It’s strange that the ‘walking simulator’ has become something of a modern punchbag. Not just in terms of industry history, where this style of game has been hugely influential across genres and is far from a modern phenomenon, but in terms of the varied experiences they offer. You could bring these two threads together with Myst, then look at Aporia and almost see a through-line — as well as, of course, two decades of incremental progress. Hey, that’s what walking is all about.
And just to tease one more point out of this, it’s worth pausing over the idea of walking and what we associate with it. My mind is a Romanticism-inflected mess and so I associate walking with the grandeur of the natural world: Wordsworth’s epic mountainous strolls where he’d mentally compose poetry by the paragraph, or the steps into the unknown taken by every human band in history, and then the everyday rhythms of our modern minds as we perambulate from place to place. Walking isn’t just a means of locomotion but an engagement with the physical world, the central action in a miniature adventure every time we step out of the front door. I’d go even further to say that, in the way my mental map of my hometown focuses on the time it takes to walk to various places, and the routes available, walking is one of the most important ways we understand the world.
Lest you think I’m away with the fairies, consider Firewatch. That game’s environment is built to be confusing, in the way that a real forest is confusing, and forces you to rely on your own gradual understanding of its contours and routes. By the time you’re halfway through that experience, you know the area around your fire tower intimately. That’s one kind of walking simulation. The other, represented by Aporia, is a journey towards some unknown destination. Moving into a new and unfamiliar place, step by step by step, and trying to make sense of everything as you discover more and more.
The danger with these experiences, as I found to be the case with Dear Esther, is that they can be too linear. This style of adventure is always going to have linear aspects, narratively-speaking at least, but the best examples create the illusion of freedom and choice for the player — not an easy or a minor trick to pull off. While I’m playing Aporia I put this line of thinking to Sebastian Bevensee, the game’s director, while asking where this game got its start.
“It started with studies in interactive storytelling,” says Bevensee. “And specifically how you could tell a story with no text or dialogue. So we were very much inspired by – you mentioned it yourself – Dear Esther, which we felt needed some sort of freedom and interaction, but it really had a nice concept going.
“But what we really wanted to do different was to do it in a more Journey style – we wanted to make a story with no text or dialogue, and — as you see in Journey, the story’s very vague, but it’s also strong even though you don’t get a specific story from it. So that’s what we’re trying to achieve, exploring how people will perceive a specific story told without text or dialogue.”
This is music to my ears, because ambiguity is one of games’ most powerful storytelling tools and almost invariably used either not at all or badly. The self-imposed restriction of telling a story without text or speech also kind of necessitates this approach, forcing you towards abstraction, and Aporia’s central replacement is sequential illustrations. At certain points in the game’s world you come across these homely drawings, which are ‘dormant’, and by solving nearby puzzles you’ll see certain movements and connections drawn between them. Reminiscent of hieroglyphs in certain stylistic respects, specific elements like a hooded figure recur over different groups of images, but there are large gaps between seeing them, as well as smaller examples hidden in corners.
“The difficult thing I think is creating an ambiguous narrative with some kind of catharsis,” says producer Niels Wetterberg. “You see a lot of sort of ambiguous narratives where everything is sort of up to you, but you don’t feel satisfied or necessarily satisfied at the end. One of the good anecdotes from testing is we’ve asked people if they understood the story and they say ‘Yes we completely understood it’ and then explain what they think it is about. And there are literally hundreds of different versions they give.”
As well as the sequential images, Aporia uses these flashbacky ghost-like animations that, at some points, take over the world. It’s not quite clear what these are but, if I had to guess, I’d say they’re the memories of individuals within the world — a more ground-level perspective on the grander narrative that this society has preserved in its art. It’s a neat way of mixing techniques, and not least in the way it emphasises how these abandoned locations were once occupied.
The most striking thing about Aporia, to me, is that the Myst comparison feels right. It may be a frequently-cited game but I also feel it’s often badly-cited because, to be blunt about it, very few games since have recaptured the awe and atmosphere of Myst. Part of that was clearly the contemporary context — Myst had incredible visuals, it still looks pretty decent even now — but also this unusual world it created, the evocative symbols and odd puzzles, whereby the limitations were irrelevant next to the way the game enveloped you.
“I have the exact same feeling actually,” says Bevensee. “I think it was sort of all the untold things in Myst, the whole mystery about it – what happened here and what is this and you really wanted to seek answers. The way we are sort of diverting from that is we have less isolated puzzles, I would say. Some of them are very difficult, some are very humble, but we have a bit more scope so it’s less of a hardcore puzzle game.”
It would be pointless to talk you through Aporia’s puzzles, because they're all about reading your environment and discovering what you can do — there is limited on-screen guidance at the game's start, but no overbearing tutorial or hints. Typically you'll find the way forward barred and a suspicious collection of objects nearby, and what comes next is various: lighting things, drawing connections between different points, rotating elements of the scenery, interpreting symbols for clues. Relatively standard stuff, you might think, but what pleasantly surprised me was that, on one occasion, I completely misinterpreted an image and, by luck and fiddling, solved it anyway. That may have just been outlandish fortune but, in the way that banging the telly sometimes makes it work, it felt good.
The first thing Aporia’s developers started talking about when I came into the room was the narrative potential of video games. It’s one of those areas where there’s a lot of chat, but little of it is worthwhile listening to. I think I have an idea of what's going on in Aporia, and it's a bit dark — basically this abandoned society discovered something that cures ageing, but it was all a trick, and some nasty spirit's behind it all, and everyone dies. But that's completely made-up. Wetterberg just laughs when I outline this theory, another one to add to his collection of hundreds. I ask where he hopes Aporia's real narrative strength is going to lie, what aspect of their technique will captivate players.
“We’re from Scandinavia where the Nordic Noir has been really popular, and that crime is always solving a crime or getting to know who killed a person, and there’s something about watching a show and guessing who the murderer is all the time,” says Wetterberg. “What’s really cool about games is that you can leave that decision up to the player all the time, and let them think about what’s going to happen next alongside ‘I’m going to go over here to explore…’
“So if you tap into that, the mystery, you can do much more interesting and captivating storytelling with games than you can in movies, because eventually the latter has to give a very specific answer whereas you’re sort of just winging it along as people play it, right? So that’s really somewhere to go. The simple fact you can do branched narratives where you leave it up to the audience to actually make the decision of what they think happened is really, really different from a movie where you tell the story.”
“I’ve always loved the unanswered things,” adds Bevensee. “And I’ve always hated if I don’t get any answers at all. For example in The X Files – I really, really loved that series because you always get some of the questions answered but there were always four or five or six questions just hanging there not being answered and you have to figure out for yourself, and then you speak with your friends about it the day after – “What do you think about this?” and so on. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do here.”
The word Aporia is Ancient Greek, and breaks down into the combination 'without passage.' But the word's meaning has a richer philosophical history, where it has come to be applied to an apparently-insoluble puzzle — and not in a negative way. Some of Plato and Aristotle's dialogues either use or end in aporia, and the concept's strength lies in its acceptance that philosophy is a mode of enquiry, rather than a search for fixed answers. Whether Aporia can live up to this heritage and that of Myst remains an open question — but sometimes, just looking for the answer is enough.