Thursday, June 13, 2013

 

Walk It Out

Go Vacation has rekindled my love of active Wii games, so I've been poking around to see what else I missed by eschewing third party casual titles for all these years.  And that led me to Walk It Out.

The first surprise is what a following this game has.  Apparently there was more demand than supply upon its initial release, and now it sells for a premium.  As of this writing, the cheapest used copies on Amazon hover around $50, and new go for over $100.  It's like the Earthbound of exercise games or something.  (Sure, you could get it for $20 used at Gamestop -- if you could find one that carries it.)  

And the fan base is solid.  There's over 500 customer reviews, most of them glowing, and the product message board on Amazon still sees a bit of chatter some two years after its release.  I read review after review and message after message, and the thing I kept hearing was how addictive this game was, but no one really seemed to be able to communicate just what it was that was so addictive about it.

Now that I've had some time, I feel like I can make the attempt.

Better Living Through Brain Hacks

Let's start with the bare bones description.  It is an exercise game with a focus on walking.  Actually, more than a focus -- that's all there is.  (Well, there's mini games, but that's like saying DDR: Mario Mix has minigames.  They are invisible.)  It's the jogging game from Wii Fit expanded into a stand-alone product.  As you walk in place, your character moves through an environment.  The major change from Wii Fit is that you determine your own walking path; as you walk along, you can use the D-Pad on the remote to choose different forks in the road.  There are no time limits and no real direction.  It keeps stats for you.  There you go.

Doesn't sound like something you can get addicted to, right?  I mean, it got me interested; I liked the Wii Fit jogging, and a choice of paths was a feature I really would have liked to see implemented.

Okay.  Let's add the fact that it's a rhythm action game.  This game was made by Konami, so of course it's more than just walking in place; you're walking to a beat.  Music plays in the background, one track after the next, in a playlist specified by either you or the computer, and a little beat track shows you where the beat is.  As you walk in place, your controller detects your steps, and you have to try and hit the beats; you're judged by Miss, Great, or Perfect, as you would in DDR.  In fact, one of the supported control schemes is a DDR pad.

So, okay, maybe that's the appeal.  I mean, rhythm games are fun.  Even if it's not as complex as DDR, maybe it's still fun just tapping to that beat.  But no, that's not the whole story.

Whenever you hit a beat -- Great or Perfect -- you earn a "chip".  Chips are the game's currency, and you spend them on unlocking things for the island -- songs, new paths, and landmarks.  But instead of having a shop or something, Konami have put all of the items you can buy in little bubbles scattered all throughout the paths.  As you walk along, you point the Wii Remote at the screen and zap these bubbles to unlock things.  If you zap a bubble that you can't afford, it pops up to the top of the screen in a sort of "queue".  When you get enough chips, the bubble automatically unlocks.  You can continue zapping bubbles while working on one; bubbles you can afford unlock, and bubbles you can't go into the queue.  Your queue holds a maximum of three bubbles, and if you try to add another, the top one comes off the stack and goes back where it was.  So far so hoopy.

But here's the thing.  The bubbles are EVERYWHERE.

When you first start the game, it seems like there's never fewer than a dozen on the screen at once.  You open up the map and look at the size of the island and all of the places where these unpopped bubbles are, and it starts to dawn on you just what you're in for here.

You begin the game with fifteen songs and this tiny little circle that you can walk around in.  The songs are great, but if you're going to be exercising for an extended period of time, you're not going to want to hear the same songs on an infinite loop, right?  So my first order of business was to ignore the landmarks and try to unlock songs, alternate paths, and suspension bridges that lead to new areas.

Oh, hello, a suspension bridge costs 1000 chips?  Well, that's not too bad, I mean, I'm used to walking. It might take a few minutes, but it's not insurmountable.  So I'm walking around, and my chip count is around 600, so I'm nearly there, and oh look!  A CD!  POP.  Oh.  That cost 100 chips, I'm back down to 500.  Well, I'll just have to walk 100 extra steps, that's not too -- look!  Another CD!  POP.  Well, all right, another 200 steps.  Oh hang on, there's only one path open at this next intersection and it leads back to the beginning.  I'd better open one of the paths that leads out further, POP.  Oh.  That cost 300 steps, I'm back down to 100.  Well, you know, it's not like it took me that long to get up to 600, I can just -- look!  Another CD!  POP.

So there are all of these expensive projects that you're trying to walk toward, but as you're walking around trying to earn enough chips, you keep seeing all of these NEW projects that you also want to unlock.  My sessions are usually spent with a suspension bridge and two alternate routes sitting in the queue while I'm wasting my bank taking shots at new CDs.  And the hell of it is, you don't even open up a song every time you get a CD!  Every song is split into five pieces or something and scattered all over the island, so it's a hunt and hundreds of chips just to open a new song.  Suddenly a message pops up to inform me that I've taken 7500 steps this session, and I still don't have that damned suspension bridge!  Just another 1000 steps, I tell myself.  I put the Wii remote in my pocket so that I won't be tempted to blow my bank on every CD I pass, but of course, I have to take it out again because that's how you choose paths as you walk.  And then it's in my hand as I pass by a CD.  Maybe this one will open a new song.  Another 100 steps isn't that much, right?  POP.

And here's the thing.  You can't bank chips between sessions.  So if you are only 200 steps into buying that suspension bridge, you can't just save and finish it next time.  It's all or nothing.  If you really want all those things you've stuck in your queue, you're stuck on this treadmill until you get there.

So it's not addictive like Portal is addictive, where you're exercising your brain and rewarded for your cleverness.  It's not addictive like an adventure game where you're exploring and rewarded for your persistence.  It's addictive like a freemium game, where you take on a monotonous task to earn game currency and you're rewarded for making numbers go up.  But where a freemium game uses a brain hack to keep you addicted in the hope that you'll buy into it with real money, Walk It Out uses a brain hack to keep you exercising.  You're keeping at it because you're exercising the hunter/gatherer aspect of your reptile brain so that you don't notice how long you've been doing it until you've sweat straight through your T-shirt and a little note pops up to tell you your step count has hit five digits.

This is a really neat idea!  I've always thought that there must be a way to take that part of your brain that's happy to wander around leveling up your Pok√©mon for hours on end and apply it to improving yourself.  And that's the edge Walk It Out has over Wii Fit or a regular exercise routine -- you persist for the Skinner box rewards that it doles out.  And since the game doesn't impose any time limits or tell you when you've had enough, you just keep going.  And going.  And going.

But Is It A Good Workout?

Your mileage may, of course, vary, but I've heard some success stories on Amazon.  My own anecdotal contribution is, like I said, that I get to the end of a 10,000 step session and I've sweat straight through my clothes.  The tempo changes depending on what songs are playing, and there are a couple that you can jog to.  You can even make a playlist of just the fastest songs if that's what you're looking for.

It's walking/jogging in place.  Better minds than mine can tell you how effective that is.

The question, of course, is whether I'll stick with it in the long run.  Will there be any reason to wander around this island when there's no more bubbles to pop?  Will I get to the end and decide to start a new file to do it all over again?  And sure, it's addictive enough once I get started, but it doesn't really persist in my thoughts when I'm away from it.  I may just lose interest down the line.

If the game stays interesting in the long run, I plan to check in again to explain my lasting impressions.  If this is the last thing I say about it, well, it's possible that the magic just wore off.  So there's something to look forward to.

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