Opinion: Let’s talk about “Walking Simulators” for a second
Walking Simulators. A colloquial gamer term for a game where you spend the grand majority of your time walking around and looking at stuff. The games that fall into this category are often not even thought of as “games”, or rather the traditional sense of what constitutes something being a game. I’ve written about this subject many moons ago on a website far far away, but I’ve been seeing a bit of a spike in the Walking Simulator market. Games such as Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Abzu have rekindled my desire to discuss this strange genre of gaming in more detail.
“Walking Simulator” feels like a derogatory term for games of this sort, but I believe that’s because these games don’t really have their own neat category to lump them all into. I’ve been a believer in naming these titles “interactive experiences” since that definition neatly describes the games that we’re discussing. But first, I think it’s prudent to define games that would allow them to fall into the “interactive experience” category.
Games such as Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, Gone Home and The Beginner’s Guide all have common features that they share with regards to gameplay. You walk about a space, experience a narrative through ways of extremely simple interaction and there aren’t obstacles that you need to cross that require a base level of skill. In other words, there’s no dudes to shoot or puzzles to figure out. Some of the games I’ve mentioned have light puzzle mechanics, but not enough to warrant calling them a “puzzle game”. It’s not like a game such as The Witness that puts an emphasis on puzzles throughout the experience.
The games in question have a singular goal and that is to deliver you a story. They are not out to test your twitch reflexes, have you go through intricately designed puzzles or give you an adrenaline-fueled gameplay experience. You calmly walk around, look at stuff, read stuff, get delivered narrative cues and that’s pretty much as far as it goes. To call them “games” is a bit of a stretch because you’re going against the standard definitions of a game. TotalBiscuit once talked about this subject and said that games should have failure states. This is because games require a set amount of skill to accomplish and if you do not have the necessary skill to surmount something, you fail and need to try again, using the lessons you learned from your mistakes. Walking Simulators do not have failure states, barring some exceptions such as The Stanley Parable, thereby presenting no challenge to the player.
So we sit with the issue of Walking Simulators not being “traditional games”, but my argument is that they should not have been classified as games in the first place. Walking Simulators straddle the line of being a medium of its own. Let’s look at how different mediums function. Movies and television are passive experiences. You sit there and enjoy the story, requiring no input from you. Video games are interactive experiences, requiring a base level of skill to accomplish. Walking Simulators don’t fall into either camp, but they have strong elements of both. The passiveness of a movie combined with the interactivity of a video game, no matter how rudimentary.
There are things in Walking Simulators that you will not find in other passive mediums such as being able to trigger events that can be missed if you’re not vigilant enough, experience little stories that are only possible if someone is in control of the character (see The Beginner’s Guide for a great example of this) and so on. But they are also at the end of the day passive experiences. You don’t get frantic firefights in Dear Esther that require your skills, you are merely an observer of the story. A glorified cameraman, if you want to be snarky.
Walking Simulators are still classified as games since they appear in marketplaces that only sell games and require a console or PC to play, but they should be looked at as entirely different from traditional games. I’ve seen a fair amount of people bemoan these types of games because they “aren’t games” or they expected something different with perhaps more gameplay. But you just need to enjoy these games for what they are. Interactive experiences where you will enjoy a story through the eyes of an observer. Nothing more, nothing less.
I’m a huge fan of Walking Simulators because they more often than not have incredible stories tied to them because that was the singular focus of the game. Some do go into the realm of pretentiousness or just doing it because developers think it has some sort of artsy flair, but those examples are in the vast minority. I also think it’s a good gateway into gaming for many non-gamers. These games teach you some base fundamentals such as walking and looking around and interacting with things. Not exactly a surefire way into the Call of Duty eSports scene, but it makes the first experience of gaming a little less scary and stressful.
But that is just how I feel about it all, I’d love to hear some opinions from you wonderful folks. How do you feel about Walking Simulators? Love ’em, hate ’em, can’t live without ’em?