These games were made for walking.
A couple of years ago, you’d probably never have even heard of the term “walking simulator”, but thanks to the blooming indie space, and the severe sense of fatigue that currently plagues the AAA domain, the genre has crept onto the mainstream scene, lurking patiently in the shadows to claim the minds and money of many a gamer. But what are walking simulators, and is it actually a genre? Where did it come from, and why is it here to stay?
Take a Walk
That most dully-named of genres, many attribute the rise of walking simulators to its roots in PC horror subculture, in which games – by design – eschewed combat and development in favour of a claustrophobic first person camera angle and a limited array of options. Though it’s true that this emergence in horror went some way to popularising the genre, and its touch is distinctly felt in games like Layers of Fear and even Gone Home, the heritage of the walking sim stretches right back into the golden age of the original PlayStation; the time of the adventure game.
From Grim Fandango to Day of the Tentacle, the era of the “point and click” adventure title was widely regarded for lovable characters, well-realised worlds and plots that actually drove players to seek answers. For these games, minute-to-minute action wasn’t necessarily a focus, but rather a means to an end, ultimately functioning as a vehicle that would take players to what they really cared about; a compelling narrative conclusion.
The Glory of Story
Walking simulators adopt the same principal, focusing less on the how players reach the conclusion, but rather the why. That’s not to say, of course, that all AAA titles neglect a sense of narrative, but let’s face it, it’s hard to connect emotionally with our face scarf-wearing, parka-clad Agent in The Division when he doesn’t actually say anything; in fact, the greatest emotion I felt towards my Agent was beard envy, but that’s probably more an issue for me and my counsellor.
AAA titles focus so heavily on player agency, offering us layers and layers of choice and customisation, that they often forget to build a sense of character whatsoever. The Guardians that we build in Destiny, the Agents that we build in The Division, even the Wanderers we build in Fallout, lack any real sense of character because they ultimately function as blank canvasses. Using a protagonist as a slate players can project themselves onto is one thing, and can almost be forgiven if you accept that narrative plays second fiddle to gameplay.
The greatest narrative faux pas, however, is committed by titles like Tomb Raider, Infamous or even Quantum Break, games that try to give us predetermined characters whose actions in game simply don’t match up to their personalities. In these instances, the need for compelling gameplay leads to hideously fractured heroes that are mercilessly gunning foes down one minute and attempting to come to emotional breakthroughs the next.
“…we’re hardly going to catch Henry from Firewatch scorching civilians with fireballs from his fists, and it’s all the more easy to become invested in his character for it”
Instead, games like Gone Home or Layers of Fear are fully aware of their protagonists and their surrounding casts, offering tangible characters that we can hate, grow to admire or even love. By eschewing traditional mechanics, walking simulators avoid the dissonance that arises between the violent actions of characters and the seeming humanity they show throughout cutscenes. As the name of the genre implies, these characters actually do little else other than walk, explore and interact with their environment; we’re hardly going to catch Henry from Firewatch scorching civilians with fireballs from his fists, and it’s all the more easy to become invested in his character for it. This core focus on emotional resonance is what creates games that last beyond the closing credits, building scenarios that will go on to be remembered, without relying on that ancient cliché of the player creating the experience for themselves.
Drawing the Line
Aside from their clear significance in terms of narrative and character development, these games also cater to a growing need in the industry for a shorter, more linear experience. The plethora of AAA titles on the market might well be heavy on choice, but they’re resoundingly light on closure. Like any number of core gamers, I have several expansive titles sitting on my shelf that I always plan on kind of, maybe, probably getting back to one day if I get a chance, but in reality will just end up gathering dust, never to be finished.
Like a movie, or a particularly good Netflix series, these games offer shorter, much more intimate experiences that players can finish in a matter of hours. They represent a much more instant form of gratification that, for gamers like me, is deeply appealing, in that I can have the full experience in four-five hours, without having to complete more fetch quests than an afternoon special of Supermarket Sweep.
Good Things in Small Packages?
Regardless of where you fall on the pricing of these games, the demand for them is clear just from the success of the recently released Firewatch, a title that not all of us were that keen on. It’s also abundantly obvious that the standard AAA experience is lacking in a number of aspects, areas that gamers are increasingly looking to fill with shorter, more intimate games. Taking these things into account, and the relatively lower production cost of these types of games, it looks as though the walking simulator is very much here to stay.