So I have this thing where I don’t really enjoy sandbox games. Minecraft, for instance. Can’t play it for more than twenty minutes. I build a pick-axe, muck around a bit with some landscaping, and then I switch it off. I need goals. I don’t want to set my own goals – I don’t want to go out and be creative, or take in the sights or whatever – I just want a game that’s like ‘do this’. It’s just how I approach the medium. That attitude makes me a bit shit at walking simulators, to be honest – you know, I always imagine people appreciating the views, and thinking about what’s being said, and pausing to appreciate the different environments. I go through those things like Cruella de Vil down a road full of puppies. I’m on a mission, and I’m not stopping for anyone. But then at the same time, I don’t necessarily enjoy mindless grind travel, either. If you’ve got one of those early 2010s collect-a-thons, Arkham City or Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood with its fifty million treasure chests – it’s not especially enjoyable to go from A to B picking up these shitty treasures for hours on end. It feels like a chore – it’s not compelling gameplay.
That said, that’s a pretty interesting spectrum of games. On the one end you’ve got things like, say, Proteus (pictured above), a 2013 game about walking around and enjoying the view. There are a couple tasks that you’re supposed to do in that game, and I kinda ripped through those tasks and then put the game down. I didn’t have a lot of interest in just vibing in this virtual world. On the other end, you’ve got Ubisoft games like AC: Brotherhood, where there are a hundred flags and a hundred and eighty treasure chests to collect. It’s just a chore. The question, then, is what’s in the middle. What’s a compelling reason for players to explore an environment? The view alone isn’t enough, and the tasks by themselves aren’t always good enough either. A few weeks back, I suggested that Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst motivates players with the promise of pathfinding. It encourages you to get to know the city, and all its different routes and quirks. That’s one approach – you’re learning the space, learning how to move through it efficiently. Another option comes from Treasure Hunter Simulator, a 2018 game about, uh, hunting for treasure.
So here’s the pitch. You have a metal detector, and you hike around different areas and wait for the detector to go off. Then you futz around a little, find the artefact, and then you carry on. The thing about Treasure Hunter Simulator is that it makes walking into a task. Where I tend to rush through a walking simulator, chasing the next goal or milestone, Treasure Hunter Simulator turns the walk itself into one of your goals. In some games (for instance, The Fidelio Incident), walking can feel artificial and imposed, a way to force the pace of the game. But here, it’s an integrated component of your task. Treasure hunting means walking around and waiting for the beeper to go off. You can walk wherever you like, because your walking has its own exploratory purpose, and you’re also released from the obligation to trudge to a certain place, because you don’t know where the treasure is hidden. That combination releases you to enjoy the spectacular views. You’re not going anywhere specific, you’re just walking. And while you’re walking, you can peer down at the river, or up at the hills and mountains; you can walk along hiking tracks or veer off into the woods. You can go wherever you like, because wherever you go, you’re equally likely to stumble across buried treasure. When all pathways are equally valid, you can choose the one that appeals to you most.
There’s a broader theme here of the incidental joys that fit in around our work. It’s something that I’m tracing through a few different video games – I don’t have anything overarching to say yet, nothing big or particularly intelligent. I’m just tugging on the thread whenever it comes up. I wrote about it, for instance, when I was talking about What Remains of Edith Finch, where you play a character doing menial work and vanishing into his own little imaginary world along the way. Similarly, in Treasure Hunter Simulator, you’re tasked with walking around beautiful areas – and your job is to find shit buried in the ground, but you also get to do that job outside, in nature, in these beautiful places. There’s the work, in the strictest sense, and then there’s the incidental shit that fits around it. Where walking simulators are all about incidental shit, and where collect-a-thons don’t have enough incidental shit, this weird little game just shoots through the eye of the needle, collecting the best bits of both along the way.
Although, of course, it’s not the case that any one of these game types is necessarily better than the other. I enjoy Treasure Hunter Simulator more than some of the straight walking simulators I’ve played (and more than some of the collect-a-thons), but that’s really just my preference. There’s no value judgement about the text as a whole. Rather, when we start with our response to a game, and figure out why we did or didn’t enjoy it, it helps us understand the game’s core components. We come to a better understanding of what it is and how it functions. Treasure Hunter Simulator takes your typical walking simulator and gives purpose to otherwise aimless wandering. You might not need a purpose to your wandering – you might resent that imposed structure – and that’s fine. We’re still walking away with a better understanding of what this game is. That’s valuable.