American Roads and American Games: Why I Hated Hiking
(This essay is about how Hiking in Japan, Hiking in the USA, the USA's car dependency and roads, the connections of hiking/car dependency, and their relation to the design of AAA Open world games (or living in general.))
"I never want to hike!" That was something I believed until recently, my perception of the activity being something involving distant road trips, remote areas, camping, dangerous falls and exhausting treks. Growing up in the USA gave me this assumption. I knew of nearby forest preserves, but even then a car was still a prerequisite.
Now, living in Japan, I enjoy long city walks and short hikes into forested trails near towns, etc. I've begun to notice hiking photos more, however, when faced with a picture of a national park I still don't feel an urge to go. I guess I like "easy hiking." On the hardest side, there is multi-day mountain climbing, dangerous walks around ocean cliffs, vertical hikes through slippery, rocky forests. Even on my 'easy hikes' (easy, according to reviews), it's still riskier than I'd like: bear warnings, steep falls.
Marketing for hiking trails often says something to the tune of "You might die, but the views are good!" I wonder if there is an association between the difficulty of harder hiking and the pleasure of the views, and something like the pain, humiliation and pleasure in things like... BDSM, or games like Dark Souls. I also wonder if there's an association between the wealthier, urban Americans, and enjoying hiking. (This essay won't explore either of those lines of thought.)
Hiking guides seem to emphasize the importance of risk mitigation and research. Growing up, I'd see people at airports with gigantic backpacks, or friends' photos with camping equipment and gear. Recently I learned that to hike in the USA at national parks or mountains, sometimes you need reservations. This makes me think about reserving tickets for Disneyworld, although places like that are called "Theme Parks" or "Amusement Parks". It's interesting that "Park" is used for so many things.
"Hard Hiking" at a national park reminds me of vacation planning in that one must plan out a flight, car rental, road trip, hotel, park reservation, gear, food, etc. I think this might be related to my original and current lack of interest as I tend to get stressed out when planning vacations. That's to say, I'm not opposed to an easy hike at a National Park in the USA, but there's a lot around getting to the hike that seems too hard for me. Something about detailed planning reminds me of work - setting up the task list, the execution of drives and hikes, visiting landmarks, etc.
Why did I grow up with the impression of "Hiking" being equivalent to "Hard Hiking"? Well, I need to talk about cars.
I grew up in a USA suburb. You need cars to live there. A car is a prerequisite for doing absolutely everything except checking your mailbox or walking to a nearby friend's house. To get from point A to point B, you need to detach your mind from your physical body and "become the car", otherwise you can't focus enough to drive safely. When getting from point A to point B, you "think like a car" - thinking in terms of the roads you need to travel on, where you need to turn, stoplights, speed limits.
Even in USA cities like Chicago, with adequate (depending on where you live) public transportation, the logic of the grid system still feels designed for cars, with sidewalks often an afterthought. In a dense city like Tokyo, I can walk to a variety of stores, restaurants, or bus or train stations within 10 minutes.
In both Japan and the USA, some hikes require you to drive for a few hours to a remote location. The difference is that in Japan it's possible to just take a few trains and maybe a bus, and find a small hiking trail.
On average, a hike in the USA is more likely to be a a big destination, as the time requirement increases the hike from a smaller activity to a bigger activity. I wonder if this 'average time to hike' being higher creates a greater contrast between "Nature" and "Everyday Life" for the average American. (In my case, it certainly did! I'm also irrationally frightened of touching spiders, and I wonder if there's some relation there.)
When we invest more time into something, we expect more out of it. I wonder if this is why my perception of hiking was "long multi-day trips", since usually people would fit hiking into the context of a longer vacation to a national park or two. If that's true, then I can draw a connection between the USA's road system and the formation of my perception of hiking.
I also wonder if the "higher stakes" hiking of the USA is related to how national parks are often associated with photo ops. When we travel far, we want to photograph something to mark the occasion. There seem to be designated photo spots along hiking trails or in national parks, so in the age of Instagram, these spots take on a religious-destination-like quality as many people take selfies with the same view. (This reminds me a bit of the concept of "Wanghong" in China, roughly, a quality of a place in a city that has "Social Media Spreadability").
One last question: I tend to see "Risky, but the view is worth it!" come up in reviews of tricky hikes. I wonder, at what point did "the riskier the hike, the better the view" come to be? I just checked and the death rate amongst hikers is pretty low (4 in 100,000), so maybe a more accurate statement is "The harder I work my body, the better the view".
It seems to be that the quality of a view is related to how few people are able to do it, and not related to something like rarity or being undiscovered (I can google "Mount Everest Summit" and see many photos, but I can't go there myself.) This generally feels just like reasonable, personal goal-setting, but there's also a distinctly competitive thread to it, and I wonder how much the two are tied up. It reminds me a bit of my creative practice at times, or the logic on game development as "the more money we make the more worth it all the time investment will have been!"
Let's talk about Open World games again! By "Open World" games, I mean the USA/Canada-originated category of large, AAA games that grew into prominence over the past 20 years, rather than the general category of 'Open World Mechanics'.
I feel like Open World came into prominence as a result of misunderstanding pacing in storytelling. Consider Elder Scrolls Arena or Daggerfall - massive, open world RPGs with High Fantasy, DnD-inspired settings. The design process must have been something like "what if you could explore everywhere on the little map in high fantasy novels that comes in the front of the book." In a book you don't visit everywhere because that would just be tedious. In these big Open World games you theoretically do that but really you just go from point A to point B so it's reducing to a linear story with the illusion of openness, so...?
A similar design philosophy developed for the modern Open World game, boiling down to "what if we could walk around so-and-so place/setting (A "terrorist" coup, ancient Rome, a dang American City, etc...") Of course we then get the meme of "see that mountain, you can walk there!" Because that does feel about as much thinking is put into the base premises of these games.
Making a game about "walking somewhere that's really big" is a fairly neutral idea on its own, but not enough to support a 50+ hour experience. The way the AAA industry 'solved' that was to develop a system of to-do-list-like tasks and map markers that keeps you hooked onto a more or less linear story while doing a lot of busy work along the way.
Much of the process of playing an Open World games is 'holding forward', in fact I prefer to call them "Hold Forward Simulators". Because I feel like I'm doing that half the time. They are pretty smooth/predictable until you fall off a cliff and have to then find your way back. Actually Hold Forward games and Walking Simulators have a lot in common I think. The latter is more honest about the walking, though, and often more interesting due to its limited focus.
Something about "walk wherever, whenever!" feels like a fantasy version of travel. That is, I wonder if Open World games scratch an itch for travel? You can go on vacation in an Open World game without needing to plan, book hotels, or any of that. And you don't have to move. Travel itself is kind of a fantasy that can break down in various ways if you put in too many expectations. So maybe Open World games are a fantasy of a fantasy.
The checklists in Open World games also remind me of hop-on-hop-off bus tours of countries: beelining between point to point, rationing time. Of course, vacation and travel don't have to be like this, but in some cases it does end up like this.
So, well, Open World games satisfy some kind of psychological itch of travel, without the trappings of reality. Open World games rose to prominence due to some collective desire 'to travel', maybe in a society like the USA where travelling is expensive and quite hard. Games have always satisfied an urge to 'go to another place,' but I think Open World games signify something else in their resemblance to road trips, to busy vacations, to how their giant worlds with landmarks can look like the placement of landmarks on a USA road map.
Why is walking in big games like this
More speculatively, I wonder if USA developers have a different relation to walking, due to growing up in a country where you usually drive and public transit often sucks.
At no point in the creation of these Open World games is it really considered that it often becomes boring/repetitive to walk from point A to point B. Sure you have fast travel but then I still have to walk 850m to meet Marco at the Whiterabbit Tavern to learn I need to take out the rebel camp on the outskirts of town at night.
I feel like the concept of "walking", in these types of Open World games - clearly represent how walking is perceived in the USA: a utilitarian thing meant to get you between points where cars won't, or between places at work. I lived 20+ years without really enjoying walking, which is scary to think about. Sure, I liked walking, but my conceptualization of it was totally different due to the lack of ways I could experiment with it. I think maybe this applies to other things in life outside the scope of this essay.
Consider Breath of the Wild and Death Stranding. I would say both are better than the average Open World game, though let's be honest still a bit too long. I wonder if it's because the creators tend to be from Kyoto / Tokyo, both walkable cities, in a country where lots of towns are walkable and have hiking trails. I mean, Death Stranding literally almost makes a joke out of walking, almost like it's making fun of the average Open World game.
Speaking of walking, there's that game "Dark Souls!" You walk a lot in that game and it's fun... the creators are from Tokyo... I wonder... this isn't to make weird essentializing claims about the "Western" and "Japanese" game industries. Or consider the Yakuza series focus on small, open areas. Or, Pokemon Red and Blue sure did feature a lot of walking from town to town. Hmm...
Well... The point here is that how a designer thinks about movement, at the most basic level, has far-reaching implications for what the game ends up as. (For example, whether a platformer has a double jump deeply affects how the game feels to play, because of how double jumps often allow for air control error correction - and thus - usually ignoring level geometry in favor of a more 'get from point A to point B' arc - but I'm digressing...)
And I want to say that where a game designer lives, or the social circumstances they grow up in - might affect how they approach the use of 'movement' within their games.
At a AAA level, it's hard to say: what the game ends up can also be based on collective audience desires, and Open World games do cater to a fantasy of being rewarded for repetitive work, so maybe a giant map where you hold forward is the fastest way to do that.
Actually, there's that game Rider's Republic that came out, where the world is a bunch of stitched together national parks you can ride down. It's pretty fun but a little simple / repetitive, maybe a little American in the way it looks at national parks as something to be driven, biked, snowboarded down? Hm.It would be funny if it was a MMO Open-world game where you had to convince strangers to go on 'dates' to romantic views in the game's parks. Why's it always about gaining experience points or something...
I hope I could draw attention to the types of environments we live in, the vehicle-centered experiences we undergo with our bodies, and how they inform what type of leisure we take part in, how we plan 'leisure time', how we view ourselves in relation to other things (like nature or travel). As well as draw attention to how creators might be affected by things like their spatial environment. It's not to say that by virtue of growing up in the USA you're necessarily going to think or be a certain way, but that there are certain ways the transportation infrastructure of towns/cities in the USA might affect us.
I had some stuff to say about Indie Horror and Wholesome games and how they both speak to 'evident issues in The West' but maybe that'll be another post!