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Art movements in video games, Justwalkingism
by Oscar Barda on 07/31/14 08:41:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Since games are an industry, it is likely that creation and craft in the field are subject to tides and fashions, which, as fashions do, will come and go. Most trends are dictated by interests in the industries: creators express the season’s intent and engineers, salesmen and marketers get in motion to bring it to your doorstep. Or so we hope, knowing that sadly, the machine works backwards, selling “what sells”.

Fashion ad by Prada using Final Fantasy characters in 2012

But in the arts, or at least in their romanticised version, people make games (or whatevers) to express something they have in them: a buried fear, a visceral pleasure, a loss, a childlike wonder… Things they don’t even have to be aware of having in their bellies or on their backs, but things they want to offload and share with the world for a reason or another.

These inner passions, dear to makers, are not subject to fluttering trends or market demands, we like to think, but they are, often at least in the way they are expressed, for while we can disqualify products mainly made to succeed from artistic intent, every piece exists within a culture and a moment. That is what art movements are: a shared exploration of a new way to express, marking a time and cultural space. An exploration of new stylistic tools and techniques, new approaches and new mesures of subjects and universal or intimate matters in which arts dwell.

Justwalkingism is such a movement, and I will talk a little bit about how it all started to help me explain what it is.

Side note here before we dive in: I hate it when articles spoil or describe games. If you have already played the game it’s a waste of your time and if you never played it, the game’s wasted on you… I will link every game I talk about and let you understand more about it that I could sluggishly describe in all too many words.

    A history of walking the walk

When I first came up with the word “Justwalkingism” I was talking about a game: Dear Esther. In october of 2012 the game began to attract a lot of attention and anger from communities for being just about walking, and the hatred felt familiar at the time for I had been angry at such a game before… The Graveyard.

The Graveyard by Tale of Tales

The Graveyard, a black and white game made by two artists at Tale of Tales, was hated (and at first, by me included) because people felt there was nothing to do, or so little in fact, that you were left, alone with yourself… Out of habit though, you'd still be waiting for the game to take your hand and walk you through a fun experience… Yes walk you. Or to put it in game design terms: give you an ever present goal to walk towards, side objectives, light markers, arrows and quests, sprinkling fun along the way. There was a goal to be reached but not found and no fun to be had in that graveyard; and that alone was probably a threat to the established definition of games. And boy do we all know how gamers react when they feel threatened. 

«This isn't even a game, like wtf?»

Youtube commenter - 2012 

    “IT EVEN'T HAZ NO GAMEPLAY” (another Youtube)

If you would like to check if the Graveyard has gameplay, please invite a newcomer to the field to play it: you will see them struggle to do… something in the game… and that struggle is what we call gameplay. For people literate in the field, the many paradigms of movement are acquired and transparent but that doesn’t mean that they’re not here: one enters and exists in the game, it computes the player’s presence and so you, existing in control in a given universe is gameplay.

Walking, moving a character through a space is indeed gameplay, a foundation upon which decades have built ever more and more complicated systems that allow us to struggle against machines to assert our dominance over fictions.

But the Graveyard wasn’t that, it was going in the exact opposite direction in fact… Rather than building up to more complex structures and interactions, rather than trying to “innovate”, The Graveyard and The Path after it (another of Tale of Tales’) were stripping games of gameplay features, goals and directions (and in the process, innovating a whole lot more than most of their contemporaries).

All that had been built to this point seemed to have been thrown away. In it, you don’t know what you’re doing, you feel like you’re barely doing anything at all really and on top of that, it seems like you can’t win… Like you have no agency. Or at least, what is usually considered a victory is not announced in our usual fireworks-heavy way, but is there not a definitive ending to The Graveyard? What is the intrinsic difference between The Graveyard’s ending and Peggle's?

No, it was calm, measured and nothing in it was made obvious. People felt threatened, and rightfully so, because for those listening, this game was about to change the world; which rarely, if ever, changes but in humble nudges. And the Graveyard was just that: the push that made apparent a potential dormant in the video game medium, more oft known for setting bombast to the fucking max than for its artful retenue.

You can probably hardly even focus on this very text while Peggle is Ultra-Extreme-Fevering up there, that is what The Graveyard wasn’t: in a world of effects and pre-thought experiences, it had a theme but no story, a goal striped of its attributes and a never-seen-before pace. And so hating it was all the rage.

Clinging to the notion that games need to be difficult, inherited from decades of arcade machines designed to kick the coins out of you, many lost precious hours of their lives, swimming against the current of History in the making, spewing toxic comments about the game (and giving a remarkable image of how grown up our communities can be in the process). But it wasn’t until bigger titles came in the spotlight that the madness began.

    «Well… They do have a point, it IS just about walking…»

And so in 2012, the bad pun “justwalkingism" was discussed as the first art movement of video games around 48°52'08.7"N by 2°21'21.4”E, drinking alcoholed beverages in the company of Heather Kelley, Brandon Boyer, David Calvo and Alex Fleetwood in the warm and busy streets of an august evening.

But, as Brandon pointed out to me, the phrase "it's just walking?" was coined by artist Baiyon wondering if Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP was indeed just walking on march 2010 at 37°47'02.5"N 122°24'04.4"W. Bayion even made a fabulous remix of Jim Guthrie's Lone Star that bears this very name.

photo by brandon boyer

To that day, I favour Justwalingism over its denigrant counterpart: walking simulator which implies simulation (which those game do not strive for) and is often applied to game in which gamers feel walking plays too important a part (Day Z being chief among them while its gameplay is very very complex). In their mind, a walking simulator means you failed at building something else onto the walking mechanics and therefore failed at making a game. But QWOP is a walking simulator, The Graveyard isn’t. I really like the silly “wandering simulator” surfing on the simulator meme, but Justwalkingism is an aesthetic of mechanics and not a set of systems. Simulators are a genre (like still-life, or nude) While justwalkingism is an art movement (much like cubism or impressionism, you can make an impressionist nude, or a cubist still life).

Cubist still life by roy lichtenstein

Some people like to call these games interactive fiction but I mean… Really? What game isn’t interactive fiction? That could be a broader term to define all video games and pieces akin to the field.

    360 NO SCOPE! (and no weapon, no enemies, no skill)

Justwalkingism is a shared aesthetic of game design, somewhere between a philosophy and a design precept, it pertains to the field of interactive experiences and is Historically, born of the natural maturation of the medium.

When games came out of the arcade ages, landing in our pockets, living rooms and offices, they didn’t need to fish for quarters, cheap deaths or difficulty spikes anymore and gave way to a more casual notion of entertainment. They only needed to please us. To give us our money’s worth in entertainment. “Fun” the mastodon is not dying anytime soon, but just like in cinema’s youth, it will come to be completed by “interesting” adding to the spectrum of experiences to be had in games.

Journey by Thatgamecompany

Justwalkingism is the old maxim «what’s important is the journey, not the destination» made into game.

When people at Thatgamecompany thought up Journey, they probably had that sentence in mind and the game, like the sentence, like the philosophy behind it, carry a cultural and poetic weight few games have reached to this day.

It’s not about winning, it’s not about overcoming the challenges, it’s not even about challenges anymore… Justwalkingism is giving you something to go through and what is important is that you actually go through it. You. That you carry your intentionality and personality, that you internalise how much what is happening is happening to yourself projected in another space, not by empathy but by assuming direct control of the experience. Yes, those games sometimes have a jump button, or even a “use” button but they are not games about feeling smart or skilful because you pressed them right, they are about being ensconced in the moment: being there with little to do but wonder wanderingly at your own existence.

Marina Abramovic would sit you down in front of a screen and looking at your computed self inside an interactive universe you would perform “the gamer is in the room”.

    Bits and pieces

We could put the games born of this international movement into one of two categories: games and toys. The difference being that games have a goal: a beginning, a drive and one or more endings, while a toy has none of those made explicit and is therefore mostly about doing what you feel like in a given ruleset.

On the game side, many came out in the last couple of years dwelling in Justwalkingism. Two Half-Life mods are of course noteworthy in the crowd, early birds in their own right: Dear Esther which came out around 2009 and was later re-released as a full fledge game of ethereal beauty in 2012, and The Stanley Parable in 2011 with a re-release in 2013 improved tenfold in size, smartassness and quality.

While Dear Esther took the genre to a new peek of narrative quality with its eerie atmosphere and beautiful writing, The Stanley Parable took a different path in giving players overt agency over the story, simply by walking through a door or another. You were in fact not “just” walking anymore, which was already the case in Dear Esther but it was made obvious and toyed with (and with what talent!) in Stanley’s parable.

Be it those two, or Dream, or 9.03m, or Gravity Bone, or Thirty Flights of Loving or any other, Justwalkingist games have predominantly been made in first person point of view (FPnonS if you’d like) but the movement has invested many other perspectives. Passage by Jason Roher is one of them, a game mostly about walking (sometimes over stuff) but in a third person top-down perspective, Hohokum has also been characterised as a promenade-heavy game from a 2D side perspective.

Justwalkingism, again, is an art movement, meaning that its artists express themselves on many platforms, including mobiles. If Superbrothers: Sword and Sorcery EP was an early piece of the movement, Oquonie, Year Walk or Hiversaires are more recent expressions of it.

Chief among Juswalkingist video toys is Proteus, which came out in 2013 and took aimlessness to a whole new level in a randomly generated open world. What it means is that while strolling down the pixelated hills, vistas, sightings, clever arrangement of trees and nature are not, in fact, clever. The only clever thing in Proteus is you, you are creating and projecting meaning.
Another achievement in the field is Xaxi, a virtual stroll through machinic-dreams and darker landcapes 

But to make the point that Justwalkingism is not merely a type of games, we will look a bit further: Life in the Garden by Zimmerman and Nowacek: shuffle the cards and walk through a story in which the burden of sense-making is yours to bear. Life in the Garden is Justwalkingism in a toy made of actual cardboard cards but it feels the same as Proteus or Passage: strolling inside a fictional landscape.

We can think of games like colouring books: the outlines are there but the finished piece is still yours to make.

All art is quite useless.

- Oscar Wilde (in the preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray)

    You had to be there…

What Justwalkingism portrays is the existence of one in a moment and it yells back, in those games’ abstract and minimalist gameplays, at people calling them not games: WE ARE GAMES. In the clearest way possible: they show the player, by stripping them of their capacity that their existence inside the universe is what matters, what makes the moment what it is. There is no-one to slaughter, no other here, just yourself and the story to be lived in the universe it lives in. Lived. Not beaten because you have no weapon, not conquered for you have not army and not run through because more often that not, you can’t run, or jump, or fly. You are here, stuck to the ground in a moment with yourself, your choices and fears. For games are choices, and as long as you have agency, or at least the sentiment of agency, it’s a game you’re playing.

Gameplay is discursive, it says things, and reduced to walking mechanics what it says to you is that you are here, in the world. You’re not a hero, you are not someone else, you just exist and by stripping you of all unnecessary actions, it takes a minimalistic approach to game design to emphasise the rest. The story, the ambiance, the sense of presence or the immersion, the choices…

That’s what Justwalkingism is: an art movement dedicated to start game design anew: to strip games of the clutter of mechanics that hinder the player’s relation to the world. To seek a deeper and more meaningful journey by pacing games and allowing the player to sip inside the space through forgetting goals and assertions of dominance. 

Being able to question your place in the game in relation to your person, being able to stop, for a moment, to think of who you are and what you’re doing here as if you were another person… What other media provides that experience but games?

    Beyond “just” walking

From that new beggining, directions were taken

For some, being alone is a frightening thing, Mark Hadley made a walking simulator called Slender: The Eight Pages out of this nagging feeling that… you can’t really be alone in there… Yes, no-one thought of calling it a non-game but what do you do but walk in it? Indeed, many detractors of “walking simulators” were too busy pissing their pants to call Slender: The Eight Pages a non-game. With the democratisation of game making tools and the explosion of the indie scene, a heap of game originated from that fear of not being able to react rapidly and see behind you. While Alone in the Dark already used the lever of disempowerment in 1992, it was taken to a new level in the last years and would probably not have existed without Justwalkingist games.

And what of Day-Z? And Rust? Would those games have dared to exist if others had not tanked the torrent of insults and demeaning remarks? Would the whole “survival game” family have dared to be paced the way they are with actions few and far between?

And of course, an article on Justwalkingism could hardly be written without mentioning Gone Home, born of the movement's new beginning and direction. An exploration game, an adventure game in the most intimate of senses, somewhere between a hidden object and a point and click piece. A genre that is already birthing promising titles such as Firewatch or The Long Dark.

    And on that…

Justwalkingism is an art movement, a global and international tacit conversation about what games are and what they can be. It feels like a reactionnary movement, much like Cubism or Surrealism were in their time. A way for some to voice new things through the media of games, a more intimate set of mechanics.

Proteus

And on a less solemn note: I would like to personnaly thank all the makers of those games for taking and tanking mountains of shit so that the medium could move forward.

____________________

If you wish to participate in the conversation, feel free to do so in the comments here or on our website, on our facebook page, harangue us on twitter or mail me at oscar@ our website adress which is themgames.net.


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