Critical Play: Walking Simulators

Loping through the dunes in Journey

For this critical play, I spent a couple of hours wandering through the sweeping sands of Journey. Journey’s protagonist, a mysterious cloaked character, explores the barren, ochre landscape by foot (which, incidentally, resemble those of a praying mantis, or mid-century modern desk). The landscape is populated only with rocks, buildings in ruin, and sparse clusters of floating cards (longer textiles appear later, though I couldn’t tell whether they were robes, carpets, scrolls, or something else entirely).

Walking is the central mechanism through which the story of Journey is told. Journey successfully illustrates how walking can be used as an effective mechanism for conveying the atmosphere of a game’s setting, spacing out the player’s learning curve, and eliciting a range of emotions.

Mood

The most immediately striking effect of walking in Journey is that it forcibly introduces the player to the setting of the game. The game is slow, because treading through sand is slow. Walking across a barren landscape with infrequent interactions slows a player’s mind to walking pace. In my experience, this was calming, and sucked me into the shoes (or lack thereof) of the protagonist, who for unknown reasons finds themself alone in the desert, wandering blindly towards the horizon.

Sequencing of discovery

Walking ties spatial distance with temporal distance. Journey incorporates discovery of the game’s mechanics and story spatially, with each new landscape offering a new clue to the player’s possible range of actions and motivations. This spaces the player’s learnings: for the first stretch of sand, one only has two actions available to them: turn, and walk. Over the next outcrop, one learns to jump. Later, walking upon glowing structures, one finds that they can unlock doors by walking to objects in sequence. Over time, we learn the mechanics of the game, and are given time to absorb the actions that we have, and experiment with their possible uses (much time is spent walking to objects, trying different actions, and observing their outcomes).

Anticipation

In the realm of storytelling mechanisms, perhaps none are better served by walking than the generation of mystery and anticipation. A player can only go so fast: one can see the glowing building over the horizon, but won’t find out what it means until one gets there. This anticipation is remarkably engaging: it creates a delayed pleasure loop that keeps the player walking and walking, in search of the next clue.

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