Many people have been discussing their games of the decade recently and I’ve enjoyed seeing their choices. But for me, it’s too difficult to decide because we have so much choice: there’s a title out there for everybody and my favourites tend to change depending on my mood.
So let’s forget individual releases for a moment and instead discuss a wider subject, one brought up by Jett from In Third Person. He joined us in chat during one of our GameBlast20 50-day challenge streams recently and asked which new genres the past ten years in gaming have given birth to. My immediate reaction was to mention walking simulators; understandable seeing as the thing I love most about video games is the stories they tell.
The first I played was in 2012 after being introduced to it by Phil. Dear Esther had received a lot of attention since its release and he thought I’d like it; but sadly, he was wrong. The atmosphere was interesting but the title itself was far removed from the adventures I was used to in terms of both mechanics and structure, and I found it too ‘vague’. The big discussion going on in the industry back then was how pretentious indie games could be and Dear Esther seemed to fit the bill.
But that summer my eyes were opened to the potential of the walking simulator. A weekend spent with friends at a hired cottage saw us take along a PlayStation 4 for entertainment and play Journey one evening. The setting, artwork and music combined into an experience like nothing I’d seen before; and the way you were able to meet other players but not speak to them just made it even more meaningful somehow. We didn’t move for the length of the title and were still discussing it the following morning.
It was the following year though that my fondness for the walking simulator was confirmed. I’d been looking forward to Gone Home for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed when I finally managed to get my hands on it. It wonderfully captures 1990s culture and what it was like growing up in the decade; and more importantly, it also discusses views at the time and the stigma attached to being different. Anyone who says that video games simply entertainment would surely change their mind after playing it.
I’ve since gone on to play plenty of other entries in the genre and, while there have been a few misses, there have been way more hits. Firewatch, What Remains of Edith Finch, Night in the Woods, Virginia and at long last, Life is Strange; there are so many games in my library waiting for those times when I want to be immersed in a good story. Not all of them have happy endings but each tells a tale we can learn something important from.
I understand why walking simulators aren’t for everybody – and indeed, the genre received a lot of criticism when it first emerged in the 2010s. Not all players knew how to react to it and many were left confused: were walking around and looking at items the only things you could do? Was it even really a game if that was the case? The name ‘walking simulator’ soon arose and was used as a derogatory term given to releases with a lack of traditional gameplay mechanics.
But gradually, slower-paced exploration and environmental storytelling started to weave their way into game design. During the years after Gone Home there was an increase in the number of narrative first-person titles in a range of different genres. For example, The Stanley Parable makes great use of comedy and features a narrator whose personality changes depending on your choices; and several years later, Layers of Fear frightened players into leaving positive reviews.
Walking simulators challenged the way we think about video games during the last decade. The term has lost its negative connotations and is now a badge of honour: they’re games which encompass diverse narratives, compelling storylines, interesting exploration and fantastic writing. 2020 is looking bright for the genre and I can’t wait to see what its future holds.