Kanoguti’s Walking Mesmerize

Kanoguti's Walking Mesmerize

Words and artwork by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded. If you enjoyed this article, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

Kanoguti’s Walking is the quintessential walking simulator—sorry, phantom ride. The core conceit is you must oblige yourself to move through the length of a straight, linear corridor in search of meaning, granted through a number of less tangible avenues than is usual for a medium predicated on make-believe.

To this end, Walking slightly resembles titles like Sophie Houlden’s stripped-down The Linear RPG. It’s similar in that you walk a line in lieu of a corridor but differs by its message being more conspicuous to a wayward player. The Linear RPG flaunts the language of RPGs, but not their mechanics, to elicit what many read as a critique of the genre’s modern degradation. It stays aloof and above its kin while allowing the presence of structural similarities, seeming enough like an RPG to remind us of its generic subject matter without becoming it intricately.

Both videogames engineer their messages through reductionist sentiments; they have the luxury of drawing on oceans of precedent to form the basis of communally available metatextual foundation. While Sophie Houlden uses this embedded self-reflection to perform genre reference and (potential) satire, Kanoguti chooses instead to make the player the burgeoning subject matter.

Walking uses only two buttons in mutual exclusivity: one to move forward, and one to crane your neck around to look behind you. Releasing the latter button turns the camera back to its default direction, so you’ll never be able to spin on your heel and head off right the way you came. This initially jars against what we might expect from this sort of videogame: strict restrictions on our trajectory confine and repel, denying us the core appeal of wandering in Proteus or exploration in Bernband.

As a mechanic ‘looking back’ is a novelty, and as we adjust our mental model to fit these unexpected parameters, a curiosity. Why do I have the ability to look around if my path can’t be altered? Why would I want to re-examine the length of the corridor I’ve only just trod? What is ‘looking back’ for? It seems a thing-in-itself, the option to look back the way we came. Juxtaposed against the conventional ability to look around freely in games far and wide it’s ambiguously suggested as a statement, perhaps on all we take for granted, perhaps on the inexorable march of time.

There are a few motifs shared among Kanoguti’s videogames and software, many of which I can’t link directly but you can find here, that illustrate an interest in patterned structures. Sokoe Nobotte and Repeating Stories cycle us upward in space and forward in time before reversing to their origins in tumultuous climax. Evird3D speeds us down an eternal road to rack up a score; Watching fixes us in place while spying on a man creeping away and crashing towards us. Paradise MV hypnotises us with loops of geometry and music, while Re-SMP invites us to make our own loops.

Some of these thread what could be described as elements of horror to affect a sense of disruption inside their composition. Like Walking, Mortuary recalls more common systems of first-person perspective games while withholding the archetype as a whole: we can look freely at the boxed enclosure of a doll’s face but are unable to move, forcing us to writhe in witness as it melts to nothing. Although our powerlessness is important here, we are not stricken as passive due to all that we lack; rather, the act of looking, and our role as witness, is heightened to superluminal through our own raised self-consciousness.

While this runs counter to much conventional thought on the relationship between player and videogame, I should note that it works for Kanoguti because they swing us between the two states of sublime and superluminal by keying into the therapeutic nature of repetitious behaviour.

In allowing our minds to wander during a routine task, we grow self-suggestive and lull into a daze. Jolting us back into alert with a shock (a jump scare or unexpected twist) provokes us to become hyper self-aware[1]. We blush in realisation at our self-involvement—perception of ourselves as filtered through how we are seen by others. Trapped under another’s gaze, we’re reminded of being fundamentally perceptible creatures.

This is what Walking does extravagantly.

You play, anyway, and soon you grow accustomed to the hallway’s unpredictable and frightening nature. As your feet rhythmically beat out the steady crunch of a gravel path, the two-button layout maybe endears itself. Autonomy falls away behind you. You relinquish the old desire to turn and change directions, slowly mesmerized by the disturbing flow of music and imagery.

Dead in front of you, the flash of a white face stops your tracks. Trick of the mind? The walls themselves flutter through a ménage of now-familiar wallpaper—wisping clouds, human outlines—such that you’d drifted beneath the lip of consciousness. That brief white flick could have been the brow of a cloud, could have been a disappearing texture, could have been, could have been…

You resume on your path, now recalling the other thing allowed of you. A good hard look behind confirms nothing to be seen. Uncertainty in your vision seeds paranoia, turning back to glance across your shoulder every few feet now. The repeated stopping and starting achieves little except to impede progress, so you peter out that behaviour to make good your travel down the corridor. But the seed sits heavy in the pit of your gut, and every couple of minutes you remember to look back the way you came.

A monster is facing you. Impossibly tall, its head brushes the ceiling; its arms gradually end in long, curved claws stretching down below its waist; a small face cracked by a playful smile. It stands still, dormant, patiently watching.

You’re afraid to blink, afraid to move, until you decide, it seems, the monster is content just to survey for now. But still you can’t move because you’re facing the wrong way. As you unfreeze the muscles in your neck, you calm yourself into a course of action. It plays with you; do you play back and test the waters? See how you can affect its presence. See if you can exert some control.

You release the button and slam it again to catch the monster in an act. It’s gone. Nothing there now but the empty space of the corridor and the impenetrable curtain of shadow beyond. But it was there, you know with absolute certainty. You didn’t imagine this one. And it’s still there, inside the gloom. Haunting you. Stalking you. The daydream is shredded. Under its gaze you’re irrevocably changed.

 


 

[1] In the language of phenomenology, ‘pre-reflective self-consciousness.’ Calling it by this name is akin to using a ouiji board to summon the ghost of Wank Academia, so I’ve relegated this trivia to a footnote.

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Two Minute Game Crit – Walking Simulators and Phantom Rides

Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit. I’m Stephen Beirne, you can find me in longform at Normally Rascal.

Today I’m going to be talking about a genre of games like The Legacy here. In The Legacy, you walk around this deserted wasteland and eventually come across a few things of interest. It’s wonderful for a bunch of reasons I won’t get into in this video.

Now, games like The Legacy are often uncharitably called “Walking Simulators,” or “First Person Walkers,” usually by people who want to dismiss them. My gripe is, it’s a way of looking at the genre that’s stuck in a limiting mentality of what games can do and how the medium works in general.

So I want to break down some of the underlying subtext of these terms and challenge their continued use.

First there’s First Person Walker, or the alternative wanky version, First Person Experiencer. Personally I don’t like these variations because focussing on camera perspective misses the forest for the trees. It’s a common shared attribute but it’s not really What’s Going On, you know?

Anyway, they’re far more often called by the pejorative Walking Simulators, which is a name that came about through a very literal way to describe what you do in these games.

You walk.

Walking’s not seen as something especially interesting for a game to have because millions of other games feature walking already. It’s boring and normal. Most players are able to go outside and experience the joys of walking in real life. Through this logic, a game that simulates walking is connoted as valueless.

Now, this all comes from a mentality which erases anything that’s not a game’s mechanics from consideration of the medium’s formal structure. But look it, what the player does mechanically in a game isn’t always a clear indicator of what a game does in general. We’re used to this idea with horror games, so it’s weird how it’s a problem with something like The Legacy or Proteus or Dear Esther.

There’s been some effort to reclaim the term “Walking Simulator” but it’s so rooted in this backward thinking, I feel it’s still a fairly wrongheaded way to describe these sorts of games.

Instead I think we should call them “Phantom Rides,” after the genre of early films where the camera was shlapped to the front of a train.

Back when people were figuring out how cinema worked, Phantom Rides pioneered the whole idea of moving the camera on a rail to give a sense of animation to the viewer. People used to go to the cinema just to be “transported” from the theatre to a journey on a railway line. But it wasn’t just the novel sensation of movement, it was an opportunity for them to experience local sights in new ways, or to visit faraway places they’d never be otherwise able to see.

These types of movies were popular for a brief period before phasing out and being incorporated as film techniques into movies as a whole.

So rather than thinking of The Legacy and all them as “games that simulate walking” or focusing on other coincidental aspects, I think it’d be useful to reframe things to reflect what they actually do: transport us to other places for new experiences. That way, we can find better ways to express ourselves and to understand these games, without the burdensome language put there by people who, to put it nicely, aren’t really interested.

So there we are. Phantom Rides.

I’m Stephen Beirne, you can find me at Normally Rascal and on Twitter, or support my work by popping over to Patreon and becoming a patron. Cheers for watching.