"Walking simulator" has undergone the Stygian journey of most pejoratives, becoming a term of neutral description or ironic reclamation to some, even as it remains an insult to others.
As the term's meaning evolves, however, our understanding of the gameplay mechanic it describes should grow with it and anyone who works with games would do well to understand what's really going on in so-called walking simulator games like Proteus or Gone Home.
Science fiction, as it so often does, provides us with guidance.
Just as video games have a basic, standard approach to narrative, so too do many novels--especially so-called "genre fiction," an epithet as toxic as "walking simulator" in some corners of the literary world--and the ways in which that approach is toyed with are instructive for game development. In addition, they may help us understand both the appeal of and the design intentions behind more placid, exploratory games like Dear Esther or the multi-directional epistolary play of Love Conquers Allas Hateful Days series.
You rifle through bits of life in all of these games to answer crucial questions. In the process, the exploration becomes a kind of alchemy, turning the most basic forms of interaction and living into golden discovery.
Put simply, it's because these games tap into our desire to reach out and touch the world around us.
If one yearns for contemporary science fiction that is vast in scope and that purposively underlines the "science" bit, one can hardly do better than Kim Stanley Robinson's work. The author of the famous Mars trilogy, which documents the multi-generational efforts of humans to colonize and terraform the Red Planet, uses the rules of sci-fi in order to bend them into interesting, curvaceous narratives that are rich in detail.
His heroes (and heroines) are often scientists and artists, imaginative people pushing the boundaries of a vast universe that Robinson painstakingly details throughout the story. Crucially, however, the narrative is not a traditionally structured plot, but a placid exploration of the world he has created.
Several of his books are about how experiencing that world changes the characters. His magisterial 2312, for example, has the broad shadows of a traditional plot (what begins as an interplanetary murder mystery) but both the characters and the readers get cheerfully lost in the futuristic solar system Robinson has created, learning more about who they are amidst his nebula of wonders.
By the time 2312 reaches the point where the mystery is solved, you find yourself instead swept up in the grandeur of the characters' growth, where their internal traumas and discoveries are a microcosm of the stars around them.
"In walking simulators, you rifle through bits of life in all of these games to answer crucial questions. In the process, the exploration becomes a kind of alchemy, turning the most basic forms of interaction and living into golden discovery."
Traditional plot arcs either fade into the background or don't exist at all. There is no buildup to a climax followed by a denouement. His epic The Years of Rice and Salt is a seven century spanning alternative history of our world in the wake of a Black Death that wiped out Europe rather than just a third of it. Using a conceit of reincarnation, he keeps characters broadly consistent throughout while still providing a very large cast of subtly different characters whose gazes you adopt throughout the story. Each section of the book is written in a different voice or style, moving from fables to annotated scientific documentation and back again through more traditional novelistic forms.
In the world of fiction, this is about as radical as making a video game without violence, and that's rather the point. While you still adopt the perspective of protagonists, the way one does in most novels, Robinson uses this vantage point to cast our gazes to both internal and external universes, rather than the narrow limits of sight afforded by most paperback fiction.
And perhaps now one can see the connection to a brave little subgenre of video game.
Critic Chris Franklin suggested that the gameplay of so-called "walking simulator" games takes place largely in one's own head; this is not as un-interactive as it all sounds, of course.
In many ways, it is the ludic equivalent of Robinson's sci-fi style. Rather than being handheld through a plot with a traditional arc, you share with his protagonists the experience of drinking in a whole world at once and sorting it out as you go along. That mental process of piecing things together, of gaining your bearings through your ever-accumulating stack of trivia, is where the boundary between you and your character dissolve. The gameplay is held in stasis at the Lagrange point between your consciousness and the simulated consciousness of whatever character youare playing; it's as if you're actually playing in one of Robinson's cultures.
There is something directionless about it all, chasing horizons you can't reach before suddenly being hit with the end credits. You explore without a clearly defined end-goal, it's open ended (much like real life), and you find yourself seeing the journey itself as the primary experience.
Robinson's novels are about worlds as much as they are about people or a specific plot. The free flow between character and environment, how one shapes and is shaped in turn by the other, is the driving turbine of his copious novels. You see snippets of the world's culture--2312 is punctuated by interludes made of nothing but artfully organized lists and excerpts from books, news articles, documentaries, in-world novels and so on--and it puts one in the mind of games like Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri which gain oceans worth of life from their creative use of quotes, short stories, and excerpts. In so doing, even a 4X game can have meaningful characters that you can have an emotional reaction to.
"Touch" is a key feature of these realms. From Elder Scrolls to Tale of Tales' Sunset, we find tactile worlds that beg for exploration, that make for a long and winding road to an endpoint. That tactility is also key to the experience of Gone Home. One can, yes, have a good time by putting ketchup in the microwave and throwing your parents' crap all over the house, and it can seem like pointless interactivity, but that the game allows you to do this is essential to the kind of experience it is trying to create: one where the setting is the story. The Greenbriar house is, in some ways, as much of a character as the whole family is, and it is structured to tell its story through your exploration.
In games like this, you poke around like a voyeur to solve a specific mystery, much like the protagonist of 2312 must when her grandmother mysteriously dies. You want to find out "what happened here?"--that too is the conceit behind Analogue: A Hate Story. What happened to the Mugungwha colony ship and its inhabitants? Thus for Sunset, albeit less urgently: who is this man you're working for? You rifle through bits of life in all of these games to answer crucial questions. In the process, the exploration becomes a kind of alchemy, turning the most basic forms of interaction and living into golden discovery.
At the British geek conference Nine Worlds, writer/designer Thryn Henderson gave a lovely talk on the matter entitled "Words for Empty Worlds," for the VideoBrains nine minute talk circuit. Her talk was a "not quite love letter" to these sorts of games:
"I like to wander - without narration arc to push inspection, hurrying my journey or curtailing self-reflection. I can ramble in any medium, and games are surely only one of them, but I consider them my favourite for the terrain they can provide: vast, detailed, open worlds for me alone to thrive in, no expectations but at most to just survive."
That instinct to explore, to "ramble" in a new land is part of gaming's wonder, and it's why we bother at all in such seemingly "boring" titles. They simulate an adventure of meaning-making, constructing and reconstructing a character, and, perhaps, ourselves.
Much as Kim Stanley Robinson's time-skipping, wide-angle lensed The Years of Rice and Salt is a novel, so too are all of these video games games.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.