Walking simulators are my cup of tea. Wandering, slow-burning games like Dear Esther, Proteus, and Kentucky Route Zero do a lot for me. I use them to relax and clear my head the same way I use yoga. I’m not looking to level up, dodge lasers, or drop bodies. Being a creature of habit, I rarely add to my library; new stuff comes my way by the occasional gift or the odd Steam search, so I was taken by surprise when I discovered a crushworthy game in the only quiet pocket of an otherwise raucous party.
In late 2015 I attended an indie video game themed fundraiser for local Chicago theater ensemble the Neo-Futurists. They had converted their lobby into a pop-up arcade. Once patrons pressed up the narrow stairs from the street to the second floor and checked in, they were free to explore the unique layout of the theater space: a short hallway leads from the stairs to a full kitchen, and an adjacent anteroom opens into the spacious lobby proper, which then leads through double doors to the theater.
The evening’s entertainment was staged as uniquely as the space itself: Dragging all the comfy furniture they owned into the large lobby, the Neos created a your-best-friend’s-basement-rec-room feel with colored lights, craft beer, mixed drinks, designer pizza, art for sale by VGA Gallery, and couches and chairs galore for attendees to flop into. All the lobby seating was arranged around several big screen or projection stations, each blasting a game ready to play. Chicago indie gaming connoisseurs Bit Bash had staff at the ready to give tutorials where needed. The games on tap, specially curated by Bit Bash, included Johann Sebastian Joust, Fotonica, and Chambara, to name a few. This was not your run-of-the-mill fundraiser.
In the push of bodies and the thunder of louder, faster-paced games, I almost walked right past one tucked in a corner. A pastoral snow-covered scene loitered on a much smaller screen. This was one of the few games in the packed room with only one chair and one basic PlayStation 3 controller hooked up. Single-player, quiet corner, no line, no wait? I’m in.
I took a seat in the stuffed, high-backed chair and put down my drink, picked up the controller, and was instantly struck by an unexpected game crush. It was a walking simulator with a gliding first-person perspective that moved through wide-open terrain. The seemingly directionless free-ranging allowed to the player, coupled with design that focused more on ambiance and aesthetic than story, had me wondering whether I hadn’t just stumbled onto Proteus 2.0. The feel of the two games were eerily similar, yet something about this game had me rapt in a way I hadn’t experienced with Proteus—at least not since the very first time I played it. I was thrilled at the idea of a new version, though I resisted looking at the title card sitting next to the monitor. I was impatient to take in more of the game and make some assessments on my own before reading its name and dry facts.
No menu was on the screen, only that wide view of a winter scene. I was apparently picking up where some other player had abandoned the game. I wandered freely through a sleepy, snowy pass, ambled over large rocks, and levitated up the sides of deep ravines, turning in all directions to take in the soft snowbanks and jutting outcrops of shale. I pressed forward and was delighted to discover a feature that Proteus certainly did not possess: At the touch of a trigger, ground cover and other scenic elements constructed themselves alongside me where they had not existed before. At one point an entire forest composed itself around me on its own; trunks shot up and extended branches out to each other. What was previously an open snowscape was suddenly a copse of self-assembled winter trees. I noticed the growing trees obeyed specifically programmed laws of physics, bending from the force as they flung themselves up from the ground. I live for these kinds of details. I was crushing pretty hard.
The soundtrack wasn’t audible over the cacophony of the room, but I assumed (correctly, it turned out) that the game would be scored with soothing ambient tones. But where was the direction? Where were the goals and the imminent quest? Even Proteus had tumbling petals nudging the player toward goals. (I didn’t confirm until after the event that I truly had been in the middle of someone else’s game, and they had already wandered through all the path markers.)
Before I could flag down a friendly Bit Bash staffer, the arcade portion of the evening came to a close. I hadn’t played for longer than a few minutes when everyone was ushered out of the lobby and into the theater. Disappointed at my poor timing, I slowly tore away from the game like a twelve year old being called up to dinner. I stood but still held the controller, pushing just a little farther past the forest to look around more. Finally hailed by a friend, I yielded, retrieved my drink, and followed the crowd. I glanced back at the title card: Shape of the World.
My exposure to the game was brief, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was enthralled by the lush design of the world, the visuals of the self-generating plants, the free-range wandering, and all the small details that added up to a lovely game. I wanted more time to tease out these qualities, to see whether other levels existed made up of different seasons a la Proteus, or if there were other worlds to explore altogether. I didn’t want a few more minutes with this game; I wanted hours.
When I got home from the event I looked up Shape of the World and was frustrated to learn that it wasn’t out yet. I had been ready to buy it on the spot. I settled for pre-purchasing and eagerly await its arrival. Will the game crush pan out? I’m not that worried. Whether I get that same feeling or not when I play again won’t take away from the initial meet-cute, which was a rare joy.
I can count similar gaming experiences on one hand. What set this moment apart was the unexpected rush in discovering a game that hit all my sweet spots. Some group of artists and devs designed a game that happened to contain all the elements and mechanics that command my attention, a game that just feels right from the get-go, yet they don’t know me. They just made it because they like it. They like what I like. That is validating as hell.
Gwynn is a writer and performer living in Chicago. She is a staff writer for WBEZ’s award-winning serial fiction podcast PleasureTown and an editor for Reading Out Loud, a podcast that produces short audio fiction from writer submissions. Follow her on Twitter at @GwynnValentine.