Sauntering in a Virtual World


Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “It is a great art to saunter.” In his essay on walking, Thoreau explained that sauntering is derived from the French phrase, a la Sainte Terre, the saints of the Earth. These saints were outcasts without a home, begging for food under the guise that they were on a holy pilgrimage to the Holy Land. To Thoreau however, sauntering was a pleasure, a chance to soak up the beaten path.  It was a chance to seek out that which was forgotten, like the saints of the Earth that wandered without focus.  He lived at the dawn of the industrial revolution where everyone sought to leave for the city to make homogenized goods.  So, sauntering to Thoreau was about seeking the beauty in nature, to leave the factory standards behind.  There are many games that play on this need, to give our minds the chance to wander.   Not everyone had that definition. Count Fulk III, also known as Fulk the Black, walked in chains from France to Jerusalem three times. His sins were many, including burning his wife at the stake in her wedding dress. Doesn’t that sound familiar?  It’s a tried and true plot in any game with a grizzled looking man who wears ghostly chains of sin like Marley.  But the saunters probably had no greater sin than to be born lowly; their only consolation a priest telling them that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. These saunters took it in stride and often lived a carefree life unlike Fulk.

In games, good sauntering usually boils down into two categories: wandering in beautiful environments and being rewarded for going off the beaten path.  Both can be literal, like Fulk pilgrimage to purely metaphorical akin to Thoreau’s definition.  And like in any medium, art is most compelling when it reflects what is going in our bodies and minds.  Video games are no different.

Cursed Mountain is an action adventure game for the Wii.  It suffered from clunky controls (a Wii standard) and repetitive gameplay, but  in my eyes it was redeemed by its sauntering.  The main character, Eric, is has set foot on the mountain Chomolonzo in the Himalayas to rescue his brother, Frank.  Frank has offended the goddess of the mountain bringing terror and death to the local Tibetans.  So Eric beings his journey up the mountain to search for his brother and make amends to the goddess.  Sound familiar?  The game is a journey of atonement.  Cursed Mountain is filled with Buddhist and Bon motifs about the after life and the fate that follows.  Even the enemies, ghosts and demons, put on airs of divine retribution.  Combine that with breathtaking scenery at twenty-thousand feet that make me shout, “back .dat file up” and  Fulk’s definition of sauntering seems complete.  When it snowed in the game, I felt completely isolated, as we all are when we are seeking forgiveness.  The words of Buddha came to mind, “wander lonely as a rhinoceros.”

In the tradition of Thoreau’s philosophy, W.T Rabe, the creator of World Sauntering Day (June 19th) defined the holiday as taking a stroll slothfully and pointlessly but enjoying it.  The first generation of games were far from slothful or pointless.  In fact, Super Mario Bros. was full of points, mostly point A’s to B’s.  All that damn jumping is not slothful.  Games have definitely gotten more complex but that doesn’t always equate to more deep.  Wandering off the beaten path often is met with an invisible wall, and side quests usually feel that they’re just there to make the game longer.  The worst is when you have to do a side quest to XP or money to move on, even when it has nothing to do with the main plot.  Sometimes I catch little bits of off focus wonder.  My favorite happened in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines in the form of Deb of Night.  Let me say, I love radio.  When I go on Youtube to look up music, I cringe at the comments, to think that the radio brought me here.  Deb of Night is the DJ in Bloodlines and she often breaks of the forth wall.  She and her “callers” often talk about the player’s actions as well as plot points.  It’s a little detail that assures me that the game is aware of itself (sometimes satirically so) and doesn’t care if you do or not.  I think it’s that leisurely nature that allows you to really immerse yourself in the game.  Rather to the, nothing really goes on unless you constantly keep moving model.

When I’m stuck in a game, I sometimes ask myself how would so and so solve this?  Fulk probably stab my monitor and declare it witchcraft.  I don’t know what Thoreau would do.  Maybe he’d break down and cry at how far removed from the simple life that most of us are, or perhaps he would be the way he was at the end of his experiment at Walden Pond. Thoreau said that  every lifetime is a series of lives lived. When we become mired in one, it is time to move on, if only to gain perspective so that we can then return.  To me, that would mean turning the game off and going outside…fuck that, I’ll look up the answer online and return to sauntering in a virtual world.

At the very macro level, sauntering is the attempt to alleviate humanity’s flaw of conforming  even when it’s the wrong thing to do.  It isn’t surprising that the man that devoted much of his life to sauntering, Thoreau, later wrote about civil disobedience.  On the micro level, sauntering is about leaving our individual evils for beauty and truth.  Game developers can incorporate these aspects into their works to make a more immersive game, not to mention that it pads it out.  So I saunter on for as Thoreau says it “is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer.”