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My journey with walking simulators

Many people have been discussing their games of the decade recently and I’ve enjoyed seeing their choices. But for me personally, it’s too difficult to decide because we have so much choice: there’s a title out there for everybody and my favourites tend to change depending on what mood I’m in.

So let’s forget individual releases for a moment and instead discuss a wider subject, one brought up by Jett from In Third Person. He joined us in chat during one of our GameBlast20 50-day challenge streams recently and asked which new genres the past ten years in gaming have given birth to. My immediate reaction was to mention walking simulators; understandable seeing as the thing I love most about video games is the stories they tell.

The first I played was in 2012 after being introduced to it by Phil. Dear Esther had received a lot of attention since its release and he thought I’d like it; but sadly, he was wrong. The atmosphere was interesting but the title itself was far removed from the adventures I was used to in terms of both mechanics and structure, and I found it too ‘vague’. The big discussion going on in the industry back then was how pretentious indie games could be and Dear Esther seemed to fit the bill.

But that summer my eyes were opened to the potential of the walking simulator. A weekend spent with friends at a hired cottage saw us take along a PlayStation 4 for entertainment and play Journey one evening. The setting, artwork and music combined into an experience like nothing I’d seen before; and the way you were able to meet other players but not speak to them just made it even more meaningful somehow. We didn’t move for the length of the title and were still discussing it the following morning.

It was the following year though that my fondness for the walking simulator was confirmed. I’d been looking forward to Gone Home for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed when I finally managed to get my hands on it. It wonderfully captures 1990s culture and what it was like growing up in the decade; and more importantly, it also discusses views at the time and the stigma attached to being different. Anyone who says that video games simply entertainment would surely change their mind after playing it.

I’ve since gone on to play plenty of other entries in the genre and, while there have been a few misses, there have been way more hits. Firewatch, What Remains of Edith Finch, Night in the Woods, Virginia and at long last, Life is Strange; there are so many games in my library waiting for those times when I want to be immersed in a good story. Not all of them have happy endings but each tells a tale we can learn something important from.

I understand why walking simulators aren’t for everybody – and indeed, the genre received a lot of criticism when it first emerged in the 2010s. Not all players knew how to react to it and many were confused: were walking around and looking at items the only things you could do? Was it even really a game if that was the case? The name ‘walking simulator’ soon arose and was used as a derogatory term given to releases with a lack of traditional gameplay mechanics.

But gradually, slower-paced exploration and environmental storytelling started to weave their way into game design. During the years after Gone Home there was an increase in the number of narrative first-person titles in a range of different genres. For example, The Stanley Parable makes great use of comedy and features a narrator whose personality changes depending on your choices; and several years later, Layers of Fear frightened players into leaving positive reviews.

Walking simulators challenged the way we think about video games during the last decade. The term has lost its negative connotations and is now a badge of honour: they’re games which encompass diverse narratives, compelling storylines, interesting exploration and fantastic writing. 2020 is looking bright for the genre and I can’t wait to see what its future holds.

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Kim View All

Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.

20 thoughts on “My journey with walking simulators Leave a comment

  1. I go back and forth on these; some are really interesting and cool (I loved Gone Home, for example), while I had a similar reaction to you when it came to Dear Esther. I think the temptation for some creators is just to get a bit *too* vague and wiffly-waffly poetic, and it doesn’t always work. Just like any other form of art, I guess!

    For me, I need *something* to be able to latch on to in order to be able to engage with the story. Gone Home has its ’90s cultural references and lovingly rendered house — I was particularly impressed with the environmental storytelling in that one; Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has that beautifully rendered English village; The Stanley Parable has its comedy… whereas Dear Esther had a bunch of brown mountains and an occasional cave with someone reciting sad poetry over the top of it. It didn’t grab me; there was nothing to relate to for me.

    I actually didn’t like Journey, but I find it hard to pin down exactly why. I played it through in a whole sitting, but when I got to the end I just didn’t really feel like… anything, really. I think again I just didn’t really like the setting all that much, and found it hard to really engage with. Contrast with the same company’s Flower, which hit me *right* in the feels from the very first stage onwards.

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    • I completely get what you mean! Overall the genre is my cup of tea; but I’ve found that I’ll either really enjoy a game or not be that fussed by it at all. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of middle ground and everything hangs on the quality of the story.

      Gone Home will always be one of my favourites. I love the bittersweet ending, the voice-acting is excellent and – as someone who was a teenager in the 90s – there are so many things I recognise from my own childhood (ghost stories and The X-Files!). I’ve never been able to get into Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture though. I’ve tried several times and it feels as though it’s something I *should* enjoy, but my brain sort of switches off after a few hours.

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      • Yeah, I can understand that. The walk speed, for one, is much too slow for many people — though that’s very much a deliberate choice to control the game’s pacing. It’s also a bit long and the latter section gets a little *too* weird for its own good; for a game that really takes its time in the early hours, the ending feels a bit rushed, like they wanted to add an interesting twist as quickly as possible.

        Beautiful-looking game, though; they really captured the look and feel of a rural English village perfectly.

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        • Oh yeah, the developers did very well in terms of the art-style and atmosphere. I’ve never found out what the ending was because I always figured I might go back to the game one day; is it worth pushing on through?

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  2. Whilst there are some that are fantastic examples there are also many that largely miss the mark. Tonguc Bodur’s early games being a case in point with the Genie games and Drizzlepath being very poorly realised.
    Others are brilliant realisations of narrative and incredibly cleverly delivered, but you’ve covered most of those already

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    • I must admit, I’ve never heard of Drizzlepath… but I just had a quick look on Steam and the reviews aren’t great. Aside from the bugs which a few people seem to be reporting, what makes it so bad?

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      • It isn’t cohesive, the poetry is poor… I’ll provide an extract from my Steam review

        “Drizzlepath doesn’t have a story per se, rather it is vaguely connected impressions intended for ‘meditation’ and to convey emotions and ideas. However it is not only poorly articulated with many words not being translated, but the sentiments are not conveyed effectively. The words lack depth and connotation is rarely used to convey symbolic function. Many of the rhetorical techniques the game attempts to use are repeated ad nauseum such as repetition of phrases or the use of juxtaposition and paradox. This clash of symbols doesn’t make for profundity but rather the appearance that the writer lacks knowledge of their own ideas and the techniques with which to convey them.

        The other issue is that the game does not use its environments in any meaningful way either. They are simply impressionistic, large empty spaces devoid of meaning or substance to accompany the words, they might be visually pleasing but they do not add any substance or enhancement to the words that are revealed as you travel within the world. There are no objects or locales of importance. The world is vapid and empty as a consequence.”

        He does improve with each new title, though the lack of symbolism and metaphor still hinder the later games.

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        • Walking simulators without symbolism or metaphor? Hmm. To me, the best entries in the genre are those where you can deduct narrative elements from the environment and items within it, rather than having everything explicitly stated in the story itself…

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  3. Enjoyable read. I wasn’t onboard with EGTR, as fun as the English village was and the really ‘Archers’ style audio cut scenes found the pacing and rigid structure really off putting . Did love Firewatch though. So mixed fortunes with the genre.

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    • Ditto – I’ve attempted Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture several times but I just don’t seem to be able to get further than a few hours in. My brain kind of switches off after a while and then I don’t pay attention to where I’m going, so I end up walking around in circles.

      Weirdly, my stepson loved this game when he was smaller. He had no idea what was happening in terms of the story because he was too young but he really enjoyed wandering around the deserted village!

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  4. I feel the problem with the walking simulator is that, by it is, by its very nature, a genre incapable of evolving, and a genre incapable of evolving is doomed to have a short shelf life. Indeed, once you start adding action or puzzle elements, it’s no longer a walking simulator.

    I get the overall idea of a walking simulator because it’s an attempt to resolve the problem of games relying so heavily on combat, and it certainly is a solution to that conundrum. But I would argue that just because it’s one of the only obvious solutions, that doesn’t make it a good solution. In fact, having played Tacoma recently, I would argue that, for all of the praise the walking simulator gets for pushing the boundaries of storytelling in gaming, it’s actually a fairly inefficient way of conveying a plot.

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    • Traditional point-and-clicks evolved over time into adventures where puzzles were a little less rigid; then those puzzle elements were almost completely removed and the games evolved once again. Each evolution brings us a new genre and, while walking simulators are perhaps not the most successful point in the journey, it’s an interesting stage which has produced some great titles.

      Storytelling has always been such an important part of being ‘human’ so I think the arrival of the walking sim (or something like it) in video games at some point was inevitable – not only as a resolution to the combat issue, but because it’s in our nature to be fascinated by stories. I enjoyed Tacoma although admittedly not as much as Gone Home; how would you have improved it?

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      • I do think video game storytelling improved since the inception of Dear Esther, but I would go as far as saying that it was in spite of the walking simulator movement rather than because of it. Undertale and OneShot are some of the best story-driven games out there because they own the genre’s quirks and oddities. The walking simulator does not; it actively shuns them, and they are worse efforts for it. One could see them as an offshoot of point-and-click adventure games, but as I said, it ended up being a regression rather than a revolution. I think therefore it’s for the best that they’ve been mostly done away with by this point.

        I feel it’s one of those instances in which critics latched onto a solution because it was the only one available and not because it was an especially good solution. On some level, I appreciate what the walking simulator set out to do, but it doesn’t change the fact that, from an artistic standpoint, it’s a pretty openly cynical movement. The minute those best in the position to innovate get complacent is the minute the medium begins to stagnate.

        I intend to review Tacoma soon, so I’ll save my full thoughts for then. All I’ll say now is that while I think it was better than Gone Home, it does not escape the fatal trappings of its genre.

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  5. I feel that the genre has plenty of room to grow and evolve since it emphasizes story over mechanics. Life is Strange and Tacoma each gave the player one major ability, but most of the emotional payoff was based on character interaction. I love story-focused games so I’m really excited to see the way these walking simulators are growing in popularity. I haven’t played Dear Esther yet, but judging from your article it seems I’ve dodged a bullet! Night in the Woods was a personal favorite of mine though. Mae is one of the best written video game protagonists I’ve encountered. I hope the genre continues to grow. I was a little worried after the fall of Telltale that other development companies would be scared to touch them, but luckily that doesn’t seem to be the case!

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    • The adventure genre in all its forms has had its ups and downs over the years, so I wouldn’t have been surprised if its popularity had dwindled after Telltale’s closure. But I think we’re always going to be drawn to telling stories and it’s great we can still get our fix from video games! Like you, I play for the narrative so walking simulators are always going to appeal to me; I love the way they enable you to step into somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.

      I started playing Life is Strange again last month after putting it off for a long time, and I’m now on episode three. I can’t wait to see where it’s going – although I know the emotional punch is coming…

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