In defence of ‘Walking Sims”

Feature

– Tom Heath

Last week, developer The Chinese Room released Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture on PS4. Set in an empty English village, players explore the creepy setting and interact with echoes to uncover where everyone has gone, despite the title giving it away. I’m yet to play it, but from reviews I’ve seen apparently it’s pretty good.

But I’ve seen a lot of criticism on the social medias of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture being a “walking simulator”, a term used to describe a game devoid of common gaming tropes such as combat or action-oriented gameplay. Walking sims often try to engage the player through an intellectually stimulating narrative rather than a thrilling conflict.

everybody gone to the rapture

Unless “Rapture’s” twist is we rampaged through the village… (Source: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture)

That’s not to say that walking sims can’t be boring. Despite our awesome tales of tensionDay Z has often presented itself to me as a dull walking sim because the absence of zombies and the rarity of other players just leaves me wandering around empty towns with no overarching mystery to keep me intrigued. And that’s also not to say that conflict based, violent games can’t be intellectually stimulating either; Spec Ops: The Line and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare come to mind.

My point is that I’ve encountered too many people who see a game that features mainly slow exploration – that tells a story through atmosphere, learning and devices other than violence – and have the Elijah Wood Back to the Future 2 reaction of: “That’s like a baby’s toy!”

800px-Elijah_Wood_by_Gage_Skidmore

YOU’RE LIKE A BABY’S TOY ELIJAH! (Source: Gage Skidmore, license)

Take 2013’s Gone Home, a beautiful story of a 20-something woman exploring her empty family home after spending a year abroad. The player sifts through the contents of the home, learning what transpired over the past 12 months, hearing occasional narration from her younger sister’s diary and piecing together where your family has gone. Actually standing in the creepy house, listening to the 1am thunder and searching through various belongings brings an (sorry, not sorry) immersive touch to the story, something that couldn’t be done in any other medium.

GoneHome

Seriously though, not even a “welcome home” banner? You had a year’s warning!!!!! (Source: Gone Home)

But possibly the best example of a “walking sim” is The Stanley Parable, a Source Engine mod made in 2011 and remade on Steam in 2013. In this game, you can do nothing but walk and occasionally interact with switches, but it is one of the most interactively interesting things you will ever experience. This is all thanks to an old classic from the history of storytelling: the narrator.

Speaking with a voice that could talk me into anything, and I mean ANYTHING, the narrator announces what actions character Stanley will do as he wanders around his place of work. But given he is under the player’s control, and video game players often pride themselves on breaking the rules, Stanley can ignore the narrator’s instructions and do something completely different. He can take the left door instead of the right one he was said to have taken, he can go up the stairs instead of down them, stay on the platform or jump to his uncertain death.

The Stanley Parable expects you to defy it, and the experience of fighting the author of your story is an exhilarating one.

mind_control_facility

Even though they got none of the letters right, I’m still unsure why they’d write “trap” on the left there… (Source: The Stanley Parable)

But The Stanley Parable and Gone Home and the other games like them are only successful because they contained context, atmosphere and an enthralling sense of purpose. Without those things yes, “walking sims” are boring, but don’t let a bad example of the genre put you off playing a good one.

Because you wouldn’t do the same with a bad action game. Aliens: Colonial Marines was an awful shooter, but it wouldn’t stop you playing the next Halo.

Tom now really feels like a walk, but his life probably lacks that enthralling purpose. Following him on Twitter might give him some: @tomdheath. Follow LoadScreen on Twitter, @load_screen, and Facebook for all your gaming news needs.

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