The Problem with “Walking Simulators”

denim-1835313_1920.jpgA recent conversation with one of my gaming friends, along with my completion of What Remains of Edith Finch (WRoEF), got me thinking about the term “walking simulator” and everything I dislike about it as a descriptor of what are usually indie games. Consider yourself warned; this is going to be a bit of a rant.

One of the points I’d like to make is that “walking simulator” has turned into a derogatory term. It generally is not meant nicely when used by many players. In turn, games identified as “walking simulators” generally receive a fair amount of hate.

To demonstrate these observations, I decided to turn to the IGN reviews of the following games: Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, What Remains of Edith Finch, and Gone Home (I am aware that this is a sampling of comments [not indicative of all gamers] and that such comments are not unique to IGN reviews). What follows are some examples of the perception of “walking simulators” and the common complaints that follow behind them. Believe me, I did not have to scroll very far through the comment section to find these gems:

Of Firewatch:

Game is like “Gone Home” they charge $20 for a brief story and zero gameplay.

Of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture:

45 mins into the game.. and I was thinking why isn’t anything happening? Reading the comments I realized this whole game is just about walking and reading the story.. and nothing else..

Of What Remains of Edith Finch:

I would expect this to cost about 5 bucks if its less than 2 hours.
Edit these idiots want over 20 bucks for a less than 2 hour game lol

Of Gone Home:

This “game” only got high ratings because if they told the truth they would probably get called sexist, or some other kind of “-ist or “-phobe,” by the regressive left.

And then there was this beauty in response to another comment mentioning how games like WRoEF pull players in with the story:

yup bro, i was so pulled in to play in a fking little girls room and play with a doll house. oh wait, i don’t wear a skirt. i don’thave avagina. i’ll pass.

Oh, there’s so much I could say, but I’ll keep it simple. The above comments seem to fall into the following arguments against “walking simulators”: there’s no gameplay, the game costs too much compared to time spent playing, nothing happens, the left represses the media, and real gamers don’t care about stories that are different from their experiences, especially if the narrative is not about males.

Gameplay

Based on the various games I’ve played, gameplay can come in the form of exploring, combat, completing tasks, dialogue, crafting, and other in-game interactions. Many games involve movement of the protagonist or of something else that represents the player. It can be easy to reduce games like Firewatch to their movement because that is one of the main components of what the player is doing. Players have to press a button to make the protagonist move through the game’s environment. Because this is one of the few actions that players must complete, it can feel like the only action. But, generally speaking, games like the ones above involve moving, listening, and seeing. Listening and seeing may or may not require the press of a button, but they are often more significant than the act of moving. This particular concept of experiencing may be foreign to some players.

Length

I understand that many indie titles are short. I’m sure this comes down to many things like funding, resources, time, and even the purpose of the game. That’s not to say there aren’t indie titles you could sink dozens of hours into. The idea that length equals value is extremely short-sighted. I’ve spent full price on a AAA game and regretted it, and I’ve spent less than $15 on an indie game and was happily surprised. It depends on what you like, what you’re willing to spend for the experience, and on your expectations. However, a short game does not necessarily equal a worthless game.

And for that matter, do your research before buying something (this extends to everything, not just video games). Apparently people feel robbed even though they could wait a week or even a few days after a game releases before purchasing. There are so many resources readily available that would indicate the game’s length, content, and mechanics; it’s all waiting for you to take a peek.

 Nothing Happens

The idea that nothing happens dips into the other categories a bit, but I think it essentially boils down to players relying on the expectations of combat, dazzling cut scenes, and other such things like tomb raiding and exploration. This argument falls short if we acknowledge two things: much of the “happening” has already occurred before the protagonist gets there, and the player’s efforts to piece together that “happening” is something that happens. True, this isn’t how many “standard” games work, but, seriously, so what? If you value gunfights over epiphany and reflection, I get your point.

The Repressive Left

Right… XD

Different Narratives

This one boggles my mind because of how juvenile it is. Why are people repulsed by experiences different from their own? If you don’t want to play a game as a child or a female protagonist, don’t buy the game. Save your money and the effort it takes to tap hate through your phone or keyboard. One of the reasons I have been drawn to games since childhood is because they let me be whatever I want. I can live as a Witcher or a Redguard, I can survive the aftermath of a flood as a girl with her trusted dog, I can be my favorite superhero, I can wield a lightsaber, and I can build one of my favorite symbols, the sphinx, from ancient Egypt. There are also gaming experiences that are grounded more in direct human experiences like That Dragon, Cancer and 9.03m. Some games are breathtaking in what they can accomplish in terms of human experience and emotion. That isn’t laughable to me.


If you don’t like “walking simulators,” I’m okay with that (not that you need my blessing). While I am a fan of several games labelled “walking simulators,” I do not love them all, just like I don’t love every RPG or FPS. I’m also not saying that any of the above mentioned games are “game of the year” material. You like what you like. If you want to experience a video game outside of the norm, great. If you know you won’t like a particular game, don’t buy it. It usually is that simple. Just because I don’t have any interest in Overwatch or DOTA 2 doesn’t mean that those games lack value. They simply don’t matter to me at this point in time.

Aside from some of the disgust surrounding “walking simulators,” I take issue with the term itself because it is not accurate. If a game is about walking, then it can be called a “walking simulator.” If anything, these games should be referred to as something like “narrative games,” “narrative-focused,” or “emotional simulators.” So much happens in these games in terms of narrative that limiting them to the action of movement is short-sighted.

I do understand that some people love to hate, and they love to troll. It’s part of the negative side of gaming culture. There were some legitimate critiques sprinkled throughout the comment sections, and for those I am grateful. Somehow negativity has its way of creeping toward the top.

Rant aside, what do you think? Is “walking simulator” accurate? Do you enjoy games referred to as “walking simulators”?

Author: Tabitha

I game. I teach. I write. Graduate student pursuing a PhD in Rhetoric and Writing. Interested in the use of video games in education, digital rhetoric, and literacy.

2 thoughts

  1. I wish I could easily find the origin of the phrase, because I suspect that it began as a derogatory term and became widespread and normalized due to the debate around the games that it supposedly describes. Aside from the negativity surrounding the phrase, I agree that it is not very descriptive. What’s the difference between a “walking simulator” and a first person shooter? A gun? You do plenty of walking in both. Is Outlast a “hiding simulator”? Is Myst a “looking around simulator”?

    That last example, Myst, does cause me to have a tiny bit of sympathy for those who are seemingly irrational in their hatred for the genre, though, because I really hated that game and the fact that it was called a “game” when it came out. But that was a long time ago, when both I and the video game industry was younger and less mature. It didn’t take me long to see that there are games of all types and for all types of people, and being publicly dismissive of that is only stifling the creativity of creators (and chasing away people who would shell out money that would contribute to the growth of our hobby).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the beauty of video games–there’s something for everyone! And tastes can change as well. Thankfully there are enough titles now to widen the audience of video games even further which, as you suggest, grows and normalizes the activity of gaming.

      Liked by 1 person

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