I wonder, did they assign chapter and verse to the stones and grasses, marking the geography with a superimposed significance; that they could actually walk the bible and inhabit its contradictions?
– Dear Esther
As a game developer interested in the mechanics of storytelling within my chosen medium, I have found myself fascinated with the genre known, somewhat pejoratively, as walking simulators. These are titles that have traded away nearly all of the inner mechanisms of video games, the cranks and belts and springs, to focus on story above all else. These are vehicles for narrative, although as vehicles they are more like the cab of a roller coaster than an automobile. There is no gear to engage, no gas pedal to depress, and certainly no race to win. In a walking simulator you simply move forward through the story until you reach the end. The folks who coined the term by which the genre is now named intended it to sound boring, as if walking is the most mundane activity you could possibly engage in. But the term has stuck, probably because it captures the core design tenet of this genre: it’s not what you do, it’s where you do it.
A more accurate (but less punchy) label for this genre might be “exploring characters as space.” Most of the titles I’ve played in this genre present a beautiful environment for the player to explore, but the real topic of investigation is the inner lives of the characters in the story. The environment is a 3D interactive expression of those characters and their relationships, though at a glance it might look like Ye Olde Haunted House, The Abandoned Space Station, The Destroyed City, or any number of other common video game locales. In Gone Home, the unlocking of an abandoned Oregon home is also an unearthing of the lives of its residents. In Here They Lie, we are perhaps threading our way not through a bombed-out city, but through a ruined consciousness. What Remains of Edith Finch goes as far as to assign unique rooms to each of its mysteriously missing characters.
The mapping of physical space to narrative space is easy to understand. Video games have good, mature systems for navigating physical spaces. We all know how to WASD our way through a first-person doorway, or drive our perspective through a landscape by rotating the right analog stick. The idea of the walking simulator is to use the systems of navigation originally built for shooters to deliver narrative. In a book you read a sentence, in a game you walk down a hallway. In virtual space, what’s the difference?
The problem that these titles face is pacing. An author writing a book knows that their work will be consumed linearly, starting at the first page and ending at the last, and it’s up to them to decide how quickly the events of the story unfold. Less than four paragraphs ago I described walking simulators as roller coasters, but a book or short story is actually a better fit for that metaphor. There are ups and downs, anticipation and thrills, but ultimately the reader is not in control. They are traversing a track that the author has laid.
Choice is a fundamental aspect of modern video games. Not all games have meaningful choices, but most at least attempt to give the illusion of choice. It might be as simple as deciding to visit the room on the left before the room on the right, even if both must eventually be visited for the story to continue. One of the key challenges of the walking simulator is deciding how much flexibility to give the player.
Many titles deal with dilemma by trying to separate choices from traversal. If the story has been mapped to 3D space and, in the interest of drama, we want to control its pacing, the traversable field must be narrow. Firewatch has a (fantastic) dialog system that presents interesting choices that are mostly decoupled from the space. Tacoma integrates dialog directly into traversal by providing the player with recordings of conversations that move through space. Asemblance features a small set of memories that the player visits over and over, finding new ways to interact with them at each visit. SOMA, Here They Lie, and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (arguably the forefather of the modern walking simulator genre) all include stealth and escape sequences. Still, these titles are traversal-heavy and activity-light.
I think this is a very delicate balance for these games to tread. On the one hand, walking simulators are built on the theory that the narrative can carry the player though to the end. On the other hand, the medium that has been chosen to express this narrative is one that is intrinsically interactive. There’s a sliding scale of interaction here, where increasing the player’s ability to affect the world decreases the author’s ability to control the delivery of the narrative (and, consequently, its impact). This approach also puts all of the engagement weight on the story. While other genres can supplement game mechanics for story to keep a player engaged, walking simulators cannot. What Remains of Edith Finch tries to solve this by changing the traversal (and therefore narrative expression) mechanics with a series of vignettes, but most games in this genre live and die by their narrative’s hook.
It’s interesting to compare the walking simulator genre to other narrative-first genres, such as the visual novel genre. Most visual novels are really just Choose Your Own Adventure affairs, with dialog and branching story options and little else. But recently titles like Danganronpa and the Zero Escape series have shown how this model can be used for something more complicated. The Zero Escape games, particularly Virtue’s Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma, are just a series of dialog sequences that are glued together with escape rooms. You listen to a lot of characters talk for a while, then solve some light escape room puzzles, then make a decision. These titles are just as narrative-focused as the walking simulators, but instead of 3D traversal they’ve put their energy into activities. What makes them so special is that they explicitly, in the course of the narrative, address the structural requirements of video games: dying and restarting, going back and changing a decision, the illusion of real choice. This activity-heavy/traversal-light model is also be able to sustain attention for longer: these titles clock in at 20 or 30 hours of play, compared to the 2 ~ 5 hour terms of most walking simulators.
Somewhere in between the walking simulators and the Zero Escape titles are the traversal-heavy/activity-heavy games. Shenmue is probably the root of this genre, although classic Adventure games and golden age horror games also seem like related influencers. David Cage’s games fall into this category, as does Until Dawn and Life is Strange. These are titles with lots of story, lots of dialog, and lots of detailed spaces to explore. But they also have activities to perform, puzzles to solve, and (occasionally) enemies to defeat. When they work, these games are amazing. But they are also exceptionally complicated and expensive, in many ways the antithesis of the simplicity that walking sims value.
I wonder about the space in the middle of this triangle, an area that blends these three extremes. A linear (?) story, expressed as traversable space, with some sort of activity structure bolted onto it. Virginia but with escape rooms? Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture but with puzzles and an inventory? Would the addition of more activities to the standard walking sim structure devalue the narrative itself, or produce a more engaging result? Is there a way to balance these competing ideas that doesn’t involve the massive investment required to build something like Until Dawn?
I don’t know the answer, but this is the type of game I’d like to try to make. I guess you could see Dead Secret Circle as my latest attempt at finding that balance.