“Walking simulator” was originally a derisive term, coined in the days of gamergate, referring to a set of minimalist games where you simply walked around 3D environments. By now, a lot more games in this category have appeared, and while not universally beloved, they’re more or less accepted as a part of the video game landscape. And I find that I rather like this genre myself. I’ve played quite a number of walking simulators over the years, and still others I’ve watched on video or have seen critical discussions.
The question I’d like to ask today is, what is the appeal of walking simulators? What drives them?
I am thinking in analogy to drone and ambient music, which strips away many of the components that people conventionally enjoy in music. But what motivates drone/ambient music varies greatly depending on the work. Contrast Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, which wants to blend into the background, with Sunn O)))’s Monoliths and Dimensions, which wants to mesmerize. Walking sims are also a genre full of contrasts, and I’d like to identify several different goals that they may have.
Examples of walking sims
I don’t want to spend time defining walking sims is or classifying boundary cases, but I’ll list some examples so that we’re at least on the same page. I am not trying to be exhaustive. Each link goes to a trailer. This article will not include any spoilers.
Back when “walking simulator” was coined, there were three major examples: Dear Esther, Gone Home, and The Stanley Parable. Since then, there have been a lot more high-profile games, like Firewatch, What Remains of Edith Finch, Life is Strange, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Proteus, and The Beginner’s Guide.
But we should not limit ourselves only to the commercially successful walking sims. The nature of the genre lends itself to very small games, including obscure indie projects, and games that are entirely non-commercial. I’m reluctant to name the most obscure ones I’ve seen, but I would at least name two free games, Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, And The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist, and All Our Asias. The YouTube channel Errant Signal has also discussed many obscure and marginally commercial games, like Timeframe, Only If, and Anatomy. Lastly, I’ll note that The Beginner’s Guide, while it is itself a commercial game, is about a fictional game designer who makes completely non-commercial walking sims, and I think it gives us an authentic glimpse into that world.
Narrative is the most commonly cited goal of walking sims. And when I look at my list, I have to admit that this is true for most of them. Life is Strange is a YA story about teen romance and time travel. Gone Home centers on a teen romance, with hints of family drama. What Remains of Edith Finch is literary fiction about death. The Beginner’s Guide is metafiction about trying to understand a game designer through their games.
However, there are counterexamples. As far as I know, Proteus does not have any real narrative. And the non-commercial games within The Beginner’s Guide often lack clear narrative (which I claim is representative of some non-commercial games I have seen).
And several of these games include narratives, but the narrative is so loose that I’m not convinced that the narrative is the main point. For example, Dear Esther contains a story about a man who hermits himself on an island after his wife’s death, but the game mostly consists of wandering around an occasionally surreal island, while listening to voiceovers about grief. It’s never even clear who the player character is. Many people have likened the game to poetry, which is rather different from saying it’s narrative-driven.
I’d venture that the central appeal of Dear Esther is not its story, but the feeling or mood that it generates. I’d describe its atmosphere as somber and solitary, which is a natural fit for a game without anyone to interact with. There are also other kinds of atmospheres, like the bright and playful Proteus, or the mild horror of Gone Home.
Exploration can come in many forms. There’s the exploration of noticing little details in the environment, or even picking up and examining objects like in Gone Home. There’s the exploration of branching paths, like in The Stanley Parable or Life is Strange. And sometimes exploration is just linearly discovering one environment after another, and wondering what you’ll find next. I’ve noticed that many walking sims are structured like a series of environmental vignettes, The Beginner’s Guide being an obvious example.
4. Walking/looking as gameplay
When a game strips away all traditional gameplay except for walking and looking, it might be because the game wants to focus on something else like narrative. But maybe, just maybe, it’s because walking and looking is interesting in itself.
I think we take walking and looking for granted because it’s a standard part of our everyday life, and a standard part of 3D games. But there’s quite a lot to it. You need to spot and traverse paths, generate mental maps, and recognize when there might be a clue somewhere. There are also many subtle differences in the way that different players traverse a space. I have a tendency to look in every corner, and whenever I encounter a fork I try to guess the “wrong” path so I can take that one first. My husband tends to blaze through instead. And when we’re given an open world, we make completely different decisions about what looks interesting and where to go.
Walking and looking is often used in service of exploration, but are there any examples where the focal point is walking/looking itself? Hard to say. I always think of how The Stanley Parable rewards you for unusual walking-related actions, like standing in a broom closet for several minutes. I’m told that Firewatch puts a lot of focus on navigating a very large area, occasionally getting the player legitimately lost. Perhaps the more straightforward example is the way Proteus generates sounds based on what objects you stand near.
“Ludonarrative” refers to the intersection of gameplay and story. What story does the gameplay itself tell? What gameplay best complements the story? Frankly, the most common kinds of gameplay, like shooting and combat, complement only a narrow range of stories. So if you want to tell a different kind of story, it might make sense to omit traditional gameplay. Note that this does not necessarily mean stripping away all gameplay besides walking/looking. Sometimes you make a game that features lots of different kinds of gameplay at different times, as serves the needs of the story–and then walking/looking is merely a persistent mechanic that serves as a foundation. This is the model followed by What Remains of Edith Finch.
6. Experimentation (that is, by the designer, not the player)
Some players have said that walking sims feel “lazy” on the part of the designers. Which is funny, because walking sims are notable for requiring an unusually large ratio of time spent by designer to the time spent by player. But I think it’s true enough that many walking sim designers don’t want to waste time making traditional gameplay, because there’s something else they want to focus on. Perhaps that something else is narrative, or environmental design, or perhaps it’s something more experimental.
I would pick out The Stanley Parable as a great example of this. There are so many diverging paths, and it’s hard to think of any other game with such a large decision tree (well okay, I can think of a few). I think such an experimental concept would be too risky as a high-budget game, and just works better as an indie game. As an indie game, it needs to focus on its core concept, and not waste time with traditional gameplay.
Note that this is just a list of ideas I came up with, and definitely not exhaustive. If you can think of anything else that drives walking sims, feel free to leave a comment! You’re also welcome to bring up other walking sims and say what you thought motivated them. Out of respect for other readers, please use spoiler warnings where appropriate.