Dear Esther, Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter are examples of games that for the most part consist of walking around a map or a level picking up pieces of the story and working out the rest for yourself. These games are sold as being atmospheric experiences that fill a niche that your run-of-the-mill shooter or platformer just cannot provide. Some games (particularly Gone Home) are short enough and brimming with content and little trinkets here and there to explore that the game does not feel as empty as many of these so called ‘walking simulators’ can often do. The problems occur when the game is so lacking, and it is precisely this trend that many games have fallen into.
When I remember playing Flower or Journey for the first time, I remember feeling that the game was constantly holding my attention and beckoning me forward to explore as much of the world as possible. In Journey this was achieved through constantly highlighting the importance of the mountain with the glowing peak, similar to City 17’s Citadel in Half-Life 2. It is important for games that aim making their atmosphere to be the main experience that they guide the player just enough to make sure that they are not getting lost in the level or more importantly: getting bored of walking. Providing a glowing beacon can often help us unenlightened sheep find your well-written story you see.
A video game in simple terms is often a gateway into a lifestyle or location that otherwise could not be experienced. Jumping into hay from five stories up, or perhaps gunning your way through a favela with reckless abandon. This of course is a major hurdle for walking sims, as a casual, peaceful walking game would need to be constantly engaging and enthralling, whilst also beating the actual experience of walking in the woods. Whilst playing Dear Esther I was mainly reminded that I don’t walk around in nature enough, write enough, or do many other responsible introspective adult things that I’ll happily sweep under the rug for now. Sure the game looks nice, and has a well written narrative, but nothing that made me think that I could only have this experience whilst holding down the W key and trying my best not to check Facebook.
So a game must not leave it’s player disengaged from the experience, not waiting for the next narrative dump or searching frantically for the next morsel of story content. Games like the recent Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture run the enormous risk of boring their audiences, or potentially losing them all together if they are unable to herd them successfully through the level without limiting exploration too much. Now what I just stated is obviously an incredibly hard fine line to tread, but one that has to be understood in order to make such an experience memorable and unlikely to turn off the players. The problem with Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture is that it gambles on it’s players being invested in it’s story without earning that investment, or at least relying on them not to get lost or frustrated. The lack of investment again is tied to the games poor job of directing the player towards the next story beat, and it’s something that you simply cannot fail at to make a game like this work.
Juxtapose the feeling of frustration in a game like Rapture with a game like FTL. FTL is flooded with content while it’s atmosphere is somewhat lacking comparatively, however this lack of atmosphere is filled in by it’s rogue-like elements, and it’s simplicity, giving players different experiences and allowing them to explore the world while still being ferried to the climax. Another game: The Consuming Shadow is swimming it’s dark atmophere and it’s narrative elements, and yet is also compelling throughout because it is able to combine this with good gameplay. What it comes down to is that if your game is only offering what other games also offer, but with less content, then why in the world would people rush out play your game at all? Your game has nice looking trees? So does the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and the Uncharted series, but they also have guns and mutants too.
Before I am accused of calling all walking sims (except the wonderful Gone Home of course) just games that are lacking content, there are a few exceptions to this. The Stanley Parable is a perfect example of a game that is purely narratively driven and lacking all the classic tropes like guns and children who have made poor life choices, and yet remains engaging. This is achieved by the simple fact that the story is changed by the players actions entirely, whether it be refusing to follow a screen prompt, go the wrong way, or perhaps do nothing at all. The story will continue on regardless whilst incorporating your choices or lack there of. It gained such acclaim as mod, and then as a standalone product due to this interesting take on the overall gameplay experience that we take for granted.
Many games similarly attempt to be revolutionary whilst not actually offering much in the way of new features or ideas, but offering less to do and calling it ‘artsy’. As previously mentioned Journey was able to keep you focused on moving closer to the glowing mountain top, whilst having plenty of things to do in the local environment to keep your attention. Gone Home is only as good of an experience as it is because of it’s short narrative that will last you a few hours at best, as if the content was stretched out any further it would begin to outstay it’s welcome and be a lesser experience for it due to it’s game-play features not being conducive to a longer experience. These games are able to share their stories and make their experiences memorable because they remain engaging throughout, something that as I cannot over-emphasise as being essential for a single player experience.
Other games that skim close to being walking simulators themselves are the many survival games that currently exist, which of course could be the subject of a full article themselves. I will say however that Day Z and ARK: Survival Evolved contain enough of a combat experience, and potential for climactic engagements and player interaction that a lot of the down time can be waved aside. For the most part however, these games do suffer from a lack of investment, on conversely require a lot of investment from their playerbase in order to make the games enjoyable. These games therefore only succeed where similar games fail due to their multiplayer taking the place of the rogue-element from games like FTL. My criticisms of single player survival of course breakdown when we mention Minecraft and so I will leave survival games for another discussion of course.
To conclude, walking simulator games cannot simply be the same as a generic game without the combat or general objectives and expect to be as popular, or to stand out amongst other similar experiences. These games have to offer what other games cannot in order to be justified as games, and not interactive experiences, or audio books with a 3D accompaniment, not that I have anything against those ideas. Developers that make a walking simulator game with a long narrative and expect to hold the player’s attention throughout need to make sure that their story is well conveyed and spaced out so that players want to explore, and not simply bore them or give them hand cramp.