Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) is a bit long in the tooth but it gave birth to the popularity of the “walking simulator”. Look, gang, if you really wanted to be offensive about it, you should call these games dog walking simulators, where the player is the goddamned dog.
Ordinary people felt free to dance naked on the streets and proclaim, “Let’s kill the gameplay!” But the original Dear Esther is 7 years old and if we’re still pumping out games where people potter about triggering monologues and weeping at eye candy then it suggests this revolution merely spawned an army of imitators: “Comrade, I make also great revolutionary walking simulator!”
Careful, team, MASSIVE spoilers lurk below. If you want to duck out now, here’s the short version: I enjoyed secret-box-on-the-cheap Verde Station but had problems with it’s-not-gameplay-honest-guv Ethan Carter.
I know what you’re thinking because you’re just that simple. You’re thinking the Tale of Tales gang would be disappointed with both titles. Tale of Tales dream that developers stop shoring up games with an appeal to a gameplay mentality. If developers aren’t bolting on bizarre puzzles to justify a player’s presence in a world, then they’re arguing that, well, the story itself is the puzzle!
Both Ethan Carter and Verde Station are mysteries challenging the player to figure them out. They approach this in different ways. Ethan Carter considers the player to be journeying through mystery to a final endpoint where all is revealed, whereas Verde Station is far more fragmented leaving some players mystified about what it’s all about, Alfie. Ethan Carter’s final cutscene is a story unlock, whereas Verde Station’s last scene is a total shocker that does not, in itself, answer the big questions.
HOWEVER. Both games refute the lazy pejorative “walking simulator” albeit in different ways.
Ethan Carter has you investigate the disappearance of a boy called Ethan Carter but the specifics of the details of how you came to be there and what you do is left intentionally vague, although a tiny bit more information is revealed in the prequel comic. The player’s main task is to rebuild memories although how exactly this worked took me a while to figure out as it isn’t wholly consistent.
The player only needs to walk around a bit to trigger the first memory yet the second memory is substantially more complicated, requiring you to relocate items back to their “original location”. This includes includes a railcar which doesn’t “snap to a hotspot” like other items do. It also doesn’t help that the verb “fix” is used to describe the process of returning items. Even worse, I had the misfortune to discover the pine cone/grenade early on, which disrupted my understanding of Ethan Carter’s relatively simple mechanics – because the grenade is the first step towards an easter egg, not part of the main plot.
I’m not sure how well this fits The Astronauts’ original intentions of killing the gameplay to serve player wonder and, even though the game flips the bird at the start with “we’re not going to hold your hand” it does and doesn’t. Later you need to reassemble ghostly echoes of the past in chronological order, and each echo is assigned a glowing number so you can put them in order. It’s actually difficult to figure out the solution from pure observation, so feedback coupled with trial-and-error make it more monkey work than an effort in reconstruction. And those shimmering numbers with supporting text tear up it’s non-gamey exterior.
Let’s change the channel. Verde Station is the only game I’m aware of that has adopted the term “secret box”, a term I coined last year to describe a broad cross-section of games that focus on sharing secrets with players, diminishing the role of challenge. I put it out there because I hated the term “walking simulator”. Convention has games transmit rewards for beating challenge, but we’ve seen an explosion of games that are more about the code as an artefact to run your fingers over than an arena for sport.
In Verde Station, you awake alone in a room and soon discover your purpose is to look after a small space station alone. I’ve played it three times – twice on Steam Early Access and once after the official launch. There are no puzzles to solve but story is still gated a la Gone Home (Fullbright Company, 2013). This brings up an interesting distinction between Ethan Carter and Verde Station. The latter is much more authoritarian about gating progress, yet the former more inviting to the explorer-player, save for the endgame. Which is the better game? The question is how you like your mysteries spun. If a player figures out the story in the first few minutes, then the player is consigned to watching pieces move into assigned positions – and this is one of the reasons why Gone Home gates progress through the story.
Give it some thought and you’ll realise Ethan Carter also gates the story because most players are unlikely to guess the true nature of what is going on until the final cutscene. The Astronauts hope players find the weirdness beguiling enough to push on for the story skeleton key at the end of the game.
Weirdness, indeed, is sometimes enough to see you through; I’m a big fan of David Lynch’s work despite struggling to understand most of it. But it’s an unstable storytelling tactic. Some will feel that they’re being strung along, the mysteries being eked out for the sake of length. French horror series Les Revenants (also known as The Returned) crossed the line because its characters either did not ask natural plot-resolving questions or refused to speak out just because. I could see the writers’ hands all over that thing and it drove me crazy. “Tune in next week to find out how, yet again, we avoid answering some fucking questions.”
Ethan Carter did not frustrate me as much as Les Revenants but it was in the same ball park. The player experiences several fantastical stories which turn out to be just that – fantastical stories that the vanished Ethan wrote. Although this does play into the overarching mystery, Ethan Carter is trying to have its cake and eat it. It teases players with the horror of disturbing a Cthulhu looky-likey or chasing an alien astronaut into a trap – but they’re immaterial. Ethan Carter could be seen, uncharitably, as a stage for disconnected set pieces, the games The Astronauts could have made. “We didn’t make a game about space aliens, but we could have!”
There was something odd about the sketchiness of the preview information that made me suspect Ethan Carter’s story was going to be of the more “mundane” variety, more Gone Home than Dear Esther. I would’ve been fine with that which made it doubly frustrating when the game tried to bamboozle me with parlour tricks as it turned out I was right in the end: Ethan Carter pans back and reveals that the entire game is just another layer of fantastical story shrouding something human and grounded very much in reality.
I’m not surprised that some found Ethan Carter to be moving. It strikes me that a large swathe of its target market would be able to identify with a tale about a “misunderstood kid who loves writing fantasy”. This might sound like I’m accusing people of filling the story blanks with their own lives, but all stories are part author-magick, part reader-imagination. I found Passage (Jason Rohrer, 2007) upsetting:
Somewhere in your teens, you become aware of history as something you have existed in as opposed to something you have not. Some of us deal with the knowledge of time’s arrow better than others. I’m terrible with it and suffer vertigo when I look back across the yawning chasm between now and the start of my life, seeing the past as a sequence of experiences that are locked and cannot be revisited. For this reason, Jason Rohrer’s Passage was a gut punch to my soul.
But in contrast my good friend Amanda Lange found it repugnant:
Passage, then. A game about a man, and a woman with no agency, who slows you down and holds you back, but sure is nice to look at, I guess.
Verde Station also works hard to manipulate its players, but takes a different tack. As you move from room to room, time jerks back and forth, so information is fed in a discontinuous fashion. This can be explained later by oxygen deprivation but, remember, this is still a very game story thing to do. Insanity blurs your vision, low health upsets movement speed, oxygen deprivation upsets time. But, hey, whoa there. Let’s not malign games as being the sole platform for this kind of story cheat. Consider how movie action heroes often behave like bullet sponges. Consider the relationship between Tyler Durden and the narrator in Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999).
But how Verde Station manipulates is interesting, even if overt. Like that stunning moment when you return to a chamber that was previously pristine yet now appears to be falling apart. This manipulation reaches a fever pitch with the ending when you become convinced, like the protagonist, that the station is an elaborate set-up and you’re not in space at all. The whole game is a brilliantly executed con: the con is there is no con.
It’s power is diminished on repeat plays as it becomes more obvious that the game is funnel, but this is always a problem with story games. Replays are really more about expedition, trying to uncover more data to explain what’s going on.
Verde Station cleverly nudges the player through the same mental journey as protagonist, even though some of the concepts are a bit on the unrealistic side (the physical size of the complete station is ridiculous with all that dead space) but it never entertains suggestions of something supernatural or fantastical.
However, I fell in love with Verde Station when it hit Steam Early Access which is not quite the same game that was eventually released. I can’t help feeling the final game is a little more flabby, perhaps in response to early criticisms about length (Alice O’Connor: “it didn’t do enough with it, give enough to see and discover”). Players can also spot a ship coming to save the day right at the end of the game, to ensure players realise this tragedy is entirely “self-inflicted” – in Early Access, I assumed the station and occupant had been abandoned meaning suicide was probably inevitable anyway. Although it’s a useful addition, the timing is too convenient, revealing the writer’s hand more than I’d like.
I’ve yet to see environmental storytelling as coy and understated as Kairo, although that game confused many of its players, because Verde Station still needs to rely on lore in the form of handwritten notes scattered around and messages stored on terminals. But it might be better to see Kairo as a special case because I’ve previously discussed how limiting it is to tell a story in a dead world. Certain messages are corrupted a little too conveniently, so the world feels like a puzzle authored just for you as opposed to a real situation you’re trying to make sense of.
However, Verde Station does makes you feel like you’re doing a kind of work in the station, a la Cart Life. Its tight space feels lonely and claustrophobic and you’re desperate to find new rooms, yet escaping from the “ship” into the “bottle” does not feel like a positive achievement but an omen of impending doom. Ethan Carter could not be more different encouraging the player to wander and wonder at a lush landscape, although it can occasionally feel overwhelming.
I admit I appreciate the intelligence of Ethan Carter much more having finished the game, and when I was mulling it over, I was reminded of the movie Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro, 2006) even though the latter is not a mystery in any sense. But I’d still have to say Verde Station was much more up my alley. Yet both Verde Station and Ethan Carter share some common ground.
First, they are thematically identical: developer stages a deception to mask a moment of tragedy. In Ethan Carter, the player discovers the tragedy, in Verde Station, the player engineers it.
Second, neither title befits the “walking simulator” moniker. Alice O’Connor observed it felt too “purpose-driven” for a walking simulator, a term normally associated with player passivity and I can say the same of Ethan Carter. They both show awareness that churning out pure “scout and trigger” games like Dear Esther, Gone Home or even THE RAPTURE IS HERE AND YOU WILL BE FORCIBLY REMOVED FROM YOUR HOME (Connor Sherlock, 2013) will lead to diminishing returns.
And so, reservations aside, it’s great to see both these games say no to “walking simulators”.
Footnotes on Ethan Carter
- Alternatively, Ethan Carter‘s Russian doll of stories-with-stories gives the game a more meta feel, like an artist statement about how stories have a certain reality.
- Oh my God that auto-save system was the worst.
- Eric Swain had some similar thoughts on Ethan Carter although goes further than I would.
- There is apparently “more” that can be figured out about Ethan’s life from all the metaphors and fragments on show – but I just wasn’t invested enough to go back.
- I’m tired of stories where personal demons are manifested as real ones, especially as “Aha! It’s a metaphor!” waves away every potential game/story schism. IGF Finalist One and One Story (Mattia Traverso, 2011) went to town on that. Ethan Carter dances around this territory.