Thursday, 5 July 2018

'Post- walking simulators': a dialogue between mechanics and narrative

What are walking simulators?

Followers of the video game industry over the last 6 years will be familiar with the surge in development of a genre of games known as ‘walking simulators’. Often avoiding many game mechanics that people typically associate with the video game medium, such as those involving skill in button-pushing, completing objectives, combat and death, walking simulator games invite players to explore rich virtual environments as an end in itself – to be immersed into the affectively and emotionally impactful scenarios that are present in game worlds.

Those of you familiar with my work will know that I have already talked and written extensively about the design of walking simulators and the experiences they provoke, particularly how they can create a sense of place in virtual environments. Here, however, I want to talk about a new trend that has been taking shape across video game development in recent years; one that has grown out of the innovations that walking simulators have brought to game design.

What are the distinguishing characteristics of a walking sim? Well, one obvious effect of the ‘walking simulator’ label is that it highlights the action of walking as a key element of the play experience. While critics of walking simulators have portrayed walking in games as a passive activity in which players supposedly lack agency, Rosa Carbó-Mascarell and myself have framed the term ‘walking simulator’ as invoking Romantic and psychogeographical conceptions of walking – as a method of mindfully immersing oneself in an environment; becoming aware of its (hi)stories and contours of emotion and feeling. By minimising the somatic, instinctive concerns of button-pushing, or the circumscribed focus of objectives and tactical gameplay, players of walking sims have the capacity to interact more consciously and deliberately with the sensible landscapes of the game worlds and their narratives.

‘Post- walking simulators’

With the innovations that walking simulators have brought to video games, many developers – particularly small indie studios – have sought to replicate the success of the iconic early games in this genre, which generated significant intrigue and cult status amongst gamers, despite being made almost exclusively by indie developers. Search around and you’ll find many examples of formulaic story-based exploration games, but with poorly-executed environmental storytelling or voice acting, and worlds that struggle to feel believable.

All the successful games that fall under the walking simulator label offer something new for players to experience, even if some of the methods of engendering these experiences are similar. And it is innovation in producing meaningful emotional experiences that has led to the development of what I’m calling ‘post- walking simulators’.

If one of the key tenets of walking simulators is a reduction in opportunities for mechanical interaction with the game world, then post- walking simulators are bringing them back – but in ways that aid storytelling and emotional attunement rather than stifling it.

It’s not that game developers have had to choose between mechanics and story. Indeed, even before walking simulators rose to prominence, both were important elements to most games. Of course, effectively all games have at least a core fictional context that provides a rationale for the play. However, for a long time, games with stories that have plots (series of narrative events) had struggled to break the mould of the three-act restorative structure, in which the ‘fun’ parts of the game – the interactive activities that you participate in through mechanical controls – are carefully threaded together with non-interactive cutscenes (typically small pieces of film or non-interactive animation) that deliver the narrative in segments. In this model, the 'beginning' of the story or story event (1st act), key plot points in the middle (2nd act) and the resolution (3rd act) are often all delivered via cutscenes, meaning that the key narrative events which frame the game experience are, in fact, not interactive. (Some notable pre-2012 exceptions include Myst [1993], the System Shock series [1994 and 1999], the Bioshock series [2007 and 2010] and Portal [2007]).

What post- walking simulators are showing is that the story and its emotional beats can be experienced by the player through game mechanics themselves, rather than separating the story from the gameplay using cutscenes, or simply removing most mechanics altogether as the earlier walking simulators did.

Let’s consider some examples.

Case studies

One of the earliest games I can think of that fits this model is Life is Strange. Set in the fictional town of Arcadia Bay on the Oregon coastline, you play as Max, a college student who discovers that she can rewind time. The story centres on Max’s investigations of mysterious and troubling events taking place in Arcadia Bay, the hometown to which she has recently returned to study photography, which include a missing student and unusual natural phenomena.

The principal mechanic in Life is Strange is the decision-making system, largely based on Telltale’s The Walking Dead game series. Throughout each episode of the five-part series, the player is presented with choices that will subsequently determine the outcome of their scenarios, including how the non-player characters respond to you, and the occurrence of events that take place (or not) later in the game.                              

Although this may seem to share little resemblance to walking sims on face value, the game is still largely predicated on exploring your surroundings to discover details that have relevance to Max’s world, its stories and the decisions she must make. By pointing and clicking on different details in the virtual environment, you can inspect them to hear comments from Max’s character (interpretations which can then be viewed retrospectively in her journal) and interact with them in ways that can be menial, but occasionally in ways that have significant consequences for the story. This is particularly the case in instances when you must use your time reversal ability to get past obstacles.

In certain situations – particularly where there is something notable or unusual to find – you are able to take photographs of what you see, which are also recorded in Max’s journal. There are only a limited number of photograph opportunities in each episode, meaning that players are encouraged to look for them all and subsequently build up a more intimate connection with the game world.

This connection is nurtured most effectively, however, by (in my opinion) the game’s most original and innovative mechanic – giving you the option in certain locations to simply ‘sit’ and take in your surroundings; dwelling on the unfolding events, the choices you’ve made, and their significance in the wider context of the story. When you click ‘sit’, a light acoustic score gently fades in, as the camera moves between different third-person views of Max. Her character makes a few comments to guide your thoughts, and then you are simply left to ponder as long as you see fit.

In an industry that tends to prize speed of reaction and tactical judgement as desirable qualities in players, this feels almost revolutionary – a mechanic that deliberately and explicitly encourages players to take their time and reflect on what the characters and events occurring in the game world mean to them, personally.

Alongside the decision-making and time reversal capabilities – which organise the player’s actions that have clear consequences for the game world – the observational mechanics of inspecting, photographing, and simply ‘sitting’ ensure that players are emotionally invested in the fate of the characters, events, and the town in which the game is set; helping the developers to communicate experiences that delve into themes of loss, nostalgia, responsibility and the butterfly effect – how even the smallest incidents can have significant consequences in the future.

Another critically-acclaimed game that goes beyond the ‘walking simulator’ label is Oxenfree. Set on an island off the north-west coast of the US, you play as Alex, a teenage girl who has brought her step-brother Jonas to an abandoned former military island for an overnight party with a group of friends. Unwittingly, you disturb paranormal forces associated with the island’s mysterious past, which you – together with your group of friends – must grapple with and attempt to stop.

Oxenfree uses an inventive branching dialogue system in which players can choose how to respond in a conversation from two or more options, and the other characters will react accordingly. Not clicking an option results in silence from your character, while clicking early can cause you to interrupt the dialogue, both of which can have their own unique social implications. Over time, as the player-character negotiates a range of challenging and delicate scenarios, these dialogue decisions affect relationships between the teenage friends and, ultimately, the fate of these characters on the island and in the wider context of the game world.

This dialogue mechanic is clever in many ways. Your character says nothing at all before the first dialogue decision, meaning that it is almost solely through your choices of how to express yourself, and the other characters’ impressions of you, that your identity as a player-character is forged. Like Life is Strange, your dialogue decisions also have tangible consequences for the game world and its people, intensifying your emotional investment with the world and your ability to empathise with the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.                      

The other significant mechanic in Oxenfree is the use of an old analogue radio to communicate with the paranormal forces that haunt the island. In various points throughout the island, the player-character must tune the radio until it aligns with the paranormal signal. Though it is a simple idea, it's a smart mechanic that is far more powerful than simply spreading audio logs throughout the world, for a few reasons: a) it is in keeping with the fictional context of the game world; b) it enables the player to be an active participant in learning the narrative information, which bolsters their sense of presence within the game world; and c) it reinforces key narrative themes exploring the influence that past events have on present environments, invoking the Surrealist conception that there are extraordinary layers of meaning just beyond the boundaries of the sensible world, which can still be detected using certain tactics and which still impact events in the present.

Ultimately, it is an experience that powerfully mirrors the social and emotional strains teenagers are faced with when plunged into an adult world filled with uncertainty and forces beyond your control. In your attempts to make sense of the confusing and frightening situations you are presented with, the mechanics emulate the character-moulding quality of this process of adaptation to the wild world beyond the safety of home, and the societal relics of previous generations.

Similar ideas are explored, albeit in a quite different setting, in the 2D adventure game Night in the Woods. In this game you play as Mae, a college dropout who returns home to the former mining town of Possum Springs to move back in with her parents. It soon becomes clear, however, that things don’t feel the same as before – her friends have changed and a series of disturbing events have been happening around town, including a former friend going missing and the discovery of an arm that has been detached from a human body.

As you resume Mae’s earlier aimless routines, you’ll find that, despite being in a 2D environment, there’s lots to discover. There are multiple platforms, hidden entrances and other tidbits you can find and interact with in each level; things are there one day and not the next; areas become accessible later that weren’t previously. In fact, it is impossible to find all the narrative material in a single play-through of the game, as your choices about which characters to hang out with mean that some storylines will trigger while others won’t. All the time sharpening your attention to detail; making you aware of the intricate relationships and unique characters that give the small town its personality.               

The scenarios in which Mae finds herself, as she wanders through her home town, are populated by numerous mini-games including a Guitar Hero -esque bass guitar simulator; smashing fluorescent bulbs with a baseball bat; squirting unsuspecting passersby with water from a fountain; using a telescope to search for dusk stars with your former science teacher; and two shoplifting simulators. These all serve a distinct narrative purpose of reinforcing your character’s propensity for recklessness and fun, while recreating the laid-back, comforting experience of hanging out with friends; simultaneously making memories that you look back on as milestones in these relationships. By the end, I found myself getting nostalgic about the time I stupidly stole a belt buckle I didn’t even want from a shopping mall with my best friend Bea; and the time I went stargazing with Angus.    

Like Oxenfree, Night in the Woods also uses a decision-based dialogue system, which changes how characters respond to you depending on the option you select. Though these decisions do not affect the outcome of the narrative as much as Oxenfree, they still help to define your experiences of the world – which mini-games you play (or not), and what you learn about the characters of Possum Springs throughout the game.

Taken altogether, the different practices through which players can entwine themselves within the everyday life of Mae’s hometown enable them to empathise with the realities of being a young adult in small-town America – of making your own fun and finding meaningful experiences in the face of limited opportunities, both socially and in terms of careers; but also the mental hardships that arise from this kind of deprivation. Without the ability to actively participate in the social life of Possum Springs – being able to choose who you talk to and how you spend your time, and then actually taking part in the chosen activities yourself – Night in the Woods would have told its story in a much less believable way.

Perhaps my favourite ‘post- walking simulator’ is this year’s winner of the BAFTA Best Game award, What Remains of Edith Finch. In this game, the player-character returns as an adult to the house that has been the family home for multiple generations, to learn about the stories of family members who have since died.

However, unlike many walking simulators, there is no extensive reading of letters or diaries required to uncover information that progresses the story. Rather, you’re able to inhabit the very characters whose spaces and belongings you move through, which include a child trying to go full-circle on a swing set; a girl who dreamed she was a cat, a hawk, and a man-eating eel; a young man hallucinating while working in a fish cannery; a baby playing with toys in a bathtub; and a boy flying a kite in a thunderstorm.                             

There is still environmental storytelling in the form of the exceptionally well-crafted rooms of each Finch family member, which intricately and believably portray their interests and personality, without resorting to conveniently-placed tape recordings or diary entries. Rather, in their use of the ‘mini-games’ to convey what happened to the characters, the developers are deliberately avoiding the relatively non-interactive action of reading text and listening to narration; instead utilising interactive tools to enable players to understand the experiences of the characters in a more immersive way. This is what mechanical interaction (no matter how simple) does very well compared to watching cutscenes, reading notes or listening to audio logs - because the player controls the action taking place, it enables them to feel present in the game world.

Embodying the deceased Finch family members, as well as moving through spaces you can palpably sense that they once inhabited, gives players opportunities to very viscerally contemplate what home and family really mean as we live our lives in the present; and most evocatively, as the title suggests, what remains when people depart from the places in which they lived their lives.

An innovative trend

When I use the prefix ‘post-’ before ‘walking simulator’, I use it very deliberately. Firstly, it doesn’t signal a total departure from the walking sim genre. If that were the case, I would call them something totally different. Rather, it recognises that there is a trend in video game design that has developed through, and now beyond, walking sims. I would argue, in fact, that walking sims were a necessary step to get to this stage.

Before the advent of walking simulators (and, it must be added, other experimental narrative games including visual novels and interactive films) it had typically been considered that the mechanics of play should be the priority of a video game’s design and, consequently, the players’ attention. Walking simulators flipped this logic on its head. Their developers worked on the basis that the story – the emotional experience that a game’s developers want its players to have – should be the end-goal and centrepiece of the project; and the mechanics, however limited they may be, should only exist to serve this experience.

With their experimentation and effective use of the environmental storytelling technique, walking simulators demonstrated that there were other, often more affectively/emotionally impactful means of forging empathy between players, characters and game environments; while demonstrating the immersion-breaking limitations of cutscenes in achieving this, with the storytelling and mechanical interaction separated so starkly.

Thomas Grip from Frictional Games, the developers who made the Amnesia series and SOMA, writes very well about the lack of innovation that video game mechanics have seen since the earliest commercial titles. He explains how the mechanics of some of the original video games were so inherently engaging that they have been repeated continually by generations of developers, which has stifled innovation in the medium itself. Even now (as I can testify from playing on a NES for hours at a party last year) aging games are so fun that you could still sit there engrossed in them for a very long time. As a result, there has been very little incentive for game developers to expand much further on these already very effective, and thus lucrative, game mechanics. Indeed, many of the most recognisable developments the games industry has witnessed over the last few decades have come from the side of technology (processing power, graphics, etc.) rather than game design.

It has taken innovative leaps to get to the point we are at in the video game industry today, where we are seeing greater diversity in the types of games available and mechanics they employ, as well as storylines and characters, to deliver a range of engaging experiences.

For walking simulators, we’ve had the likes of Dan Pinchbeck of The Chinese Room, who, rather than study for a PhD on first-person shooters through the lens of already-existing design concepts, asked a question that productively challenged the status quo: what kind of experience would be created if you took the gameplay out of FPS games? The answer to that question was Dear Esther, widely regarded as the iconic walking simulator that helped spark the genre. Meanwhile, Steve Gaynor of Fullbright took his love of environmental storytelling while working as a developer at Irrational Games (developers of the Bioshock and System Shock series) to create a game whose gameplay involved just that – no combat, objectives or death; just a story told through the objects in the game environment. That game was Gone Home, another early walking sim that made waves within the games industry.

It’s important to note that the whole family of (post-)walking sims aren’t just being appreciated within the indie gaming scene. These innovations are being recognised on the biggest stages of the industry, and in the gaming community at large, receiving overwhelming critical acclaim. Life Is Strange, Night in the Woods and What Remains of Edith Finch have all won BAFTA Awards; the latter scooping the prestigious ‘Best Game’ prize in this year’s event when competing against huge titles such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn.

Perhaps it’s more relevant to talk about this trend in game design – demonstrated here in the progression from walking simulators to ‘post- walking simulators’ – as a set of ideas about how stories can be told effectively in games. And hopefully, one that finally puts to bed the old debate within game studies between the ludologists and narratologists – the former, who believe that games have a radically different communicative structure to other media and should be understood and analysed as systems in their own right; and the latter who believe that games should be studied using theories of narrative, incorporating wider social and cultural influences that are considered when analysing other ‘conventional’ media.

It is now abundantly clear that both mechanics and narrative are fundamental to video game design, and more than that, they are mutually dependent; dialogical. Yes, video games tell stories that both affect and are affected by wider social and cultural meaning-making, and – crucially – game mechanics provide the systems through which these stories are told evocatively using the affordances of an interactive medium.

Instead of arguing about the importance of mechanics versus narrative, there is a more significant question we should be asking, for video games and interactive media more generally: how can the mechanics of interaction in video games be wielded effectively to engender particular types of emotional experience?

The characteristic that distinguishes video games from other artforms is their capacity for interaction – for the actions that you take in the game world to have very tangible and significant consequences for that world, which can then be tangibly experienced by the player as they continue playing. In this way, through their mechanics, video games can empower players not just to play within landscapes, but to actively create them – moulding the virtual world they experience through play by making their own decisions in, and interpretations of, the situations they encounter in game worlds.

Increasingly, those in the games industry, academics and the general public are becoming aware of what a powerful tool this is for learning, for empathy, and for immersion in compelling emotional experiences.

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