A brief history of the “walking simulator,” gaming's most detested genre

It started as a pejorative to describe games that pissed off “hardcore gamers,” and blossomed into true art

By Nicole Clark
Published November 11, 2017 7:00PM (UTC)
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The idea that someone could feel entitlement over someone else's video game might sound slightly absurd. But in the notoriously clannish world of video gaming, having strong opinions over the industry’s cultural mores (and having male anatomy) is the bar to entry for “gamer culture” — a phrase that encapsulates the notion that video game players across the world have their own linked culture and set of values. In 2016 — just after the horrific “Gamergate” faux-controversy, a coordinated attack on female game critics, thinly veiled as an “examination into video game journalism ethics” — gamer culture homed in on a new target: an entire genre of games that they referred to, pejoratively, as “walking simulators.”

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To explain why “walking simulators” — the concept, and their proliferation — made so many people so angry, it’s best to first explain the history of the modern-day gaming complex. Video games, like so much of the technology we now use regularly, sprang from the military-industrial complex. The first video games were war games, commissioned and designed by the Department of Defense for the explicit purpose of simulating war with the Soviet Union. Many of the design aspects of video games today still borrow from war games: the use of a “heads up display,” the onslaught of enemy targets, the vast predilection for violence, and even the staggering amount of money the Pentagon spends financing the video gaming world — so much so, in fact, that the Pentagon considers video games one of their key recruitment tools.

Walking simulators aren’t the first games to buck these militaristic conventions, but their mechanics vary furthest from the video game’s original design. And while walking simulators may vary wildly in execution, they tend to have a few key similarities. Most lack puzzles or any sort of barrier to experiencing the narrative, with the exception of finding objects. You cannot fail a task in a way that forces you to repeat it, and you cannot die. Most of these games prioritize some kind of storytelling, be it linear or variable depending on your in-game decision making. A few are known for being quite beautiful — a fact that has made entries like “Firewatch,” a game where you play as a park ranger, more susceptible to backlash. The examples that follow all have one thing in common: at least one source derogatorily labeled them as a walking sim.

The Guardian referred to walking sims as a “new sub-genre of games,” but they aren’t, on a very mechanical level, completely new. Exploration — a sub-genre of adventure — traces back to the 1980s, and in 2003, Mary Flanagan created “[domestic],” an interactive experience that repurposes early first-person-shooter environments to reconstruct a childhood memory of a fire. It was an early example of a digital experience that most closely resembles what we might consider a modern day “walking simulator.” And the term “walking sim” began appearing on forums, as an insult, in the late 2000s.

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While all genre classification is, in some way, reductive, “walking sim” is reductive in a profoundly annoying way. Pretty much all games are basically walking sims, right? You literally walk from place to place and then do a thing. The insult is in categorizing a genre by its limitation, rather than its capability: in walking sims, according to critics, all you do is walk. In “Assassin’s Creed,” a wildly popular role-playing game (RPG), “tourism mode” is the “walking sim” version. As Jake Elliott — one of the three creators of “Kentucky Route Zero,” another game that has endured the walking sim designation — keenly points out, “people buy into the term in order to talk about what is missing.”

This is understandable. “Gone Home,” an award-winning point-and-click game that puts you in the shoes of a college student returning home from break only to find her family missing, resembles an Escape Room without the pressure to escape. “To the Moon,” an adventure game about a dying man who wishes to be implanted with artificial memories, was built on the same engine as a number of RPGs, but offers a different kind of experience — one that may feel like a limitation to a gamer who has a different set of expectations for that kind of in-game environment.

But the evolution of art often happens under the pressure of limitation. Larger, mainstream game designers have millions of dollars at their disposal; with money on the line, there’s a prerogative not to toy with the standard design formulae that consumers have come to expect. Take, for example, “Call of Duty,” a popular war-themed series of video games, that has released upwards of ten sequels. This is to say: the gaming industry suffers a mild version of the movie industry’s “sequelitis.” Meanwhile, walking sims – often produced on a dime by indie studios — have to motivate a player using a non-standard set of tools.

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Sean Krankel, co-creator of “Oxenfree”—a game about a teen girl and her friends getting trapped on a haunted island—notes the difficulty of creating “a game that feels like it has a threat when the player can’t die.” Thus, he and co-creator Adam Hines put energy into world building. This isn’t anything new. The acclaimed RPG “Skyrim built much of its world around a core enemy, the dragon, within the first five minutes. But dragons are terrifying precisely because they can kill you. “Oxenfree,” instead, saddles your dialogue choices with lasting consequences. You can’t physically kill anyone, but you can make them hate you and each other, and at one point, potentially leave one of them behind on an island. The threat of leaving your friends to die is honestly scarier than dying yourself and reloading to the last save point.

“In most games, your power is combat,” Sean explains, “In 'Oxenfree,' your ability to talk is your superpower.” He and Adam wanted to defy the trend of “buttoning through dialogue” that plagues many premier gaming titles, by making dialogue occur in real time. “Your dialogue choice—or your choice not to speak—not only impacts the character you’re talking to, but also the opinions of the other characters in the game, who might be listening at any given time,” Sean says, “and in “Oxenfree,” there are different versions of all people.” It worked. After the “first playtest someone threw the controller on the ground because the game was too scary” Sean says.

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Perhaps the walking sim’s greatest power is how it makes players recognize and consider such decisions and the way they influence gaming outcomes and environments. A number of traditional big-budget titles don’t demand this kind of moral engagement, which makes sense—asking a player to stop and consider the horrible things they’re doing is antithetical to moving forward.

Walking sims also serve as a good conduit for newcomers. This is a dirty concept to gamers who value the arcane knowledge that comes with mastery, and apparently don’t want other people to become gamers. “We want our games to be accessible to people who don’t normally game,” says Nina Freeman, a level designer at Fullbright, the studio that published “Gone Home” and “Tacoma.” “Even exploring a space in the first person context is confusing for a number of older players,” Freeman added.

This isn’t to say that the walking sim’s primary value is to be a game for those who don’t know how to play games. To the contrary, titles like “The Stanley Parable”—a game where a narrator issues missives to the player and then makes sassy commentary regarding the player’s decision to follow or ignore said missive—are accessible to newcomers, but even funnier to players who get punished for doing things that classic games encourage.

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Fail states also imply that a game must be annoying, and sometimes unplayable, for people who aren’t already good at them. Even a popular, classic arcade game like “Mario Bros” requires a phenomenal amount of repetition in order to clear a cliff or avoid getting killed by a Piranha Plant. This type of challenge makes sense in some games, but in titles with strong narratives more akin to novels, this type of gatekeeping can feel like an impediment to accessing the story. “We want the mechanics in our games to enhance, not get in the way, of the experience,” said Amy and Ryan Green, co-creators of “That Dragon, Cancer,” an autobiographical game about caring for their infant son as he undergoes treatment for terminal cancer.

Many walking sims take inspiration from the mechanics of classics and mainstream, big-budget titles and repurpose them — akin to how other smartphone apps have begun parroting Tinder’s swiping interface. “Kentucky Route Zero,” a “magical realist” video game about a fictitious eponymous highway only accessible through an alternate dimension, features a map that pays homage to the "Mario Bros" concept of a schematic map connecting disparate locations. “That Dragon, Cancer,” includes a number of familiar “mini-games” — smaller games within the context of the larger game, and a design trope that dates back at least to the “Legend of Zelda” series games in the 1980s. As Amy Green told Salon, “people complained to us that the mini-games weren’t very good — but that wasn’t really the point. We weren’t trying to make the best, hardest-to-beat mini-game. We were delivering our story in a format that expanded on familiar video game tropes.”

“Others who had never heard of ‘walking sims’ were upset that we would make a game about cancer in the first place,” Green added. She continued: “They assumed there had to be something gamified about treatment, and were deeply offended. Their opinions changed when they actually played the game, and realized we had built something completely different, something completely new.”

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This kind of upending of expectation is important. Even the type of walking sim that tends to accrue the most backlash — the novel-esque ones with linear storylines where, unlike “Oxenfree” or “The Walking Dead,” you can’t manipulate the environment or the outcome — offers its own form of innovation. Where one player may get annoyed by the lack of agency in “Firewatch,” another may delight in the desperation in the illusion of choice. “Kentucky Route Zero” makes its own compelling roast of late-stage capitalism, in a different way from “Bioshock”’s violence and depravity. “Just walking still gives a sense of involvement,” Kan Gao, creator of “To The Moon,” told Salon. “Most people don’t want to admit it because it’s dumb. But even standing by something creates closeness to a story.”

In true form, the reification of the label “walking simulator” does a better job of describing the kinds of people who create such labels than it does the games it purports to define. The bevy of mainstream backlash coincided not with the creation of walking sims, but rather with the positive critical acclaim of walking sim titles like “Dear Esther” and “Gone Home,” and later “Firewatch” and “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.” Critics resisted the inclusion of walking sims in the greater gaming oeuvre. Though the label has become nearly neutralized as a descriptor—“walking sim” is a searchable genre on the game distribution platform Steam, along with “adventure” or “narrative” game—people still get stuck on the idea of these games as subtractive, rather than additive.

Something similar happened with the pejorative labeling of the walking sim’s lesser known cousin, the “empathy game” — as if there were something dirty about provoking emotions. But the best kinds of games provoke some kind of emotion. That’s storytelling 101. Almost every positive review of the critically-successful title “Bioshock Infinite” praised the emotional fluency of Booker DeWitt’s relationship with Elizabeth—the AI companion that drives 80% of the narrative, tosses you much needed supplies mid-combat, and possesses essential, gameplay changing abilities. Again, this points to the subtractive in a way that is actively damaging. “I hate it when people call “To The Moon” the game that makes them cry,” says Kan Gao. “It sets them up to be closed off to the story.”

A year has passed since the discontent over walking sims went viral. Developers that I spoke to expressed a common sentiment: the label hadn’t really done anything to change the way they developed games. In 2016, nearly half of the BAFTA Games Awards winners were indie games, three of which were walking sims. And the pseudo-genre’s popularity show no signs of abetting. “Art gets criticized at the end of each movement,” Josh Larson, developer on “That Dragon, Cancer,” told Salon. The kinds of gaming experiences that are often rejected on gaming PC’s or consoles (known for attracting “hardcore” gamers, those more likely to feel entitlement around game design tropes) are routinely delighting people over augmented and virtual reality.

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The Fullbright Company recently released “Tacoma,” and the “Kentucky Route Zero” team are working on the next episodic installment. Night School Studio, Freebird Games, and Numinous Games are all working on titles for release in the coming year. Other indie studios have popped up to fill an increasing demand. As far as deterrents go, it appears the pejorative label may not have had any effect: Not only is the “walking sim” here to stay, but it may well be the most artful and innovative genre within video gaming.

 


Nicole Clark

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