Bernband is a walking simulator.
You see that term used a lot these days, usually as a derisive synonym for “game where I’m not shooting things”. I could never quite relate with the negative connotation, after all, walking is cool, even in the boring real world. Walking in a fictional one that could never really exist is hugely captivating. Hell, it’s the entire sales pitch for virtual reality; the sense of simply existing at a different place in a different time.
Bernband takes a different path to accomplish that immersion, planting you in an alien city without an objective. You’ll never find one either. All you can do is move from place to place as others live their lives around you, no different than how it would be as the stranger in a foreign country. You may find something that’s interesting to look at here or there or even accidentally enter a place where you don’t belong.
That’s where the magic lies, to me. You don’t know if you belong anywhere. So often we try to capture specific emotions through narrative, but Bernband manages to invoke a feeling of utter insignificance that is likely familiar to anyone with social anxiety. You can walk into a class room or pass through strangers (quite literally, as if you were a ghost) in a dance club, but ultimately, you don’t matter. Everyone will continue to exist without your input. At no point does the game go out of its way to tell you this. In fact, it never tells you anything. You simply feel it. No one in Bernband hates or even dislikes you. Like in the real world, they just don’t care, too caught up in their own lives to be concerned with a wandering stranger.
It’s easy to figure out why more games don’t aim for that particular emotion. Say what you will about vapid power fantasy, but many of us don’t need help feeling like pariahs in the real world. Those that aren’t already predisposed are likely to get a much different interpretation, seeing the game as more of a visual exhibition where the goal is to simply see what other interesting thing is around the corner, perhaps even trying to decipher the meaning behind it.
There’s room for either approach, I’d say. For all I know, my takeaways completely fly in the face of authorial intent and I’m simply projecting. As someone that’s often felt disconnected and isolated even in something like an Elder Scrolls game, it’s a feeling I find myself pursuing and even valuing on occasion. Here, it’s just the side effect being an alien.
That’s the best summation of Bernband I could possibly boil down to a single word, as it describes both who you are and how you feel in its world – alien.