Bernband Review

2015-11-10

I’m drawn to the idea of walking simulators. It’s no coincidence that my first “intentional” game review was of Proteus. Modern so-called “AAA” gaming is full of violence, so walking simulators are a nice conceptual departure. I don’t have a lot of experience with walking simulators, but I have played a few, including: Dear Esther, Proteus, Shelter, The Stanley Parable and Gone Home. Even among that small selection, there’s a wide variation of gameplay and themes, so clearly this is a broad genre worth exploring.

To start off with, I really love the visual aesthetic of Bernband. I’m somewhat nostalgic about lo-fi graphics, but it’s not really “my bag” per se. There was a time when my main interest in videogames was seeing bigger, better, shinier graphics. Even these days I’m still rather interested in the continually advancing hedonistic graphical treadmill and like to push my “fantsy pants” Geforce 660Ti to its limits. With all that being said, there’s a strong appeal in lo-fi graphics. I think giving your mind the freedom to fill in the blanks is a big part of it; perhaps it’s even the only part of it. From a purely technological standpoint I’m curious about these kinds of graphics because the burden of implementation appears to be much lower, and I’m a game developer wannabe. Bernband takes advantage of this mental “filling in of the gaps” but simultaneously fails to really push it to do something wonderful. You see musicians repeating the same too-few-frames looping animation and other passive walkers just bumble around with barely any agency. In short, it’s kind of a mixed bag.

My gaming pc is a Linux desktop, and that sometimes presents challenges for gaming. Bernband provides a native Linux client like more and more games are doing these days. Just take a look at the list of Linux-compatible games on Steam. Unfortunately, my experience wasn’t hurdle free. Bernband was written to dynamically link against 32 bit libraries, but my OS is 64 bit, so I had to install 32 bit versions of libglu, libxcursor and libopenal. Actually, the game runs without libopenal 32-bit (without sound) and this is how I first experienced it. Without sound is a little boring, so I improvised. I found a Bernband trailer and then looped the music from that trailer, also known as Habits by DJShrike. This was actually a pretty good experience. After a quick run through, I sorted out the libopenal issues and played with the originally intended sounds. Honestly, I preferred the experience with the looping soundtrack. The in-game sounds are somewhat lo-fi like the visual aesthetic, but also repetitive and lacking character. They’re fine and passible, it’s just that I prefer my experience playing with the soundtrack instead. The looping soundtrack lets your mind wander and improvise all the sounds that you’d expect to hear, in similar style to how the lo-fi visuals let your mind fill in the gaps.

I’m specifically opting to review games that are outside of the norm. My intention is to broaden my experience and escape the narrow bubble in which I live my everyday life. It’s great to absorb myself into the things that I already like, but there is so much to experience that’s simply different. I read books, watch movies and listen to music a little outside of my normal tastes, and now I want to do the same with games. This is an interesting experience, because so-called “walking simulators” are nothing like mainstream games. I struggle with Bernband like I struggled with Proteus. There is a lot to like in the experience, but it seems shallow upon reflection. There are hints of greatness, but what little agency is available quickly highlights how shallow the simulation is. I’ve broadly divided my desired gaming experiences into two categories: experiential and ludic games. Bernband is definitely an experiential game much moreso than a ludic game, but it fails to deliver a particularly noteworthy experience. The setting is excellent and the presentation is mixed, but good; but the game doesn’t actually say anything or go anywhere. It’s very shallow. Despite the tone of what I’ve written here, I still think that’s okay. I largely enjoyed my Bernband experience and would love to see more exploration of that setting.