There is technically one more game of the type that have come to call the “First Person Walker” that I haven’t talked about here at PopMatters yet, The Stanley Parable. However, that game is getting an HD Steam release later this year with additional content that I’m inclined to wait for the finished version before discussing at length. But last year saw a sister genre arise, or as close to it as developers dared, that appears to be something like a “Third-Person Walker.” Namely, I’m thinking of games like Journey and Bientôt l’été.
The First Person Walker is defined by its reduction of all the interactive elements of games until the only major verbs that describe the actions in them are “looking” and “moving.” While I describe them as minimalist, both Journey and Bientôt l’été do not reduce themselves quite as far as the levels reached by Dear Esther, Proteus, or even Thirty Flights of Loving, a game that still has you pushing buttons, opening doors, and allows you to peel an orange. In fact, the rendering of a body on screen seems to force the game to give the player something else to do.
Journey has provides an action that none of the First Person Walkers allow, and the inability to perform it becomes extremely noticeable when it is taken away—that is, the ability to jump. But more importantly, Journey allows communication between players. Through chirping and the imaginative use of movement, the player can “talk” with their randomly assigned compatriot. Bientôt l’été, as much as it is about walking along a beach, is also about picking up Chess pieces and using them as means of holding a conversation either with a computer simulated partner or with another player.
The First Person Walkers are all about passive observation. Their meaning flows through what, when, and how the player chooses to look at the various aspects of the world. In these Third Person Walkers, things are not so passively experienced. The dynamics change in that they allow the player to interact with and even further communicate in the world. Remember each of the FPWs are minimalist examples of already established first person genres. All the dynamics in these games are facilitated by where exactly you are looking. In a First Person Shooter, this means paying attention to where bullets go and more generally to the parts of the world that appear on screen. While I call them “Walkers,” the main aspect interaction that clarifies the meaning of each game is actually experienced through looking at the world. They are games about observation experienced through the eyes of an avatar. However, the third person camera doesn’t allow us to look through the character’s eyes. We aren’t directing their awareness through our interaction with the game world. What we see isn’t what they see.
Third person games aren’t about awareness of the specific way that a character sees, but they are about the awareness of the space around the character. All of the dynamics of a third person game come from recognizing the avatar’s place in relation to the objects around them. Journey, essentially a 3D platformer, shows us this because its about the traversal of the space. We could do the same from a first person perspective, but it wouldn’t be the same. We wouldn’t be able to see the body or the objects outside the range of vision that the game can afford and therefore couldn’t plan much on how to tackle the challenges provided in the environment. If we wanted to see something else, we would have to change the avatar’s spatial relation to the world. From a third person perspective, you can move the camera around while keeping the avatar in place, allowing a slight disconnect from that avatar’s view point.
Another example of this concept as exemplified by Journey would be the difference in player behavior during the sand surfing segment of the game through the ruined city and what can be accomplished in a game that only allows the narrow first person perspective. From a third person perspective, a view of the world is wider, and you can plan ahead if you want jump off ramps or weave through arches. A first person perspective would change the player’s reactions, as they couldn’t see the whole field. To look towards the left means the player wouldn’t be able to see what was coming on the right or vice versa.
This spatial difference created by differing perspectives means that the player interacts with the world differently. Given that the primary dynamic of games like Journey isn’t accomplished by merely looking at the world, but by looking at the world as the dynamics of play change alongside this fundamental interaction. Walking isn’t enough. Given certain aspects of their respective islands and the focus on traversing them, it may seem odd that you can’t jump in Dear Esther or Proteus, but in a game in which you can clearly see your feet, it would be downright bizarre. Bientôt l’été proves that.
Bientôt l’été is a weird game. If I had to call it a reduction of any genre, I’d say that it is reduced to that part of open world games in which you go around exploring and picking up collectibles. In reducing all other aspects that such sections relate to in other games, it shows the emptiness of such an activity. Collecting the Chess pieces is an arduous and rather ill rewarded task. But when you do so, you are also collecting phrases from the beach, those that are revealed by the lapping ocean waves. Upon entering a cafe, these phrases can be used along with the Chess pieces to hold a conversation. How or why, I do not know. Bientôt l’été doesn’t answer such questions, and really it doesn’t need to. It isn’t about the why so much as the fact that you can do it. The game highlights the utter banality of the actions. The only meaning that can be derived is from what you, the player, put into the experience. The French phrases provided are vague, yet seem important or meaningful, but only if you string them together in such a way as to suggest meaning. But you play your Chess pieces against another player who might see different meaning or choices, and out of this chaos and collaboration. a meaning may or may not be born.
Journey offers direction and a lot of significance to its experience of traversal and creates an inherent meaning alongside the player created one. Bientôt l’été offers collection and robs itself of any inherent meaning other than a commentary on games and their use of such banal material by stripping them down to expose an inherent meaninglessness. Then again, it also shows that if we humans are good at anything, it is injecting meaning into something designed to show the artificiality and nothingness behind an activity hidden behind a thin veil of interaction. And yet would it have been as interesting as just a walk along the beach simulator with little to no chance of projecting a meaning into the game?