In video games, you’re usually in a hurry. You’re saving the world, trying to save the president’s daughter – or, on the other side of the spectrum, you’re running away from the cops after robbing the First Bank of Los Santos or, if you’re less criminally inclined, a horde of infected intent on tearing out your throat. Under these circumstances, it makes sense that the player’s first instinct is to look for the run button or sprint command. More than that, though, so many games are about getting from A to B. This kind of behaviour is reinforced by secondary objectives like “Get to da choppa in less than 2:00” or by rewards inversely proportional to the time you took to do what you were supposed to.
I love being a virtual tourist – but I find that I’m the kind of tourist that is often made fun of: the one that rushes through beautiful locations ticking off the sights without really, properly seeing a single one. Take Assassin’s Creed Unity, which I finished last weekend: yes, I saw Notre Dame, the Louvre and the Bastille while running around revolutionary Paris, but only briefly, due to the fact that I was running. Having recently been to London and being browbeaten by all the ads plastered across the city and on the sides of those red buses, I decided I’d move on the sequel immediately. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate lets you roam London during the 1860s, a smoky, foggy jumble of poverty, child labour, historical personalities (who hasn’t wanted to be Charles Dickens’ errant boy?) and gorgeous architecture. Like a good player, I rushed straight from Paris to the capital of the British Empire, running all the way.
Except I’ve decided to stop running. I’m forcing myself to take my sweet time, smell the roses and do what a tourist should do. The game is designed to accelerate things, to facilitate getting from A to B – but isn’t one of the main attractions of being in a place to take it all in, to enjoy the atmosphere? With a place as familiar as London, there’s a dreamlike quality to all of this: I know some of the city centre relatively well, I have a basic understanding of how the pieces fit together, and seeing Syndicate‘s condensed version is like walking through a dream of the city. It is like your memory yet it isn’t, it’s an odd remix, sharp at the centre and blurry at the edges. (I’ve written about this in the context of GTA V.)
Being primed to race to the next mission marker or encounter with Marx, Alexander Bell or Fred Abberline, I find myself resisting slowness in the game at first. I want to continue the story, I want to get a new task or find a new piece of equipment that will make me better at murdering historical bogeymen. I don’t want to take five minutes to get from one Whitechapel alley to another one. Yet, once I submit to the change in pace, it’s fascinating. The illusion of the world holds up much better if I’m simply walking through it than if I’m climbing buildings, grappling from one chimney to another, shanking Templar stooges along the way – with barely any reaction from the onlookers. (Guy gets stabbed in the neck in front of them? Some woman in a Victorian hoodie climbs Buckingham Palace? Victorian London, at least in Syndicate‘s version, makes a comment and then gets back to what it was doing.)
I’m sure that eventually I’ll go back to running wherever I need to go, because if I did stick to walking everywhere it’d take me half a year to complete the game. But in the meantime I’m enjoying my newly found change of pace. Slow Food, Slow Science, Slow Reading, meet your new sibling: Slow Gaming.