We here at Reaxxion are generally very mad about things, to which I’d say that it’s a bit too much. I mean, sure, it’s nice to talk about video games, but why focus on negativity? On yelling at people who use video games differently from us? I mean, it’s a medium, not a war-zone.
Thus, I decided to do something crazy and be positive about something the dreaded “Ess-Jay-Dubya” seem to fawn over: the Walking Simulator! Whichever reaction picture you have of shock can be placed here.
Now then, this article will look at three of the more noteworthy walking sims: Dear Esther, Gone Home, and The Stanley Parable. Each of these bring something important to the conversation, and let’s think a bit more in-depth rather than “I hate this because it sucks.” Keep your political baggage out of the door, and let’s dive in!
(A short note before we dive in: Yes, I will call these all “games.” You can say you don’t like them, but if you give me that “that’s not the definition of a game” crap, you won’t add anything to the discussion apart from crossed arms and pouty comments. Nothing wrong with your opinion, but try to do it considerately. We want to start conversations, not end them.)
I feel that this is the game that really brought the walking sim to the forefront. Made around 2008, this game has you explore a small island while you hear narration directed toward a woman named Esther, presumably from a letter. Here is where a lot of the beginnings of the formula come together: the low-action gameplay, the focus more on graphical depth than mechanical depth, and narration as you explore the setting of choice.
There is a gentle melancholy to the whole experience that gives a slight sense of the uncanny as you explore the world you have entered, trying to piece together a puzzle that wasn’t made to be solved and plunging into a mix of caves, seaside plains, and underwater memories.
However, this is by far the weakest of the three choices I bring up. This is a game that is entirely up to interpretation. While that isn’t a bad thing, the issue comes from the contrast from the player and the world they inhabit. You are but a stranger in a strange land, beautiful but unneeded. A friend of mine described it as an “interactive painting,” and I find that to be a superb description. It’s pretty to look at, but the game itself doesn’t give you a reason to engage in its world.
This isn’t a game that draws you in. Rather, it’s a game that draws in certain people, specifically those who want to interpret the world the entered. Thus, the only reason to explore this island and listen to the narrator (both linear in nature), is for enjoying it by itself. It can be a meditative experience, but only if you are looking for one.
The Good: A landscape beautiful and haunting that can be calming but saddening. Like a Sunday night before a busy workweek.
The Bad: It can feel pretentious if you are uninterested in the world its trying to make. (Or you already live on an island like in the game. In which case, you must have amazing internet to be able to read this article.)
This game is like: Being dragged to an art gallery that you are uninterested in by a friend who adores it. You might find some pretty pictures that pique your interest, but the gallery will quickly dull you if you weren’t engaged to begin with.
For some reason, this site gets fucking furious at this game, and I have no idea why. Derek Baroni used a screenshot of this game to infer that games with simplistic gameplay mechanics are Social Justice Propaganda (which I honestly hope is some sort of joke, because that’s just nitpicky and has a lot of flaws as an argument), while Steve Alexander thought the idea of Polygon giving this game a GOTY award was stupid, saying “If a game doesn’t even meet the dictionary’s definition of a “game,” how can it be Game of the Year?”
Lemme just start out by saying that Gone Home is not about social justice issues. They might involve conflicts that could involve social justice, but that is not at all what the game is about. That’s like saying BioShock is about objectivism. BioShock might have a political tone involving Objectivism, but it’s way more about shooting splicers in the face and getting that twist ending. (Errant Signal discusses that a bit more in his Bioshock Infinite review, which I highly recommend, because he explains them far better than I ever could.)
Likewise, Gone Home might have notions about feminism, but it’s not about feminism: It’s about a family’s tumultuous time with an emphasis on a teenager’s love story. If your first thought with a game about a love story is “damn SJWs,” maybe we should stop being so trigger happy with terms.
You might be asking, “What about it being a love story about lesbians? That’s so SJWish!” I respond to that notion with a “so what?” This might be a romance between two women, but it’s not revolving around the notion of them being two women. It’s subtle, but it’s enough to explore who its about rather than purely the politics of same sex relationships. Thus, the politics involved are enough to bring up the topic, but doesn’t overshadow the story it’s trying to tell. Again, like how BioShock’s exploration of Objectivism doesn’t overshadow the world it’s creating.
Gone Home starts you off with a mystery: you’re back from studying abroad on a dark stormy night to find that no one’s home and everything got ransacked, leaving you asking, “What the hell happened?” Sounds like the start of a slasher flick, doesn’t it? This feeling intensifies when you first hear the narration of your sister with notes from her journal scattered about, talking about how the house they moved into is filled with rumors of it being haunted.
This notion cools down when she starts developing a crush on a girl older than her, who’s interested in her spooky house too. This actually allows the game to have one minor (yet effective) jump scare.
While the love story is the main focus of the game, other stories are shown throughout the house through small documents throughout the house. From a father’s attempts to get his work published to a mother’s possible infidelity, there are many stories told in just this house in the 90’s. Setting this story in the 90’s really shows the sort of adolescence the developers had: ghost stories, Street Fighter II, punk concerts, etc. It’s what an indie game should be: a part of the devs themselves.
This is one of the many ways you can make a walking simulator: give a reason for the player to go exploring. Since there’s an overarching mystery you wish to have answered, you have a reason to pay attention to the environment, which in turn opens other questions and answers. I understand some people on this site are adamantly against the notion of a game being like a young adult novel rather than Gor pulp, but hey, if everything was like Gor, that’d be stale fast.
If you’re open for something a bit more low-key, I’d say you’ll like Gone Home if you aren’t controlled by the opinions of others and can go into it with an open mind.
The Good: An exploration of the mundane that’s the best coming-of-age story video games currently have, along with plenty of smaller stories told through its environment. The right amount of time to explore its own narrative.
The Bad: The amount of hype and response to said hype quickly overshadow the actual content of the game.
This game is like: Listening to an album you loved in high school that you used to listen to with your girlfriend.
The Stanley Parable
Now, maybe you wouldn’t wanna play a coming-of-age drama. That’s totally fine, it’s not for everyone. Perhaps you’d like something more highbrow? Boy, do I have a game for you!
The Stanley Parable is the most political choice on this little exploration of a genre, mostly due to its explorations of free will and narrative. However, it is also the best choice on this list.
One of The Stanley Parable’s greatest successes is being self-aware. It knows how it’s constrained by its play-space, and chooses to embrace that in its whole design. While the game is about binary choices, each choice has a lot of meaning, changing the type of story and the topics it chooses to discuss. In any other game, this would be seen as unwieldy and messy, but Galactic Cafe makes this mishmash of ideas interesting, funny, and a bit terrifying.
A lot of the best moments in this game would lose a lot of their kick if I told them here, so all I can say is definitely give this game a shot. Or, if you don’t trust a random guy on the internet telling you what to buy, the original mod is free. While it’s not as polished and as in-depth as the full release, it’s still a wonderful experience well worth the time of anyone interested in the meta of narrative. When people give examples of games that push the medium, The Stanley Parable is a shining example.
The Good: A wonderful narrator gives this story a lot to chew on with topics such as linearity, freedom, choice, and even desk work.
The Bad (that’s actually a good): Frustrating by design. You want a “good” ending or an illusion of freedom which you’ll never get. It’s a cycle and a smartly done cycle at that.
This game is like: A gilded cage with a cup of tea pondering life, because hell, if you can’t leave the cage, you might as well try to stay sane.
What Have We Learned?
Now that I’ve given mini-reviews for these three games, what have they taught us about walking simulators as a concept?
1. No genre is inherently political
The best thing about art is how your own views of the world can shape the sort of game you make. This is true even with whole genres. With these three examples, we have an arthouse painting, a mundane teenage romance, and a postmodern analysis. For a genre considered to be very trite, that’s still a lot of variety. That’s only the surface, and it reminds you that a game’s mechanics are only as political as you make them. You can even apply that thought to other genres. Nothing’s stopping you from making a hidden object game about violence or a first person shooter about peace. The only thing that stops you is your own limitations.
So, if you believe a genre is only for SJWs, they will stay that way unless you explore the possibilities of what a game can or can’t be about. (Of course, the idea of blaming everything on an acronym is silly. Why should we blame everything on Some Jiving Waluigis? That just sounds like projection.)
2. Less = more
While the high-octane excitement that can come from a Call of Duty game can be exceptional, that shouldn’t be our only focus. After all, if the only movies we watched were action ones, it would get dull fast. The same goes with games. Sometimes, our medium can be more powerful with low-key stories than bombastic power fantasies. You can have your cake and eat it, and there’s nothing wrong with liking more gentle games along with your military shooters.
3. Chill out
I understand that there are individuals who can hate these types of a games with a passion, but step back and think: “Is this really a thing I should get angry towards?” I mean, sure, Polygon isn’t the best gamesite out there, but is some dudes thinking a vidya you don’t like as GOTY really worth an article to call it a conspiracy? Is that really a case of corruption, or just differing opinions?
Even if it was, there are probably better ways to bring up concerns rather than blaming an “SJW agenda.” It’s wonderful that readers like you are passionate about this medium (which you should), but if our anger over differing opinions overtakes the love we should share about our medium, it will take away the camaraderie that our industry can bring. So, if you are ever in the mood to get mad at stuff like this, take a deep breath, relax a bit, and unwind with a game you love with mates.
Those are three lessons that I personally got out of this little exploration into a niche market. Now, I have some questions for you, dear reader.
Think about a walking simulator you know, and think about what the developer’s main goal would be with their game. What makes it work? What doesn’t? If you were the developer, what would you add or remove to make the experience better? If you were to make a walking simulator, what would it be about? Would it have a specific political affiliation, or would you attempt to be apolitical?
Remember: There’s no such thing as a bad genre, and it is far more interesting to explore a genre than dismiss it outright.