The history behind the genre we call “walking simulators” is relatively contemporary, but the driving force behind this genre goes into the early history of games, and even back before video games themselves. Museums, Disney imagineered worldbuilding, the art “experience” Meow Wolf, theme parks, urban ex ruins and even trails all stem from a similar drive: to learn, explore and discover. They are landscapes driven by the individual’s own pace. They are places that can be driven by an oblique “objective” or extrinsic motivation (jogging x miles on the trail, researching a specific topic at a museum) but do not require this to be enjoyed. I can go to a theme park just to be in a theme park. I can play What Remains of Edith Finch just to inhabit the house and be in that space. The game is less concerned about what physically happens in the space and more what happens in the mind of the player, or explorer. The motivation is less extrinsic and more intrinsic.
Genres such as exploration and adventure games go back to the 80s, implementing walking simulator-like properties and argued by some to be the “roots” of walking simulators that we know today (Salon, Eurogamer “The Origins of the Walking Simulator”). In 1986, Graham Relf and Simon Dunstan created Explorer, a purely explorative game that generated terrain and provided limitless locations to visit and explore--focusing solely on the idea of navigating using a map. Before that, Relf developed the game The Forest, which provided a range of terrains, each of which affected travel speed (Pixelatron). The slow pace of the games appealed to some, but most were disappointed, particularly Julian Rignall of The Commodore 64 magazine Zzap64! who described Explorer as "...unbelievably tedious, monotonous, pointless, fruitless and rubbish. If you really want to do some exploring, why not buy a rail or bus ticket?"
What most consider to be the first traditional walking simulator is the groundbreaking game Dear Esther. Originally a Half Life 2 mod, the 2008 Dear Esther is described by creator Dan Pinchbeck as an “interactive ghost story” (Kotaku). As an academic pursuing a PhD in first-person shooters and the relationship between story and gameplay, Pinchbeck created Dear Esther to explore the questions that his research investigated:
“what happens when you ditch traditional gameplay out of an FPS space and what that leaves you. So you have nothing but story to keep a player engaged; is that possible? What kind of experience does that leave? What does the space you free up by losing all those gameplay mechanisms and activities allow you to do?" (Gamasutra)
Pinchbeck also was influenced by an unconventional source for the story and script: literature. He cites the works of William S. Burroughs as influential to Dear Esther’s writing: "... looking at the way William Burroughs worked structurally was a big influence, but also I was really interested in moving towards a quite image-heavy, symbolic, poetic use of language rather than the normal descriptive tone we find in games" (Eurogamer, “Where Literature and Gaming Collide”).
The Half Life 2 mod received critical acclaim both inside and outside the mod community, leading to a commercial release in 2012. Kotaku’s review described it, saying:
“The way it takes the medium of video games, rips everything out then takes the remaining husk on a walk for a bit of a chat was the reason people went mad for this as amod, and nearly four years on it's still a refreshingly unique idea.”
Likewise, The Telegraph described it as “oil painting, poetry, eulogy and video game all at once.” This art-like quality that Dear Esther prioritizes remains a staple for the genre, where the line between literature and gameplay is blurred, creating an entirely new and unique experience for the consumer.
That said, not everyone loved (or loves) Dear Esther, or the walking simulator genre. The genre has been controversial from the start, with frequent arguments that walking simulators don’t constitute as “games.” Concerns about the lack of gameplay and a fail-state, as well as passivity for the player were central to the genre’s criticism (Polygon). The name “walking sims” began as a derogatory term as early as the 2000s, critiquing the lack of mechanics by “walking” being the only mechanic (Salon).
But the term has remained as a formal label for the genre, losing much of its negative connotation. Many players have been unperturbed by these concerns, and even more so developers, as the genre has continued to grow. Walking sims have increased in popularity, growing to create a cannon with games that include: Gone Home, What Remains of Edith Finch, Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, Proteus, Virginia, Stanley Parable, and Firewatch.
The definition of what constitutes a walking simulator has expanded as well. Games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter naturally embed puzzle elements into the landscape, making them as natural as the act of walking. Night in the Woods’ limited gameplay and emphasis on atmosphere and character development makes it reminiscent of a walking simulator, though it’s foremost an adventure game. While games like Life is Strange have “mechanics” for travelling through time, it becomes clear that the control you believe you have as a player is largely a foil. This range creates a sort of walking simulator spectrum, where games are increasingly embedding literary, interpretive elements to their games. Some games that embed walking simulator elements into their gameplay and have been argued as being on the “walking simulator spectrum” include: The Witness; That Dragon, Cancer; Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons; The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild; Slender; PT; Slender; Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs; Kentucky Route Zero; To the Moon and Oxenfree. With this hybridization of walking simulator and other gaming genre properities, Prankster 101 argues, “ I think there won’t be much in the way of pure walking sims in a couple of years.”
This embedding of walking simulator qualities has initiated critical discussions in the game development community. Stanley Parable’s fourth-wall breaking makes us ask about the relationship between player and game. The lyricism of Dear Esther makes us visit the relationship between literature and game. The environment and atmosphere in Gone Home makes us think about play in relation to objects and environmental storytelling. While games like The Last of Us have explored this question through features like “movie mode,” Virigina’s focus on mimicking cinematography demands us as players to ask: where is the boundary between video game and film?
Walking simulators demand us as players to think about play in a new way. As games continue to innovate and play with the form and our expectations of the form, we as players and designers have to continue interrogating our own definitions on games and play.
For me, walking simulators have made me explore the idea of where play happens. When I play a walking simulator, it is a mental act of play: my mind wanders as I take a walk, and it puts together a narrative as I find objects that have pieces of a story. Even more, it’s about the experience of purely inhabiting a space. Playing Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, I walked away with the experience of being in a recently abandoned town, where all the inhabitants were taken in the rapture. Between houses, the silence and space of the abandoned country town is critical. The music, the landscape, the voices--lingering as the last ghosts of the town--all came together to make me feel something. It was something that no movie or book had every quite made me feel, nor any video game I had played before. It was something that demanded I participate and walk around at my own pace; it was something only a walking simulator could accomplish.
Meg Eden teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She has five poetry chapbooks, and her novel "Post-High School Reality Quest" is about a girl whose life is narrated as a text adventure game. Find her online at www.megedenbooks.com or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wl2zgLrfbTQ - A Brief History of Walking Simulators | Sidcourse