One of the first achievements, those little saccharine bundles of nerveless reward games precipitate upon players, to pop whilst I was playing Aliens: Colonial Marines was called ‘… But No Cigar’. I got it for saving my colleague from being killed by an Alien, blasting it apart as it pounced and held him down, slavering onto his face, pinning his body with its. I blew it apart without thinking, spraying bullets wildly, shattering the moment of embrace. It didn’t really matter though. The Alien was incapable of killing my fellow marine, only of being killed by him. My bullets pass through my fellows too. Even though I can destroy myself with a grenade my squadmates are invincible until it is their scripted turn to die. I had achieved nothing, my presence was not needed. The encounter would have played itself out without me but the game, in keeping with the current pedagogy, felt obliged to acknowledge my presence with a sticker. ‘Good effort’ it said. ‘Well done for turning up.’
I am playing Colonial Marines on the easiest level: ‘Recruit’ it calls itself, a strangely prosaic counterpoint to the ‘Ultimate Badass’ of its highest difficulty. Clearly gaining rank and experience in the United States Colonial Marines (America defending space from the communistic evils of itself!) is a process of losing rather than accruing military bearing. No wonder such a lousy enemy as the Xenomorphs can tear them apart. Slowly. When scripted to do so.
Colonial Marines, on Recruit, is a game that is able to play itself. There are points during the first and last few missions where I would wander off to explore the level and then return to discover my squadmates had dealt with all the enemies that were present. We moved on together; they were incapable of doing that. The majority of encounters where I am required to input bullets are easy enough that it doesn’t need me to do much anyway, the main difficulty comes from badly designed interfaces. I am playing it, as best as I can, as a walking simulator: exploring and listening and thinking. I do some of my best thinking when I’m walking; I feel like I am most myself.
Walking sims seem to be overwhelmingly about sex. Or maybe that’s just the ones I’ve come into contact with. Sex here is in the intersection between relationships and horror. Sex is the monstrous, the hidden, that which must be exposed. Walking sims often seem to involve people uncovering horror while they ponder their relationships. They don’t talk about sex, but instead they talk about emotion and closure and all of those other things. They explore islands, bound by contour and fluid.
But the landscape is one that must be explored, uncovered, mapped. Its hidden places must be revealed, and within those places is the ecstatic knowledge that cannot be generated within the walking thinkers own self. I never really think about sex, or my sexual relationships, while I’m walking. I’m usually thinking about maths, or stories, or what someone has done to piss me off and whether and how I should forgive them and get it out of my system. I would make a terrible walking sim protagonist.
Eventually, though, I will be thinking of nothing at all except the exertion of the act, of the physical presence of being where I am. So in that respect it is maybe closer to sex after all. But a walk for me is about losing myself in the sublime, in the machinery and the actuality of existence. It isn’t the exposure of limits, the objectification of traversing a game-world. Walking is discovering one’s own limits, going as far as you can go until the forces pushing you forward are finally outweighed by the forces pulling you back. A walking sim is discovering the limits of the game, nudging up against the outer edges, realising that there is no breaking free.
‘Walking Simulator’ is one of those strange terms, both epithet and genre designation. It seems to most clearly relate to those first person perspective games that have neither puzzles nor weaponry to engage the player. For some this is terrible and for others this is perfect. Really, though, it just is. I’m probably trampling all over a whole load of people by using it as I am in this essay. I don’t know how I feel about that. I should probably go for a walk and think it out, but then I wouldn’t be here, writing. Walking is where I come up with some of my best ideas, but, conversely, most of those ideas never make it onto paper because I walk them out. They become ideas that I am at peace with, that I exist alongside rather than ones I retain the compulsion to tame and dominate and parade before others.
I am losing my train of thought, as usually happens when I go for a stroll. Whatever I was angry about and which I fixated on for the first ten minutes mutates into other thoughts. Anger is recycled into the energy of the system, transformed into heat and kinesis. I am not sure if it is the Aliens or the Marines who represent my thoughts. Maybe it is both of them, tussling with one another, knowing their own time to die. The Aliens come leaping from nowhere, the Marines are the hang-ups that you brought along with you. Ultimately both are outside of your body. Both are voices on the wind. Freedom is in living and letting them live. Except the Aliens, who you have to kill to move on.
The use of ‘walking sim’ as an epithet is one that stems from the hardcore of gamers; those who think that games should be about skill, or shooting, or shooting things with skill. This is funny, because walking sims grew out of those ‘hardcore’ games, and the tools and languages that they created. Walking sim designers just took out the Aliens jumping at you all the time, keeping the revelation of story through audio logs, the hiding of trinkets to make you examine the entirety of their design. The Aliens are now inside the machine, the reason for movement is implied by the desire for content, for context. The protagonists are just more sad men, missing their lovers and hoping for a meaningful end.
Walking sims are just the power fantasy of God Mode in Doom, which was never about destruction — when death is trivial it holds no meaning, the God of Doom is Satan in Paradise Lost, bored of power, seeking and travelling. Immortality provides not conquest, but freedom to explore. God mode is just a debug script; appropriately enough it delivers one directly into the mind of the machine, a place to seek the demiurge, not to casually destroy. For once one can see the machine in all of its functioning one can see that destruction means nothing. Enemies respawn. The wheels turn. Life goes on.
God mode is far more interesting than Ultimate Badass mode.
The economic reality of hardcore gaming is that to create the kind of games that hardcore gamers think should be created they have to be sold to far more people than the hardcore gamers number. If a game was made only for the people who can complete it on Ultimate Badass then the people who wanted to complete it on Ultimate Badass would hate the game. The fact that everyone hated Colonial Marines is neither here nor there. Playing on Easy therefore becomes a necessity, the games that most desire to be fantasies of player power must instead become fantasies of game power; they must be able to play themselves.
When we go for a walk, is seeing the landscape the important part, or is it the walking itself? Is either of these an imposition of power or a communion with ourselves? Without us, the landscape will continue to be itself, to continue its cycles. Aliens will jump on marines, pinning them down, before being thrown off and gunned to oblivion. It doesn’t matter if I am there or not, it never has. The Alien is itself, the Marine is itself, the game is itself.