“I, as a researcher, must be situated in the game and let myself be immersed in it, reading the provocations caused by the design of the game’s landscape. My approach will be that of a literary explorer.” Walking Simulators: The Digitisation of an Aesthetic Practice, Rosa Carbo-Mascarell

Imagine you had a chance to visit Rome for a day. You live far away and cannot foresee a point in the future you’ll be able to come back to the eternal city, so you decide to make the most of it. You don’t know anyone there, so you pinpoint your Google Maps with things it would be a crime not to check out and dash out of your hotel room early in the morning.

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First off – the Vatican museum. The line snakes all the way around the corner of the walls enclosing the Holy City when you get there, but once the doors open, it doesn’t take long for the throng of people to flow inside. You skip the ancient history rooms, fly past a few impressive marble statues and quickly find yourself in the Sistine Chapel. There’s little time to marvel at Michelangelo’s frescoes as you quickly join the others shuffling towards the exit and head for the centrepiece of the Vatican. You run around St. Peter’s Basilica, making sure to peer over the heads of others and get a glimpse of the Pietà. After a quick slice of pizza you speed towards the Roman Forum and the Coliseum. The assemblage of ruins and the beaming Italian sun leave you exhausted, but you force yourself to make it to the Trevi Fountain before getting a taxi back to the hotel, eating a hearty meal in the restaurant downstairs, and hitting the sack before an early flight out of Italy the next day.

While such a breakneck pace would leave you with sizeable bragging rights due to the many textbook places you managed to hop to, it wouldn’t really leave you with having experienced the true spirit of the city. What if, instead, you walked out of your room with just a general sense of where the city center was? What if you simply let the geometry of the city take you where it willed in an attempt to ‘cruise’ Rome as proselytized by Timothy (Speed) Levitch in The Cruise (1998)? Would that leave you with a sense of having experienced the Rome of Sorrentino, or would it result in regret for choosing dirty back alleys instead of architectural wonders?

Since in real life, such experiences can be ruined by the most trivial thing going wrong, I bet most people would just go the tried-and-tested tourist-ey way and not risk it with the romantic wanderings. Designers of games, however, can tweak their worlds to specifically steer the players into developing this kind of romantic relationship with the places they inhabit while in-game.

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This kind of wandering is at the focus of a recently published paper by Rosa Carbo-Mascarell, a scholar at Brunel University London, undertaking postgraduate research on psychogeography in virtual contexts and game design. Titled “Walking Simulators: The Digitisation of an Aesthetic Practice” it explores how walking simulators continue the tradition of romantic walking of writers such as G. K. Chesterton and Edgar Allen Poe. She uses a psychogeographic method pioneered by Guy Debord in the 1950s called dérive to analyse three walking simulators: Year Walk, Gone Home and Dear Esther.

Her paper highlights how these games immerse the player in their worlds by requiring them to actively interpret their surroundings. Her analysis of Year Walk focuses on how the game imbues its landscape with hidden meaning and makes the player subconsciously aware of its deep symbolism. Gone Home is linked to the erotetic narrative model first discussed for movies, in which every scene is seen to pose a series of questions to be answered in later scenes. In Dear Esther Rosa shows how the environment is revealed to be more a metaphysical manifestation of the protagonist’s inner self rather than an actual physical space.

Curious about her broader thoughts on video games, I decided to contact her through Academia.edu.

Interestingly, she doesn’t spend much time delineating walking simulators from other game genres. When asked about the importance of precisely pin-pointing what is meant by walking simulators, she replied with: “Definitions exist in order to create frameworks with which we can study a piece or collection of works. In order to study something, the first step is to make it distinct from other things. These boundaries, however, change from person to person and study to study. So while definitions are important to frame your research, it’s easy to fall into a vicious cycle of defining things and never coming to a conclusion.”

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When asked whether walking simulators have to have a great story to compensate for the lack of mechanics, she fired back with a very interesting idea I haven’t yet heard in discussions about walking simulators, “I want you to get rid of the idea out of your head that mechanics and story are two polar opposite things that cancel each other out. Story is a great way to make us care about these objects and gives us a context for meaning-making, like with any mechanic. I also want you to get rid of the idea that walking simulators have no mechanics. Exploring is a mechanic!”

We often forget that simply moving around a space can require diligent design on the part of the developer. Dear Esther would’ve been a wholly different game if you were allowed to sprint through the island, or try and hop on every single rock, looking for Easter eggs. Likewise, the idea that a well-strung story can be likened to an intricate fighting system, adds a whole new way of looking and talking about games.

The paper is available online for free, links game design to established ideas in art criticism and architecture, and should be especially interesting to those who have a passion for video games, but lack academic knowledge of those other fields.

Having studied architecture for her Bachelor’s and Digital Games for her Master’s, Rosa’s take on the meanings of virtual spaces is definitely to be trusted. And if you find walking simulators to be snobbish garbage, she has a paper on the psychogeography of Skyrim out too!

  • I was thinking yesterday about some contact I had with Michael Samyn of Tales of Tales after they dissolved the company. I was late to really learn about their work. I can’t think of what it was that brought it to my attention. I’ve dismissed huge chunks, if not the entirety of work being done “for games” in the 21st century. I feel guilty about this, and I don’t know if I have myself to blame or not. It’s just something I’ve done more and more with each passing day.

    21st century video games have a drastically different dynamic to 20th century ones. It occurred to me yesterday, thinking about Michael, that in fact, I couldn’t really think of anybody making 3-D games. In a sense, they’re pioneers, both in pushing the boundaries of thought, but also in being brave enough to take on the third dimension. I am very biased to 3-D myself. I feel like I am working in a space that is way out ahead of everybody, by being dedicated to 3-D.

    Think about so-called “independent” games, and how much of it is really 2-D or quasi-2-D offerings. I think “Walking Simulator” are just the product of small teams trying to grab 3-D by the ear. They are too small, and 3-D is too big, and so this is what we get for now. These are vastly compromised offerings. Really we want so much more than this. Unfortunately, my sense of interacting with regular people making video games, is that they don’t want to look deeper than the act itself. Real artists have to examine their materials, and develop new sciences and technology. In this day and age, we have to develop these things, even if they might exist already somewhere, because public versions don’t exist. It’s not just a question of generosity, but also how far we intend to push things in terms of scale. There’s the scale of the commercial company, and then there’s the scale of society itself. We dream too small. It bores me.