate with you the same way they do with me isn’t that important. My fascination with these pieces of media, and why I think they’re really important, goes well beyond the question of whether or not they’re “good”, because that’s just a matter of taste. I want to argue that even if you loathed every second of Dear Esther or Tacoma or The Road, their value lies in how you answer the question that follows: Why? Did you miss the bells and whistles? Do you miss the feeling of busy-ness and speed? That’s OK, but ask yourself — is it because those things would have suited this story or are they just what you’ve come to expect?

Whether you love or hate them, the ultimate value of these works lies in the way they challenge the reader and the player to question their assumptions, interrogate their tastes and maybe change their perspective on what makes a “good book” or a “good game”, to re-think their reliance on familiar conventions. Like so many great works of art that push and provoke, these stories aren’t here to mold themselves around you and your expectations or to meet your demands. They want you to change. They’re not afraid to confront you with their insistence on slowness and negative space, and they offer you zero distractions or familiar comforts with which to fill the void.

No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.

One of the most difficult elements of walking simulators is the rather bewildering fact that there is very little to do. This tends to come as a shock in a medium generally filled to brim with power fantasies, skill-based challenges and open-world fetch quests designed to keep your hands busy and your mind idle. But rather than racing you from point to point, walking simulators offer a different challenge — to be in the here and now. They ask you to put aside that familiar desire to rush, to race, to be constantly doing stuff. They invite you to slow down, take a moment to ponder the story, turn its mysteries over in your mind, wander without hurry and savour the visual and musical landscapes before you. They ask you to find a way to enjoy the fact that there’s no army of NPCs spewing side quests at you, no urgency, no busy work, no clutter. No lists of things to be done. Just let all of that space, that conspicuous lack, enter and fill you. There is no later. This is later.

The value of walking simulators isn’t in the fact that they’re better than any other genre, but in the fact that they challenge conventional wisdom and offer a new perspective on how we’re approaching game development right now. Rather than asking, how many mechanics can we stuff into our game, they invite us to invert the question and ask, are these mechanics actually adding anything to this game? And boy would a whole bunch of games have benefitted from more of this approach. Does a heavily scripted and non-branching narrative game like Horizon Zero Dawn need a dialogue tree? Why does a game set in a utopian sky city have a trash can scavenging mechanic? Why does Alan Wake, a game with pretty much no platforming, have a jump button? If we were to strip these mechanics away, might the result be something better or at least just as good? What if we approached it from the opposite angle — strip everything away and only include the mechanics that really add to the experience? And when we’ve stripped everything down, could we find a way to make that emptiness work in the service of a narrative? Could we tell a story of space and silence that other stories couldn’t?

This is the minimalist philosophy behind Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and it’s the same philosophy that lies behind walking simulators. It’s exactly what makes these works of art shocking, controversial, and essential. In breaking the rules and doing away with commonly accepted conventions, they ask whether their respective media have to be defined by these elements, or whether the features we’re so used to seeing are just tools that we can choose to use, or not use, for differing effects. What makes The Road and walking simulators so interesting is that they aren’t even trying to be “a good book” or “a good game” by conventional standards, so if you want to understand them, you have to interrogate your own assumptions and take them not for what you expected them to be but for what they are.

And what they are is audacious experiments in minimalism that aim to filter out all the noise and excess that they possibly can, and to leave behind only the pure, undiluted heart of a story. Narratives which open up an empty space that other stories fill with action and distraction and to force the audience to step into that space, to inhabit that silence, that stillness, and experience those slower emotions that can only emerge when you make room for them — grief, loneliness, sorrow.

And in the case of walking simulators, they’re a much-needed challenge to the bloat and excess the games industry has come to be dominated by and which audiences have simply come to expect. In a gaming landscape increasingly characterised by a focus on size and quantity — and the corresponding labour exploitation that comes with these demands — it is incredibly valuable that there exists a genre out there that at its core, asks not, what more can we put into our games, but what could we afford to leave out? And what narrative possibilities open up when we’re willing to leave the well-trodden path and set out in a new direction?

Patreon: patreon.com/pixeladay

Twitter: @pixel_a_day

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I make video essays on Youtube (Pixel a Day) where I critically analyse games and how they make me feel. I also write blog posts and articles.

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Kat (Pixel a Day)

Kat (Pixel a Day)

I make video essays on Youtube (Pixel a Day) where I critically analyse games and how they make me feel. I also write blog posts and articles.

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