The Stanley Parable, an example of a walking simulator, in which the player explores an abandoned office and other environments

A walking simulator, shortened walking sim, is an adventure game that consists primarily of movement and environmental interaction. They generally do not have combat mechanics, traditional win/lose scenarios, and sometimes include puzzle elements. While these video game elements originated in the 1980s, people online began pejoratively referring to new games as walking simulators in the late 2000s, notably with Dear Esther. The term was eventually used less pejoratively and adopted by gamers, while still negatively perceived by some game developers and negative gameplay connotation remains. Other descriptors have been commonly used for games of such style, including empathy, narrative and exploration game. Such games are often a hallmark of art games, but some mainstream games have been described as having walking simulator elements.

The walking simulator elements are controversial due to purported lack of challenge, and discontent of such games became viral in the mid-to-late 2010s among "hardcore" gamers. In other criticism, artistic aspects and emphasis on decision-making and morality are recognizable in them, and walking simulator elements remain popular.

Characteristics

Gameplay

Walking sims are centered around exploration, with the player being thrown into an unfamiliar environment that ranges from mundane to fantastical. The player uncovers aspects of that environment, gaining an understanding of who inhabits it and whether or not it is hostile. Most walking sims lack aspects such as combat, strategy, or economic systems. Most are also created by indie developers, although major titles such as Death Stranding have been referred to as walking sims.[1]

The term is sometimes combined with horror game elements, giving the exploration more aspects of tension. Though most survival horror games do include combat and other actions the player can use to survive, some games like Outlast and Paratopic remove combat abilities, which leaves the player without any means to otherwise react to events. These games can be seen as walking simulators as they help to create an emotional response in their narrative by removing player agency to react to frightening events, combined with the ability to insert visual and audio cues designed to frighten the player.[1]

Naming

The name "walking simulator" has negative connotations, implying the gameplay is tedious and mundane. Critics of walking simulators contend that games must contain some kind of challenge, and walking sims would not qualify as "games" under this definition.[2] Early walking sims, often developed by female leads and featured LGBT themes, were attacked by Internet trolls tied to misogyny and homophobia, such as in the case of Gone Home. These attacks created further negative perception around walking sims.[1] The genre's emergence around the same time as Gamergate in 2014 also led to the name "walking simulator" being treated as a negative stigma.[3]

Developers including Dan Pinchbeck, who co-created Dear Esther, reject this narrow definition in favor of a more expansive and inclusive one.[2] The 'walking sim' term was later embraced by fans, going so far as to be used as a description tag on the Steam digital distribution service. It is sometimes used in an ironic manner.[4]

Whether to use the term or something else continues to be debated by developers and fans, with those in support pointing out the positive health and mental benefits of walking as a sign it does not have to be derogatory. Detractors characterize it as dismissive and condescending, relating it to other insults like "social justice warrior", although even its critics expressed a feeling of inevitability that it would continue to be used for the foreseeable future.[4][3]

History

Gone Home has the player explore their character's childhood home, seemingly suddenly abandoned by their family, to discover clues to what has happened.

The first known walking simulator was an indie game, The Forest, developed in 1978 as an orienteering simulation by Graham Relf for the ZX Spectrum in his spare time. Intended to be based around map-making and navigational skills, it allowed the player to navigate a vast virtual forest. It eventually received a commercial release, and was praised for its originality. A 1980s science fiction successor, Explorer, took place on a forested Earth-like planet and featured 40 billion procedurally generated individual locations, randomly combining graphical components. It also had a rudimentary combat system that allowed the player to shoot arrows at ghost-like creatures, as well as a form of fast travel via teleportation. However, the game was poorly reviewed by most outlets due to its slow pace, calling it more of a tech demo than a fully-fledged video game. Both Explorer and its predecessor were therefore considered commercial failures.[5]

In 2003, [domestic], an art game developed by Mary Flanagan, reused first-person shooter environments to reconstruct a childhood memory of a fire.[6] In 2012, Dear Esther, a walking sim about exploring an unnamed island, was a breakout hit that popularized the modern incarnation of the walking simulator, receiving a large amount of positive critical acclaim.[7] Despite receiving backlash, it was seen as a radical concept.[8] It was directly followed by Gone Home in 2013, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter in 2014, and, later, Firewatch in 2016. Walking sims started to be recognized by critics, with three of the 2016 BAFTA Games Award winners being walking simulators.[7] In contrast to the metaphorical meaning of the term, the upcoming Baby Steps by Bennett Foddy has been described as a literal walking simulator in which the player must directly control the character's legs.[9]

Walking simulations remain primarily a product of indie game developers. AAA studios have mostly refrained from creating walking sims, although there is a possibility that environments created for standard games could be reused without combat, as in the educational "Discovery Mode" of Assassin's Creed Origins and Odyssey.[1]

Reception

In 2017, Nicole Clark of Salon.com called walking sims "the most artful and innovative genre within video gaming", saying that it was "here to stay".[6] In 2019, Rachel Watts of PC Gamer stated that walking sims "have challenged the way in how video games are played, experienced and defined", and that some of the criticism over their mechanics has begun to shift.[7]

References

  1. ^ a b c d Ballou, Elizabeth (December 23, 2019). "The Walking Sim Is a Genuinely New Genre, And No One Fully Understands It". Vice. Retrieved June 24, 2023.
  2. ^ a b Campbell, Colin (September 28, 2016). "The problem with 'walking sims'". Polygon. Retrieved June 24, 2023.
  3. ^ a b Singal, Jesse (September 30, 2016). "Why the Video-Game Culture Wars Won't Die". New Yorker. Retrieved March 27, 2024.
  4. ^ a b Kill Screen Staff (September 30, 2016). "Is it time to stop using the term "walking simulator"?". Kill Screen - Previously. Retrieved June 24, 2023.
  5. ^ Mason, Graeme (November 13, 2016). "The origins of the walking simulator". Eurogamer. Retrieved June 24, 2023.
  6. ^ a b Clark, Nicole (November 11, 2017). "A brief history of the "walking simulator," gaming's most detested genre". Salon. Retrieved June 24, 2023.
  7. ^ a b c Watts, Rachel (December 20, 2019). "This is the decade where exploration did the talking". PC Gamer. Retrieved June 24, 2023.
  8. ^ Pickard, James (September 27, 2016). "Talking 'walking sims': The Chinese Room's Dan Pinchbeck on the pointlessness of the debate". PCGamesN. Retrieved June 24, 2023.
  9. ^ Livingston, Christopher (June 8, 2023). "Baby Steps is a 'literal walking simulator' from Bennett Foddy that looks like QWOP-ing your way through Skyrim". PC Gamer. Retrieved June 24, 2023.