Virginia is the latest walking sim to divide gamers. In addition, the recent release of jewel of the walking-sim crown, Dear Esther Landmark Edition for consoles has made it a hot topic for debate again. The topic? Are walking sims really games? Yes, we’re still debating that one.
It’s no secret to you that I’m a fan of the narrative-led amble that is a walking sim. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is one of the highlights of my gaming 2016 and Virginia is up there too. Both of these would be cast into the fire by those who think walking sims don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Fallout or even Ico.
The term walking sim was once a derogatory title for games that focus on narrative, but have very limited gameplay elements, such as puzzles or shooting or achieving objectives and levels. Titles like Gone Home and even Life is Strange or Firewatch, which both include some gamey elements, were often dismissed as snore fests.
A walking-sim, a label now freely adopted by many developers may require no more interaction than walking through a story. You simply control the character and unlock new story scenes or information to experience the narrative. It was a new and exciting branch of games that experimented with the form and how it can tell stories – for those us who enjoyed the likes of Dear Esther. For those who were left cold, the lack of pace and adrenaline-fueled challenges rendered them lame ‘not games’.
The criticism of these games, generally goes something like – “there’s no fail state, so it’s not really a game” or “there’s no competitive element” and “you don’t get to do anything, it’s just like watching a film” or even “it’s an evil conspiracy by the SJW-pandering media to sideline proper games because they have guns and big tits”. Okay, so that last one was quite extreme and although it’s a minority that go with this, it’s still one of the criticisms.
Do games have to have a fail state? If you can’t win or lose, can it be a game? Dan Pinchbeck of The Chinese Room, the team behind Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture did an interview for PC GamesN, recently and he answers this question best.
“I think it’s one of those things that once you start unpicking it, it starts coming apart at the seams. If it’s all about a game has to have mechanics well then you start to go, well, Space Invaders, is that less of a game than Far Cry because it’s got fewer mechanics? Or, if a game is about having a fail state then does that mean that a game that doesn’t punish you for dying, like a Far Cry game where it happens really trivially, does that make it less of a game than Bloodborne where the stakes for death are higher? Whichever way you come at it, you start unpicking those strands and it doesn’t really make sense apart from the ‘feeling’ of what a game ought to do.”
If you look for the dictionary definition of ‘game’, the first definition is something like competitive sports or activity dictated by rules – hah, sounds exactly what some gamers are accusing walking sims of missing. But then definition two says ‘an activity one engages in for amusement’ and the example stated is ‘computer games’. And that’s exactly what walking sims provide for me – an activity that is engaging and affecting without stressing me out.
I enjoy walking sims because I know I can finish them, often in one sitting or a weekend. Sometimes, I don’t want an epic, sprawling openworld shooter. And for those times I’ve got the likes of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or The Stanley Parable. I don’t want to get stuck on a puzzle or an annoying boss battle that stops me from getting to the end of the story, I just want to experience something and chill out. Of course, sometimes I want to shoot stuff or run around saving the world and for that I’ve got almost every AAA game ever.
The trouble with the criticism of walking sims is that people seem to feel they need to be excluded because they’re diluting the definition of a game. Somehow, their mere existence is an affront to a portion of gamers just because they don’t like that type of game.
That myopic approach to defining games is like saying Woody Allen films aren’t films because they’re largely unscripted and don’t include action scenes. Instead, cinema audiences seem quite content to live and let live. Some people like art house cinema, some people like kung fu flicks and others dig the summer blockbusters. And some crazy people like all of those things, but none of them need to have a social media rant about those damn SJW-diversity-loving kung fu film fans.
Then, of course, there are the people who don’t like walking sims because they tend to feature more diverse stories. They are morelikely to features non-sexualised female or ethnically diverse protagonists and tackle serious subjects such as suicide, sex and politics. And a small minority of gamers find it threatening when their world doesn’t reflect them 100% of the time.
It’s okay if you don’t like every genre of game. I’m not into platformers or sports games and I’m totally fine with that. I’ve never once considered them lesser games, as a result of my personal preference. Lots and lots of people enjoy them and a good portion of gamers enjoy walking sims because they’re doing something different, which is exciting.
Some of the criticism falls on the media because those who don’t like walking sims think the media spends too much time praising them to the hilt. I think if you really totted up the amount of words written about indie walking sims, compared to the likes of GTA or Fallout, this criticism wouldn’t hold water. However, in our defense, if you’d spent the last decade writing about games and the umpteenth iteration of a game featuring space marines or cute characters jumping over logs, you might get excited when all you had to do was walk around a house loaded with atmosphere and read letters to piece together a mysterious story.
As a game critic I’ve known for a long time that games could be many things to many people, just as films, books, TV etc are. But for many years I felt we were telling a few stories for the same people, just with shinier graphics. Now we’re getting experimental games that shake things up and that keeps our industry from getting stale and excites everyone again, which can only be a good thing. If you don’t like walking sims, that’s cool – you don’t have to.