Video games are getting closer to art, but, fortunately, they still remain games, and do not turn into an art house for a narrow circle of connoisseurs. The same is true of walking simulators – you get an interactive experience. Not a movie, not a music track, not an audiobook, but all together in a game format. In the new material, we will talk about the key features of walking simulators, the heyday of the genre and upcoming releases.
The essence of the genre
Large and recognizable genres of games are shooters, strategies, adventure games, arcades, racing, and so on. Smaller genres adjoin them. For example, relatives of adventure games are interactive films, visual novels and walking simulators.
Walking simulators are also called “contemplative adventure games” and exploration games. The English word exploration indicates the main component of the gameplay – the exploration of the world. You quietly wander through the forest, space station or city, listen to sound files, read notes, solve easy puzzles (if they come across at all).
The environments in walking simulators are usually 3D and richly detailed, although interaction with them is limited. It happens that they are allowed to turn any object in their hands, while nothing can be done with them. Interaction is aimed strictly at revealing the plot. The story is just as important as the feeling of the journey. There is no ticking timer, a list of specific goals, a “game over” screen, so as not to dispel the calm mood.
Walking simulators differ from interactive movies in that they lack QTEs and cutscenes. And they do not focus on puzzles, like purebred adventure games.
The rise of walking simulators in the early 2010s is due to a number of factors. The widespread use of digital stores has contributed to the development of the indie scene, giving way to experimental ideas. Experienced gamers expected something original from indie developers, different from boring genres and series. Plus, people became interested in games, very far from them. Such users wanted to start their acquaintance with virtual entertainment with simpler projects, and the industry “heard” this request.
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At the origins of the genre is the Belgian Tale of Tales. In 2008, she released a five-minute black and white sketch of The Graveyard. In it, you lead an elderly woman through a graveyard to a bench. After sitting, she either expires or gets up and leaves the cemetery.
A year later, Tale of Tales prepared a more intelligible project, The Path. Here you need to take Little Red Riding Hood to the grandmother through the creepy forest. Yes, not one, but as many as six – in turn. Each will meet her own wolf and die upon reaching her grandmother’s house. Since The Path did not have a map and signs, it was perceived in 2009 in a fresh and unusual way. The press rated it highly – The Path has a score of 79 out of 100 on Metacritic.
In 2012, when everyone forgot about The Graveyard and The Path, the industry was rocked by Journey and Dear Esther. It was then that the term “walking simulator” appeared. At first, it was used in a derogatory sense, they say, soon we will be left without gameplay. Over time, people got used to the genre, the negative meaning of the term disappeared.
In Journey, a little hero runs through the desert wearing a raincoat and a long scarf. There is not a hint of texts, you have to guess everything on your own. In Dear Esther, the character voices letters to his deceased wife. For 2 hours, while you are wandering around the island with him, the picture of what happened in your head does not add up, so, as in Journey, the interpretation is up to you. The desert at Journey and the island at Dear Esther are wonderful.
Gone Home (2013) doesn’t hide behind understatement. According to the plot, the girl returns home from abroad and on the threshold she realizes that the house is empty – no parents, no sister. Under the peals of thunder, she examines the scenery worked out (with feeling!) And gradually learns the truth. There are no plot inserts and puzzles.
The Stanley Parable (2013), the story of an “awakened” office worker, intrigues with an abundance of forks and endings. If you were waiting for an occasion to try out the indie classic, then here it is: at the end of April this year, an extended re-release of The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe went on sale.
Proteus (2013) lulls with an idyllic soundtrack and rewards the patient with delightful sunsets. The island you land on is regenerated each time. The authors propose wandering through sprite forests (in a three-dimensional, in general, world), frightening flocks of animals and watching the change of weather effects without any special purpose.
In The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (2014), in contrast to Gone Home, there are puzzles, and meaningful ones. The detective hero is trying to figure out where the boy Ethan Carter and his relatives disappeared from the village lost in the wilderness, looking for clues and using them to reconstruct scenes from the past. The Polish team The Astronauts, when creating the environment, turned to photogrammetry technology, when the models “grow” from real photographs, which makes them seem extremely convincing. In 2014, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was considered one of the most visually impressive games.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (2015) is the responsibility of the British The Chinese Room, which previously impressed the audience Dear Esther. The script is already connected. The circumstances are extremely unusual. You find yourself in an English village after the apocalypse. Humanity has died out, the task is to find out where everything went, how it happened. The project draws not only the story, but also, which is typical for walking simulators, the graphics.
2015 also featured other genre pioneers, Tale of Tales. The Belgian studio released their latest game, Sunset. You are entrusted with the role of a housekeeper in a country where a civil war is raging. While you are cleaning the penthouse, the skyscrapers in the neighborhood are fighting. Sunset has interesting ideas, but gamers took the game as an attempt to shove them into a lifeless interior of the 1970s. The press scolded Sunset for its naive script and minimal gameplay. In terms of sales, the game failed. It is not surprising, because at that time competitors in the genre left Tale of Tales far behind.
Take Firewatch (2016). An intriguing plot, the ability to choose answers in dialogues (even if the option does not affect the story), an unfamiliar topic – get ready to work as a forester in the national park. Graphics – from the category of “no words.” At least hang the printed screenshots on the wall and use it as wallpaper on your computer.
Firewatch game (Xbox ONE, Xbox Series S, Xbox Series X)
[16+, quest, release date: 09/21/2016, voice language: English, digital edition]
Firewatch eclipsed What Remains of Edith Finch (2017). She plunges into the affairs of the Finch family, struck by a terrible curse: its members, generation after generation, die prematurely, that is, not from natural death. Exploring the family home, you will see what happened to several relatives. In each episode, the gameplay elements change, for example, in one you “flip through” an interactive comic. Finch’s house is filled to overflowing with various things, and this is not trash, but a feast for the eyes.
Tacoma (2017) drops into a deserted space station. From the crew there are AR-recordings (AR – augmented reality), the heroine looks through them. Tacoma was developed by The Fullbright Company of America, which created Gone Home, but the characters in Gone Home are better defined than in Tacoma.
The last three Assassin’s Creeds – Origins (2017), Odyssey (2018), Valhalla (2020) – feature a Discovery Tour mode. It allows you to explore a huge map without haste and battles. You feel like a tourist in time: for example, in AC: Origins they give you a look at the Pharos Lighthouse and the Library of Alexandria, which have not survived to this day.
And finally – about Britannic: Patroness of the Mediterranean (2020). Here is a virtual museum dedicated to the Britannic, the younger sister of the famous Titanic. You can walk through the luxurious interiors and even witness the sinking of the liner.
What’s on the horizon
In recent years, elements of walking simulators have even penetrated into AAA development – remember the “courier” Death Stranding. The genre does not think to dry out. The strongest of all is its position in the indie segment. Here are some of the upcoming walking simulators that deserve attention.
In Side Effect (Q2 2022), you need to make friends among animals and clean up forests and rivers from garbage together.
Being a Penguin (Q2 2022) allows you to be a penguin who doesn’t want to be a penguin. The obstinate heroine, who cannot stand the sight of water, will go to ask other animals about what makes them special. And in between times he will erect a needle.
The End of the Sun (2022) depicts Slavic settlements with a touch of mysticism.
The Planet Crafter (2023) will take you to a Mars-like planet to refine it for colonists. The project is reminiscent of Subnautica.
The debate about whether walking simulators should be classified as video games continues unabated. Opponents of the genre reproach him for a small number of gameplay mechanics. Supporters rightly point to freedom of action. In addition, such games have attractive graphics and an addictive storyline. They are short, but in 2-3 hours they are able to entertain and make you think, and sometimes even delight with an educational aspect, so rare in video games.