Gaming, Venue

Walking simulators: Not a walk in the park to understand

When the much-anticipated ‘Death Stranding’ was released last year, attention was brought to how much of the game consisted of travelling from Point A to Point B with relatively little gameplay in-between. One reviewer described it as “the most advanced walking simulator the world has ever seen”. Some months later, a free game parodying the gameplay of ‘Death Stranding’ was released and simply titled ‘Walking Simulator’. This term, ‘walking simulator’, has a relatively recent history. It was initially used as a form of criticism to describe games which lacked substantial gameplay of any kind, and consisted of the player mostly ‘walking’ from one plot point to another, leading some to question whether there was much point in them being presented in a game format.

In the late 2000s, the term began to gradually shift in its popular usage from an insult to becoming a game genre in itself. This was aided by the emergence of a number of successful games which fit into the ‘walking simulator’ criteria. ‘Dear Esther’, ‘The Stanley Parable’, and ‘Gone Home’ are a handful of games, which, at their core, consist of little more than walking through different areas (or in ‘Gone Home’s case, a single house), while receiving information about the plot through narration and notes, yet this content was enough for them to gain significant popularity. ‘The Stanley Parable’, in particular, was very experimental in its delivery of the game’s story and commentary on typical video game conventions. Hence, games labelled as walking simulators may lack scope in the traditional sense, but are by no means linear in terms of the experiences they can grant the player. Nor is their status as a game, as opposed to a film or book, questionable. ‘Beyond Eyes’ has the player control a blind girl in a world that appears completely white, with objects only being highlighted when you touch them, and sounds indicating what you are close to. This kind of story could not have been conveyed the same way without the degree of interactivity offered in a video game. There are, of course, walking simulators which lack as much substance – just as there are games of any genre which falter in comparison to the industry greats. A walking simulator also isn’t always trying to be experimental and, likewise, a game trying to be experimental doesn’t have to be a walking simulator.

On the other hand, some say a walking simulator can deliver a story or make the player consider things in a way that a ‘normal’ game could never. However, there are several games from various genres that are well-known for telling incredibly complex and emotionally-involved stories without sacrificing gameplay. What really makes the difference is the greater accessibility of walking simulators. There is rarely a way to die or otherwise fail in these games, and as such a much wider audience is able to experience them to the very end, when they may otherwise have not had the skill or time to do so. This may also contribute to their frequent positive reception critically, as journalists don’t have to spend as much time struggling through them before they can begin writing up their review. With this in mind, some games have introduced special difficulty modes designed to remove all puzzles or enemy encounters and let the player focus on the story and environment. ‘Assassin’s Creed Origins’ was given a special ‘Discovery Tour’ mode, in which the player can walk through the various areas of Egypt while audio commentary plays about the country’s history. 

The debate over whether walking simulators are valid as games is ongoing, but what perhaps keeps it so active is another uncertain point about these games. Good or bad, is ‘walking simulator’ an accurate name or genre for any of these games at all? How many unique features or interactions does it take for a walking simulator to no longer be a walking simulator? These games often cross over with other genres like horror, puzzle and stealth, such as the second game in the Amnesia series ‘A Machine for Pigs’, developed by the same team as ‘Dear Esther’, which dropped a lot of its predecessor’s features for a more controlled overall experience whilst still retaining a high level of tension for the player. ‘Death Stranding’ undoubtedly contains a lot of walking, but also puts heavy emphasis on construction, combat and stealth at times. Needless to say, what is or isn’t a walking simulator is fairly subjective, I would argue that in almost every case it is the label that lacks validity instead of the games.

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Jude Davies

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January 2022
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