Stian: I suppose this topic is nothing new, but I have probably scrapped more versions of trying to write about this genre than any article for this site. What was going to be a top 12 walking-simulators, ended up in flames due to my favorites not filling the list at all, and creating an article on my own, sadly got tunnel-visioned and became a non-intellectual rant. In the end, I just could not do this alone and asked Casper to discuss with me about the genre of walking-simulators and figure out if they even should be a part of the gaming community.
First of all: what is a walking-simulator? It is somewhat of a broad term, but the concept is what the name suggests: you are mainly walking. Either on a narrow pathway or in an open environment exploring with barely much else to speak of interactively. This is where I already have a problem with 90% of the games within this genre: your inputs are on the level of using a DVD-remote, so why make it into a game at all? There are some titles I believe benefit from being a game within this genre, but before I get ahead of myself, I should ask my fellow writer what his take on the genre is, both conceptually and general opinion.
Casper: I have played my fair share of walking sims and my opinion on them may be skewed, because I have also done speedruns of them. They are games I quite enjoy, even if I can see why people would find them objectionable.
In my take, they are valid games. There may not be awfully much to them in terms of gameplay, but it’s just another level of abstraction. To me, a game like Gone Home or Dear Esther is not much different from an Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Outlast. I just like the former better because they don’t ask me to deal with stupid monsters while I walk around and absorb the story. In fact, I activated that mode that makes the SOMA monsters passive for this very reason. When I break away from my strategy games, management sims, and shooters to play a slower game with lots of storytelling, I appreciate not having that interrupted with unnecessary nuisances.
Stian: I was tempted to call you lazy on this note, but I can’t deny that I do enjoy calmer titles that make me simply relax. I will also agree that these 4 titles you mentioned, besides SOMA, take the walking-simulator aspect in different directions. However, while I do find Amnesia and Outlast drag titles to play simply because I don’t like them, they have a clear function as interactive media. I can say the same thing for Gone Home, since I do like the idea of exploring and getting immersed through what I witness in a playthrough, which it does impressively so.
However, there are titles I just get confused by why it wasn’t just made into a movie. Dear Esther is a good example of this, as well as the Freebird-games, such as To The Moon and A Bird Story. I won’t deny that these titles are important to witness, but not with a controller in hand. Dear Esther could have been a VR-experience where you automatically moved as you looked around due to its linearity, and To The Moon is actually being made into a movie. I don’t expect a huge challenge or even puzzles necessarily, but I do expect a reason for why I am in control.
Casper: Are we ever truly in control of our lives Stian?… nah, I jest.
If you were to ask me why I play Dear Esther, but wouldn’t want it automated or in a movie, I’d say it’s because I want to be the one to control the pacing and decide what I do and do not value. Even as linear as Dear Esther is, I feel that getting a little lost in its world and investigating optional places, getting those extra bits of dialogue, is what makes it all worth it. Even if it’s pointless in terms of game progression, being able to walk around a bit and take in the environment is important for my immersion and that would be lost if it was some automated experience. For example, I stood still when the narrator in Dear Esther spoke, because I didn’t want to be distracted by environmental details while it played.
I think an important factor here is how much you value story in relation to or in combination with gameplay. More people are creating games now than ever before, some of those people like designing meaty gameplay challenges and for others, it’s a vessel to share an interesting story they got on their minds. Not all those people have the knowhow to create a mechanically complex game around them, so I am fine with experiencing those through walking simulators, visual novels, or (like To The Moon) somewhat basic RPG Maker titles. Not everybody is a Toby Fox, jack-of-all-trades kinda guy. Some people are Steve Gaynor or Auriea Harvey.
Stian: I can understand that taking in the world and journey through your own pace is helpful for the atmosphere. Whenever I played Stanley Parable and just wanted to embrace the hilarious dialogue, I usually stopped walking for a short while. So I will give you that I understand that interactivity in simple movement and its speed, could be important for immersion alone. However, if we also take in visual novels and story-driven RPG Maker titles in this discussion, is there a boundary between these kinds of interactive genres and video games?
I should clarify that I don’t mean to put these genres down, as they definitely can create an emotional or even enlightening experience that I believe can reach a wider audience. I just find it hard to call them games, due to the minimal interactivity. Visual novels, for example, while they can provide branching pathways, are 90% in my experience simply books through a digital service. It is a fair point that someone does not have the know-how to create games, but then why even attempt that? Is there a possibility that we can create a subgenre for these kinds of games? How about walking-simulators for titles like Death Stranding and Stanley Parable due to their stronger reliance on the player’s input, while Dear Esther, Beyond Two Souls or That Dragon Cancer are rather cinematic experiences or interactive movies? I know that the two latter ones are not good titles, but that is what came to my mind first.
Casper: Where I feel this idea falls apart is in cases like the aforementioned SOMA. When the dividing line between what would be a game or a “cinematic experience” is a vaguely-described quantity of gameplay challenge, you get situations where the boundaries of each category are uncertain and can overlap.
SOMA is a stealth-horror title with puzzle elements, but turn on the mode for passive enemies and you’re just exploring a bizarre facility dense in atmosphere and storytelling. There are games with extra-easy difficulty settings and modes for people that just want to experience the story, which turns gameplay into a carefree activity to do while you watch the story develop. You’re still doing things and expected to give some input to keep it all moving, but yeah, is it still a game at that point?
Personally, I just don’t really mind. Games like Gone Home, Doki Doki Literature Club, and To The Moon were considerably popular, both among traditional gamers and people that fall outside that criteria. I wouldn’t want to be the guy telling somebody who just got into visual novels because of DDLC that they aren’t real gamers. I’d much rather point them towards a game like Undertale and tell them they might enjoy that if they enjoyed the fourth-wall-breaking shenanigans of DDLC.
Stian: I would argue that this vague specification of genres does already exist with Walking-simulators, which is why I want to clarify its identity, especially due to preference in interactivity. It is in many ways similar to how we have “Tactical RPGs” vs “Action RPG”: we all want to take on a genre we tend to enjoy. However, I suppose it can only go so far. Even the Zelda-series has been seen as “adventure” title for a long time, despite that it could easily be used for a point and click-title like The Secret of Monkey Island, but we still try to define them to get an idea of how to present them correctly.
While I can understand the wish to take in the story and setting in a rather peaceful manner with no challenge in titles like these, I do also find this difficulty-mode flat out lazy. I know I am harsh here, but I believe there is a difference between a fitting challenge and just moving a cursor. Do remember that Gone Home was a controversial title when it came out, but I do appreciate that it demanded the player to explore, in many ways similar to a point and click. And with all due respect: Doki Doki Literature Club only had its ending to go on in terms of shock-value and one interesting interactivity at the end. Nothing else.
I guess I don’t want to be mean-spirited towards people who just got into the concept of gaming through DDLC, however. It just feels like calling someone a movie-enthusiasts after watching 50 Shades of Grey. I am happy that they got an interest in the media, but the world is definitely more massive than just this and I hope the beginning won’t hinder the expansion. Although I could argue the same for Elder Scrolls-players, as while I find them terrible titles, it has opened people to even take on other types of RPG. So I suppose you are right that I should not put anyone down for enjoying these titles, especially since it could lead to more enthusiasm of stronger titles (and it is common decency to let people enjoy something that is harmless). Maybe then they are interesting “stepping-stones” towards games? As a border between two media?
Casper: Let me propose something different, because I am frankly just not interested in gatekeeping the medium, even if it’s given friendly terminology like “stepping-stones”. We are talking a lot about genres here and you mention yourself how lines begin to blur when a game like Zelda and a game like Monkey Island both get the same label. So, what about this?
A cool feature of the anime database AniList, compared to its main competitor MyAnimeList, is that instead of set list of genres, there are tags that describe various appeals and themes present in the show. Each newly-added tag is verified by an admin, after which every user can vote on how relevant each tag is to the work. This way, the most important themes are brought to the top, whereas minor elements are listed at the bottom. Thanks to this, a show like Ancient Magus’ Bride isn’t just listed as “Fantasy”, but the community voted on it getting “Urban Fantasy” as a tag. This goes alongside useful descriptors like “Magic”, “Female Protagonist”, “Primarily adult cast”, and “Mythology”. People can endlessly bicker about whether the show is primarily a fantasy or a romance, but nobody will deny that these are important themes worth listing.
Steam does something similar, but worse in execution. Its tag system is frequently abused for comedic effect and I like how AniList pops up little tooltips to describe what the tag is actually about. Steam actually features a walking simulator tag while more broadly listing Gone Home as an indie adventure game. What do you think about that? Would that resolve your grievance with walking sims?
With that said, I am not reworking our entire website to have a tag system.
Stian: To be honest, it definitely does! Or at the very least, softens the blow. Similar to when we talked about whether there will be new ideas within the video-game media, there certainly will be broader takes on any genre, which makes it important to have multiple labels instead of just one singular. Having the ability to classify games in broader terms like this, can help people to find their cup of tea. While I still am not a fan of how limited walking-simulators can be, I should be aware that there is a market for those who simply wish to embrace a good story at their preferred pace. And I can’t deny that I still love some of them due to their stories alone. I suppose as long as people get their preferred experience that does not cause any harm, who am I to judge, right?