With the majority of titles, it is the action players will perform more than any other, so creating a movement system that holds the players interest is critical
Movement is one of the most important aspects of a video game.
With the majority of titles, it is the action players will perform more than any other, so creating a movement system that holds the players interest is critical.
While there isn’t a one-size fits all answer to what goes into good movement, it often centers around meaningful player interactivity.
This may come from having them jump between structures in the environment to reach new places or string moves together in order to maintain momentum or time button presses just right to get a little speed boost.
Doing these things successfully calls for thoughtful player input and is rewarded with fast and fluid movement.
Players can’t just hold forward and be done with it as they are practically required to pay attention in order to move through a space effectively.
This constant loop of needing to properly execute specific inputs and then being rewarded with efficient movement for doing so keeps players engaged and it is both satisfying to pull off and exciting to watch, making it something they not only have to do, but want to do.
But, what about games where the primary form of movement is…Walking is possibly the most common form of movement found in video games, and the action itself is almost always pretty boring.
It doesn’t ask much of players, it’s kind of slow, and it can end up accounting for a huge chunk of a title’s runtime.
Now, obviously, not every game needs complex movement.
Depending on what a title is trying to do, including what is conventionally seen as “good” movement could have a negative impact on other aspects like gameplay or tone.
Walking is the right choice for a lot of titles, and despite it not being all that interesting, many games that use it are still able to keep players invested while traversing the world.
So, when it comes to titles that don’t rely on engaging movement mechanics, where it is mostly just walking or maybe running, how do they keep players from getting disinterested while traveling? The answer pretty much boils down to finding ways to distract players from the fact that the movement is boring.
Many titles handle this by densely packing their traditional gameplay sections together, the logic being that if players are constantly thrown into combat or puzzle solving or whatever mechanic a game is centered around, they won’t have enough downtime to even pay attention to potentially boring movement.
Like, if the player barely walks anywhere they won’t do it enough to get bored of it.
With that said, when a game has virtually no downtime, it can become exhausting quickly, and while this is fine for certain genres, a lot of titles rely on having space for reflection, so cutting out sections that give players a little time to breathe isn’t really an option.
Meaning developers have to put the focus on making whatever amount of walking they have seem interesting.
This often starts by adding at least one additional layer of complexity to how moving works, like in most games instead of just being able to walk, players also have the ability to walk slightly faster.
This may not sound like much but having multiple speeds a character can move accomplishes a handful of things.
It allows for more precise controls, it gives players the chance to move at whatever pace they think would be most appropriate for the various places they visit, it lets video essayists capture cool-looking shots, and, most importantly, it tricks the player into thinking they’re doing more than they actually are.
Most players will almost always opt to move as quick as they can, so from a purely practical perspective many games really only need to include that one speed, but by having multiple speeds, players feel like they are maximizing their movement potential instead of just going at the default pace.
Having options, however, meaningless they actually are, gives players a greater sense of control.
With including multiple ones, there rarely is much to this in terms of mechanics—it’s usually just holding down shift or tapping x or managing a stamina bar, but by being required to give some inputs, it distracts a bit from the lack of actual gameplay.
Furthermore, animation plays a role as well.
Creating a walk cycle that feels natural to the character and is visually interesting has a lot of value as players will be looking at it all the time.
Obviously, there isn’t one correct approach for animating a character’s walk, but when considering how to hold a player’s attention throughout a game, arguably the most important aspect is having unique walk animations for the various states and circumstances a character may find themselves in.
Stuff like giving them a slight limp when heavily damaged or making steps slow and labored when treading through water or snow.
These sorts of details make movement more immersive because the character is reacting to the things they encounter in an organic way.
Even though this has no real mechanical impact, the variation in animations helps to make it seem like there is more to walking than there really is.
Along with this, a lot of titles also end up including movement options that aren’t technically walking or running, but operate similarly.
For instance, mechanically, activities like riding a horse in The Witcher 3 or canoeing in God of War 2018 aren’t that different from walking—they cover ground faster and turn slower, but it’s still mostly just pressing forward.
However, it does break up the tedium that comes from staring at a character’s back for hours as they jog along.
As the movement looks different, this causes it to feel different as well, despite it pretty much being the same.
Now, these sorts of things, while helpful, aren’t enough to fully distract players from noticing that walking long distances is kind of boring, so more needs to be done to augment how they perceive movement, and one of the most effective ways of doing this is through the use of tension.
When the player has some threat looming over them, their focus will naturally be drawn to it.
Even though tension is just the preamble to something actually happening, that sense of rising anticipation for whatever may come pulls the player in, distracting them from their actual movement as they are more focused on whatever threat lies ahead.
There are a handful ways to accomplish this, whether it be mechanically, narratively, atmospherically or a combination of the three.
Personally, I think doing it mechanically is the strongest approach.
When a system is built around the player avoiding danger, they have to both focus on their surroundings and use their limited mobility as effectively as possible in order to survive.
A lot of games, primarily ones in the horror genre, achieve this kind of tension by including an unkillable monster that pursues the player, all but forcing them to be careful with how long they linger in certain areas and keep their head on swivel as to lookout for whatever thing is trying to kill them.
Every step could be the one to give them away, creating an air of suspense that is tied directly to their movement.
Also, as the playable character can only walk so fast, those inevitable chase sequences become all the more thrilling because escaping is not quick, easy, or guaranteed.
Other games opt to use environmental threats to cultivate this kind of tension.
Death Stranding does this pretty effectively through its Timefall mechanic, which is a rain that causes the items Sam is carrying to deteriorate and its BT areas, which are sections of the map that are riddled with dangerous monsters that will easily kill Sam if the player isn’t properly prepared.
The Timefall causes players to want to either reach their destination or just a place to wait out the rain as quickly as possible so their deliveries don’t get destroyed; every wasted moment might lead to failure, so players are pushed to take action.
And this is where the BT areas often come into play as many of them are conveniently placed along the most direct routes to various destinations, so players have to choose between taking the safer, but longer route and risk the timefall ruining their packages or cutting through the BT areas and chance getting attacked by inky monster that could potentially kill them.
The combination of these threats makes something as seemingly simple as choosing a path to walk become a crucial choice, keeping the player preoccupied while traveling across the map.
Ultimately, tension as a mechanic can take all sorts of forms whether it be the threat of random encounters in an RPG or the ever shrinking circle in a Battle Royale game that the player needs to stay within or a timer that brings about some consequence when it expires.
Whatever the approach, what matters most is that it keeps players invested in what is going on so that they can’t just hold forward and zone out.
It gets players to use the movement they have, however limited it is, in interesting and efficient ways.
With all that said, mechanical based tension can get overwhelming if it is non-stop, so it’s important to find the right balance for how often it is used so as to not exhaust players.
While it isn’t as powerful of a technique, a game’s narrative can also establish a similar sense of tension.
When the stakes are raised in some way and the player is put in a situation that feels urgent, moving from one place to the next gains a new sense of importance.
Whether it be to save an ally or to reach a town before it’s destroyed, as long as the player is invested in the world and story, these kinds of threats will pull them in.
The time spent rushing to wherever they need to go will be filled with uncertainty of what may come next, and every slow step is a reminder that they may not get there in time.
In general, it is most effective when this kind of tension comes from specific moments instead of some overarching threat as it is harder to maintain tension longterm.
The downside of this kind of approach is that the urgency rarely actually matters.
As most games have set stories, players can dick around in these moments and it changes nothing.
The goal of sections like these is to make the player believe that they matter, so when that illusion is shattered, so is a lot of the tension.
For many players, this won’t be much of an issue, but for those who struggle to suspend their disbelief, it can cause problems.
A similar thing can be said for using atmosphere to create tension.
Sometimes just being in a place that feels menacing is enough to trigger that fight or flight instinct.
And plenty of games use that to their advantage.
There are a fair amount of titles that create play areas with all the trappings of dangerous or suspicious places, but without any actual threat.
The walking sim genre is kind of famous for using this method.
They often center around exploring abandoned houses, towns, ruins, or even space stations, and there is almost always a sense that these places are haunted by something.
That the player is not alone.
One of the earliest and best examples of this is Gone Home.
For a good portion of the game, it feels like at any point, a ghost could be right around the corner.
The house is old and creaky, rain constantly buffets the side of the house occasionally being accompanied by thunder.
It’s spooky, and it makes walking through the house a bit terrifying.
On my first playthrough, I rushed to every light switch I saw, and dreaded anytime I had to walk into a dark corridor.
I played it in the same way I play horror games, slowly peeking around corners and stopping to listen to my surroundings.
This made the moment to moment movement more exciting, even though I was never in any actual danger.
The issue with this type of approach is that once players realize there isn’t anything to actually be afraid of, it loses a fair bit of its effectiveness.
Generally, this is fine with shorter games or small sections of a larger title, but without any real payoff for the tension, it can end up feeling a bit hollow.
Games are at their most tense when their mechanics, narrative, and atmosphere are all working together as they fill in the gaps each have on their own.
While the use of tension is a strong way to give more importance to walking, if there is never any release of the tension, it runs the risk of feeling grating, so a lot of games will juxtapose tension with immaculate vibes.
This may come in the form of a stand out song playing as you travel or a breathtaking view being along your path or the sunset hitting just right.
Whatever it may be, it makes you feel like you are in a capital M Moment.
It is the game telling players to reflect, to breathe, to focus less on where they’re going and more just on the going.
For these moments to work, they need to feel special, so they should be somewhat rare and fleeting in nature.
While it can be a hard thing to time, they should also come at points that players will need them the most.
When a moment feels important, players will become more immersed in what is going on and focus less on the mechanics of something like walking and more on the general experience.
When done well, it feels like a way to pass the time while traveling, and serves to connect moments together in an enjoyable and memorable way.
The far more common way games attempt to cultivate this feeling of “passing the time” while walking is through talking.
This may be in the form of an audio log or the protagonist verbalizing every single thought that passes through their head, but most often it comes from conversations between characters.
By pairing walking and talking together, it allows players to move from one traditional gameplay section to the next while also getting character and story development, in theory, melding narrative and gameplay together.
When done well, it causes walking to feel more important as it progresses the story and it gives the player something to do during what could have just been a cutscene.
However, the success of this heavily relies on the quality of a game’s writing because if what the characters have to say isn’t interesting, players will just end up tuning them out.
It can also lead to problems when the dialogue doesn’t line up well with the character’s movement.
In almost every game that has a lot of walking and talking in it, at some point I either accidentally cut off a character mid sentence by hitting a new zone or stand around awkwardly waiting for them to finish talking.
Furthermore, depending on a character’s AI, they might end up far behind or in front of the player, making it almost impossible to hear what they’re saying.
Obviously, with most titles, these issues are infrequent, but when they do happen, they pull players out of the moment, turning something that was meant to make the time pass faster into another thing to wait around on.
With that said, in general, I think using dialogue during walking sections is an effective way to hold the player’s attention, but it can easily be overused, and when walking sections seem to exist solely to deliver dialogue, it begs the question if a cutscene would have been better instead.
It is worth noting that just because a game has walking as the main form movement, doesn’t mean it can’t be mechanically complex.
The most prominent recent example of this can be seen with Death Stranding, where players have to pay close attention to Sam’s balance in order to make adjustments with the trigger buttons so he doesn’t eat shit.
Along with asking for multiple inputs from players on a regular basis, it leads to constant decision making in terms of where to walk as different parts of the terrain pose various risks.
If players aren’t focused while traversing the world, they will be horribly ineffective.
Now, the thing about this system and most others that bring mechanical depth to walking is that they are more focused on giving consequences for failure instead of bonuses for success.
Like, at the end of the day, the reward for having Sam maintain his balance is that he doesn’t stop walking, so while it does keep the player engaged, it doesn’t bring the same kind of joy that web slinging efficiently around New York does.
It is meant to act as a potential disruption to movement, which works great for Death Stranding as its gameplay is designed around that idea, but it is understandably an approach that most games with a lot of walking in them would want to avoid as it runs the risk of becoming irritating and immersion breaking.
All in all, the best way to keep walking from feeling stale is by combining these strategies together in order to always present the player with something new so that they don’t get too used to any one thing.
This all may seem like it isn’t that important, and, ya know, for some players it’s not.
Even with games that do a good job of masking their somewhat boring movement mechanics, a large portion of players will still in fact find them boring.
Depending on what you value in a game, no amount of tension or vibes or talking or button inputs will distract you from a title’s lack of conventional gameplay.
For some players, these approaches will just never work.
And, that’s okay.
Not every game needs to be for every player.
For those who it does work for though, including these sorts of distractions is often the difference between a title feeling well-paced and bloated.
These aspects keep folks engaged during a game’s least engaging moments, and even though they won’t draw in every player, the fact that they work for so many is a feat nonetheless.
It takes a lot of work to make any movement system, however simple it may seem, feel right.
It is easy to look at games with fast and frenetic action and assume that that is what “good movement” looks like, but good movement can take all sorts of forms, whether it be flying, swinging, parkouring or even walking.
And frankly, for me when a game is able to make something as simple and potentially tedious as walking feel engaging throughout its runtime, there are few things I find more impressive.
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Thanks to Displate for sponsoring this video.
With that, I hope you’re well.
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I hope you have a great day and/or night, and I’ll see you in the next one.