PART I : Wrong definition
Walking Simulator is a fairly recent sarcastic term aimed to a critical denigration of games such as Dear Esther (2012) and Gone Home (2103); it represents a wrong critical approach charaterized by a limited and conservative vision of video-ludic medium, which shows poor competence and critical attitudes about expressive art. Who introduced it? Maybe someone, who still goes excited as a child for anonymous games with an elementary and superficial fight-based gameplay recycled millions of times, maybe stimulating the lowest violent instincts, developed by big companies for earning billions of dollars at low expense, without the slightest innovation or any expressive effort.
He supposes himself to be competent about the subject only because he is a longtime player, but has always intended videogames as electronic toys and challenges. One day he played Dear Esther, he didn’t understand its alternative and experimental offer, he could not intercept the wind of art that began to blow at the time and still today blows in the videogame world, he found the game boring and wrote a negative and contemptuous review hosted by one of the many mainstream magazines roaming on the web! That is an evidence of the unreliability of such magazines; nevertheless they go for the bigger and influence the market with their opportunistic reviews. C’est la vie! We are mature people and we realize that justice, competence and merit are not so granted in the world, often ignorance goes hand in hand with presumption and arrogance. You are allowed to think that i’m presumptuous and arrogant, or that this is the only right answer to presumption and arrogance behind a term like Walking Simulator! 🙂
We can learn a lesson from this premise: never be mind-closed to novelties, always keep your mind open, a skeptical approach is ok, but first of all you have to study and research before judging.
It is obvious that you are simulating no walking in the aforementioned games and therefore the term is unsuitable for a rational classification and should be abandoned. Many people have liked it, even the same developers ironically smiled at it; i always use it without too many regrets. But if we really want to use labels, a serious critical approach would require another one, because this one fails in characterizing the genre.
I’m used to classify games just as movies, by narrative genre: adventure, action, dramatic, horror, thriller etc. The traditional approach in video game critics is different and the labels defining the game mechanics spring up like mushrooms with sometimes hilarious etiquettes just like MOBA-MMORPG! It’s not easy to find a valid alternative to Walking Simulator, because such games are strongly story driven. Perhaps we should give up to classify such games for their mechanics.
Steam Italia uses the following label: Exploration Simulator, which sounds better and is less denigrating. Let’s see which games fall under this label; the following list does not claim for completeness, but tries to trace the evolution of this “novelle vague” of the “tenth art” (don’t ask me why, but comics are considered the ninth art, so videogames are in tenth position!):
The Path (2009)
Dear Esther (2012)
The Unfinished Swan (2012)
Beyond Eyes (2013)
The Stanley Parable (2013)
Gone Home (2013)
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (2014)
The Beginner’s Guide (2015)
Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture (2015)
Layers Of Fear (2016)
That Dragon Cancer (2016)
The Town Of Light (2016)
Blackwood Crossing (2017)
What Remains Of Edith Finch (2017)
Have you noticed the larger number of such titles in 2016, including even award-winning games in mainstream events such as BAFTA? It is no coincidence, but a clear confirmation that this “new wave” is not extemporaneous and will not disappear as soon as the denigrators of the first hour predicted. Over the last three years notorius mainstream magazines abandoned the early denigrating approach; they smelled the money of a flourishing and growing market, so they went backward and began to praise such games. Always a step back, the fate of those who follow the smell of money!
On the contrary, we continue to follow the path of art (and science, without which video games would not exist either!). In the next section, starting from the empirical analysis of aforementioned titles, we are going to highlight their salient features and search for a minimum common denominator that may suggest an alternative and more appropriate term to classify them. The analysis will help us to understand the recent evolutionary dynamics of video games; they go far beyond the traditional features of challenges, puzzles and fightings, and result more generally in a virtual interactive experience.
PART II: Critical analisys
General meaning of game is role play: games immerse yourself in characters, in situations, in contexts, in imaginary worlds, etc. Playing means interpreting a role in a context other then the usual.
Video game is a contemporary form of game, where the player can identify himself in a virtual role and in a virtual environment created, managed and represented by means of computational output and optoelectronic systems. You act, feel and think in a different reality. You are not a passive spectator just as in cinema or literature, where you can only receive and process outputs, you cannot give inputs and influence the artwork, you are not part of the artwork. In videogames you are part of the artwork, you are immersed in artwork, you can partially shape time, space, forms, relationships, story, events, contents, feelings, etc When you are shaping the artwork, you are changing what the artwork is transmitting to you and so on, in a continuous dialogue with no end. This is interactivity: mutual shaping. Game mechanics are the tools, but aren’t the interactivity itself. Interactivity creates an unprecedented interlacing, although deferred, between the real authors of the artwork and the player.
Most of games stops at traditional physical game mechanics (jump, run, fight, shoot, puzzles solving, etc.)., they offers only challenges, sometimes embedded in stories told through cut scenes and flavoured with some contents. That’s good, but not the best way to art. In the last two decades game designers like Fumito Ueda tried to strictly bond game mechanics to mature contents, deep feeling and emotions, intellectual thoughts etc. so they created new game mechanics (see ICO (2001) and its cooperative and empathic game mechanics). The existential long rides in the metaphysical land of Shadow of The Colossus (2005) are perhaps one of the first inspiration sources for modern Walking Simulators. Also Shenmue I & II (2000, 2001) have something of a Walking Sim. Another example of not physical mechanics borrowed from RPG and interactive dramas are multiple choices dialogues; they have been used in Firewatch, considered one of the best WSs.
I think TaleOfTales The Path (2009) is the first modern example of today called Walking Simulators. It introduced a lot of characteristics of following WSs, e.g. exploring environment as metaphor for existential and subconscious exploration, games no longer intended as challenges but as experiences, mature contents, massive use of artistic visionarity; scenarios, stories or situations full of symbolism and metaphors, creative use of narrative texts as aesthetic elements, focus on relationships and feelings, great attention to scenarios and soundscape, etc. It’s a third person view game, like Journey or Beyond Eyes, while most WSs are in first person view.
WSs offer existential adventures, explorations of inner thoughts, deep feelings and subconscious (see Dear Esther). They experiment new way for artistic expression in video games. They are not necessarily story-driven, but give a major attention to characters, relationships, dialogues, voice acting, storytelling, etc.; they are to be intended as virtual experiences. Subjects and objects of interactivity (mutual shaping) are the following elements: contents, feelings, moral, psychologies, aesthetics (see interactive aesthetics of The Unfinished Swan or Beyond Eyes), stories, relationships, atmospheres, etc. and not only physical objects, actions and challenges. E.g. In Firewatch interactivity is focused on communication and relationships; talking through walkie-talkie becomes an expedient for narration embedded in gameplay. WSs offer intellectual challenges: you often have to recompose stories and meanings and understand metaphors and symbols ( see Everybody’s Gone to The Rapture).
Obviously you cannot disconnect physics and thoughts, actions and emotions; physical and intellectual mechanics are not opposite, the one is indispensable for the other and viceversa. In WSs they could be integrated, melted, as in What Remains of Edith Finch. Yes, there are WSs favouring one aspect more than the other, but that’s not a lack of interactivity (mutual shaping), only a different type of interactivity. Some WSs also mix more traditional puzzle solving mechanics, e.g. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
I think that developers of such games had no intention to create titles to be classified as walking sims! They simply tried to experiment new forms of expression and interactivity in video games, going beyond traditional game mechanics and giving more attention to contents and narration embedded in gameplay with refined aesthetichs. It’s not a casuality if most of today artistic games are classified as walking sims; obviously walking sims are not the only artistic games.
Now we are going to deepen the last of the walking sims, Edith Finch, to better understand and apply the previous analisys.
PART III : Edith Finch
SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU HAVE NOT PLAYED EDITH FINCH, DON’T GO FURTHER!
Edith Finch is not only storytelling, is not cinema, is not literature, it is videogame, because of interactivity (mutual shaping), because of role playing in a virtual context, one of the best and immersive role playing ever. And it is art because videogame medium is finalized to express authorial high contents; it introduces new way for narration embedded in gameplay, e.g. flashbacks as mini-games. You can experiment in first person memories, deep feelings, thoughts and weird experiences, you can be the protagonist of artistic visons; you are living in first person the brillant crazy visions of Ian Dallas (creative director), you are Ian Dallas, Ian Dallas is you, you are shaping time, memories, feelings, space, thoughts and forms in real time!
E.g., in one of the episodes you immerse yourself in Calvin, you can feel on your skin his outrageous childish will to escape physical reality limits; you are Calvin and you are transforming the swing in a spaceship, you control time, you decide the flow of words materializing on the screen, you decide when leaving the Earth for the space, you give the rythm, and so on.
Yes, the experience could be even more interactive, that’s a matter of technology, algorithms, tools, budget, etc. But you cannot say there is no interactivity!
The same for Molly episode. You immerse yourself in the weird little girl, Molly is you, you are Molly. You become part of her crazy childood fantasy, you can feel on your skin the irrationality and unconsciousness of childhood; you are the octopus, you are the shark, you are the owl, you can feel on your skin the emotion to be a predator and a monster, to kill people and animals. You feel yourself bad, guilty, you have some regrets, but you are also excited and curious as a child.
At the movies you would say: oh look, on the screen there is a cat transforming in a rolling shark; oh look now there is an octopus, what are happening now?
In Edith Finch you say: oh look, i have transformed myself in a rolling shark, wow, and now what i have to do?! Oh, i’m a shark and now i can hunt the seals! Gee! Oh, now i’m a giant octopus searching for victims. Oh now i’m a owl, what i have to do?! Oh yes, look , there is a rabbit, i’m going to catch it!
Amazement is multiplied ten times, you are immersed, you are part of the story: you are discovering both the game and yourself!
In Edith Finch you can appreciate the genius of the creator, the beauty of his artwork, just like in movies, and further you are part of that creation, fully immersed in it, shaping each other!
In Gregory episode you feel yourself as a baby playing in a bathtube. You can unleash your fantasy, there is no fixed script. I played for a long time; thanks to the AI, I made the possible and the impossible with my/Greg toys. Giant Sparrow has brought me back to my childhood. Me was in the bathtube and in my childood, me was playing, not a figure or an actor on the screen!
Perhaps the best episode is the one about Lewis. You feel the agony to repeat the same action ever and ever (cutting fish heads in a cannery), so you feel on your skin the alienation of such inhuman job. But you are not watching someone on the screen cutting fish heads! You are cutting fish heads! If you stop to cut, the game stops! You shape time and rythm. You have to coordinate yourself in the hard reality of cannery and in the fantastic reality created by Lewis dreams, hopes and deep desires. Lewis imagines himself as a prince with the world at his feet! So you are Lewis and the prince at the same time! You can feel all the real sufference and the imaginary joy of Lewis at the same time, because you are Lewis! Yes, you are reluctant to immerse in Lewis role, but you have to. This is a new sensation in art! You could never feel yourself constrained in a movie projected on a screen, it is a separated entity filmed and played by others in a distant time, giving you a sense of safety; in videogames you are in the screen, now, in real time, and you can feel yourself not safe! I also felt that sensation playing Alien Isolation!
In the Lewis dream, you are playing a mini game! Yes, a mini game inside a mini game (you are also playing as Lewis in the cannery). At first it is a 2D maze game, then it becomes a isometric 3D game, in the end a real 3D game in first person view. It’s an escalation in mixing fantasy and reality; when the game is in 3D, Lewis/you has/have completely lost the sense of reality. I think it is a meta-game, a game about gaming and also a deep metaphor about Lewis/your life.
The Monty Pyton-like narration is superb, a mix of uncomfortable irony that makes you enjoy but also feel guilty for laughing of such a dramatic situation.
The things i described cannot be realized in a movie, never! I love cinema, but videogames could be the nex step in art evolution!
Edith Finch is an empirical proof, so it is a piece of art and a masterpiece!
The fundamental question is not answered yet: Walking Simulator is not a good label, so what’s the right label? Well i’ve no answers for now, and you? Perhaps we need no label! Let’s call it ART!