Walking Simulators? Not at all! Parts I&II

PART I : Wrong definition

Walking Simulator is a fairly recent sarcastic term aimed at 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, an approach showing poor competence and critical attitudes about expressive art. Who introduced it? Maybe someone who still goes excited as a child for anonymous games with old elementary and superficial shoot&fight-based gameplay recycled millions of times,  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)

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Dear Esther (2012)

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Journey (2012)

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The Unfinished Swan (2012)

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Beyond Eyes (2013)

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The Stanley Parable (2013)

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Gone Home (2013)

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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (2014)

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The Beginner’s Guide (2015)

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Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture (2015)

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Layers Of Fear (2016)

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That Dragon Cancer (2016)

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Virginia (2016)

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Firewatch (2016)

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Abzu (2016)

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The Town Of Light (2016)

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Blackwood Crossing (2017)

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What Remains Of Edith Finch (2017)

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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, video games would not exist without!). 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 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 feelings 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. One major influence for WSs was The Night Journey (2007, Bill Viola, USC Game Innovation Lab), one of the earliest experimental art games conceived; the game has been exhibited in galleries worldwide. It’s been recently released for PS4 and PC (26 june 2018). 

ICO

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Shadow of The Colossus

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.

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The Path

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, exploration, etc.; they are to be intended as virtual experiences. Subjects and objects of interactivity (mutual shaping) are the following: contents, feelings, moral, psychologies, aesthetics (see interactive aesthetics of The Unfinished Swan or Beyond Eyes), stories, relationships, atmospheres, etc. not only “physical” objects, actions and challenges as usual. 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 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.

Continue here: Part III

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