Posted on 05 Aug 2017 by K-putt

Let’s Talk About Walking Simulators

If you’ve never heard of ‘Walking Simulators’ before, it’s a game “genre” where you get to walk from point A to B with lots of story in between. Usually while not doing much else. Though I personally feel that by calling this genre ‘Walking Simulators’, we’re doing most of these games a disservice. Some games are more narrative driven, while others focus more on the visual side of things, but it’s usually a combination of both to create a compelling story that ends up creating a ‘Walking Simulator’.

Of course, you will move around with nothing really happening, but only if you expect there to be anything more than just a nice experience. You probably won’t mow down hordes of zombies or blast aliens with your overpowered spaceship. You just experience the scenery, story, music and overall atmosphere. A quiet game without a lot of action or rage inducing insta-deaths, just a very focused experience.

I personally prefer it when action scenes are avoidable and I can just stealth my way around games. Once I hear someone scream or shoot, I’ll probably just hit the reload button so I can try again and keep the game “quiet’”. Then again, I’m not a loud person. I don’t need to fill silence around me with music or pointless conversations about the weather at all times. So a game where I can just lean back, watch and listen to the atmospheric minimal sounds, all while still being able to control it, it’s a purely relaxing experience.

However when I think about this, I can’t come up with a better way of describing such games with anything else than just…’Walking Simulators’. ‘Narrative Driven Games’ doesn’t really fit and ‘Atmospheric Games’ doesn’t sound like a genre but rather like an element of any game.

I recently watched a video by Mark Brown where he asks the question if we really need a ‘Souls-Like’ genre for games similar to From Software’s Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls or Bloodborne. He makes a good point by saying that we should take 2 of the most prominent features of such games, and call them that. Probably the best example would be when ‘Doom Clones’ became ‘First Person Shooters.’ Which makes perfect sense. So when it comes to games like Journey, Dear Esther, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or the new What Remains Of Edith Finch, we can try and do the same.

Well, for starters, we do indeed move around. A lot. And that’ll usually be the bulk of the gameplay. But atmosphere, storytelling, music and the experience of all these things combined into a very focused path is all part of the whole deal as well. Though by calling it an ‘Interactive Walking Experience’ just ends up sounding pretentious. ‘Interactive Story Games’ won’t do it either since that’s what The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us or Until Dawn are. Calling them ‘Experience Games’ wouldn’t really work either because every game out there is an experience in itself, only in this case it’s a way more focused one.

Perhaps ‘Interactive Focused Experience Game’ could work but it just doesn’t sound right…or maybe that’s just me. In the end, we might just have to stick with ‘Walking Simulator’, at least until something better arrives. Just because that’s the name that stuck a few years back. Many times I’ve seen comments calling people out by saying that these games aren’t in fact games, and the reason they usually give is that you “just walk around”. Of course you do, but you also listen and, again, experience the whole thing.

By that logic, you couldn’t really call a racing game a game either. Since all you do is drive in circles. Or shooters where you just…shoot. This is, of course, just pure drivel. If it’s created to be interactive – it’s a game. It doesn’t matter if all you do is press spacebar to jump over an obstacle or walk around to listen to all the story elements.

If you’ve played Dear Esther back in 2012, I could understand why you’d think that and wouldn’t want to try another one. But then again, that’s like you only ever played Mighty No. 9 and said that all platformers are bad. Of course, Dear Esther isn’t bad by any means, but other games in this genre showed that there is so much more potential. Journey for example. It has you explore a vast landscape where you have no idea what happened to the world. The story is told without a single word spoken but through the environment and game design alone. It also leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

Dear Esther is similar in leaving the story open for interpretation, but the payout in the end just doesn’t feel that special unlike in Journey. Journey has you struggling through the entire game, which makes the end just that much more meaningful. Whereas in Dear Esther, you just walk at…a…very…very…slow… pace, all the while a story is told to you by a narrator. With writing that just ends up being somewhat pretentious. In Journey on the other hand you can jump, fly and explore in the more silent moments. Exploring rewards you with orbs that will extend the time you can fly about. Totally optional and almost pointless, but it exists so you have something more to do than just press forward in these calm moments. Exploring in Dear Esther will only reward you with more dialogue from the narrator.

To be fair to Dear Esther however, it was one of the first commercially released games, and certainly most successful, in this genre. Perhaps even genre defining. Which, with a genre being called “Walking Simulator”, isn’t all too flattering. But then again, Dear Esther was just a HL2 mod back in 2008/2009. So it’s perhaps somewhat unfair to compare it to Journey. However, they both were commercially available for your hard earned schmeckles at around the same time. Dear Esther was released back on February the 14th in 2012 with Journey coming out just a month later on march the 13th.

With the release of What Remains of Edith Finch on April 25th this year, we also have a look of what the genre has evolved to over the years. This title is more in vein of Dear Esther and not the more freely-ish explorable Journey. They do have one thing in common though, and that’s the path you walk. There are no different paths to get to the same goal. It’s a one way ticket all the way. However, in What Remains of Edith Finch, this path is filled with lovely graphics, story bits that become part of the environment, and crazy flashbacks that tell the story of the Finch family, all while staying true to the medium.

Of course, the game still mostly consists of you walking about, but the developers tried, and succeeded, in mixing it up every now and then. At some points you won’t walk, but jump as a cat from tree branch to tree branch. While at other times, you’re supposed to do a mundane task with your right hand and your left hand is controlling your daydreaming character through his own dreamworld.

So what’s the point of this article then? Well, I want people to give this genre another chance. The genre progressed from games like Dear Esther and Gone Home. You can tell a story with much more than just text or a narrator. With games like What Remains Of Edith Finch possibly being a perfect example of what the genre can do. At least for now. Interactiveness and your involvement in the game are very much part of the story itself. And if you go into this game knowing that, it’ll be a story focused experience without a lot of gameplay. You might just end up falling in love with the idea of these games, much like I have over time.

Comments (1)

Posts: 349
L Coulsen
Posted 06 Aug 2017, 09:27
I really should get around to playing Journey. And they should get around to a PC port