“Walking simulators”, as they’re derogatorily known, occupy a controversial niche in the ecosystem of video games.
As that commonly used moniker implies, the genre emphasizes exploration and atmosphere over interactivity. Many gamers don’t consider walking simulators to be video games because of this setup. While walking simulators are far from universally popular, there’s no denying that they’ve made a big change to gaming. In fact, walking simulators have been good even for more “active” genres of video games.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the genre of walking simulators got its start. A lot of critics and gamers these days usually attribute the genesis of walking sims to Dear Esther, a game about a man who wanders a remote Scottish island while reciting letters he’d written to his deceased wife. Dear Esther received praise for its at-the-time graphical quality, gorgeous music, and solid art direction, but gamers were much more divided over its interactivity (or lack thereof).
The game sparked a massive debate over what constitutes a video game, with one side arguing that its digital world made it a game while others claimed that its lack of player interactivity precluded such a classification. That argument continues to this day.
To be clear, walking simulators are video games, and not just because they’re digital. It’s primitive to assume that a game can’t be a game just because it doesn’t have a failure state. Gamers have become so accustomed to the threat of the game over screen that a title not having that seems like heresy.
What makes a game?
Here’s the thing, though; just because a video game character can’t die doesn’t mean that it isn’t a video game. Just because a character is limited to walking around an environment doesn’t mean that they’re not interacting with it. Walking simulators are video games; players don’t have to like them, but their inclusion of interactivity, however minimal, still makes them games.
Walking simulators did more than ignite an argument over what constitutes a game; they also proved that a game could get by on story and atmosphere alone. By stripping out puzzles and combat, they demonstrated that games could still attract a lot of attention by allowing narrative to take center stage. They also proved the importance of atmosphere, a game design element that had certainly been implemented before but always as part of a grand production, not as the focal point of it.
Dear Esther’s successful implementation of story and atmosphere caught other developers’ notice, even those devs who didn’t or never have worked in the medium of walking sims. Even if developers weren’t into the idea of limiting their games’ interactivity to exploration, they could still appreciate that Dear Esther dev thechineseroom had used that setup to immersive effect.
Subsequent video games ranging from suspenseful thrillers like Firewatch and Virginia to exploration-heavy titles like Breached have leveraged atmospheric techniques that Dear Esther brought to the forefront.
Developers, even the big ones, are now content to put interaction-lite scenes into their titles. Before Dear Esther, it was uncommon to see scenes like the lighthouse interlude in BioShock Infinite in big-budget titles. Developers’ comfort with including scenes like that can be attributed at least in part to what walking simulators demonstrated. Most gamers are okay with games taking a break from shooting and running if there’s a point to it.
Finding a balance
By that same token, a lot of developers have also tried to get away with skating purely on pretentious dialogue or a single set piece in their quest for money. There’s no shortage of walking sims, especially on Steam, that simply put in some rippling grass and a poem about reality and expect to get away with the Dear Esther effect.
What these devs fail to realize (aside from the fact that their games are terrible) is that a walking simulator still has to involve the player in its narrative. Since walking sims minimize interaction, they have to find a narrative or atmospheric reason for the player character to be present.
Walking simulators are not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s fine, but there’s no denying their impact on the world of video games. The genre’s strident dedication to atmosphere demonstrated that atmosphere could single-handedly change the tone of a video game, which is probably why so many big-budget devs are okay with putting at least one or two such sections into their titles.
Everything from the dream sequences of Far Cry 3 to the scene-by-scene drama of Virginia espouses that same idea of letting atmosphere and narrative take players’ hands for a time. Such a thing wouldn’t be as common a game design facet if walking simulators hadn’t been there to verify its efficacy.