I step off, onto the station, after a train ride that seemed like minutes, to discover the hazy view of a park ahead of me. I walk around and explore to find many living things singing a tune together, adding their own unique sounds to the game’s drone soundtrack. Each thing I pass by hypnotizes me, and for a while I find myself sitting with a girl humming along reading her books.

This is all that the game Sacramento has to offer, exploring and ingesting the environment made of the developer dzifyr’s imagery. There is not much to interact with aside from the humming dragonflies that move when you push by them, and the flamingos that a frantically wave their head when you touch them. This is what many would categorize as a walking simulator, but each time I step off the train to look through more of this dream park I feel dissatisfied with the idea that it will only be simplified by such a definition.

walkingsimulatorjellyfishsacramento

Playing Sacramento, I don’t feel the same way as when I play other games. When I walk around, I am not doing it in hopes that I will be rewarded for reaching an objective. For every step taken, I am astounded and tightly gripped by the handcrafted world that I have access to. I just want to explore it all and see every piece that the developer wanted to express to the player. Sometimes this occurs in other games, it is not a dissimilar feeling to when I am walking through the High Wall of Lothric in Dark Souls III and I watch how the trees are worshiped. My curiosity is piqued and I am entirely satisfied with solely existing within that world. However, many games do not foster these moments of uninterrupted curiosity.

Games focus on their core mechanics in order to create a whole experience and typically exploration doesn’t entirely fit in. This does not mean that players are unable to explore levels in games, but that the experience created for the player typically isn’t with exploration at the forefront of their mind. For example; try to explore a level in Overwatch and the enemy team will shoot at you, making it much more difficult. Try learning the story behind the Five Nights at Freddies series and the scares will get in your way. Most of the time, games only encourage exploration when there are objectives that tell the player to do it.

Many games that fall under the “walking simulator” category only want the player to learn about their world. Adding a goal or a reward is unneeded because the player is already invested. These self-exploratory games are different from other genres because they do not attract people due to the complexity of their mechanics or the intensity of competition. Instead, they affect us with narrative, dialogue, or through observation without making conflict and distraction of higher importance. There are games that make us feel warmth, sadness, fear, loneliness, or my favorite, curiosity and wonder. The name walking simulator makes the genre seem lesser than what it actually is by focusing entirely on mechanics and missing the affection created through exploration.

In Sacramento, I feel at peace with myself and clear my mind as I walk around the bright marsh. As a person who has failed at attempting to meditate, I like to imagine that this is a similar feeling to having a calm and clear mind. I try to see just how far the game will let me walk, and just how much there is to explore. With every new thing that I discover I walk around it, listen to the song that it sings me, and see how it acts with my movement. Aside from walking around and the occasional jump for amusement there is not many buttons I press. The game ends when the next train arrives, for the character to continue their never-ending train ride. The game evokes a uniquely calm feeling, one that I don’t feel any other time, in-game or out.

walkingsimulatorrememoried

Rememoried, a game that released later last year, is a cryptic journey that weaves through the cosmos and humanity without indicating specifically which one it is talking about. There are areas that can be explored and when the player finds an object and looks at it they are transported to the next area. While it can be a bit obscure finding the solutions to the puzzles in the game, I found so many scenes thought provoking throughout. Most of all, it made me think about the human mind and how easily we can forget things. Rememoried wants to make the player ask questions without a clear answer and rediscover what it means to feel inquisitive.

You may not have heard of those last two games, so it could be difficult to understand how the games make you feel. So what about one of the genre’s most well known titles, Gone Home? When Gone Home came out there was a lot of controversy over the game’s release. Critics were hailing it as one of the best games in 2013 while players either agreed or wondered why a game with barely any mechanics could be considered such a masterpiece.

Gone Home is fairly different from the last two games, because it has a very straight-forward story for the player to follow. There is a lot more information that can be easily ingested and directed paths for the player to go down. The house is designed so that a story can follow the family of characters and information is plainly written for the player to see. Items fill the hallways, tapes can be played and listened to, and letters can be read. If there weren’t locked doors or secret passage ways, the game would still be very good, but for many there may be some confusion about the sequence of events and how some things relate. . This doesn’t make Gone Home better than other games because it directs the player towards information through its design, but it is a design that changes how players are affected.

walkingsimulatorgonehome

The other big difference between Gone Home and the last two games is that it feels grounded in familiarity. In Rememoried, everything is made up of things that should be familiar but they are all placed in areas that make it all alien with eyeballs in the sky and seahorse floating in front of our very eyes. And while Sacramento is most likely based on somewhere in our real world, it has been romanticized and created in such a stylistic fashion that it is easy to believe you aren’t anywhere familiar. Due to this familiarity that Gone Home presents, it evokes nostalgia alongside the empathy that comes from the story being told throughout.

Each of these games have worlds that are waiting to be explored and wandered through without interruption. The way that the information is presented can differ from detailed objects within the world to simple observation. This element and the evocation of different levels of affection is what makes up the “walking simulator’ genre. Why do we keep labeling these games as “walking simulators” though? Decades ago, when genres existed to define how games mechanics functioned, it would make sense. Some have said that the genre name “walking simulator” is an insult to the games it describes, but really it is a simplification of the mechanics that ignores games’ entirety. It only focuses on the tools that are assisting the player’s experience instead of the experience as a whole. Due to this, the genre label is misinformed, therefore creating a different assumption about its games than what they actually are.

Of course, pointing out that there is a problem is much different than coming up with a new name for the genre. While something like “affective-adventure” sounds really cool to me, I don’t think it is something that would pick up. So I want to make a point and ask, why don’t we just start calling these “exploration games”? Thinking about it, one must explore an area to learn more about it, and that is the basis of this genre. Each of my three examples relies on the player’s exploration in order for them to be effective games and so do the rest of their associates. Some games from the genre are beginning to add more mechanics from other types of games in order to engage players but they still all rely on the player’s exploration to work.

This writing, and all of the many, many, other writings about the name “walking simulator” may not be enough to redefine how we look at the genre.  These games are not in emergency for a new name, but their genre is in need of discussion and understanding. If we continue to be indifferent about this long-running joke then it holds these games back from reaching more people and their future potential, which is the worst we could do. So, next time you hear a discussion about “walking simulators” try talking about the name, and maybe these games will receive the label that they deserve.

About The Author

Staring into the multiple-reality lens Kieffer became an ethereal being who wanders from universe to universe to tell people that video games are cool. What an existence.

Related Posts

  • Louis

    You’ve got a game where you can do absolutely nothing except walk around and poke things, and yet you don’t want people to call it a walking simulator. The definition exists for a reason: not because it’s a demeaning term for these games, but because that’s exactly what they are. Games that simulate nothing but walking around.

    This one isn’t even that original, even by walking sim standards. What you have here is basically Proteus, except with hand-drawn flat graphics instead of pixelated flat graphics and a shorter draw distance.

  • I haven’t read this yet, BUT again, when games are name dropped, can you give us links please? Sacramento is the capital of California. It won’t turn up in searches for an obscure video game. Thanks.

    • I see (the rather unassuming) “dzifyr” now. Regardless, when sharing obscurities, provide links!!!!

  • I don’t think further labels are helpful. I think fewer are! First of all though, I love “walking-simulator,” I think it’s the most delicious coupling of words this medium has ever enjoyed, and I used it as my tagline on Patreon until the taglines were removed.

    Most of these experiences would probably benefit from a more natural and standardized “walking” interface. They don’t put a focus on the act of walking though, so I don’t think it’s fair to call them walking-simulator; although it’s easy to let them pass, because no games pay enough attention to the act of walking … indeed massive budget industrial scale games go about as far as simulating a Roomba, and that’s about it. (I joked yesterday in a comment somewhere that the new Deus Ex game appears to have its Roomba-aug turned on in a video.)

    These games that people are wont to describe as “walking simulators” don’t generally have enough to go on to sort them into a genre, the way you would a book or a film, simply because they tend to not have enough meat on their bones to categorize them as anything.

    I aspire to being an influential somebody someday. My personal preferences is we retire video-game to mean A) game, B) flat; and adopt 3-D to refer to what we would call 3-D video games. Either nakedly 3-Ds, or 3-D games. If there is not an element of childlike play, then it’s a 3-D. This name transcends language using only numbers and a symbolic letter, and is about as economical as “movie” which has proven its effectiveness as a word. If you want to be explicit/limit yourself to English, write Threedies. This dispenses with labels, which is a good place to begin.

    I don’t think “2-D” is as important, but a back-categorization is Twodies. Language problems solved.