Barrage: Are Walking Simulators Games? (Pt. 1)

My name is RocketEthereal and today we’re going to delve into that most horrific and controversial of video game genres: The Walking Simulator. This… is Barrage.

Walking Simulator controversy boils down to one question: Are walking simulators such as Gone Home and the title I’m playing here, Electric Highways, games? The short answer? NO! They are not games. The long answer is pretty long, so hang in there.

Your first instinct, I hope, would be to consult the dictionary as to what a “game” is. We run into some kinks pretty fast when we try to do that, though. Mirriam-webster says that a game is “an activity engaged in for diversion or amusement.” The Oxford dictionary, however, says that a game is “a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.”

Which one of those sounds more like a game to you? It could be argued that movies, books, and youtube videos are all “games” based on the Mirriam-Webster definition, because all of the above are indeed activities that are engaged in for diversion or amusement. Yes, sitting there and processing visual and audial information is an activity. Therefore, it seems that some of our dictionaries are a bit outdated on what a game actually is. According to the superior definition, which specifies that games generally involve competition or fail states, we’ve just stricken walking simulators in general from the record.

I’m not here to make an argument based on dictionary definitions, though. I’m just getting those out of the way – the other definition that we need to settle on is the definition of a “walking simulator.” The reason it’s so important that we decide on a definition for this term is because, well, nearly every first person shooter in existence requires walking or running, and there’s a spectrum of games with varying levels of interactivity leading from Doom and Quake all the way down to The Stanley Parable. Doom and Quake are based entirely around interactivity. The Stanley Parable, however, has barely any interaction throughout its entirely other than the walking itself.

Unfortunately, the only major source of definitions which has attempted to define the term “walking simulator” is… you guessed it, Urban Dictionary. Here’s what they have to say on the subject, paraphrased: “A video game genre….where the walking is a big part of the experience.”

Let’s try to improve on Urban Dictionary’s definition, because I’m really finding it lacking. Let’s say instead that “a walking simulator is a game which relies on a combination of abstracts and simple movement to create value.” Here’s how I got to crafting that definition.

Let’s compare two games: RealMyst, and the game I’m playing here – Electric Highways. RealMyst is a fully-explorable 3D version of old point-and-click classic Myst, which allows you to freely move through the environment. On all accounts, most of the game is walking around, and there’s a significant narrative to be told through your exploration of the game’s worlds. We can’t classify it as a walking simulator, though, because there is genuine challenge to it. Myst is all about puzzles – and not just abstract, narrative puzzles. The game world is chock full of objects that interact with each other to change the environment and unlock new areas, and there are many objects that act as physical puzzles that require you to stare at your screen and rack your brain over how you are to proceed.

Ultimately, RealMyst isn’t incredibly different from Electric Highways, but that’s why we’re making this the dividing line for what is and is not a walking simulator: This is the key difference. Electric Highways has non-linear levels with sparse and minimal puzzles. Nearly all interactivity in the game is activating a panel, then finding the part of the level geometry was modified from you activating that panel. There is not enough focus on any sort of difficulty. For the most part, just walking around for long enough will get you where you need to go.

From this distinction, we can conclude that RealMyst and everything with greater interactivity is not a walking simulator – they are puzzle games, or fit into other genres. Everything with less interactivity, starting with electric sheep and going down from there, is most certainly a walking simulator. There’s more to the picture, though. We haven’t even touched on fail states or content trends yet!

We’ve only scratched the surface on walking simulators, and I will be continuing discussion on this subject in coming videos, so stay tuned. This has been Barrage.

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Posted in Design Analysis.