It’s while I’m pacing through the haunting, empty megalopolis of NaissanceE (LimasseFive, 2014) that it occurs to me. I’ve had enough of the derogatory phrase “walking simulators” even though some are attempting to adopt the term as a positive label. Ya know... that doesn't mean I have to like it.
This kind of crap goes a lot further than “walking simulator”. Games have also been characterized negatively as toys. Or theme park rides. It's all about the magic ambrosia known as “interactivity” which is as well defined as a drop of water in a puddle, because “sitting, walking, listening, looking, playing, just fucking being is interaction”.
Attempting to rigorously define interactivity is about as joyous as rigorously defining the word game into your preferred pigeon hole. You might see healthy debate in this conversation. I see a black hole event horizon through which my will to live is disappearing.
Anyway, that's enough of that. Especially as you've probably figured out that today I want to discuss “himitsu-bako”.
The Japanese phrase “himitsu-bako” (秘密箱) is normally translated to English as “puzzle box” or, more precisely, a Japanese puzzle box. The himitsu-bako is a wooden box that only opens with the right sequence of moves and twists – which may be simple or complex.
I want to put the standard English translation aside because it focuses on the word puzzle. A direct translation is “secret box” which puts the emphasis on the secret at the heart of the box, rather than any puzzle. I think the secret box is a much better analogy for a broad swathe of games that eschew challenge in favour of pursuit of a secret, the little magic a developer wants to share with you.
The GROW series (On, 2002-present) of puzzle games are really about randomly clicking components until you find the right order of clicks to produce success; even bad moves sometimes generate interesting outcomes. There's little reasoning required to solve the game, mainly persistence to figure out the right sequence. The Hoshi Saga (NEKOGAMES, 2007-present) games are also more about finding the right trick rather than invoking mental ingenuity to smite a problem. It's not difficult to view these games as digital secret boxes.
You remember room escapes? Limited point-and-click games where you had to find some way of “escaping the room”. They were popular a few years ago, when Newgrounds and Kongregate were the places where all the interesting things were happening. Some of these behaved like secret boxes, where the brain workout was minimal and the player spent most of their time hunting for important pixels. Not all games were so light, however; in the game Vision (Neutral, 2008) some of puzzle solutions required lateral thinking and random button pressing did not save the day. (The close cousin of the room escape is the hidden object game, extensive pixel hunts which have also proved to be popular.)
The conventional point-and-click adventure is built from puzzles and the fun arises from figuring out solutions. Yet, when I look at Machinarium (2009) and Botanicula (2012) from Amanita Design, I see that a substantial part of these games is clicking around just to see what happens and there's far more secret box to them than conventional game.
Vectorpark’s work such as Feed the Head (2007) and Windosill (2009) are pure click-and-see secret boxes. There are little patterns to learn if the player wishes to progress, but how to progress is often so random that we can hardly label these games intellectual stimulation. It is their unique child-like quality that charms and engages the player.
One might also argue twines are secret box games, because all of the options are laid out and it's a matter of brute forcing through the decision tree to see everything. Aside from tree mapping, thought normally isn't really required to uncover a twine's secrets.
Secret box elements inhabit many “traditional” games. All those easter eggs – from the body bags in the desert in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar North, 2004) to the hidden sound nodes in Obsolete (Orihaus, 2012) – are secret boxes within existing mechanic-based frameworks.
Let's get back to walking simulators. Titles like Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) and Proteus (Key & Kanaga, 2013) are lamented for not having “real challenge” and are thus judged “not games”. What they seem to be about is “simulating walking” with no other quality to vouch for them. But we've just spent most of this post discussing games that are not about challenge, but about poking around inside some developer-made structure to see how it works, what secrets it contains. That's precisely what these “walking simulators” offer. Walking forms part of the experience, but the purpose of walking in these games is to take you to the developer's secrets, whether that be the synaesthetic melodies of a Proteus pixelscape or the random monologues scattered around the island of Dear Esther.
Take Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013). For players to move forward they have to exhaust spaces – it's effectively a 3D hidden object game. Players don't really have to work aside from rummaging through every drawer and cupboard. The content gating of Gone Home is enforced to control the delivery of narrative to the player, not to provide artificial challenge. That's the real point of the game, the slow release of the story payload. Again: secret box design. Challenge is minimal; the primary purpose is reveal the game’s secrets.
Just this week I tried out a new, short “walking simulator”, a free game called Heartwood (Turner & Bibby, 2014). When I played I didn't look for challenge, I wondered what developer Kerry Turner had hidden inside it. It's not a walking simulator. It's a secret box. (I highly recommend it too, only takes five minutes.)
If you've really got to have a definition, let me draft one up for you. A secret box is a game which is built around some form of content and challenge is trivial or absent. The emphasis is on conveying moments or ideas to the player rather than testing the player's abilities. A secret box game would say narrative is the whole point, rather than offer narrative as feedback such as in cutscene-focused titles such as The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013).
You might wonder why I don't just embrace a term like notgame, because that seems to make a grab for the same space of work. But I dislike any term which implies negativity or insinuates a definition of game. What I also like about the secret box moniker is that it collects together many different experiences, some of which never been doubted to be proper games. I also view notgames less of a category but more of a challenge to find out what happens when you start fucking around with seemingly immutable game conventions - just like Dear Esther was a first-person shooter heavy on environmental storytelling with the shooting removed.
A game is not about walking from A to B, but about the things that happen to the player at A and B - a panorama, a conversation, a moment of madness... The act of walking is often vital to the experience, embedding a player inside the activity in ways that a static image or short film would not. But to claim it's about walking is as absurd as describing Half-Life (Valve, 1998) as a game about moving the mouse around and pressing some keys.
So screw your “walking simulators”. I've got a mountain of secret boxes over here that I'm anxious to explore.
- Is a game about secret boxes actually a secret box game? Consider mobile game The Room (Fireproof Games, 2012) which is a game based around secret boxes.
- Leigh Alexander made the association between puzzle boxes and room escape games in 2012, when writing about The Room.
- Chasing after challenge or thinking there needs to be some "goal" is a common secret box design error. A potentially brilliant secret box can be fatally wounded by this addiction to challenge. Looking back at Polymorphous Perversity (Nicolau Chaud, 2012), many would-be players were attracted to this "game about sex" yet walked away frustrated because of the complexity of the "sex-as-combat" system. The game was full of fascinating stories - but did it need sex combat? (Read the Electron Dance essay on the game.)
- There are games which do not fall under the secret box category but are outliers in a different sense. As noted in Stop Crying About Choice, games that focus on content can still exploit challenge. For example, the works of Pippin Barr are often notoriously difficult or require the player to tolerate the intolerable. They are not “good games” - but neither are they secret boxes.