Games often require us to assert ourselves over the world through forms of conflict. We engage in tests of skill, and we learn the rules of a world so we can change it. In so-called ‘walking simulators’1 such as Secret Habitat and its ilk, we assert ourselves through how we interpret and experience the world. We are bystanders and observers, not necessarily agents of change.
PULL QUOTE: They are disparate, charcoal un-museums. They obey no structural logic.
In Secret Habitat, I weave through the wasteland, picking galleries at random and running towards them. (No, not ‘galleries’—they are disparate, charcoal un-museums. They obey no structural logic.) Outside, it is noisy with wind, the rustling of trees, and lilac soil squelching beneath my feet. As soon as I cross the threshold into a gallery, environmental noise becomes imperceptible, like air conditioning. My brisk jog is replaced by a slow, ponderous walk. Our feet sound out firm steps on the floor. Here, Strangethink is saying: don’t rush; we need to be reverent. Although it could be read as mocking ‘natural’ gallery etiquette, the fact that it actively encourages the player to stop and observe is a significant design in its own right. It’s a subtle but important cue.
Each gallery floor presumes a sole artist. The works of a single gallery share techniques, motifs, colours, tone. Aesthetically, every image on a floor looks like they belong together. I walk around the gallery and try to summon a reaction to each image.
In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the art critic writes: “The meaning of an image can be changed according to what you see beside it or what comes after it.” In Secret Habitat, each painting is complemented by a randomised, two-word title card—an accompaniment that can transform an artwork’s potential meanings.
The associations we make between an image and its title can be subconscious and instantaneous. A title can change what we look for in an image; it can imply a subject, mood, or intended way to approach the work. One painting in Secret Habitat looks like a close-up of fish scales, and is called ‘SAIL DRIED’—is this a method in which you could preserve or prepare fish? Other titles conjure less literal associations: ‘RELIGION PUMP’ is a fanciful mess of colour (perhaps an impression of enlightenment?) and ‘FICTION WIRE’ might be what narrative cabling looks like.
Just as the game generates artwork, so too does the player generate meaning.2
PULL QUOTE: Just as the game generates artwork, so too does the player generate meaning.
I flit between galleries, activating the reel-to-reel machines that house artificial, otherworldly loops. I hear UFOs alighting, broken wind-up boxes, steel gates opening despite the rust. Cased inside massive, grey reel-to-reel machines that stretch from floor to ceiling as if to morph into the building itself, these reel-to-reel machines are tumours in the architecture. These loops, unlike the visual works, come with no labelling. If Secret Habitat wants us to find meaning in these pieces, then it isn’t through a textual link, but through a link with the environment it occupies: visual artworks, the labels that are affixed to paintings, the wallpaper, the buildings themselves.
If I settle in, the loops can alter how I see the paintings, and vice versa. Meanings convalesce. A loop that sounds like a ghost-in-the-fax-machine makes me re-examine the jagged linework of a painting, whereas the solid block colouring of an image can lead us to consider the loop anew.
These sound artefacts also remind us of time passing. Each loop is around five seconds long—we can judge how long we’ve been looking at a particular painting, or walking through a particular gallery, by the number of loops we’ve heard. We can judge, and we can feel judged. More than just changing how we might look at an image, the loops can make us aware of our presence inside each gallery.
PULL QUOTE: Thanks to the oddities of procedural generation, I discover a small gallery with three windows but no doorway.
Thanks to the oddities of procedural generation, I discover a small gallery with three windows but no doorway. The artwork inside can only be viewed from the outside world, through the iridescent glass that distorts how I receive the artwork. More than once, I am reduced to repeatedly jumping before a window to catch a glimpse of some painting I can’t access, like a kid trying to peek over the neighbour’s fence. Then there are the second-storey galleries that require parkour: I clamber over a rooftop and jump down into a balcony to view one set of paintings. I savour these works for longer than any others.
1. The label ‘walking simulator’ arose as a derisive term for games that invited the player into an environment and deprived them of most ‘actions’—except for walking. The (daft, by now dead) argument went that a game that only let the player interact with its world through moving and observing—without action, puzzles, plot, threat—wasn’t actually a game at all, it was just trying to “simulate” the act of walking. Which was obviously completely silly, so the label has since been subverted and reclaimed. Ed Key, the developer of Proteus (2013), one of the games central to this nauseating ‘debate’, called it “more of a wandering and being surprised game.” Contemporaries of the wandering genre include Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) and Gone Home (Fullbright, 2013).↩
2. In a playthrough of the game on YouTube, a man walks up to a painting and reads its title aloud. “‘CHANGE SCISSORS’…” he says, and considers the artwork from different angles. “Yeah, I could see that.”↩