The ‘walking-sim’ genre of fancies has quite taken off in recent years, showing an interesting development and increasing amount of recognition. Arguably still feeling ‘cult’ at the time of Dear Esther, the more homely Gone Home announced them to a broader audience, and the success of Firewatch shows that the genre is gaining momentum. They are contentious, but unlikely to fall short of recognition. The latest addition to this genre is perhaps the most daring and ambitious: R — — .
Summarizing briefly, the inciting incident of R — — is the plea of a man called A — — who seeks your help in rescuing his wife: she is imprisoned by his father. They are trapped in a sort of distant parallel world called ‘R — — ’. Apparently, without A — — ’s continued dedication, R — — will collapse so he passes his task on to you: save his wife, trap his father, signal him. He neglects to mention how. He trusts you will figure this out. Perhaps, he trusts you a bit too much.
Magic plot devices aside, the world of R — — appears to be a series of islands in what seems like a tropical region. Paths riddle cliff walls, mechanical devices are spread out. You find a temple where food is laid before idols that are hard to place, iconography depicting situations you cannot recognise. Someone speaks to you in a language you do not understand: then he tries another language, which you also do not understand. There is a large chance you did not even realise he tried two languages, because the fancy makes no attempt at explaining any of this to you. Instead, it respects you and feels you will come to understand it by deduction.
It would be easy to describe R — — as simply beautiful or intriguing, even simply mysterious. But the real display of ambition and genius of it is that it is far less the usual carefully laid out mountainous paths, or the sequence of audio-log scavenger hunts. It is a world presented without comment that, nevertheless, seems to be builtby its inhabitants, using their actual hands. The realism of the fancy is that in a bizarrely unlikely place, some people made their life. And some lives are not like others, and show a stunning personality in what they do to the world. Sometimes those personalities are a charade, a mask for another personality, and so on, so on. Everything had to be built for a reason: to conjecture at those reasons is the sport of it. The fancy, like A — — , respects you enough to figure it out.
The genius of it is: R — — really expects you to be an archaeologist.
Even if the fancy frames your presence as necessary in the most stereotypical way (‘save the person, defeat the villain, magic’) most of it can be spent in looking at the way some houses were built on their wooden support beams. How some trees have their bark removed. How some creatures sunbathe on a rock. How a culture was changed by another one down to the little fancies that they play. Slowly you piece together what happened here, who A — — ’s father is, who his wife is, and what their relation is to this world. Then, an ominous piece of music plays while you walk through a tunnel where perhaps you simply ought not to be. You are an intruder who seeks to understand.
The world not merely offers this to you, it expects you to indulge in it. To stare at a metal walkway and realise it has a spot without rust where someone probably stood for a while.
If you wish to merely play through R — — , find some audio logs that tell you ‘the stuff’ and then get on with it: tough. There is no ‘getting on with it’. The fancy wants you to look at sediment and think: ‘it makes sense that this would be here.’ The reward for careful examination is exquisite, unparalleled. At some point, you may catch yourself listening to the sound produced by an elevator and think to yourself, ‘it ends with a click and I understand how this mechanically works, so that makes sense.’
Not that the click of an elevator is important. It just shows a dazzling sense of detail we have not seen before. It tricks you into thinking about it as if it is real. The work that went into the modelling of the environment, the shading and the sound is at times unbelievable, yet feels right.
R — — advances on the walking-sim in several ways. The focus on the meaningful examination of the terrain gives it far more scope and range to work with. By presenting a foreign series of cultures to you it is far more challenging to read than Gone Home’s personalised rooms, it feels as-if characters have fewer secrets and many more layers. It also is a very densely packed fancy: there are no empty canyons that have to be paced through to get to some new bit of text. This is a two-part achievement: firstly, the fancy uses nodes, sparing you the slow proddy pace from location to location, allowing you to speed through the world if you so wish. It does not care to slow you down to purchase some extra minutes of play-time, it expects you to play it for the sake of the world.
It also never artificially drip-feeds you exposition, instead neglecting to use the genre’s typical audio-logs replacing them with very sporadic extensive journals. Nobody writes about their inner feelings and leaves the sheet lying around arbitrarily to create a ‘moment’. Finding a journal feels like a major step forward, not because you make ‘progress’ but because you feel you may finally get some confirmation about your conjectures. Of course, the journals themselves play the trick again: they just describe additional things to consider, more things to place in your mental model, and they clearly show the person writing it has his own view on the world. It is hard to think back to the other walking-sims, as their pacing suddenly seems so monotonously simple, so uncomplicated, so objective. On top of all this, R — — also introduces other people that are sporadically met. It is a simple, but good addition. The suggestion of life adds a lot to this loneliest type of genres.
And yet — perhaps R — — respects you too much. At times it feels like R — — would be the fancy we would have after several more walking sims, each building their world more, each working harder. R — — is a gigantic step that can be overwhelming. It expects you to gain an understanding about magical books, several cultures, their language, their issues, and then even more internally consistent things, while overwhelming you with details that are not even in the fancy itself. Occasionally it sort-of checks you, by expecting you to draw the right conclusions from this myriad of clues, and hissing: well then, how do you open this thing, you would know if you paid attention.
Make no mistake: like a zealous history teacher it tests you. Not in a ‘did you find the clue’ Gone Home-esque way, or a ‘get the axe’ Firewatch-esque way. No, by making sure you did your homework and you studied the world with an almost impossible eye for detail. If you just are not getting it, there is no hope for you.
R — — seems naive in not seeing that perhaps its expectations of you are too high.
Perchance this is not a bad thing: R — — expects you to be used to this, as if in some parallel universe we had been playing complex archaeological adventures for so long that we may just jump in, look at a spinning metal dome and say: ‘I know exactly what notes to make here!’ It is a flaw, but it is both player and fancy that are at fault: one is not good enough, the other expects too much. For now, finding someone who completed the fancy before and can help you may be a good solution.
All in all, the world of R — — is extensive. So extensive it is — like any new thing now — cross-media: The Book of Atrus offers unexpected insights into specifics of the world. Nothing to ‘explain’ it: for instance, it may rather inform you of a character’s choice of corridor in a certain place of the island. This absurd level of ‘probable detail’ is the level of dedication the developers aimed at and hit immensely. It is almost touching when developer Richard vander Wende humbly mentions that much more can be done with this: Heavens, Man! You give us such an unparalleled addition to the walking sim and already you admit it could be more?!
It is impossible to not frame R — — as both an excellent fancy and as the shape of things to come: a new era of walking sims, building on Dear Esther, building on Gone Home, building on Firewatch: and not about mere pictures and mere narratives: about full, extensive worlds where we can be an archaeologist, piecing together clues, ideas, and motivations. Where the major victory is not reaching point B, but is recognising what ‘that structure is doing there.’ The realisation is unlike anything: not a test we won, not an audio-log found, not a mystery solved. It is the realisation that we understand something about this world. A close, personal moment, in which it is our own mind that did the work, that understood, that sees the whole. Then the moment passes, the water hits the wooden bridge we stand on, and we walk on, wiser.
Riven is a brilliant new addition and promises much for the near future.
If I have one complaint, it is that for a fancy that presents us with such an enticing world, the resolution is very low. It is hard to understand that in 2016 it only offers a display resolution of 608×392. But I suppose we can forgive it; the quality of the renders is astounding, and of course Riven was made in 1997.