Indie Implosion: Walking Simulators

John takes on the subject of Walking Simulators in indie gaming

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In a pre­vi­ous en­try in this se­ries, “Indie Implosion: A Chair is a Videogame,” I ex­plained my po­si­tion on “games as art,” and the push to­wards con­cept over me­chan­ics. Here I want to zero in on one genre that I men­tioned there; the genre of game that has be­come known as the “Walking Simulator.”

I don’t ob­ject to peo­ple ex­per­i­ment­ing in the in­ter­ac­tive medi­um. In fact, I usu­al­ly wel­come it. Not every ex­per­i­ment is go­ing to be suc­cess­ful, but they may lead to in­ter­est­ing ideas. A few years ago peo­ple were toy­ing with how much you could strip out of a game in ser­vice of a sto­ry. Enter in ti­tles such as Dear Esther from The Chinese Room in what I con­sid­er to be the first mod­ern walk­ing simulator.

Dear Esther was great. When it was a free mod. In 2008.

It was an in­ter­est­ing ex­per­i­ment that I was glad I hadn’t paid mon­ey for at the time; a pass­ing cu­rios­i­ty in the in­ter­ac­tive medi­um. In 2012 it helped lead the charge of the “Walking Simulators” be­com­ing a paid game with noth­ing more than a new coat of paint. It was nice paint. Very pret­ty and the kind of paint you would get from a de­sign­er bou­tique, but it was still me­chan­i­cal­ly iden­ti­cal to the free 2008 ver­sion in that it didn’t have mechanics.

walking side 1This is part of the rea­son there is so much am­biva­lence to­wards games like “Gone Home.” It was sold as some rev­o­lu­tion­ary ex­pe­ri­ence when re­al­ly it was just Dear Esther with les­bians came six years too late. If you’d told most gamers be­fore their in­ter­est was piqued what the game re­al­ly was — in that it had no game play and was sim­ply a se­ries of sub-adventure game lev­el “poke ob­ject and get audio/text” — they would tell you they want­ed to put their mon­ey else­where. Again, I think it would be a neat con­cept for a mod, but when there are dozens of com­mer­cial games do­ing what a 2008 free mod did, but worse, gamers un­der­stand­ably be­gin to write off the en­tire genre and ac­tive­ly avoid it.

YouTube chan­nel Unit Lost do some­thing called the “Steam Gift Gamble” where they play ran­dom ti­tles gift­ed to them on Steam. Not many peo­ple at­tempt to wade through the un­chart­ed swamps of Steam’s more ob­scure ti­tles, and an in­creas­ing trend has been the preva­lence of same feel­ing walk­ing sim­u­la­tor style games. Most of these you will nev­er have heard of be­cause frankly there is zero com­mer­cial ap­petite for more walk­ing sims, and they made find­ing di­a­monds amongst the shit even hard­er than it al­ready was. There is a sense of de­jec­tion when you open a game and re­al­ize the con­trols do noth­ing. A decade ago we would sim­ply as­sume the game was bro­ken, but in the age of the Walking Simulator they are made this way on purpose.

Their sto­ries lack any play­er agency; they sim­ply make you trudge from des­ti­na­tion to des­ti­na­tion to pick up nuggets of sto­ry. Like a CGI film that has some­how bro­ken down. A “Lets Play” of many of these games is su­pe­ri­or be­cause at least you get ad­di­tion­al com­men­tary for a greater chance of en­ter­tain­ment, and you save the wear and tear on your key­board and the frus­tra­tion when the poor lev­el de­sign gets you lost. You can ex­pe­ri­ence what­ev­er nar­ra­tive that has been put in place with­out spend­ing a penny.

This is the ma­jor flaw of walk­ing sim­u­la­tors. When you watch a fun game it makes you want to play it. When you watch a walk­ing sim you get the en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence, and have no rea­son to part with your mon­ey for it. Even very well made nar­ra­tive games have a greater chance of be­ing sim­ply a “Let’s Play” game and a non-purchase for many.

I’m baf­fled when peo­ple scoff at the de­sire for es­capism in games. We crave ex­pe­ri­ences be­yond the every day. Most walk­ing sim­u­la­tors rev­el in the every day, the mun­dane, and lack ways to el­e­vate their sub­ject above be­ing as bor­ing and dull as re­al­i­ty can be. I can walk around my house fid­dling with crap any time I like. I even have ac­cess to some nice coun­try­side. Fans of these games de­rid­ing the “male pow­er fan­tasies” of main­stream gam­ing do so be­cause they can’t com­pete with par­tic­i­pat­ing in space bat­tles or sav­ing al­ter­nate uni­vers­es. Gaming isn’t a pas­sive medi­um, but walk­ing sims are al­most pure­ly pas­sive. You have no way to ef­fect the world around you. Playing games to al­low us to live out fan­tasies is not some­how vul­gar or low; they are just more en­joy­able to most peo­ple than an is­land of dis­joint­ed voice overs.

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Here’s the thing I dis­like the most: Walking Simulators are lazy. They are cheap to build, and they can be eas­i­ly pro­duced with lit­tle to no orig­i­nal work us­ing ex­ist­ing en­gine re­sources in mid­dle­ware like Unity, Unreal Engine 4, Cryengine and Source. Much of the time these games just have a voice over, text over­lays, or no ex­plic­it sto­ry at all with a land­scape made up of stock or pur­chased as­sets. Creating a 3D world with no me­chan­ics is much eas­i­er than ac­tu­al­ly de­sign­ing a game. It’s the new grand flaw for de­sign­ers who want to make some­thing “mean­ing­ful,” but don’t want to de­vel­op any kind of craft or skill. There is such a glut of these games be­cause they are so easy for any shmuck to fart out.

If I was a game de­sign pro­fes­sor, I wouldn’t award cred­it for stu­dent projects that were Walking Sims. But in parts of gam­ing acad­e­mia this style of game is be­ing pushed. I re­marked upon the arts fund­ing some of these no-hopers re­ceive, but the prob­lem runs deep­er; you don’t learn any­thing about game­play from mak­ing a walk­ing sim­u­la­tor. You don’t learn what mul­ti­ple sys­tems in­ter­act­ing end up co­a­lesc­ing into.

As a stu­dent you would be bet­ter of mak­ing a ba­sic turn based sys­tem, or a sim­ple puz­zle game. We are in dan­ger of hav­ing a whole gen­er­a­tion of in­die de­vel­op­ers who can’t ac­tu­al­ly de­sign games. You could train a dog to place sta­t­ic scenery in a game world with the user friend­ly tools we now have at our dis­pos­al; the meat of de­sign comes from test­ing in­ter­ac­tive sys­tems. If the ex­tent of your game’s sys­tems is trig­ger­ing au­dio files then how are you ever go­ing to func­tion if tasked with cre­at­ing a dif­fer­ent genre? There is more to game de­sign than ba­sic en­vi­ron­ment de­sign, es­pe­cial­ly when many of these games take place on a sin­gle small map.

Walking Simulators are the “short black and white art film con­sist­ing most­ly of land­scape shots” of the gam­ing world. Yet there is much anger and re­crim­i­na­tion when these games are called out. The fans of the genre shriek and bay about peo­ple “just don’t get it,” or field hang-wringing apolo­get­ics about vi­su­al sto­ry­telling and nar­ra­tive. If you want a good nar­ra­tive then read a book, and if you want good vi­su­al sto­ry­telling watch a movie. Walking sim­u­la­tors ex­ist in lim­bo: if we com­pare then to films and books their “amaz­ing nar­ra­tives” are laugh­ably in­fe­ri­or. Like com­par­ing a 15 year old’s fan­fic­tion to Shakespeare or Mark Twain. If you com­pare them to oth­er video games they fall even short­er; lack­ing the ba­sic re­quire­ments to be called a game most times. A clas­sic tac­tic is em­ployed; the de­fence of the genre changes de­pend­ing on what they are be­ing com­pared to, but the re­sult is still the same. These games are not the best at any­thing. They are an ex­per­i­ment that wants your mon­ey parad­ing as a fin­ished product.

I zero in on Dear Esther and Gone Home be­cause I think they are the two games most re­spon­si­ble for putting peo­ple off the “nar­ra­tive ex­pe­ri­ence” genre, and even in­die games en­tire­ly. Dear Esther re­ceived lot of pub­lic­i­ty when it was re-released, again baf­fling to some­one who had played it years ago, and a lot of peo­ple tried the game out as a re­sult. Gone Home has also been show­ered with awards and praise, al­though some of its high­est praise has been over­shad­owed by al­leged crony­ism with the staff of Polygon. Most gamers I’ve spo­ken to tast­ed the genre with these games and prompt­ly spat it back out again like a ran­cid meal, and they were made more cau­tious of in­dies by the bad taste it left in their mouths.

Have you re­al­ly ever heard of “Home is Where One Starts…” or “The Lost Valley?” Well ap­par­ent­ly Engadget called the for­mer “Subtle, poignant and rich” de­spite it be­ing one of the most gener­ic wak­ing sims I’ve seen to date. Someone gushed it was a “Very im­por­tant piece of gam­ing art.” Put the bar low­er guys, I can just about lim­bo un­der this one.

The gam­ing press has used up a lot of their built-up trust by push­ing these games, and by re­peat­ed­ly rec­om­mend­ing prod­ucts their in­dent­ed au­di­ence will heav­i­ly dis­like. Sites like Rock,Paper,Shotgun moved heav­i­ly to­wards push­ing in­die dar­lings and per­son­al pol­i­tics, and it has rav­aged their traf­fic demon­stra­bly. Gaming is a growth in­dus­try; games broad­cast­ing is a growth in­dus­try. So why is games jour­nal­ism and the in­die scene in such dire straits? Here at SuperNerdLand we’re man­ag­ing to grow when re­ceived wis­dom states that we should die on the vine due to mar­ket sat­u­ra­tion. Could it be that games writ­ing isn’t dy­ing, it’s just the sub­jects be­ing writ­ten about no longer holds the audience’s interest?

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In be­ing too close to one an­oth­er games jour­nal­ists and their in­die dar­lings have wo­ven to­geth­er their fates. The chasm be­tween the nor­mal gam­ing au­di­ence and those push­ing walk­ing sim­u­la­tors has nev­er been more gaping.

So here we have it; the walk­ing sim­u­la­tor. A genre no one re­al­ly likes ex­cept their cre­ators, pre­ten­tious peers, and a hand­ful of games jour­nal­ists. Yet this has only pro­duced a tiny num­ber of mild­ly suc­cess­ful games. But peo­ple still bitch and moan when the term gets ap­plied to their work, or work they per­son­al­ly enjoy.

We once again re­turn to the core of what is caus­ing the in­die im­plo­sion: too many peo­ple try­ing to turn their ex­pier­ments into a vi­able com­mer­cial prospect when in the past they would have been a free game, a flash game, or a mod for an ex­ist­ing game. There is a base­line of game­play, game length, and in­creas­ing­ly cre­ator or game recog­ni­tion re­quired for some­one to pur­chase an in­de­pen­dent­ly de­vel­oped game.

If you see a game was de­vel­oped in Unity, is de­scribed as a “nar­ra­tive ex­pe­ri­ence,” and has a rec­om­men­da­tion from Kotaku slapped on the side then chances are you will run the op­po­site di­rec­tion. You can’t ex­pect a niche genre with a poor rep­u­ta­tion that is al­ready over­sat­u­rat­ed with abysmal qual­i­ty prod­ucts to make you mon­ey; Tale of Tales still stand as a shin­ing ex­am­ple of de­vel­op­er en­ti­tle­ment in that area. You can only sat­is­fy your own cre­ative itch, and peo­ple should be grate­ful if you can bring oth­ers along with you.

There is too much of a sense that per­son­al ex­pe­ri­ence, or any form of cre­ative vi­sion, is some­how au­to­mat­i­cal­ly in­ter­est­ing. They aren’t. In the mod­ern gam­ing mar­ket­place your game is not a unique and per­fect lit­tle snowflake. Simply cram­ming more sub-par prod­ucts into the mar­ket­place only serves to di­lute the mar­ket fur­ther and push peo­ple away from in­die ti­tles. The con­cept of the walk­ing sim­u­la­tor isn’t new, and it isn’t cut­ting edge any­more (if it ever was in the first place). Its shelf-life has been as brief as the ex­pe­ri­ences them­selves tend to be. It is just an­oth­er sign of stag­na­tion, and the path of least ef­fort and am­bi­tion be­ing tak­en by a sec­tion of the in­dus­try that is billed as innovative.

We al­ready have a grave­yard of am­a­teur de­vel­op­ers pub­lish­ing games to no one but them­selves. Those hop­ing to make this their liveli­hood need to rise above the pack, and cre­at­ing a game that does noth­ing be­yond sim­u­late walk­ing and te­di­um isn’t a way to do that.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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