I first became aware of my little quirk during one of Commander Shepard’s early visits to the Citadel, the interplanetary cultural and political hub in the original Mass Effect. Even after exhausting the scarce visual range of its squeaky-clean office spaces, hospital-like corridors, and perfectly lined rows of cherry trees, even after receiving missions of the highest importance to the future of the galaxy, my thumb would still, subconsciously at first, refrain from pushing the controller’s left stick all the way up. Perhaps it was to save John Shepard from the indignity of his silly half-jog—almost a parody of what real urgency looks like—or perhaps it was my OCD displaying itself in full bloom. Whatever the underlying cause, my Shepard would adamantly keep to a slow and steady walking pace. Nothing more than a minor idiosyncrasy, sure, but once observed, it made me wonder if there could be reasons for consistent loitering other than giving in to a purely personal, psychological hang-up. Rather than a counterproductive internal impulse, could this persistent, deliberate unhurriedness be a choice, a deliberate way to enrich a game’s experience?
Charles Baudelaire, the French pre-Symbolist poet, as well as several of his contemporaries, would often refer to a new character type emerging alongside the 19th century Parisian arcades: the flaneur. These were individuals who would saunter through the capital’s streets leisurely, but purposely, seeking out their peculiar sights and sounds, “botanizing on the asphalt.” They were connoisseurs of the urban setting that could see paintings in storefronts and museum wings in alleyways. As three-dimensional video game worlds started offering increasingly rich visual environments, it became easier to make the connection between a certain type of contemporary player and the Parisian flaneur.
Perhaps no game makes a better case for digital flanerie than The Witcher 3. Conveniently enough, it allows players to sidestep the analogue-stick gymnastics Mass Effect requires to maintain a steady walking pace by implementing an encumbrance rule. Gather too much of the junk strewn around in the pockets of fallen soldiers and a weighed-down Geralt loses his ability to run. It’s far easier to manage than manual walking, but it’s not an intended way to play. As a result, one consequence of choosing this option is the ugly icon that pops up to indicate the witcher’s overburdened status and sticks to the screen like an angry zit on the face of the horizon, but the eye soon trains itself to ignore it.
The greatest pleasure in The Witcher 3 is undoubtedly clopping around its stunning environments and taking in a seemingly endless procession of breathtaking vistas. The watery drakkar graveyard populated by a flock of lamias lazily diving into the icy depths of the Skellige archipelago or the sun setting over a Toussaint vineyard and blasting the sky with every perceivable hue of red and purple—those are sights that cannot be fully absorbed in a second. They demand to be lingered on, meticulously framed and slowly savored. One might object that flanerie is a term reserved for urban excursions and that the vast majority of gaming’s most memorable settings are natural ones: Skyrim’s majestic peaks, Uncharted’s teeming jungles. Still, at the core of the concept lies not a particular environment, but a mode of approaching it. One can imagine a hasty sightseer; a flaneur is inherently not so.
But however convincing the argument for flanerie in contemporary game worlds may be, it doesn’t fully explain my insistence at maintaining an impractical stroll for the duration of my Citadel visits. After all, part of what raised the question in the first place was the fact that I’d linger even while fully aware that there was nothing new or exceptionally eye-catching to see. Clearly, there may still be other reasons for refusing to run.
Dark Souls is a pretty game. Not Witcher-levels of gorgeous, but enough to make you pause in awe at the first glimpse of Anor Londo’s gleaming spires or marvel at the contrast between dusty gray sand and cobalt water in the subterranean Ash Lake. The difference is that FromSoftware’s legendary role-playing game is not defined by its looks. It has much more dominant traits, not least its finely tuned combat system and demanding demeanor. It’s a game engineered to make the player feel like a badass after a successful fight. Here’s a thing about badasses: running tends to cramp their style. Constant vigilance for the subtle visual cues betraying an ambush or a trap aside, role playing is another possible reason for consistent time-wasting.
I ran a lot during my first encounters with one of the series’ most iconic adversaries, the Black Knight. What distinguishes this brilliantly designed warrior-spectre, a figure oozing menace from every armor slit, is that it is neither a gargantuan beast nor undead cannon fodder. In many ways, it presents you with a mirror image. Unlike other enemies, you do not simply fight the Black Knight; you duel them. During the first, inevitably doomed clashes what you see is a faster, stronger version of your own character, one that you aspire to and immediately respect. But as the knight’s attack patterns are identified and you gradually accrue the experience necessary to defeat them, these positions are reversed. After defeating him once, I entered duels with a measured pace, letting him rush toward me while I stood fully confident I could repeat the feat. It’s a haka-and-staredown dynamic, letting the opponent make all the pre-engagement effort and my calmness signify the quiet certainty that this is a fight I’m winning.
Dark Souls’ hero is an empty cipher for the player to fill. The game makes you feel like a cold, efficient killing machine—one that does not need to rush to get the job done—as a result of the effort it takes to master its unusually demanding combat. In the case of less hollow vessels, it may be the personality of the main character that invites this preference for walking. All of the wonderful scenery notwithstanding, Geralt is simply too dispassionate (aloofness is part of a witcher’s mutated DNA, after all) to plausibly break into a sprint for the petty purpose of making it to the nearest blacksmith slightly faster. Commander Shepard, on the other hand (at least the preset male version of him), seems too uptight. He’s not someone who necessarily wouldn’t want to pick up the pace but does seem averse to the idea of others catching him in the act.
This sort of active projection, an attempt to further immerse yourself in a game by embodying a specific character in a particular way, may be a more powerful factor in sticking to sauntering than either compulsion or the joys of virtual sightseeing. At the least it would explain why, though I never fail to add 20 or 30 hours to my play-through times with all these other games, Uncharted remains immune to my little quirk: not only is Nathan Drake a walking wisecrack, but he doesn’t even have enough time to finish tucking his shirt.