Indie Implosion: Walking Simulators
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.
This 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.
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?
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.
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