Traversal and the Problem With Walking Simulators

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To keep the player focused on the game’s world is crucial to every game creator. While the player is traversing a space this is even more important, but at the same time harder to achieve. So how do you keep your game interesting and avoid turning it into a walking simulator?

This blog post is based on a conversation that I had with Brian Upton at GDC a few weeks back. Most of the basic stuff here comes from the discussion with Brian, then I have added my own ideas on top of them.

Our basic problem was stated as the following: Where is the fun in simply going from place to place?

This is a problem that is very unique to games. In a movie we rarely see a character actually going places. Instead we witness the intention of going to another place, possibly see the mode of transportation, and then we’re at the destination. Unless narrative-related hardships happen along the way, we never see the character actually traveling. Why? Because it simply isn’t very interesting.

Games work differently. In games we have to show every single step that the player takes. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first, and the most obvious, is that it’s very hard to know what the player’s intent is. When you enter a car in GTA, the game can’t possibly know where you’re supposed to be going. You have to express your will by actually driving your car where you want it to go, every inch of the way. When a game features cuts, like in fast travel systems, it’s all based upon the player first expressing their will to go to a certain place.

In games we want the player to take on the role of a certain person. If a game simply decides where the player will go when they enter a car or start walking, that aspect is violated. There are a few games that do it, e.g Thirty Flights of Loving, but these games are usually short and made in a way where this phenomenon becomes a part of the gaming experience, or they simply contain very little player agency overall (e.g. interactive games like Heavy Rain). In this aspect, traversal is more than simply “empty travel time”, it’s a crucial expression of the player’s agency, cementing their role as the protagonist.

The second reason is a bit more subtle. As mentioned, part of what makes games interesting is the expression of will. To achieve this, the player must know what they are able to do within the game’s universe. In a movie, a character can reach for an object we’ve never seen before, or exclaim “I saw that shop on my way over!” despite the viewer never seeing it. This isn’t possible in a game. In order for a player to know a game’s possibility space, both in spatial terms and in terms of what actions are available, they need to familiarise themselves with it. They have to go through the boring process of walking about in order to form a mental picture of the surroundings. If they don’t, they can’t possibly know what their options are.

However, this activity is not very interesting at its core. Sure, it’s fun to look at fancy environments for a bit, but after a while it gets tiresome. Most games solve this by introducing some sort of activity to the player at this point.

In a platformer the player always has obstacles of some sort to get past. For instance, pits to jump across or objects to avoid, During moments of traversal (when the game is not meant to pose a direct challenge) these are not very hard to get past. Still, they do require some attention. So when you are going from A to B and not really accomplishing much, you are still involved in a basic muscle task that relates directly to the game’s world. This means that part of your brain is actively engaged in the activity at hand.

Think of how you sometimes zone out when you perform an activity at a certain level of difficulty. For instance; driving, knitting, or just walking rugged terrain in the woods. This is the same thing – you are engaged just enough not to get bored by the traversal.

Another way of doing this is by making use of our sense of anticipation. This is how stealth, tactical combat and horror games work. When walking towards a door you are not simply engaged in the activity of walking. You are also constantly thinking about what might lie ahead. “I need to make sure I don’t make too much noise”, “What might attack me from behind that door?”, “When I get to the door I need to make sure I sweep the room for hostiles”, and so on. So when walking, you’re also engaged in the activity of planning ahead. You’re still in the game’s world.

However, a walking simulator lacks this sort of engagement. Walking forward is just a matter of pressing down a key or stick. And unless you are my dad playing a game, this doesn’t pose any sort of challenge at all. Your brain is basically unoccupied and the chance of your mind starting to drift is very high. Instead of being immersed in the game’s world you might start thinking of what to cook for dinner or something else that is totally unrelated to the experience the game wants you to have.

I know there are some people who argue that “walking simulator” is not a fair name, but because of this issue I actually think it is quite appropriate. What happens during traversal is quite closely linked to the core of the game. In a 3D platformer your activity during traversal is still about platforming, in a horror game you are on the lookout for danger, and in a walking simulator – well, you are simply walking.

This doesn’t pose a problem to everyone who plays walking simulators, and I think the “trick” is to put yourself in a sort of meditative state where you simply block out any intruding thoughts and just focus on the essence of being in the game. One way of achieving this is through stuff like music. It’s one of the reasons why The Chinese Room’s titles have been so successful. Their amazing music often becomes front and center during these moments of just walking, and by doing so keeps the player in the world.

Still, I think this poses a problem and it’s something that anyone making a narrative-heavy game needs to think about. It’s similar to how scenes are constructed in movies. If a scene simply starts and ends on the same note then it falls flat and gets boring. Just like some walking simulators can get away with just walking, some movies can get away with this for a portion of the audience. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to approach the problem. In the same way as film scenes thrive on there being dramatic motion, so should games try to find an interesting activity to tie together all of the traversal.

If you are making a game that uses a classical game mechanic, then this doesn’t pose a huge problem. But it’s when you want to go off the beaten path and try something different, especially when the focus is on storytelling, that this becomes crucial. You need to consider: when the player is simply walking around, what keeps their mind in the game’s world?

In one of our upcoming super secret games, we want to explore new ways of telling a story through gameplay. This makes the issue of traversal really high on the list of things we need to make work. A key component for us in solving this has been to focus on what sort of fantasy it is that we want our players to partake in. The trick is then to make sure that our players focus on this fantasy at every single moment. We want to make sure that the players are preoccupied with things that relate to this fantasy, and that these actions require their attention.

The way we intend to do this is by packing the environment with narrative- and gameplay-important information. The more of this information the players have, the easier it is for them to create plans for overcoming upcoming obstacles. On top of that, the information changes over time, so players need to keep up this mental exercise even when entering previously visited locations. The crucial bit is to avoid making this procedure too difficult, as it would otherwise be exhausting in the long run. It should lie at the sweet-spot where it becomes barely conscious, coming into full focus only when important, when new information is discovered. On top of this, the information needs to be interesting in itself, not simply dull collectibles or similar. As I mentioned earlier, it is important that this task reinforces the player’s fantasy.

I know this sounds a bit fuzzy, but going into greater details would be too spoilerish at this point. It’s also worth pointing out that this is still in an early state, and we haven’t had time to see how well it works when put in practice.

So, this is far from being a solved issue. But by simply recognizing it and gathering modes of attack, it feels like we’ve taken steps towards a solution.