Walking simulators ‘Dear Esther’, ‘Journey’ have made great strides for the genre
While these games looked and played quite differently, they shared an approach that, in retrospect, seemed like a tipping point in gaming culture. Both games had the will to sit with time and space – to let the gaming experience overwhelm you. Wandering from one point to another was the effort. They were a stark departure from the major players dominating the industry at the time like Call of Duty or Halo, and there was a world of difference between the kinds of emotions these indie games played on and story-driven AAA titles. , like the huge science fiction. melodrama of “Mass Effect 3” from March 6. By reducing interactions to simply walking and experiencing an environment, these games operated in a grammar that was unfamiliar in the majority of commercial games.
Over the next few years, a name for this genre emerged in the video game lexicon: “walking simulators”. Regularly deployed in the derogatory sense, inasmuch as all one did in these games was to “walk”, the term was used as a club to discipline an extremely diverse group of games. Released later in 2012, “Thirty Flights of Loving” changed the way many gamers understood the relationship between games and cinema. The following year saw the release of the musical exploration game “Proteus”, the standalone release of the sardonic meta-game “The Stanley Parable”, and the middle class mystery “Gone Home”. These games all received considerable attention in the video game press, in many cases because it was controversial to consider them games in the first place.
The battle over the term walking simulator, like many definition battles, was political. Calling something a walking simulator had declarative weight, as if the act of walking was so superficial and pointless that calling it a “game” had no value. At the time, Paste Magazine Austin Walker connected the motivating conversations about game design and criticism, noting that discussions of form and content have always resolved themselves into larger historical debates about what belongs and does not belong to a given culture. The discussion peaked with a 2016 Kill the screen piece who asked reviewers and developers of these games about their understanding of walking simulators and the discourse around them. Reviews were mixed. For some, “walking simulator” was a useful descriptor that allowed them to connect with a player base. For others, it trivializes artistic achievement. Others worried about too broad a use. What is clear, reading the article years later, is that by 2016 the term had taken hold. They were walking simulators, and they had a tradition, expectations and an audience.
That same year “Firewatch” was released, a game that would later become considered the culmination of the genre. It combined the extremely high production values of the larger versions with the limited mechanical interactions endemic to walking simulations. You search for fires, discover characters, and slowly unravel a mystery, but the majority of the game happens alone, with your thoughts, walking slowly through nature and trying to learn the lay of the land. The characters take you through the world, but the world is why you’re there.
“Dear Esther” and “Journey”, reaching different audiences around the same time, opened up the imagination of game development like can openers. The games are quite different in how they are played. “Dear Esther” from The Chinese Room is a single-player, first-person experience where players explore an uninhabited island off the Scottish mainland while triggering audio clips that piece together a haunting story. By contrast, the wordless story of “Journey”, developed by Thatgamecompany, unfolds through dramatic abandoned fantasy biomes that players traverse in third-person perspective, encountering other players along the way.
However, the two shared key similarities that left a lasting impression on the industry. They were short games that could be played in about an hour. They were also mechanically simple yet visually polished, meaning they could be enjoyed by people who weren’t otherwise invested in gaming. They both proved that if you could navigate a person in 3D, you could create something interesting as long as gamers were open to the experience. And as these popular releases from later years have shown, if you did all of the above and added a mechanic or two, people would be very willing to explore and engage.
Of course, all this was not created simply by the release of two video games. These ideas were swimming in the ether for years before. Technological capabilities, like the increased ease of use of the Unity engine, have helped make these games possible, as clearly evidenced by the existence of “Dear Esther” and “The Stanley Parable” as game mods for years. before their standalone versions. Opening up digital distribution like the Steam, Xbox, and PlayStation markets was essential for these smaller titles to find purchase in their market niches. There have been various attempts to describe the “true” history of the walking simulator, each delving deep into the past for contemplative experiences. Although there is no single cause, no linear causation, games like “Dear Esther” and “Journey” delineate a palpable point of change. The world of video games was changing in the early 2010s, and these games are flashes of that change as much as they are objects.
These influences have also carried over into some of the biggest games in the industry, though it seems like they’ve moved there thanks to the everywhere and nowhere maneuver of an ever-changing culture. Whole segments of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and Uncharted franchises depend on emulating the slow motion of the space-walking simulation, absorbing the environment, and preparing for the eventual return to the action. Kojima Productions’ ‘Death Stranding’ has even been jokingly called a walking simulator, as it tasks players with delivering packages across desolate landscapes with nothing but the wind to keep them company.
Here, 10 years later, I can feel the impact of “Dear Esther” and “Journey” and the avalanche of games that followed them that shaped and refined some latent ideas that had long existed in video games. Late last year, as I was playing “Halo Infinite” and slowly walking down a hallway as the characters spookily communicated plot information to me, I thought, “Wow, we are in a Dear Esther”. The willingness to strip a player of their experience of a space and have them sit with how they exist in that digital area for a few moments is a radical break.
These games asked players to look at the world not as a set of challenges, but rather as something to be explored and enjoyed for its own good. They asked everyone to do less and do more. When you have those moments in games now, you’re riding the ripples of a stone that fell in 2012. Those games endure, beyond themselves, as altered assumptions and assertions in the larger culture. wide of video games.