Moira is a teenager on the run when she steps further back into the many layers of grand landscape paintings that make up the mountains, valleys and rivers of A Highland Song. She crosses the video game’s Scottish Highlands on her journey to the coast in time for the Gaelic May Day festival Beltane, where her uncle, a lighthouse keeper, is waiting.
A Highland Song, which was released for the PC and the Nintendo Switch this week, is the latest from Inkle, the studio behind the indie darlings 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault. In some ways it is the studio’s response to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo’s praised open-world game.
“Can you create a 2-D game that creates the same sense of wonder when you look over a landscape that a game like Breath of the Wild does?” asked Joseph Humfrey, the creative director of A Highland Song. “Can you create that same sense of vast scale?”
The term “walking simulator” originated a decade ago as a pejorative to describe slow, nonviolent video games that often explore trauma or grief. But A Highland Song is part of an emerging subgenre that is actually concerned with the mechanics of movement.
Whether through hiking or climbing, games including Sable and Jusant evoke a wanderlust that, as Rebecca Solnit writes in “A History of Walking,” “can only be assuaged by the acts of the body itself in motion.”
Moira’s trek grew from a nostalgia that Humfrey felt for his homeland, but there is more than walking and sightseeing.
“Most of our games aren’t one good idea,” said Jon Ingold, who founded Inkle with Humfrey and is the narrative director of A Highland Song. “They’re two or three good ideas that glue together.”
As its narrator promises, A Highland Song’s mountains are awash with stories.
During long ascents, cinematic rhythm games incorporate the songs of Mohsen Amini, a nod to Humfrey’s and Ingold’s appreciation for contemporary Scottish folk music. Moira can go spelunking to cross some paths, pause to skip stones, dally beneath a shady cliff face or waste the whole day at a campfire. There are also abandoned homes and infrastructure, other travelers of questionable corporeality, disembodied voices and, of course, Moira’s own thoughts.
Ingold said he took inspiration from Sable, the 2021 indie game that also featured a young protagonist setting off across a large open world on a coming-of-age journey. He credits Sable with doing “introspection without it being too self-indulgent.”
Sable had already begun taking shape when Breath of the Wild was revealed, and Sable’s creative director, Gregorios Kythreotis, said it provided an opportunity to study another game interested in exploring large spaces.
“It gave us confidence to create a world that just allowed the player to freely explore it,” said Kythreotis, half of the two-person studio Shedworks. “To not be afraid of designing moments of quiet into our game.”
Games in Breath of the Wild’s lineage gesture at the limits of the body through various stamina meters, weather effects and pacing. Others go even further.
In Death Stranding, released by Kojima Productions in 2019, a mailman crossing a postapocalyptic landscape carries precariously large packages on his back. Even small tumbles can bring the character crashing down, enough to make the person behind the controller wince at his pain. Wading in a river forces the player to resist the current and lean into the stream; an unevenly distributed load across bumpy terrain requires concentration to maintain balance.
Death Stranding was a significant reference for the core mechanic in Jusant, where the friction between body and environment was built upon to create a Zen mountainside climb. The player coordinates the character’s arms independent of each other as they simultaneously reach for a crevice and support their weight.
“We loved the instant physical connect between the players and the body of the characters,” said Kévin Poupard, one of the creative directors of Jusant, which was released by Don’t Nod in October.
By demanding focus and technique, these games evoke meditation — a useful distinction when considering Breath of the Wild’s divergent tradition.
Because the point of walking is that we do not really have to think about it. Its usefulness, as Solnit writes, is its nearness to “doing nothing.” Our mind wanders through the paths and hills as our body does too. Thought, memory and story all take shape in a form made more concrete.
A Highland Song captures those rhythms, the contemplation of the mind and body, the whims that lead us to the unpredictable and incalculable.
“It comes full circle,” Humfrey said. “You go on a walk, and you have a game idea, and you make a game about going for a walk.”