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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. SweeneyOpinionIndie Implosion,OpinionIn 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…
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John Sweeney
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.