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Games Features

The Walking Sim Is a Genuinely New Genre, And No One Fully Understands It

Nobody set out to make one of this decade's most influential styles of game. It just happened. What's next?
December 23, 2019, 2:02pm

Through the rest of December and into early January, we're going into hibernation. But every day, we'll have a new podcast for you to listen to, and sometimes, an article to read. You can keep track of everything we're talking about to look back on the past year (and decade) right here.

Few people used the term “walking sim” until it came into widespread use in 2014 as a reactionary pejorative for a certain kind of exploration-drive, character-focused game. Designer Johnnemann Nordhagen never heard the term until GamerGate supporters began using it to describe the game he’d worked on, Gone Home, which was emblematic of what GamerGaters hated most: slow, small, thoughtful, centered on a queer woman’s story.

“That's definitely when the term ‘walking sim’ entered my consciousness,” said Johnnemann Nordhagen, who added that Gone Home got “swept up” in the wave of misogynist hatred.

Yet since 2014, more walking sims, like The Beginner’s Guide, What Remains of Edith Finch, Virginia, and Tacoma (the Fullbright Company’s follow-up to Gone Home) have become critical hits. Some have also been commercial successes, like Firewatch, which has sold over 1 million copies. On itch.io, an indie game platform, walking sim-inspired games such as A Short Hike , Anatomy , and Paratopic thrive. Now, as the 2010s draw to a close, “walking sim” isn’t an insult. In his review for Polygon, Russ Frushtick called Kojima Production’s Death Stranding, one of the most talked-about releases of 2019, “the most advanced walking simulator the world has ever seen.” Because more players than ever before are willing to play walking sims, the genre is poised to keep growing—and transforming—in the decade to come.

In order to get some insight on the future of walking sims, I spoke to four people with significant experience making and writing about walking sims: Johnnemann Nordhagen; Jessica Harvey, designer on Paratopic; JP LeBreton, the modder behind the Game Tourism project; and Clara Fernández-Vara, a professor in narrative design at NYU’s Game Center.

Everything Starts Somewhere

Dan Pinchbeck’s 2012 commercial release of Dear Esther, a meditative game set on an island in the Scottish Hebrides, is sometimes called the first walking sim. But the genre didn’t come out of nowhere.

Doom, the 1993 game that laid the groundwork for the first-person shooter genre, wasn’t supposed to lead to the birth of offbeat, experimental games prioritizing exploration. But because players could make their own levels, modders had the freedom to construct any landscape they could figure out how to render. Some modders made traditional Doom levels. Many didn’t.

“A lot of modders were just interested in making their own house on their computer, or making their office or something,” said LeBreton, who got his modding start making Doom levels. He was later hired to work on AAA titles, but he never forgot the unexpected diversity of places that Doom modders recreated. “What I found was that AAA developers don't know how to make a game without combat, aside from a few notable genre exceptions, like sports games and driving games,” LeBreton said. He wanted the freedom to wander, to explore at his own pace. In 2013, he started making mods that removed combat systems entirely from games like Doom, Quake, Unreal, Deus Ex, and Thief.

Around the same time, other AAA designers who felt frustrated by the lack of creative freedom in big-budget companies began forming indie studios. This way, they could tell their own stories, even though they had far less money and fewer resources. Studios like The Fullbright Company realized that they had to cut traditional AAA features, like combat, character customization, and cinematic cutscenes. “Without the team size to take on that sort of stuff, we decided to pare back those features until we got to the walking sim,” said Nordhagen.

Okay, But Even Is a Walking Sim?

What all walking sims have in common is exploration. “When we play a walking sim, it’s because we want to explore,” said Fernández-Vara. At the beginning of a walking sim, the player is thrown into an unknown space: an empty house, a dry forest, a space station. As the game progresses, the player works their way through the labyrinth of that space’s secrets. They come to understand the people who inhabit that space, and what those people want, and why. They understand why that space is ugly or beautiful, peaceful or foreboding.

Most walking sims don’t have combat, strategy, or economic systems. “You can win the game without mastering any of the traditional video game skills,” said Nordhagen. The games are often indie, but not always, as titles like Death Stranding demonstrate.

Death Stranding borrows the dramatization of walking from walking sims, but it also borrows from another genre: horror. In Kojima’s game, invisible monsters stalk Sam Bridges as he treks across empty landscapes. According to Jessica Harvey, a game designer who worked on the alt-horror title Paratopic, more horror/walking sim mashups are likely to crop up in the coming years.

Harvey was not impressed by the first walking sims she played. It was nice to wander around a pretty environment, sure, but she wanted more systems and more interactivity. As a response, she, along with Doc Burford and Chris I. Brown, made the 2018 alt-horror game Paratopic. They called it “a walking sim for people who hate walking sims.”

“What walking sims are not doing is taking authenticity and applying it to mechanical play,” said Harvey. "We don't get mechanical games that feel like walking sims outside of a few experiments. And in horror games.”

Walking sims had always flirted with horror. A shadowy figure fades in and out of view on the rocky shores of Dear Esther, and Gone Home fakes players out by leaving clues that the house is haunted. More narrative-focused horror games, like Frictional Games’ Amnesia and Soma and Red Barrels’ Outlast, removed traditional combat systems. Outlast, which Harvey found particularly inspirational, is a first-person game about a journalist exploring an abandoned psychiatric hospital. Because the player can’t fight off monsters, the simple act of walking the hospital’s halls is laden with tension.

In the horror genre, the Paratopic team saw the potential to engage players using fear and suspense. In walking sims, they saw narrative experimentation and small, self-contained environments. Paratopic is a blend of the two. It’s short, only 45 minutes long, but disturbing in a way that no other walking sim achieves. Ominous audio cues, constant jump cuts, and NPCs with low-poly faces that tremble and glitch out create a sense of building unease.

Harvey thinks that more game designers can use the immediate emotional response of horror to draw players more deeply into walking sims. “Horror games are generally focused on a pair of emotions: fear and suspense. They don't need to worry about pissing around with item stats,” Harvey said. She cited the microgame community as a likely place for horror-inspired walking sims to pop up in the coming years.

Ultimately, Harvey sees the connection between horror and walking sims as a natural one. She’d like to see designers experiment with connections that aren’t as intuitive. “The next question is, how do we make a hack-and-slash that feels like a walking sim?” The answers to those questions, she said, may emerge in games produced in the 2020s.

"Microgames and indie games are the ones most likely to combine unexpected genres because “the higher you go, the broader the audience you have to cater to is,” said Harvey. Both narrative and gameplay experimentation become less likely. That’s why successful walking sim designers began their careers making AAA games, then went indie. But the popularity of the genre begs a question: will AAA companies start making their own walking sims?

The Future Is Undetermined

Some say it’s already happening. Game designers have been trying to answer whether Death Stranding is a walking sim since the game debuted in November. “I think it is,” said Fernández-Vara. She explained that for some players, Death Stranding represents the first time they engage with walking sims, which have traditionally thrived in the indie scene. These players may not be aware that Kojima is “standing on the shoulders of giants”—that is, the teams that developed the first walking sims.

Still, said Fernández-Vara, Death Stranding is only a gesture towards an AAA studio’s treatment of the walking sim. “His budget was a big budget for the rest of us humans. But for him, this was a small game.” (Kojima left his previous employer, AAA studio Konami, in 2015 in order to make Death Stranding.)

Tourism modder JP LeBreton sees an economic incentive for AAA companies to make walking sims using the intricately-designed worlds that players often breeze through during main missions. He points to Assassin’s Creed, which has started packaging combat-free ‘Discovery Mode’ in games like Origins and Odyssey, as an example. Discovery Mode lets players ride around Egypt and Greece on a camel or a pegasus, learning about the art, architecture, and history of the cultures depicted in quests. It’s part educational game, part walking sim.

“I think there's actually a pragmatic argument for Ubisoft to look at these worlds and be like, ‘This is pretty cool on its own. We built several square miles of ancient Egypt!’ I could imagine them arguing that that mode would surely bring in new players,” said LeBreton. And since players can now buy Discovery Mode separately from the main Assassin’s Creed games, some version of that conversation likely did happen.

But there are more incentives than just re-using environment assets. LeBreton also thinks that walking sims may prove to AAA designers that players are hungry for games without traditional combat systems. “I'll bet if Bioware ever has the guts to make a game that is just a straight-up TV show, with character arcs and choice paths and romance options—I’ll bet there is an audience for that,” he said.

The first walking sims to become popular had no choice paths or chats with BioWare-style companions. In fact, they had no dialogue at all, opting instead for purely environmental storytelling ( Dear Esther) or audio cues (Gone Home). In the second half of the decade, that changed. Firewatch used radio conversations as a key element of the story. Other games that are sometimes called walking sims, like Night School Studio’s Oxenfree (2016) and Afterparty (2019), feature constant conversation.

“There's a lot of people focusing on conversation mechanics right now,” said Nordhagen. He experimented with storytelling as a conversation mechanic in his 2017 game, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine. But Nordhagen said that other indie designers, like Echodog, the studio behind Signs of the Sojourner, are trying even more complex conversation systems than he has. Signs of the Sojourner, a narrative card game about building relationships, “focuses specifically on what it means to talk to someone” using unconventional techniques, Nordhagen said.

Interactive fiction/Twine games and walking sims both came out of the indie space, and both are narrative-heavy genres. According to Nordhagen, it’s natural that indie designers will mix walking and talking systems.

It’s difficult to make sweeping statements about the games of any decade. Even so, walking sims were a major development of the last 10 years. By narrowing down the actions players could take, the games paradoxically expanded the vocabulary of actions players cared about. In 2020, a game about walking, exploring, and reflecting on that exploration is no longer revolutionary.

What’s more, the term ‘walking sim’ might be the only thing rescued from the dumpster fire that is GamerGate. The phrase has been scrubbed clean of the “fake gamer” connotations it had when it was coined. In that small way, the genre is a token of hope: something for us to carry forward into the uncertainty of the next decade.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.