A brief look at Walking Simulators

Dec 30, 2019 at 01:21 pm by nemirc

I am of those who believe the decade will end in 2020, but I see a lot of articles that are about “looking back at the decade about to end” so I figured I might just join the trend. In gaming, one thing I can talk about is the type of games known as “walking simulators.”

Walking simulators came into notoriety when a commercial version of Dear Esther, developed by The Chinese Room using Valve's Source Engine, was released in 2012. However, that version of Dear Esther is actually a remake of the Dear Esther mod for Half Life (a video game developed by Valve using a previous version of the Source Engine), and released in 2008. So, even if walking simulators became more popular after 2014, their story doesn’t start there.

Dear Esther
Dear Esther

When I got into game development, I spent some time taking a look at the different kinds of games available I’d say the “first” walking simulator I played was The Path, released in 2009 by developer Tale of Tales. The Path is basically an interactive version of Red Riding Hood, from the perspective different sisters. In the game you can either walk on a straight path to Grandma’s house (if you do, you finish the game in a few minutes), or you can venture into the forest, find different landmarks, and experience different things (those things range from pretty mild to pretty dark, and are related to the girls’ ages). The same developer has another game, called The Graveyard, which is also a walking simulator, released in 2008.  You can guess the story of walking simulators goes back at least 11 years, so you can’t say it’s a “new” genre.

The Path

What is exactly a walking simulator, though? Game genres are usually named after the main mechanic you perform in the game. For example, first person shooters are games played in first person perspective, and the main mechanic would be shooting; and a platforming game is a game where you jump across different platforms. Keeping that into consideration, I’d say a walking simulator is a game where your main mechanic is walking. However, I see a lot of people stretching that definition to cover other types of games, so I think it’s fair to ask yourself at what point a game is no longer a walking simulator. Why do I mention that? Because I see some people apply the “walking simulators” to games that not only require a lot of exploration, but also include a few puzzles here and there (even if they are puzzles that don’t require you move things or use items, but rather simply stepping on things to make something happen). In cases like this, is it still a walking simulator?

I think the most recent example of this is Death Stranding, a video game by Kojima Productions (which I still haven’t played since I rarely get games on release date). Death Stranding has been called by some journalists “the most advanced walking simulator” because the walking mechanic is designed in such a way that you can fall if you don’t keep your balance while walking on rocks or other uneven surfaces (you are carrying some cargo during these sections, so having to keep your balance is something that makes sense in the game). However, I understand the game includes other mechanics, so I wouldn’t know if “walking simulator” is a fair label.

Death Stranding

n top of that, that label is widely used now. If you browse the “walking simulator” section on Steam, you get games like The Path, The Graveyard or Dear Esther, but also games like The Witness, which is actually a puzzle game that includes 523 puzzles (not counting hidden puzzles). Some (including journalists) may even call horror games like Amnesia and Outlast walking simulators because they remove combat completely, although old games like Haunting Ground or even the old Clock Tower NES game already did that. I would certainly disagree with the notion that removing combat is enough to label a game as “walking simulator.”

Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Personally, I dislike the way the definition is being stretched to cover other kinds of games (like Amnesia, Outlast), mainly because those games that people try to label as walking simulators are already part of a different category (like “horror adventure” or “survival horror” in the case of those two). I also see adventure games being affected by this. Games like Zork, Myst, and more recently, Quern, are purely point and click adventure games and they might be labeled walking simulators now, because they offer a gameplay similar to Gone Home (exploring, opening doors, interacting with elements). 10 years ago, they would be called “point and click adventures.” Even Life is Strange 2 (an adventure game that is mainly about choices) shows up in the walking simulator category of Steam.

Zork Nemesis

Some people say gamers might label “walking simulator” any game that has walking and exploration and not much action (as a way to say those games are not really games). However, when you have journalists calling Death Stranding “an advanced walking simulator” or when you see a widely popular game like Amnesia being called a walking simulator, I’d say there’s more to it. I’d say it’s a combination of various things, including people saying that certain games are not really games, some developers trying to separate themselves from the “game” label and calling their work “interactive experience” instead, and journalists applying that label carelessly.

I see part of this is caused because developers try to come up with new things to add on top of their walking simulators (conversations, multiple choices, inventory management, puzzles, etc.), rather than figuring out other ways to use the walking mechanic. Some games have already done that, like The Stanley Parable (released in 2013) is a walking simulator with a narrator, but the narration of the game changes based on the player’s actions (chosen path, door opened, etc.). Developers should evolve the gnre on its own, rather than seeing this genre be absorbed by something else.

The Stanley Parable

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