Art Opinion

Are All ‘Walking Simulators’ Created Equal?

When the term ‘Walking Simulator’ entered the video game vernacular, it carried an uncomplimentary connotation.  The term was used to denote what was perceived as a hollow gameplay experience that was slow and meandered without a clear goal.  I heard the term first with regards to games like 2012’s Dear Esther and 2013’s Gone Home, but similar experience-driven games are hardly new, (Myst was released in 1993.)

Today, developers and gamers alike, have embraced the derogatory ‘Walking Sim’ moniker and lovingly adopted it for themselves.  It reminds me of the Impressionists of late 19th century France – when a critic, panning the style, played on the title of Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, describing with abundant sarcasm,

Impression—I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.”

-Louis Leroy, 1874

Impressionist painters such as Manet, Renoir, and Cézanne, (as well as the public) very quickly adopted the snarky brand as their own, embracing the spirit of rebellion and independence.  After all, their works had been roundly rejected from the Salon exhibition in Paris for being unconventional.  They created their own exhibitions and, as history has proven, carved out their own place in the artistic landscape.

Monet – Impression, Sunrise

As the video game medium matures, the evolution of the concept of ‘play’ is an ongoing one.  Like the Impressionists, smaller development studios and certain gamers have carved out their own brand of ‘play’ in the gaming landscape by doing something different and by defying expectations.  Instead of high scores and “beating” the game, the focus lies in the mere experience of play.  The burgeoning genre has flourished, and similar games like Firewatch, Proteus, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and The Stanley Parable have found considerable success.

What the genre has done for narrative, tone, and even gameplay is something I have enjoyed in particular, and I am excited for what’s to come.  However, what makes a ‘Walking Simulator’ good?  Do the criticisms levied on the genre in regards to hollow gameplay and lack of clear ‘goals’ hold any merit?  Can ‘Walking Sims’ deliver non-traditional gameplay experiences in a compelling fashion?  I recently played Variable State’s Virginia on Playstation 4, another such ‘Walking Sim,’ and have developed a few thoughts on the matter.


***SPOILERS AHEAD, paragraphs will be marked where spoilers are found***

For me, art is at it’s best when the message or themes of a work are inextricably linked to the technical manifestations of the medium in which it is being expressed. The best games, like Bioshock or The Last of Us for example, marry its message and gameplay in such a way that their messages cannot be conveyed in the same way in any other medium.

***SPOILER FOR GONE HOME***

To scale down the discussion to more germane comparisons, Gone Home‘s scattered gameplay – directionless, inscrutable, and reliant on moments of discovery, emphasize the character’s own self-discovery through the figurative dark hallways of her past and into her future.  The empty family house haunts the player, the implicit histories of each corner and object imprinting upon the character a coerced identity, telling of her relationships and the burdensome expectations that come with them. Such a narrative about self-discovery could not be told in the same way if not for the non-linear nature of the game’s interaction.

The player explores her family’s TV room, Gone Home

***SPOILER FOR FIREWATCH***

Firewatch‘s dialogue driven mystery leads us to question what we hear and who is saying it. The game starts off with, quite literally, a choose-your-adventure book introduction of Henry’s (the player’s) identity.  You get to know Delilah, your unseen partner with whom you communicate with via radio, as you navigate a forest that impresses a deep solitude despite her presence.  These conversations make the player dubious of Delilah, the mysterious forest, and even Henry himself.  The conversations are central to the gameplay of Firewatch, and are vital to establishing player identity.  And identity is what the game is about – contrasted against the Henry’s wife’s loss of identity with her onset of dementia and Ned’s sequestering himself deeper into the woods at the loss of his son, the player makes micro-decisions throughout these conversations that illustrate his identity.  The final conversation with Delilah and the tonalities in which the player expresses their intent to run from their problems, or face them head on encapsulate these extremes in a dynamic way.

Henry talks to Delilah about his wife, Firewatch

***SPOILER FOR VIRGINIA***

I’d imagine that most people’s criticism of Virginia would come from it’s story, and how it was inscrutable, confusing, or lacking a point. I disagree with that, and actually quite liked the story, or at least recognized its potential and intent. It was a pretty straight forward cautionary tale against selling your soul, against bleeding the bison by stabbing the innocent in the back, and against the dangers of the authoritarian, particularly in its patriarchal and bureaucratic manifestations. Also, throw in a heavy, on-the-nose dose of surrealism, because why not?

With or against us? Virginia
The Bureaucracy, Virginia

The gameplay, however, supports absolutely none of that. You hold forward on the analog stick, press the X button on an item, maybe see a cutscene, repeat. It is a game whose method of interaction mirrors the very strictures of the bureaucratic that it is criticizing – and not in a self-aware, “this is how it feels to be constricted” way, but of a failure to take advantage of the gaming medium.  It is simply interaction for interaction’s sake.

Red Tape, Virginia

***SPOILER FOR JOURNEY***

A game that does this self-aware constraint with narrative purpose is Journey.  In an arduous ordeal near the end of the game, Journey constricts the player in the overwhelming force of a blizzard by taking away the learned controls and interactions the players previously relied on, communicating a sense of solitude and utter desperation to reach your partner.  The game’s environment and interactions ultimately open up in a climactic, heavenly ascension of a mountain, its gameplay expressing so tangibly the boundless joys of freedom through flight.

The Ascent, Journey

Meanwhile, Virginia revels in notions of freedom while counter-productively constricting the player in every facet of its interaction. I am glad a small team made a game they are proud of, hopefully found commercial success with it, and even glad that a lot of people connected with it, as it was critically fairly well regarded. However, I hold it in my mind as a prime example of how not to tell a story in this medium.  It proves that the ‘Walking Simulator’ still has to deliver, not necessarily traditional, but meaningful gameplay experiences, not just a compelling narrative.

 

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