Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Traversal and the Problem With Walking Simulators

To keep the player focused on the game's world is crucial to every game creator. During times of traversal this is even more important, at the same time as it's harder to achieve. So how do you keep your game interesting and avoid turning it into a walking simulator?

The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. USA.1939.

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: What is the fun of 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 are at the destination. Unless narrative-related hardships happen along the way, we never see the character actually traveling. Why? Because it simply is not 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 one, and the most obvious, is that it is very hard to know what the player's intent is. When you enter a car in GTA, the game cannot possibly know where you are 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 is all based upon the players 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 players will go when they enter a car or start walking along, 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 perspective traversal is more than simply "empty travel time", it is 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 not seen before, or exclaim "I saw that shop on my way over!" despite the viewers never seeing it. This is not possible in a game. In order for a player to know a game's space, both in spatial terms and in terms of what actions are possible to make, they need to get intimate with it. The player has to go through the boring process of walking about in order to make a mental picture of the surroundings. If they don't, they cannot possibly know what the realm of their possibilities are.

However, this activity is not very interesting at its core. Sure, it is 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.


Sonic: Lost World (2013)
In a platformer the player always have some sort of obstacles 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 can zone out when you do some 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.

Metro 2033 (2010)
Another way of doing this is by utilizing 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 to not make too many sounds", "What might attack me from behind that door", "When I get to the door I need to make sure to sweep the room for hostiles", and so forth. So when walking, you are also engaged in the activity of planning ahead. You are still in the game's world.


Virginia (2016)
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 look out for dangers, and in a walking simulator - well, you are simply walking.

This doesn't pose as a problem to everyone who play 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 mindset 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 is something that anyone making a narrative-heavy game needs to ponder. 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 parts of the audience. But that doesn't mean it is 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 does not pose a huge problem. But it's when you want to go off the beaten path and try something different that, especially when the focus is on storytelling, 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 is 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 by far a solved issue. But by simply recognizing it and gathering modes of attack, it feels like we have taken some nice steps towards a solution.




20 comments:

  1. Again, a very interesting post. I am currently playing Soma (now at Theta) and up to now I didn't get bored by the walking ;-) In fact, at the point I'm at, I'm pretty terrified. This is good.

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  2. i love walking around games

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  3. What about games that do have the traversal-skip thing, though? Even in SOMA, the player doesn't manually walk from Simon's apartment to Munshi's office. A game doesn't always have to force the player to walk from A to B. A lot of the time, simply telling the player "the story needs you to be over here now" is a perfectly acceptable way of moving the game along.

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    1. In SOMA it was pretty clear what the goal had to be, so it didn't feel like the cut was not a problem.

      You start getting issues when it is unclear where the player should be going. For instance if they just visited location C and have a choice of either going back to locations A and B. The player has to decide where to go and travel there. These sorta situations are super common in games and it is here tat traversal issues arise.

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    2. Personaly, both AMFP and SOMA were complete walking sims to me, the gameplay that was there merely felt like distractions from the fact that you were being pulled along a disneyland attraction.

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  4. I will brief 3 examples which I found interesting when dealing with space.
    1) Dishonored 2:
    Jindosh house changes the shape itself and in that way opens or closes new paths for the player.
    Next level is Crack in the Slab in which player changes the time and sees the place from different timeframes.

    2)Thumper:
    Player responds to the rhythm of motion. As if the game wants you to answer the question: is beetle/player moving or does space around you shapes and changes while you are on standing on single spot.

    3)Cube(movie):
    Disregarding the plot for the moment, it has the concept of traversing a changing labirinth made of smaller cubes.
    At first group of people do not know meaning of space they're in but when experiencing series of events, they have figure it out what are this cubes about.

    I think when we're talking about traversing the space, the concept of time should be present. We are experiencing time with some motion. So, player should be engaged with layout of space as well as the motion which he has control over or
    tries to figure what this dynamic stands for his situation.

    ~Xy

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  5. I think my problem with Walking Simulators as a Videogame is the circumstance that Story and Snvironment are in a weird weird way nevertheless separated. Often the story already happened and it merely haunts the environment (so the environment is either the witness of what happened in the past or someone's mindset turned into space).

    And here lies what frustrates me about playing W.S.: The story that happens is not mine. It does not even happen, i missed it. And I am not given the chance to witness the story, the dilemma, the decisionmaking of a protganist as a companion or a spectator in its immediate presence. The things I love about watching someone's story is either observe how they decided to act and see their hesitations and struggle or see how the consequences of those decisions unfold and affect themselves or others. But if I know I am going to play a Walking Simulator I know what the only consequence that happened will be: An Empty space, barren, containing only fragments of a memory of "something that happened". And if the answer is always emptiness, no matter what, I stop care about all the possible plots a Walking Simulator could have because Emptiness means the story only mattered to the people of the past, not to me, most of the time my character does not even exist but is more or a movable camera with the ability to read and activate a videotape.

    A videogame is played and in a Witness Simulator [sic!] I play the game by recollect those fragments of memories of what happened. In the worst cases I feel misused as a player by the narrative designer: It feels like their story was not interesting enough to happen real time so they they move the story to the past and now it is my job to move around to tell an imaginary audience their story whose only conclusion was "and then there was silence and loneliness".

    But this might be the same reason I LOVE watching someone play walking simulators (Plot Twist haha). This way I can enjoy this story and its pacing / way of "storytelling (which ALWAYS feels completely scripted and planned, no real exploring here without destroying the storytelling mood by going off the path) without being forced to be the storyteller...

    I am wondering if the best walking simulator we have might in fact be Shadow of the colossus once you beat the game several times and just start exploring the map. But that requires further thoughts :D

    I am looking forward to hear more of your next project!

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    1. I quite like this thought. I would argue that in 'walking simulators' (or witness simulators) a problem often is that developers are not 'romantic' enough; just make environments generically, throw audiologs around, done. I think a lot of walking simulators would be better as 'ghost stories' where you being in the environment isn't so literal, the clues aren't so literal; but more of a poetic traversal of a story. More audio-book with 3d pictures, almost.

      That way, you can invite the player in, you can skip all the contrived "someone left one page of a journal here" tropes; and you can take the player on a far more intense journey because the poetic nature allows you more control over the environment (jump cuts, non-realistic lighting, and so on). That experience is a lot more interesting than chasing after audiologs to listen to a story which could have been written on a single a4.

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  6. "The way we intend to do this is by packing the environment with narrative- and gameplay-important information."

    I'd say this is exactly what Thief: TDP and Thief: TMA did, and maybe better so than any other game series to date.

    Very little exposition, and every piece of information that you need to complete a level was placed in the game space. You could find your goal from journals strewn throughout a level, from overhearing a conversation between two guards, or in one of many other ways. No one tried to direct you. Even more so if you wanted to find the unique treasures of each map.

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    1. Good example! Also worth noting that the info in the Thief games were often valuable for actually playing the game:
      Learning patrol routes, where loot is found, etc. So you stayed in the game.

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  8. Great article! It's all about interaction, story, mechanics!

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  9. Seems (for me) people who call games walking simulator and boring are same people who take a book, for example: 200p book with nine illustrated pages at the start of each chapter, look at nice pictures and call book boring and waste of time without reading it.
    Strange for me than person, who don't like stories (game lore) and love actions (fps/tps?) games, whine about some "walking simulator".
    Or just me overthinking, seeing things?

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    1. Not really, I like both games and books (and visual
      novels) but I don't find walking sims intersting or angaging at all.

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  10. I feel like walking simulators exist in the same niche as visual novels. When it comes to games, there is a sort of spectrum between gameplay and story that particular genres tend to fall on. For example, action games are more on the gameplay end while RPGs are on the story end. Visual novels and walking simulators by definition have the bare minimum amount of gameplay to make them even be considered games, so they have to depend entirely on telling an effective story to be entertaining.

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

    I interpreted this part as the most clear expression of the issue that is being discussed here. So if I understand correctly, the problem can be phrased as "what kind of core activities we can use to replace the common gameplay used by story-oriented games?

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  13. stop writing blog posts, make horror games haha, just kidding. When can we expect some news related to those two games that are under development?

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