Disclosure: Doc Burford is normally a paid contributor at USG, but today he's writing as a guest to talk about the process of making his 2018 game Paratopic, which is out on Steam today.
If you had the chance to fix a game genre, would you take it? In late 2017, I had the chance to fix a genre I wasn’t too fond of called “walking sims,” and this is how I did it.
Hi, I’m Doc Burford. You might know me as the guy who does deep dives into game mechanics, doing my best to help people better understand why games are fun. When I’m not writing about games, I’m making them. And this year, some friends and I developed an experimental horror game called Paratopic. On September 6, we’ll be releasing it on Steam. USGamer has kindly given me the opportunity to talk about my creative process for the game. I hope you find it interesting.
A few years back, I was gobbling up new E3 trailers with excitement, browsing Twitter to see how excited everyone else was, when I stumbled upon a remark by some dour-faced critic who sternly warned everyone that there were far too many violent games being shown at E3. You know the type. One of those big “games have to be art, no fun allowed” type of people. As an artist myself, I’ve learned not to take these people too seriously, but I was curious. What games did this critic think were artistic? What games did they think merited a response?
His answer? A list of walking sims.
For those of you who don’t know, “walking sim” is a sardonic term that first emerged shortly after the retail release of Dear Esther, a game by The Chinese Room, that deals with grief and death by asking you to… walk. Some people take offense at the term, but it’s the one everyone recognizes, and no alternative has ever stuck. You might not like it, but that’s what it is.
These games are called walking sims because that’s all you do. You walk. You walk forwards. You consider the world around you, if you like, and you walk, and as you walk, a narrator tells you what’s happening, and eventually, you stop walking and the game ends. If you’re lucky, you might experiment with a few light puzzle elements. Some of the horror-themed walking sims, like Amnesia, have running and hiding mechanics as well, but in general, walking sims are very mechanics-light.
Dear Esther is a beautiful game. It’s a well-written game. It’s an astonishing game to listen to. The experience is definitely one worth playing once, but I’m not sure it needed to birth a genre. To a particular breed of critic, walking sims are exciting because they focus heavily on storytelling, which means new subjects can be explored, which is awesome if you’re tired of Game Number 95472’s Brown-Haired Space Marine Committing War Crimes in the Name of Experience Points. How many AAA action games deal in-depth with grief? What about sexuality, disability, or poverty? Not many, I’d wager. So for a lot of people, walking sims were exciting new ground.
An awful lot of people aren’t fans of the walking sim. I’m one of them. I fell in love with games because I grew up reading wonderful stories about going to other worlds. I loved how games let me escape the pain of my disability by doing wonderful and interesting things. I loved how games put me in another person’s shoes, let me try things I’d never be able to do with a body and income like me. I liked games because I liked doing things.
There’s not a lot of mileage in a game where you walk around and listen to someone tell you a story that happened outside the game. What’s the point of listening to someone else’s experience instead of having your own? Is it really meaningful to walk into a room and listen to a narrator reading a letter or watching some CG ghosts acting out a more interesting story than ‘a person walks?' Sure, the subject matter might not be explored in games, but a topic is only as interesting as its execution, and the uneventful voyeurism of walking sims has a very short shelf-life.
I found myself wondering if there was any way to ‘fix’ the walking sim. There’s certainly nothing wrong with trying new things; I replayed Halo for the umpteenth time last night because I love me some good space marine action, but I like having new experiences too. “Hospital management” sounds really boring, but Two Point Hospital is my favorite game of 2018 so far.
I never had a problem with unexplored topics, I had a problem with their execution.
Walking sims have a problem with verbs.
In games, the actions you take are called ‘verbs.’ Walking and shooting are verbs, for instance. The more verbs a game has, the more interesting it is, so to make a walking sim interesting, I reasoned, I’d have to make one with an awful lot of interesting verbs. In a sense, it would be more of an anti-walking sim, a conscious decision to do a lot of different things instead of very few things. I don’t think people who love walking sims like them for their simplicity, they like them for the interesting subject matter. If I could make a walking game with interesting subject matter but used a lot of unique verbs to explore that subject matter, maybe I’d make a game worth exploring.
Unfortunately, health, school, and work got in the way, and I put the project on the back burner. Over the years, I found myself thinking about it, but I just didn’t have the time. I started paying attention to the things I did in a given day that weren’t things you normally saw in games, like driving, shaving, or photography. I noticed how game conversations tend to feel like “getting people to offer you facts” rather than actual conversations, or “eating food” tends to be “click on something in your menu” rather than actually maneuvering a knife and fork around the plate.
I thought about AI too.
Dear Esther’s island is empty. Gone Home’s home has been abandoned. Amnesia’s castle is virtually uninhabited, except for the occasional foe. Walking sims are devoid of life. The games I love are practically bursting with it. Alien: Isolation’s titular monster doesn’t just stalk you around the station, killing you if it catches you like the monsters in Outlast, it fears your flamethrower. It preys on the other people in the station dynamically—you can trick it into killing enemies for you.
Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl, my favorite game, is all about AI. If you hear gunshots, you can head over to find a battle that occurred when two opposing forces happened across each other. If you loot the bodies, you might find some good resources. You might find a man who’s been wounded, and if you give him first aid, he’ll become your friend, joining you in battle against some of the enemies you might encounter as you explore. You’ll eventually part ways, but if he manages to stay alive, you’ll find him later, wearing better gear he looted off his enemies, ready to tackle even greater challenges. At one point, the AI was so good, the NPCs would complete the game before the players could even get to the end.
Then there’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.
In a lot of ways, it’s like Amnesia, but with way more verbs. Looking at scary stuff kills you, and a gun won’t do you much good against a shoggoth, sure, but one of the first levels in Dark Corners drops you off in Innsmouth, where the creepy townspeople follow you around, staring at you. You’re made to feel unwelcome and unnerved in a way that most walking sim-style horror games can’t, because they don’t have dozens of suspicious and intimidating people roaming the streets. My favorite level gives you a gun and then tells you not to use it; monsters might hear you and you won’t have enough ammo for them all. The gun in your hand becomes a source of fear, a liability all on its own.
Dark Corners uses AI and mechanics to create emotional involvement in a way most walking sims just can’t. A walking sim can really only rely on voice actors to achieve emotional impact. If the narrative and performance aren’t up to snuff, a walking sim loses all of its impact. It’s so much harder to achieve critical emotional mass when you don’t have any mechanics to reflect on.
So, over the years, I developed a plan for a walking sim, but I didn’t really know when I’d be able to make it until last year. Frustrated with my own game development skills, I decided to work on a small series of vignettes where I could focus on some of those cool mechanics, like shaving or driving, and get better at making games.
While I was thinking about this, I read an article by a game developer who claimed that gamers were stupid for enjoying violent games. He talked a good talk, snapping his proverbial suspenders as he explained how his studio had revolutionized games by making a lot of nonviolent ones, but I was unimpressed.
My time in college was spent studying violence in film. I spent years looking at violence in revolutionary cinema through films like Tony Manero or Chronicle of an Escape, as well the manifestations of violence in noir and westerns as a result of post-war trauma. Basically, I spent a lot of time watching violent movies and reading and writing about why and how those movies used violence for artistic ends. In games, the violence discussion is simply “lots of games have violence, and that’s bad.” In film and television, there’s a lot more nuance; television critics are out there championing Westworld’s artful depiction of violence while too many game critics whine that games shouldn’t be violent at all.
I thought it would be interesting to make a game that deals with violence. Instead of having “violent mechanics,” I thought it’d be super cool to make a game that was about violence. I thought it might be hilarious to make a game that seemed like a cheery, nonviolent thing but gradually evolved into a game that explored the nature of violence and its impact on a small community, and I tweeted about it because I thought my friends might enjoy it too.
Jess Harvey, my wonderful friend who’s working on the indie stealth game Tangiers, thought the idea sounded great. We were both having trouble making rent, so she suggested that we make something short and experimental together and try to sell it on a platform like itch.io. I thought this sounded great, so we got started.
Two crucial ideas drove the game’s design. The first was a quote from Raymond Chandler, who had developed a theory on writing that went like this:
My theory was that readers just thought they cared nothing but the action; that really, although they didn't know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialog and description. The things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn't even hear death knock on the door. That damn little paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers.
The second was a note by the famous director Jean-Luc Godard, who said that audiences just wanted to see a story with a girl and a gun. One of our central characters, an assassin, is our girl with a gun, and our mechanics would focus on a lot of the little details. Rather than big, sweeping mechanics like major gunfights, we’d put out cigarettes and load a revolver one bullet at a time.
Over time, our ideas changed. Some of the scenes weren’t technically feasible on our budget of zero dollars, like first-person shaving and eating. The tone changed. The more I wrote it, the more it became a game that dealt with poverty. One of the player characters lives in a single closet-sized room with a lamp, some boxes, and a mattress, and he’s suffering from crippling debt. Another character talks about the failing economy, and we see signs of that abandoned infrastructure hidden away in the woods. It’s a game that reflects my hometown’s slow death and the existential dread of people like me who were supposed to enter the job market right when the economy crashed.
We focused on dread. Every single mechanic, from driving to photography to conversations, is meant to evoke a sense of impending doom. Instead of having a wonderful and expensive voiceover tell the audience what to feel, we relied on the mechanics, art, and sound design to get that sense across instead.
We spent a lot of time on conversations; instead of listening to a story about a smuggler traveling through the Rust Belt to a border crossing, you get to be that smuggler. You stop at a gas station and talk to a clerk, and instead of serving as a vendor or an infodump, he’s just a guy you talk to to pass the time. His information is useless—you can talk to him about aliens or a store that sells nothing but milk, milk products, and milk accessories. You’re making small talk because something is following you and there’s no way in hell you’re going back outside.
Every step of the way, we focused on making unique scenes.
There’s a great story about how disgraced American film producer Harvey Weinstein wanted to cut some “unnecessary” scenes from Princess Mononoke. Hayao Miyazaki, the movie’s director, sent him a samurai sword with a note attached that said “no cuts.” Miyazaki believes in giving movies time to breathe. A scene where characters stop to smell delicious food might not seem important, but it’s a deliberate choice. It’s meant to conjure up specific sensations and feelings.
One of the first scenes Jess built was this beautifully dingy elevator lobby. The elevator itself takes forever to arrive; people have asked us why we make them wait, and it’s because that’s a thing you do. Sometimes you wait for an elevator to arrive. You get impatient. It’s a thing you experience in life. You can poke around the room, noting the boarded-up windows or putting out the smoldering cigarette. You can feel impatient. And eventually, the elevator arrives and it’s all over, and you’re free to move onto the next scene.
Being able to play with a ramen container or squeeze a ketchup bottle isn’t part of any kind of complex mechanical loop. It’s an important interaction that lets you feel and connect to the space you’re in. Having conversations—real conversations, not just info dumps—puts you in the world better than a walking sim where you just listen to someone tell you a story that happened to them rather than comment on the story you’re experiencing right now.
We made a game where your verbs, necessary and unnecessary, are all carefully placed to make you feel specific things. We didn’t want to tell players how to feel, we wanted to make them really feel it, and judging by the response, it seems like most people got where we were going for.
To be cheeky, there’s a crucial scene where you shoot a man. He didn’t need to die—the tape that our assassin is looking for is long gone, tucked away in the smuggler’s El Camino until he’s caught crossing the border. The man’s death means nothing in Paratopic’s world, Paratopia, and very little to the assassin. She kills him because she needs to find his tape. People have argued that walking sims are better because they have no violence at all, so we made a walking sim where violence isn’t so much a mechanical necessity as a thematic one. There are ways to deal with violence thoughtfully, and if we return to Paratopia, we’ll be confronting that in greater detail.
I don’t know if we fixed the walking sim, because I don’t know if you can fix a genre. Paratopic has done remarkably well, but ultimately, people are going to make the games they want to make. I wanted to make a game that seemed like a walking sim on the surface, but used its verbs to tell a story instead of exposition. I wanted it to explore subjects that people don’t really talk about, like poverty and violence, and I wanted it to show that violent games aren’t thoughtless. I succeeded in that, and honestly, that’s all I ever wanted. I don’t think that walking sims are great at covering unexplored territory, but that’s okay. I explored how I wanted to.