A walking simulator (often shortened to walking sim) is a subgenre of adventure video games that consists primarily of movement and environmental interaction, and often without elements such as combat, puzzles, or even a win/lose scenario. Originating in the 1980s, people began referring to the genre by its current name in the late 2000s. Originally a pejorative term for such games, it was eventually adopted as a more neutral descriptor, but is still perceived by some game developers as negative. Other names have been commonly used, such as "empathy game", "narrative game", etc., but no distinct replacement term has been agreed upon. The walking simulator genre is often a hallmark of art games, but some higher-budget games have been referred to as having walking simulator elements.
A controversial genre due to its purported lack of challenge, criticism of walking simulators went viral in the mid-to-late 2010s among "hardcore" gamers. However, others recognize their artistic aspects and emphasis on decision-making and morality, and there is a steadily increasing demand for walking simulators in the present day.
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.
The genre 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.
The name "walking simulator" has negative connotations, implying the gameplay is tedious and mundane. Critics of the walking sim genre contend that games must contain some kind of challenge, and walking sims would not qualify as "games" under this definition. Early walking sims, often developed by female leads and featured LGTB 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.
Developers including Dan Pinchbeck, who co-created Dear Esther, reject this narrow definition in favor of a more expansive and inclusive one. The 'walking sim' label was later embraced by the genre's fans, going so far as to be used as a neutral description tag on the Steam digital distribution service. It is sometimes used in an ironic manner.
Whether to use the genre's initial name 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.
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.
In 2003, [domestic], an art game developed by Mary Flanagan, reused first-person shooter environments to reconstruct a childhood memory of a fire. In 2012, Dear Esther, a walking sim about exploring an unnamed island, was a breakout hit that popularized the modern incarnation of the walking sim genre, receiving a large amount of positive critical acclaim. Despite receiving backlash, it was seen as a radical concept. 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 from the genre. In contrast to the metaphorical meaning of the genre's name, 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.
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.
In 2017, Nicole Clark of Salon.com called the genre "the most artful and innovative genre within video gaming", saying that it was "here to stay". 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.