I’ve taken to swimming in a pond. I can only see a few inches into the silty water, but I know it’s deeper than I can dive. It is quite cold, and I’ve learned to exhale when plunging in so air contracting in my lungs doesn’t shock me. I tread water to let the cold sink in before I slowly kick away. I swim front crawl in pools, but here I do lazy breaststroke. The pond is a magical place to savour. It’s ringed by water-lilies, reeds, and trees. London’s feral parakeets squawk from the branches. Kingfisher teal flashed past me once. I move jerkily: one burst from my legs, another from my arms, then a second of decreasing inertia as they circle back round. It smells wonderful, rich. The north-eastern corner is always warmest and, though I’ll say with authority that’s rising warmth of decay from the lily bed, I don’t know why. Sometimes my leg brushes slimy things I fear might not be rotting stems.
Obviously I’m angling (that’s an inadvertent pun I will leave in so I look dead witty) for walking simulators about swimming. On the surface, specifically. The problem is immersion (that one is on purpose and I will leave it in to shame myself). Being in water is a full-body sensation, and this is so important to the experience. Water holds us, and it holds us back. Swimming is an effort. Water leeches warmth and strength. The smell, the taste, and the sting when it enters your nose. Water is wet. Video games can’t recreate this, so they can’t give me the swimming walking simulators I’d like.
This is obviously not true.
Everything is abstracted and simplified in video games. Walking in a game is nothing like walking on your own feet. We don’t feel the weight and restraint of clothing, the thud reverberating from our ankle up through our leg, or rolling our toes to push off. We don’t enjoy the minute pleasure of hopping up a curb or stepping over a root. We don’t carefully tread around puddles or gleefully stomp in them. We never dread stepping in dog poo.
We’ve grown accustomed to the weird walking of video games. This magic camera on knobbly wheels doesn’t feel like walking at all, but we’ve been told enough times that it is walking to forget how weird it is.
We rarely swim in games and, when we do, we’re rarely expected to enjoy our time in the water. If we end up in water, we’ve probably done something wrong.
If we miss a high jump, water will catch us and we’ll need to swim back to start the sequence over. When we ramp our car into the ocean, we need to swim to the shore, find a way to climb up, then grab a new vehicle. Secret items and areas lurk in water, rewarding endurance. Water slows our movement and tells keen-eared foes where we are. Water forbids us to fire our impressive guns. Sometimes water can give us a stealthy approach, but the trade-off is the monotony of swimming. Water drowns us when we don’t figure out an illogical route or daft puzzle in time. Some developers have been known to, heaven help us, set entire levels in sewers.
It doesn’t help that swimming in video games is biomechanically all wrong, of course. The jerks of actual swimming are more obvious than walking’s, and the results less consistent, yet our video game view often glides perfectly above the waves. Swimming in video games is walking from a lower, smoother view. Swimming in video games just feels weird.
They never reflect the horizontality of our body or the view that forces. We don’t duck under or turn our bodies as we move. Water trickles down our eyeballs in clear rivulets when we do surface (oh, how much I’d enjoy bleary water blinking!). When a game does have first-person swimming animations, they’re a breaststroke that’d break your wrist or a front crawl that’d snap your neck. Not that most first-person animations are, or should be, realistic–who’d hold a gun three inches in front of their eye?–but, again, we’re accustomed to how video game guns work.
We can’t get used to video game swimming because it’s rarely the same, changing more from game to game than walking. Speed, inertia, and drag can vary greatly. We might see inches or metres in similar waters. We might see our hands or we might not. We might bob on the surface or be perfectly steady. We might float upwards or have self-adjusting neutral buoyancy. Mechanical consensus across video games is hugely powerful, but they haven’t yet decided what to pretend water is like.
Only Far Cry 2 comes to mind when I try to remember times I’ve enjoying swimming around in games, and that might just be because it’s chuffing Far Cry 2. Almost everything’s enjoyable in Far Cry 2. Even with this painful-looking stroke:
Let’s have games settle this wacky imaginary water, fix it as something we can recognise and instinctively accept. Let’s make water more than a cruel punishment. Let’s make water a fun place to be. Let’s make water so pleasant and natural we’ll happily paddle about looking at nice things, like we do in walking simulators. Water is great and swimming is lovely.
And I’m concerned I’ll chicken out of visiting Kenwood Ladies’ Pond once winter settles in.
This article was originally published as part of, and thanks to, the RPS supporter program.