In praise of walking in video games

The animations in RDR2 come as close to real-life walking as any game ever has

I’ve been playing a lot of Red Dead Redemption 2 lately, and like a lot of people I’ve been taking my time with it. It’s hard not to take your time with it. It’s specifically designed to slow you down, stubbornly forcing you into menial acts of sluggish chores or physical labour.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its popularity and critical acclaim, there has been a minor backlash. The biggest gripe seems to be this deliberately unhurried pace, which pervades almost every aspect of the game, from character movement to plot. A lot of people seem particularly aggrieved with the length of time it takes to walk from one end of the gang’s camp to the other. I am not one of those people.

I enjoy walking in video games. I while away a frankly embarrassing number of hours in games doing nothing other than…just walking about. It’s not all I do in these games, but every now and then I take time to explore the world at a more leisurely pace. Some games are better than others at affording me this simple pleasure.

Walking looks like a simple act, but games rarely get it right. Anyone who’s ever played Fallout 4 in third-person knows how easy it is to get wrong. The same goes for Hitman. Here is a game where you spend the vast majority of your time walking around, trying to blend in, and you move like a wooden plank with legs. Agent 47 moves more like a Sims avatar dropped into the wrong game than a svelte master of disguise. What does it matter? You get from A to B, only slowly. Who would want to walk in a game when they can run?


Games like Gone Home, Firewatch and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture have you do little else other than walking

More often than not, games force the pain of walking on players as punishment. This usually falls into two categories. Either you have become encumbered by exceeding the amount of items you can carry, á la the Witcher 3, or you’re low on health, resulting in a tension-ratcheting shuffle as seen in The Evil Within. Whatever the circumstance, walking in such games is never encouraged as a fun way to play.

Sometimes, however, a game forces you to walk for different reasons. About halfway through Uncharted 2, Nate wakes up in a Tibetan village. You can’t run, punch or shoot. There’s nothing to do other than admire the scenery (and pet a yak). At the time it was a startling and wholly unexpected change of pace. Arguably the highlight in a game filled with gunfire, explosions and spectacular setpieces, it represented a maturity in game direction. It also highlighted the joy and importance of walking as a way to appreciate game worlds.

This idea is central to so-called Walking Sims. Games like Gone Home, Firewatch and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture have you do little else other than walking. Wandering through a usually small environment, you are tasked with finding clues to progress the story. You walk and you look. That’s it. And yet the movement never feels like walking. Rather, it conveys the sensation of controlling a disconnected floating head. Although enjoyable, these games are more akin to old point-and-click adventures than the act of exploring any real place on foot.

For in-game walking enthusiasts (there are dozens of us!), the real action is in third-person games. As mentioned above, the Witcher 3 forces you to walk if you load up on too much loot. This isn’t the deterrent the game developers hoped it would be, I imagine, because up until very recently the Witcher 3 was the gold standard for walking in games. Not only does he look the part with that MacGregoresque strut, but it just feels right. It’s how a Witcher would walk. There is a weight to his character as he moves. He inhabits a real space in the world, and seems fully aware of his surroundings. Strolling through the cobbled streets of Beauclair or Novigrad is such a gratifying piece of virtual tourism. I really got to know these places on my long walks, letting my imagination fill in the blank spaces of denizens’ lives.

Then along comes Red Dead Redemption 2. It is almost ridiculous how seriously this game takes walking. Starting as it means to go on, with a two hour trudge through the snow, it rarely relents. It is a stubbornly slow game.

Running is the default movement in most third-person games. In order to get a nice walk going, you have to figure out the sweet spot by just nudging the analogue stick ever so slightly. It’s not ideal. But then again, conventional video game wisdom dictates speed = fun, slow = boring. RDR2 flouts this idea gloriously. Here, walking is the norm. If you want to run, you have to tap X somewhat inconveniently. The game wants you to walk, and it’s clear to see why.

The immersion as you move slowly through undulating hills, grassy plains, snowy peaks, and arid desert is stunning

Rockstar’s latest has a well-reported sombre and elegiac tone. Its themes are of loss, loyalty and betrayal. It is a story that takes time to tell, and on behalf of the player, time to think. And what better way to think, than to walk? It’s no coincidence there is only a very limited fast-travel system here. You are forced to spend time, quiet and alone, between the sporadic bursts of action and violence.

This preoccupation with walking extends beyond the game itself. It is in the very language of the experience. Moseying in Scarlett Meadows; sauntering in Emerald Ranch. The words have been chosen carefully. Not only do they accurately describe what a player is most likely doing at any given time, they communicate the sense of pleasure and joy that walking in a beautiful place can evoke. Nobody has ever moseyed in a bad mood.

From casually strolling with a tip of the hat to a passer-by, to ducking under a low-hanging branch, to skipping gingerly down a saloon staircase, the animations in RDR2 come as close to real-life walking as any game ever has. It helps that this is surely the most beautiful, and beautifully detailed, open-world ever created. The immersion as you move slowly through undulating hills, grassy plains, sun-dappled forests, snowy peaks, and arid desert is simply stunning.

Walking for pleasure was summed up by Ralph Waldo Emerson: To finish the moment, to find the journey's end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.

This is a fancy way of saying it is not about the destination, but the journey.

Too often we play to finish. We rush through games. Developers lead us by the hand, all the way to the credits. Sometimes that’s fine, because it’s all we want. But Red Dead Redemption 2, through its love and enthusiasm for the humble amble, is proof that slowing down is its own reward.