Longing For Walking Simulators Wot You Do Swimming In

Lovely lovely Kenwood Ladies' Pond.

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.

Normally I'd say Quake II has the best-feeling movement of any game but in water...

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.

53 Comments

  1. airknots says:

    QWOPASKL ?

  2. Cinek says:

    “Let’s make water a fun place to be.” – but… It’s not.
    (nope, I cannot swim and I don’t care)

  3. Bradamantium says:

    The eel in Mario 64 and Sonic’s horrifying drowning music destroyed my perception of water in games way back in my formative years. It is where terrifying things lurk and anthropomorphized animals go to die terrible deaths.

    But, you know, good luck in finding a game that gets swimming right. I’ll like to hear about it from the safety of a nearby beach.

    • Vandelay says:

      Platforming games killed everyone’s desire for water levels. If they didn’t, then the water levels of early 3D FPS games did.

      And yet, hearing that the Tomb Raider reboot was not going to feature any swimming immediately told me the game would not be the Tomb Raider we knew and (some of us) loved. The game is on an island for fuck’s sake! Unless a game is taking place purely in a city, knowing that it will feature no swimming usually means you are in for a very restricted time and is just as damning as the dreaded water level.

      Another great supporter article by the way. I hope you get to write more opinion pieces and not just news, Alice.

      • Alice O'Connor says:

        I have made a career out of not writing features. This is p. weird for me, but I’m enjoying it. I’m glad people are enjoying them too.

      • bill says:

        Hold on now!

        Early FPS games had awesome water levels/sections. It’s one of the things that keeps me up at night, why modern FPS seem to have abandoned them so!

        It seemed to come about from the rise of the console FPS, I guess water levels maybe didn’t work so well on a controller? Maybe.
        Quake had awesome underwater sections, as did Duke Nukem 3d. I also remember liking the water sections in Jedi Knight and Serious Sam and Farcry 1 (haven’t played the others). But they mostly died out (except farcry) around that time.
        Along with verticality, environmental puzzles, secrets and jumping puzzles.
        The loss of Jumping Puzzles might not have been a major one, but the loss of the others, especially combined has resulted in FPS levels that are just much less varied to move around.

        Quake 1 (as Laurentius sas below) had an awesome underwater effect, and the underwater parts melded really well into the whole and allowed some great movement around the levels and combat switchups. He mentions Tomb Raider too, and I remember spending ages swimming around in that game, as well as trying to pull off complex dives from heights.

        Water was essential to Farcry of course, as a means of movement and as a stealth tactic, and while it was less essential to things like Jedi Knight and Serious Sam, it still added a bit of variety.

        Maybe my favorite water was that in Duke Nukem 3d. Not because it was particularly well implemented, but because it allowed some really awesome gameplay.
        I remember playing local multiplayer on a fan made map that was a city block, with subways (with moving trains) and 2-3 highrise buildings, one of which had a swimming pool ontop.
        If you got into a firefight in the penthouse of one tower block and you were losing, you could smash out through the window, fall a few floors and, if you got the trajectory right, land in the swimming pool on the other roof and survive. Of course you’d have to keep moving and swim through the grate and into the drain system because the other guy would be leaping after you.

        Sod it. I even miss jumping puzzles, when done well. FPS levels used to be so much more interesting and fun!

  4. lowprices says:

    My favourite swimming is in Shadow of the Colossus. The actual act isn’t great, but the water is so gloomy, and everything is so unnervingly quiet that I expect something enormous and unseen to grab me and pull me under, even though I know it won’t.

    • DantronLesotho says:

      Agreed. They did a good job of the swimming portion, but it still wasn’t something I’d write home about.

      Referencing Shadow of the Colossus though, I remember Ueda talking about the development of the game. He said that when they programmed Agro, they actually programmed it to act much like a real horse that sometimes did its own thing and ignored you, and ran haphazardly sometimes, and was basically more accurate of real life. It tested terribly, and everyone hated the horse. So they had to scale back the realism for the sake of the game. With swimming, I wonder if it’s just something that a player would find inherently annoying since you can’t use your whole body, and it’s hard to convey spatial sense in games to do it. But I eagerly await the auteur game designer to try it out :)

  5. Oozo says:

    It was only last summer, while climbing a ridiculiosuly steep slope on a hike in a National park, that I realized just how wrong the term “walking simulator” is.

    It’s all the little things you mentioned (and, to be honest, you have an exquisite way of describing movement, not too common a gift!), but there’s even more: most games can’t cope with steep slopes, they don’t know how one is supposed to walk on them — at all. I mean, Skyrim’s Horse is basically the heraldic beast of this.

    And it was was only this very summer that I realized another thing: most videogames don’t even do steps. Of course, I knew all the jokes about the Stalker guy being basically a motorcycle, but it was only a few months ago, while trying a little experiment, that I understood how far off movement in games is from “real movement”: I wanted to do a walk in Minecraft (for reasons) in what is sometimes called the Pilgrim’s Step: you take two steps forward, and one step back. The thing is: I had to cheat badly, because Minecraft does not do movement in discrete steps, it just has a certain velocity, a movement speed. So I had to make a small macro that would tell the game that every time I touch the W key, I meant that I wanted to hold it down for five seconds.

    Why am I saying all this? Well, I’m saying this because just like Alice would like swimming in games that is more — I don’t know, not even life-like, but more physical, more corporeal, maybe even more elegant? –, I would actually like to play games that make movement in certain terrains all those things, too.

    Maybe all I’m trying to say is that I would like to see Mirror’s Esther.

    • Fede says:

      Yeah, it’s true, I wish there was a game with decent animations for walking on a slope! Not just steep ones, 10%-15% is enough, it definitely changes the way you walk and the muscles you use.

      I wish Chris Hecker added an inclined room in Spy Party, as he is doing an awesome job with animations in that game.

    • JB says:

      Alex Austin at Cryptic Sea is doing sterling work on “proper” walking for the new version of A New Zero

      • Premium User Badge

        Phasma Felis says:

        Wait, there’s a new version of A New Zero? Where is it? When did this happen?!?

    • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      Try Miasmata—it’s still not quite what I’d look for in a simulation of walking/climbing up and down slopes, but it makes a good effort—the best I’ve seen so far. You walk more slowly up steep slopes, and have to be careful walking down them or you can slip and fall.

      • Oozo says:

        Thanks for the reminder. I bought Miasmata a while ago, but somehow never got around to playing it. One more good reason for doing so!

        • SubmarineRocket says:

          ArmA 3 also simulates slopes just fine. The steeper the slope the slower the footsteps, the more fatiguing it is to climb. Walking down reverse slopes is also faster.

      • mattlambertson says:

        I’ve rarely been more simultaneously annoyed and pleased that by all the times I fell down cliffs to my injury/death in Miasmata…on one hand it’s ridiculously frustrating to keep forgetting I can’t charge around the world like I normally do in video games, on the other hand it’s so satisfying to be presented with movement physics that are actually somewhat realistic.

    • ubik says:

      Yeah, the term “walking simulator” is a rather wry and slightly mean-spirited misnomer to describe exploration-based storytelling. When I think “simulator” I think of train, cars, and airplanes; exacting physics and a dreadful number of buttons to push. And not a lot of fun for most people. The way most games these days approach unconventional movement is to just adapt the player character to whatever you’re trying to do – example, approach a ledge and the player will immediately start shimmying along it with no special input needed from the player. I think this is more or less the correct approach for a fun, immersive and visceral experience. (Let’s not talk about shitty cover shooters where you’re always glued to nearest vertical surface)

  6. clockworkrat says:

    Heck, even boating is underutilised in video games. When you consider the number of (fantasy) medieval settings in games, the fact that boats are barely mentioned as a primary means of travel is quite strange.

    Paddling down a river or over a body of water with all its currents, tides, eddies, tides and such could make for such a deep mechanic, and provide a different perspective of the landscape.

    • JB says:

      I would dearly love to play a Mount & Blade/Skyrim sort of game with decent sailing. I could sate my vik fantasies.

      • Comrade Roe says:

        The Viking DLC for Warband will have ships, from what I saw of the trailer. Your tastes will be sated.

    • iLikeSpoons says:

      Oh god the boating comment – I’m just now re-reading the Earthsea books and I just want a walking + boating simulator exploring archipelagoes (inspired by Earthsea maybe? With majestic dragons and winters and storms, wizardly werelights, ports, cities made of rafts and oh my. Why is this not a thing yet?)

      • Premium User Badge

        DelrueOfDetroit says:

        Sand?

      • Bart Stewart says:

        Possibly because if you implemented the magic of Earthsea as beatable rules-based game mechanics, you would drain it of the glamour it requires to matter in that world.

        Otherwise, that’s a world I’d also like to travel. The first three books of it, at any rate.

  7. Fitzmogwai says:

    The only reason I keep my wii plugged in to the telly is to play Endless Ocean. That does swimming (well, diving) pretty well indeed.

  8. Gap Gen says:

    Now you mention it, something like Mirror’s Edge’s movement for more sedate stuff could be pretty good. The option to scramble along rockfalls or carefully pick your way up or down steep inclines could be a nice addition to walking. I wonder how much Oculus will change stuff like this; Jim’s analogy (I think?) of modern FPSs being like seeing the world through a narrow slit in a fridge box is a pretty nice description of how FPS controls limit our experience of virtual spaces.

    Incidentally, Rayman: Origins’s sea levels are pretty great: link to youtube.com

  9. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    Probably not exactly what you had in mind, but you might enjoy this: link to ninjadodo.net

    I’m liking the swimming in ACIV Black Flag, which I’m playing at the moment, but this is more due to the environments (the water is so very pretty) than any tactile feeling to the controls. I remember liking the underwater swimming in the Tomb Raider 1 demo. More recently, I liked the swimming in Dishonored. The arm movements felt appropriate.

  10. Rizlar says:

    Lovely photo of the Ladies’ Pond. I’ve often wondered what it’s like in that fabled land of grassy banks and obfuscating trees.

    Some day I will work up the balls (pardon the expression) to sneak in there for a swim.

  11. Martel says:

    Alice, have you tried any of the recent underwater games like World of Diving? I personally haven’t but am curious if they represent swimming well or not, although of course it’s all underwater.

    • Continuity says:

      I think underwater is kind of cheating, you don’t have to deal with any of the troublesome mechanics, you just fly around effectively.

    • Alice O'Connor says:

      I’m curious to, but haven’t so far. I see scuba and swimming as quite different to each other, though, and especially to ‘going for a swim’. The tension and wonder of breathing…!

  12. VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    We never dread stepping in dog poo.

    And just yesterday I thought of adding dog poo to my game, so that you’d step in it and it would be endlessly annoying. Great minds, as they say.

  13. liquidsoap89 says:

    Swimming levels have always been on an equal footing to sewer levels in shooters. They’re just never interesting, mechanically/gameplay wise. I’m okay with swimming on the surface of water, but as soon as you have to dive I lose a lot of excitement.

    I find this odd because water is extremely nice to LOOK at, but to be in it just doesn’t feel right.

  14. iandao says:

    Me and my gaming buddies recently invested couple of dollars in theHunter. We were put off previously by all the bad reviews about its horrible, horrible f2p model. But hell, is it one of the best walking/shoot animals simulator there is.

    Now if only you can swim into its lakes and harpoon yourself some fish. D:

  15. Sinomatic says:

    I remember spending a lovely few hours with Lydia down at one of Skyrim’s lakes, doing nothing but swimming around in it.

  16. Mitthrawn says:

    I grew up on a farm, and we had a pond to swim in, so reading your first paragraph took me back to that beautiful place once more. So thanks! But it also made me realize how far away we are from true virtual reality. Sight is super important obviously, but the experiences you had in the pond are from touch (freezing water, warm sludge) and smell (wonderful, rich) as well as sight (fronds, water lilies) and sounds (parakeets).

    It sounds magical, but it means even a perfect oculus rift with amazing audio and 3D positional headphones would only take you halfway there. We need the sensations of touch and smell to really commit to being in a place. I was going to lament and say there was no way that could be, but I googled some links as I was making this post and discovered that touch at least is already being worked on (by Disney no less).

    link to tinyurl.com

    We are of course, still waiting on smellovision before we can really have virtual worlds. :P

  17. shinygerbil says:

    S…swimulator?

  18. Laurentius says:

    General sensation of being in water and swimming, of course not but when graphical fidelity appeared it was quite a delight. I remember how Quake underwater view was talked about and to a degree when Tomb Raider was released it actually made swimming fun and jumping into water from high places pretty spectacular. In later games I think i also like swimming in Crysis, again for graphical splendour because from mechanical point of view it was as in most games nowdays, pretty boring (you are move so slow).

  19. minkiii says:

    I thought the swimming was handled really well in Dear Esther. It wasn’t pleasant… but falling into freezing Scottish sea probably wouldn’t be. The sound design was really impressive. I liked that it was hard to keep your head above water. It was hard work – but not in a boring way.

  20. Gothnak says:

    Black Flag had a lot of swimming in crystal clear waters often as a route to get somewhere where you can’t by walking. Only the crocodiles make it scary.

    Of course, the diving bell sections are so frikkin scary i can’t even face them anymore.

  21. SlimShanks says:

    Erm, has anyone here gone swimming in Arma 3? There’s turtles, and seaweed, and sunken boats. The light refraction is very pretty. The animations are half decent. There are also mods to make diving quite realistic. AND! You can go for a walk afterwards. IN THE RAIN.

  22. Alice O'Connor says:

    For the record, I am still swimming in the pond almost two months later. The water was 10 degrees Celsius last time. I am very grateful for this mild autumn. I am still determined to reach New Year. Video games are still not very good at swimming.

    • SlimShanks says:

      Your effort is laudable, but it’s worth noting that where I live, we have this thing called the polar bear swim, where people go swimming when it’s NEGATIVE 10 degrees Celsius. Yay for Canada.

      • Alice O'Connor says:

        I’m doing the best I can with the city I’m in!

        Also, I’m observing that most people swim one lap or less then get out, and I suspect many Polar Bear swimmers do the same. I’m sticking to my five laps, come hell or hypothermia.

        • somnolentsurfer says:

          I’m incredibly impressed. I don’t know how much water temperature differs between London and Yorkshire, but this morning I felt pretty proud of myself for managing one and a bit laps of Goitstock Falls, and that must be tiny by comparison. Felt positively icy.

  23. ikehaiku says:

    What about Just Cause 2 ?
    It helps that it’s a TPS, so they had to make animations for swimming.
    But those cristal clear seas of this paradisiac island – I can swim there all day.

  24. Shadowcat says:

    I always really liked the water in Thief. I’ve never tried to analyse in detail why that was, so I can’t really say if it’s any more ‘accurate’ than most other first-person swimming; but the look and the sound of being underwater was really great. I feel like it was the result of lots of little things combined, and it wouldn’t surprise me if someone at LGS had put a bunch of time into making it feel just-so. Not necessarily realistic, but certainly pleasingly atmospheric.

    • Bart Stewart says:

      Speaking of Looking Glass, their first game (as Blue Sky) was Ultima Underworld, one of the first 3D “FPS” games. It featured swimming.

      You couldn’t go underwater, but they did implement the neat trick of rocking the camera from side to side as you swam. It was actually pretty effective kinesthetically… and that was in 1992.

      • Shadowcat says:

        Absolutely! Swimming in Underworld was amazing for its time.

  25. Bobtree says:

    GTA V has quite a well developed ocean with scuba and submarine play. The undersea missions are fairly simple but I really enjoyed the environment, especially with the claustrophobic deep-sea lighting. This GTA V Wildlife Documentary is a surprisingly realistic knockoff: link to youtube.com

    I found the amount of beautiful detail in Just Cause 2’s underwater elements rather striking as well.