Since getting into the habit of writing a bit about each of the games I play, I find myself using a catch phrase: It should’ve been a walking sim. It’s a way of praising the narrative and world design of a game, while playfully disparaging all the gamey obstacles they throw in your way. After all, these are human creations, the obstacles didn’t need to be there. We could have just been enjoying the in-game rewards without having to work for them, only having to walk for them.
It’s also a slightly subversive thought experiment. What if we removed all the combat, the platforming, skill-based anything? What if we only had press w to move forward, mouse to look around, dialogue, environmental storytelling, audio logs, item descriptions, cinematics, choices that matter, and a dash of light puzzling to taste? Walking sims are so simple, surely it should be easy, right? We shall see.
Some of these hypothetical games may sound horrible. That’s okay, just remember: they don’t really exist and can’t hurt you.
There are some games that just seem impossible to transform into a walking sim, and then there are other games that feel like they’re practically already walking sims. Dark Souls is in the latter category.
In Walk Souls, we find ourselves dropped into a dying world. Nobody tells us exactly what happened, so we just have to gather clues by picking up items and reading their descriptions. We learn that the people of this world have been afflicted with the undead curse, repeatedly coming back to life until they went mad. At one point these mad undead soldiers posed a grave danger to would-be hikers, but now they are passive zombies, for even the spark of violence eventually fades.
Walk souls is unusually difficult for a walking sim. The history of the world is so obscure that most people rely on youtube videos to properly explain anything. And though all you need to do is walk, the world is dense with maze-like passages, obscure secrets, and frequent backtracking. The game even lets you walk off a cliff and die, which seems unusually punishing (although admittedly it does fit the narrative of you being one of the undead). Nonetheless, these rough edges are embraced by walking sim aficianados, who praise its lavishly detailed world and environmental storytelling.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Celeste, a much more tightly focused platforming game. You can take the fighting out of a fighting game, but how do you take the jumping out of a jumping game, when the whole world is designed around jump-based methods of travel?
You would, of course, need to replace all the levels with far more straightforward ones. I think it’s okay to keep the jumping and climbing mechanics, as long as these abilities are only used to serve the narrative and not really to create challenge. There are already many moments like this; for example, when Badeleine starts giving boosts to Madeleine in the late game, that’s not really there to create challenge, it’s to serve the narrative of finally working together to make leaps of progress. We just have to imagine Celeste as composed of a series of such moments. And remember, when the overall challenge of the game is low, even small points of friction can create useful tension.
Of course, with all the levels replaced with basic walking, climbing, and jumping, this would leave the game feeling a bit thin. We would have to develop the story significantly more. I’d love to learn more about the backstory of the abandoned city, the haunted hotel, the ancient ruins. And of course, we’d get to explore more of Madeleine’s trans backstory. The hypothetical devs of Celeste Mountain Hike have their work cut out for them.
Death Stranding is renowned for being the most complex walking simulator ever, with so much gameplay focused on maintaining balance in a rough terrain where every step must be taken with care. But, it’s only really a walking simulator in the literal sense of being a simulation of walking, and not in the sense of being in conversation with the genre of walking sims. Death Stranding arguably has more in common with a truck simulator, especially when the game literally gives you a truck.
In order to create Death Strolling, we must do away with all the balance mechanics and truck physics. This is of course, going to leave long periods of just pressing forward to walk, so my proposal is to basically have a radio station or podcast playing all the time. Maybe have voiceovers reading out all those text logs, but like, put better writing into them. At the risk of making it too gamey, I think there are some “mechanics” that we can keep in simplified form, such as walking more slowly depending on how much you’re carrying, and the roughness of the terrain. I think timefall is a good way to apply a light touch of time pressure, by slowly degrading the durability of your packages. You get to make a few mechanical choices, such as bringing more tools to access shortcuts, vs taking a lighter load to move faster.
We also have to get rid of all the shooty sections, which honestly were annoying anyway, and I’ve never seen anyone point to them as the highlight of the game. This might make it a bit difficult to preserve the same narrative, in which violence is integral. But actually you know what, is the narrative really better for having violence in it? His name is Sam Porter Bridges, not Sam Shooter Guns. When he gets teleported to Mads Mikkelsen’s war-torn dreamland, it would make more sense for Sam to be desperately trying to avoid conflict, possibly while transporting an essential package. And the climax of the game certainly wasn’t the explosion-studded showdown with the giant monstrosity, it was hugging Princess Beach (uh, sorry, spoiler?). There are definitely some challenges to making Death Strolling, but I feel like removing the guns is the easy part.
Baba is You
If I’m going to use this thought experiment to ruin other people’s beloved games, I feel it’s only fair that I ruin my own beloved games too. Baba is You also poses an interesting challenge compared to the previous examples, because it doesn’t really have a narrative. In the other games, I can imagine just stripping out most of the gameplay and leaving distilled narratives, but in Baba is You, once you strip out the puzzles there’s barely anything left. I am aware that walking sims don’t need to have narrative (and here I am afraid to name examples lest someone tell me that, actually, Off-Peak has a very strong narrative that just went over my head), but generally they have something going for them, be it music or imagery or diffuse metaphor. Walking Is You might just be a terrible game, but let’s give it a shot.
I imagine Walking is You as being a bit similar to Everything. I have not played Everything, but from my understanding, it’s a game where you can be any object in the universe, as long as you listen to some Alan Watts quotes while you do so. We’re not going to turn Baba is You into a 3D game, nor play Alan Watts over it, but it feels like Walking is You is going for a similar idea, being a galaxy brain adventure about being anything and everything. The game already has all these brain-expanding moments, where first Baba is You then Flag is You, and all the Babas are You, Empty is You, Level is You, and so on. I want to imagine a game that consists entirely of these moments.
We would of course, need to add a lot more of these moments, and also probably accept a much shorter game. I’m also concerned if you don’t solve puzzles by being something else, the game may fail to drive home what it really means for one thing to be another thing. I wouldn’t put any serious puzzles in it, but I feel like it needs a little something, maybe a metroidvania structure. You go around collecting abilities, and if you backtrack to old areas you’ll find you can access new things. No difficult puzzles required, just exploration and walking.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3 is a golden standards in AAA open world everything-under-the-kitchen-sink games, so by performing the walking sim thought experiment on Witcher 3, I effectively perform it for a large fraction of AAA games. Okay, maybe it’s not quite the same, because The Witcher 3 has a richness of narrative that to my knowledge just doesn’t exist in Assassin’s Creed. But I’ve never played any of the Assassin’s Creeds so I’m afraid that one will be left as an exercise to the reader.
What I remember about The Witcher 3 is not any of the combat. I remember that long quest in Novigrad, where Geralt is trying to find Ciri. He ends up helping an oneiromancer, who tells him he needs to find Dandelion. So he talks to several of Dandelion’s paramours, tracks down a crime boss, puts on a play to get the attention of a doppelganger, intercepts a prisoner escort… and I know I’m skipping a bunch of steps here. And this whole fetch quest epic occurs in a huge patchwork of a city that honestly puts most walking sim environments to shame. And that’s just like, one chapter of a larger game. Oh and there were a few battles here and there I guess.
The difficulty here is that violence is so intertwined in Geralt’s story–can we really tell this story without gameifying the violence? To this, I say, somehow the books manage to tell the story of a career monster hunter without requiring you to mash A to attack. In The Witcher 3: Wild Jaunt, I say that we fight monsters not with button mashing, but with knowledge and preparation. Maybe some monsters you have to look up, and determine their weaknesses. Others you have to collect the right ingredients and brew the right potions. Maybe some monsters, the real problem isn’t that they’re hard to kill, but that the real monster was inside us all along.
To some extent we already have this game, if you set the difficulty to “Just the story”. It’s not really quite the same, because they don’t remove the combat, they just make it very easy. But I admit, I haven’t even tried it, which maybe shows a little hypocrisy on my part. Maybe I like the concept of this walking sim more than I like the real thing.
It Should Have Been a Walking Sim
I’ve been playing this game called “It Should Have Been a Walking Sim”, in which I imagine various games being adapted into the walking sim genre. What if I adapted “It Should Have Been a Walking Sim” into “It Should Have Been a Walking Sim: The Walking Sim”? Gosh, isn’t it practically already a walking sim?
Concept: A series of shorts, each divided into two parts. In the first part, you play a game that involves a little mini game. Nothing especially difficult, just enough to evoke the feeling of gameyness, without going much further than, say, the minigames of What Remains of Edith Finch. In the second part, you play the walking sim version, where the minigame has been replaced with simpler mechanics and a deeper exploration of the game’s narrative. For example, one game could be a card battler in a world where all conflicts, no matter how absurd, are resolved through a game of cards. In the second part, we peel away the card battles, and resolve conflicts by talking about them.
The walking sim version of each game isn’t necessarily a better game, because the point isn’t to persuade you that all games would be better as walking sims. The point is merely to explore the possibility. Does a game still work when you remove its central mechanics? Is there anything you need to add back in? Can gamey games learn new things from walking sims, and vice versa? Is there even a difference, or do all the genres start to blend together a bit? That’s up to the player to decide.