Metal detecting is the new walking. At least that's how it feels when you're waving your scanner over lush fields in The Magnificent Trufflepigs, a new walking simulator from Thunkd and AMC Games. You play as Adam, recruited by his old friend Beth to help her scour the inches of an abandoned farm in rural England. Your experience of the world is delivered through just a handful of mechanics, views of the surrounding area, your walkie-talkie, a phone for photos and texting, and the artifacts you uncover with your metal detector.
Artifacts might be a strong word. It could be an old horseshoe, or a bottlecap, or a rusted toy car, but you share your finds with Beth anyway by snapping a photo on your phone, and she might reply with a joke, or call you with an anecdote. You can decide how to respond to her, and through those short exchanges the story of her life, and your relationship, is slowly revealed. She's sure that together – her working in another field with another metal detector, that you'll find something amazing. When she was young her passion for metal detecting led to the find of a valuable earring – the sort of thing that's enough to win you a type of fame in a small English town – and she's desperate to find its partner.
Everybody's gone metal detecting
It's no surprise that the game is the work of Andrew Crawshaw and his new studio Thunkd. Cranshaw was a designer on Everybody's Gone to Rapture, a melancholy exploration of an English town after the locals have vanished. There's a similar wistful longing to The Magnificent Trufflepigs, about reconnecting with old friends as an adult, about expectations of what life should be and what it really is.
"I wanted to do something based around discovering the past life of something that had happened in this field, some kind of event," says Cranshaw. "Metal detecting is a good metaphor for so many things. There's luck and surprise and discovery and secrets and things hidden away and things being dug up."
There are reminders of Firewatch in the constant back and forth with an unseen character, one that you warm to and want to know more about as you trade local gossip and jokes about doorknobs. The metal detecting mechanic is simple, you stroll slowly around a given area until the beeps let you know to start digging, and that slow, methodical search combined with the dopamine hit of a find is a relaxing backdrop to the unraveling story. Occasionally Beth will call you for a break for lunch or the end of the day, and after some conversation, it's back to work. There are no power-ups, no points for finding anything, no way to be the best at detecting beyond wandering in a vaguely sensible direction through the fields.
"It was really important for me that it never felt rushed, or that there was ever a real sense of pressure to do something," explains Cranshaw. "And again, that harks back to the whole reason for doing a metal detecting game out in the countryside. It should be kind of fairly relaxed, but not sedate. But you never feel a massive pressure to perform."
The only pressure I felt was in some interactions with Beth, about her family, her job, and her troubled relationship with her husband to be. Like an old friend I hadn't seen in a long time, I wanted to know what was really going on in her life behind the banter. Early on it's obvious that something happened that makes Beth's friends surprised she's contacted Adam to help her, and chasing the reasons why is a slow but satisfying process through the game, thanks to the carefully measured vocal performances from the two characters.
It's exciting to have a new narrative-driven game to spend time in, to settle in, and let the story take you away to a place of blue skies and smaller-scale worries that don't involve zombies or international conflict. Cranshaw feels like the resurgence of the narrative game is a reaction to the recent trend for Marvel-style big event movies and games where the world needs to be saved. He calls himself a believer in games that can help people.
"Beth does have a lot of issues that she needs to process and go through," he says. "I think seeing an actual human being sort of figuring life out is every bit as important and rewarding as these superhero films where you get taught that only one special person can save the world. And there's only one super bad guy. The world's not like that. And I think being able to do something on a more personal level is what I really wanted to do."
The Magnificent Trufflepigs is out today on PC.