A Walk In the Woods: A Closer Look at Walking Simulators
TELL ME HOW YOU REALLY FEEL
Up until recently I rarely heard the term “walking simulator” used in reference to a game—or at least if I had, it was used mainly as an insult. It’s not so much that the term means something different now, but that it has also accrued a secondary meaning as a genre in its own right. Now to clarify, I don’t agree with the term being used so haphazardly as of late, especially in reference to games like Firewatch and Gone Home which offer deep narratives to the player. What I think is happening is traditional games media and reviewers alike are finding it increasingly difficult to describe the type of games Firewatch and Gone Home are.
Part of that inability stems from the fact that these gaming experiences are pretty new. Games of previous console generations were focused on getting the most bang for their buck, so to speak, and tried to squeeze every bit of processing power they could out of their machines. More than that, though, was the notion of what a game was in an era that was dominated by Nintendo’s family-friendly plumber. Games were meant primarily to be fun and engaging escapes from the everyday. Games were a foray away from the mundane and into the fantastic.
Games were a foray away from the mundane and into the fantastic.
Games still strive to do this today; their essence of play hasn’t been lost. However, what we now have is the desire from developers to create new kinds of gaming experiences that touch on larger emotional spectrums. Games like That Dragon Cancer and Life is Strange bring out levels of empathy in its players that are truly remarkable. For me, connecting to a game’s story and characters is at the core of what makes it good. If those traits aren’t believable, it doesn’t matter if the gameplay elements are polished—I just don’t care enough about the built world to want to “play” in it. To a certain extent this is probably why I love Telltale Games so much, because the actual gameplay in those games comes secondary to the writing and the atmosphere. When a game plays well mechanically, it is certainly very rewarding, but it’s in moments of intense conversation or even quiet exploration that can make you feel like you’re actually in a different place entirely.
Firewatch is a game that I’ve seen getting some pretty divisive reviews recently, and I feel like that doesn’t do it justice. Part of the negative feedback stems from the game’s rather short experience—about five hours in my playthrough—but the other part is the gameplay is pretty simplistic. Large periods of the game literally involve walking around while staring at a topographical map. But these criticisms and descriptions miss the most important aspect of Firewatch: the conversations with Delilah.
Walking simulator games ask you to walk a mile in another person’s shoes: a real, grounded, emotional, very human, pair of shoes.
Both Henry and Delilah are flawed characters running away from things in their past. Their purpose for being in a lookout tower is just that: to be alone and isolated away from their existence. What’s amazing about this concept is through branching dialogue options, the player has a chance to craft their own interpretation of Henry and their own relationship with Delilah. In any given conversation there are options for Henry’s dialogue that downplay his marital status, and hint at a life in the future with Delilah. These choices are what drive Firewatch—they are what elevate the gameplay beyond a walking simulator to being a study of human emotion and psychology. This, I feel, is the strength of “walking simulator” games. The genre gives players the opportunity to inhabit the life of someone else. Now you might say, “Hey, we do that all the time in video games,” and I would say, “Yes, that’s true to a certain extent.” However, while many games ask the player to take on the role of a superhuman or fantastical creature with crazy abilities, walking simulator games ask you to walk a mile in another person’s shoes: a real, grounded, emotional, very human, pair of shoes.
Walking simulator games like Firewatch and Gone Home (I keep using these as an example because they are truly fantastic games) allow for different variations on traditional gaming. These games challenge us to be empathetic, and to try and understand the characters these game developers have crafted for us. I will never be Max from Life is Strange, an Oregonian teenage girl who aspires to professional photography, and I might never have to deal with the same woes as Henry and his issues back home, but in each case, I leave the experiences having taken away the ability to understand both. The brilliance of these games, too, is that there is enough ambiguity in the dialogue and gameplay options to accommodate for variations of the main character. So while the player understands Max or Henry, they are allowed to inject their own agency into them.
This is the strength of walking simulator games. They allow the player to experience aspects of life and the human condition in a way that makes them aware. Firewatch and Gone Home let us play another person rather than another fictional demigod. While many games continue to come out, boasting action, explosions and violence on a level that only Michael Bay could appreciate, there are those smaller narrative experiences that do continue to be released in the gaming world.
I hope by discussing these smaller titles further it has become apparent that calling them “walking simulators” doesn’t do justice to the experiences they provide, or at the very least does nothing to insult the genre. Ultimately this is where growth and learning occur. Not every game has to be informative, and not every game has to elevate you morally, but the ones that attempt to are well worth checking out. Even if that means walking around Wyoming looking at a map, that’s a pretty peaceful afternoon.
What do you think of games like ‘Firewatch,’ ‘Gone Home’ and the like? Do you enjoy shorter narrative-driven gaming experiences? Tweet me @Flagcap. And be sure to follow us @YouNerded.
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