death of walking sims

Doc Burford
10 min readSep 29, 2022

this is a repost from my old blog

No genre ever truly dies, but the walking simulator does appear to be on life support. The Chinese Room, a studio that developed nothing but walking simulators, laid off most of its staff and hit pause earlier this year. Fullbright, which sold over 700,000 copies of Gone Home in 2013, barely managed to move 10,000 copies of Tacoma in 2017. So what happened? How does a genre fall so quickly so fast?

Some people hate the name ‘walking sim’, a term that appears to have originated in early 2012 as a pithy way of describing The Chinese Room’s debut, Dear Esther. While it wasn’t the first walking sim in existence, Dear Esther was the first walking sim to penetrate the public consciousness, earning back its budget just a few hours after its release on Steam. In the years since, developers and fans have proposed all sorts of genre names, but ‘walking sim’ is the one that stuck.

It’s an apt descriptor: in a walking sim, the player’s primary, and often only, source of interaction is to walk forward while audio plays at various points. Occasionally, the player may be tasked with some light puzzle-solving or some other form of limited interaction, but these rarely have much mechanical depth. Most walking sims are first-person games, but there are a few third-person ones as well, like Beyond Eyes.

Since their inception, walking sims have been embroiled in debate. The genre’s proponents argue they are are a new frontier that will allow games to tackle important subjects and move beyond their violent roots. Meanwhile, the walking sim’s detractors claim that walking sims lack any kind of meaningful interaction, rendering them worthless.

The biggest argument against walking sims goes like this: “they aren’t games.” Gamers have a problem with elitism; people who slog and swear through a game on a higher difficulty level see themselves as ‘true gamers,’ as opposed to those who play it on easy mode. When a former Bioware writer suggested that people should be able to skip gameplay, gamers issued death threats and demands that she be fired.

In my experience, gamers have a tendency to demand games be harder and more interesting. There’s a sense that a game that doesn’t challenge its players is not authentic or true. Players make claims of casualization. The reason gamers wanted Jennifer Hepler fired from Bioware was because she suggested that players should be allowed to skip gameplay and only partake in the story, which kind of defeats the point of a game being a game at all.

You’ll find gamers who demand that Dark Souls not have an easy mode, even though that would be helpful for disabled players like me. I love Halo, but plenty of players don’t like that I play on Heroic and say that a true Halo fan would play on Legendary. Sorry, I like running around like a maniac and performing stupid Warthog stunts; Legendary doesn’t provide me with that same thrill.

This desire for hardcore experiences isn’t inherently wrong; I’ve been playing Ion Maiden (update: i was gifted this game in early access; upon its 1.0 launch, someone posted a bunch of receipts showing the devs had been transphobic and stuff. that’s not cool and I cannot endorse the game as a result. give your money to kinder people), and several of the level solutions cater to smart, hardcore play. But it does lead to people dismissing some things a bit too quickly.

So, when the walking sim arrived, with its lack of in-depth gameplay, the response was predictable, and people have been criticizing the genre ever since. Google Trends indicates the term “walking sim” originates in March 2012, mere weeks after Dear Esther’s remarkable debut.

When it comes to walking sims, the hardcore players are technically correct, but actually wrong. A “game,” is, more or less, a form of structured play, and while that’s a remarkably broad definition, it doesn’t necessarily cover walking sims. In the same way that “real time strategy” isn’t the best name for the RTS genre, “video games” isn’t really the best name for the medium. Sure, it worked when the only games that existed were titles like Pong and Pitfall, but even then, 1979’s FS1 Flight Simulator could never be classed as a game. There are plenty of things that most people would consider to be a “video game” even if they’re not truly games, and walking sims are no exception.

But even if walking sims weren’t considered video games, would it really matter? Sure, they have more in common with art installations than competitive sports, but so what? Whether a walking sim is a ‘real game’ or not doesn’t stop it from existing and can’t stop it from being praised or discussed. Taxonomy only goes so far; the work cannot be dismissed simply because someone might have got the classification wrong.

Every E3, people pop up in my Twitter feed claiming that the majority of games on display are violent, intimating that violence keeps games puerile. They champion walking sims like Tacoma and Gone Home as exactly the kind of game the industry needs, elevated by their lack of nonviolent gameplay. Of course, this ignores all of the other, more involved non-violent games that routinely make appearances at game shows, like racing games, puzzlers, sport-em-ups (like FIFA and Madden), city builders, simulators, and so on. Not every game shows up on stage — it’s a bit difficult to make an exciting Fishing Simulator trailer (i take it back) — but pretending these games don’t exist in order to elevate walking sims is disingenuous.

Years ago, pioneering adventure game designer Roberta Williams stumbled into this kind of elitism in an interview where she implied that people below a certain income or education level enjoyed violent games, saying that “More “average” people feel now that they should own [a computer].” Supposedly, the masses enjoyed violent games with immediate gratification, while more educated, upper class fans preferred nonviolent adventure games, because they were better people.

It’s strange that people argue that walking sims are pioneering new territory; there’s nothing walking sims like Dear Esther or Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs do that hasn’t been done before. Early shooters like Half-Life and No One Lives Forever featured sections with this style of gameplay at the turn of the century. Two years before Dear Esther’s 2012 commercial release, Metro 2033 alternated between combat sequences and sections that have a lot more in common with what we seen in walking sims today, albeit a great deal more interactive.

The suggestion that violence prevents games from being taken seriously is objectively false. After all, one of film’s most important early directors, D.W. Griffith, supposedly claimed “all you need for a good story is a girl and a gun.” Violent films like Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men have won plenty of awards. Violence is a facet of the human experience; while it’s great to have art without violence, it’s ignorant to suggest that violent art is less meaningful than the alternative. Wanting a medium to be taken seriously is a foolish desire; claiming that violence prevents it from being taken seriously is an ignorant position to take. Non-violence doesn’t make something inherently important or valuable.

The walking sim’s defenders have made other arguments as well. A recent piece on Salon, for instance, inaccurately claims that gamer culture began criticizing walking sims in 2016, further suggesting that military interest in games is responsible for gamers being angry about walking sims. Neither claim appears to be true. The piece also claims that Firewatch is beautiful, which “makes it more susceptible to backlash.”

None of these claims are satisfactory. After all, it’s self-evident that gamers love non-violent games; why else would games like American Truck Simulator or FIFA be popular? Gamers don’t shy away from heavy themes, either; plenty of people love games like Wolfenstein: The New Order, Life is Strange, and Hellblade, which all deal with concepts not commonly discussed in video games. Many games even use violence to make a point. Other games allow violent play but encourage players to act peacefully, like the Metro and Metal Gear Solid series.

I think there’s something more at play here. Imagine enjoying something and spending a great deal of time and money on it, then having a bunch of critics show up and claim that the thing you enjoy so much isn’t worthwhile, and some other thing, which you don’t enjoy, is supposed to be a great deal more important. Wouldn’t that bother you? It feels like much of the criticism I’ve seen of walking sims over the years is tinged with jealousy, of worrying that walking sims are being given credit that other games are due.

Still, this frustration doesn’t explain why walking sims, for a few years, were critically acclaimed, financially successful games that dealt with topics most games didn’t, but the genre seemed to die off quickly. Within five years of Dear Esther’s release, The Chinese Room put future projects on hold and let the majority of their staff go. The hotly-anticipated Tacoma sold about 1.5% of the copies of its predecessor. Ether One’s creators White Paper Games are now working on The Occupation, which moves away from traditional walking sim tropes towards something more like a first person adventure. David Szymanski, who previously developed nothing but walking sims, is now working on a hotly-anticipated shooter called Dusk.

Why the move away from walking sims?

At its core, I think the genre’s simplicity is the problem. It’s a fundamentally reductive genre; all you do is walk, usually listening to someone else’s story take place. While that is a mechanic in and of itself, it rarely becomes anything more. A walking sim’s story should be about you exploring the environment, because you are the point-of-view character, but in walking sims, the POV character is usually the person doing the voiceover instead, telling you another story entirely. You’re just there to press W and trigger the occasional audio clip. At best, you’ll have to consider the environment, contrasting what you’re hearing with what you’re seeing, like an art installation. Compare that with a shooter, which is much more engaging, not just because there’s more to do mechanically, but because shooters work to keep things varied.

Some of my favorite moments in games have been shooters trying something different, like the ghost sections of the Metro series, which, in one case, involved following your guide’s directions to the letter, and in others, gave you visions of what life was like before the bombs fell. These non-violent sections are sometimes just as light on interaction as walking sims, but they’re interspersed with more engaging gameplay, giving Metro a sense of variety. By stripping out a great deal of interaction, walking sims tend to be one-note experiences. Without variety to keep the players interested, attention wanes. For most people, playing one walking sim is more than enough. Why bother with Tacoma after you’ve played Gone Home?

Much of the praise for walking sims come from the content of their stories, not the gameplay, which makes you wonder why they’re video games at all? Is a game’s story best told through voiceover? This rarely seems to be the case in other media. Think how boring Gone Home: The Movie would be. A woman walks through a house, voiceover plays sometimes, and eventually it ends. Would that be satisfying to any audience? Most people would say no.

One of storytelling’s oldest and best rules is this: show, don’t tell. People are more likely to buy into a story that they experience than one that has been related to them. Life is Strange and Gone Home both tell stories about high school lesbians, but Life is Strange doesn’t receive the kind of “not a game” insults that Gone Home does, because it shows the relationship. Gone Home merely talks about one.

The genre’s decline has less to do with a boorish obsession violence and what constitutes a real game and a lot more to do with boredom. The anger surrounding walking sims seems to come more from insecurity, either from a conviction that games are not taken seriously and that somehow, walking sims must replace traditional games to justify the medium to the general public, or from the belief that they are not “real games,” and feeling threatened by their advocates.

The walking sim isn’t doing so well because there’s only so much it can do without meaningful interaction. Other games handle the same topics, but their more in-depth mechanics tend to be rewarded with better word of mouth. If developers want to resuscitate the genre, then they need to change it. Fortunately, some developers already have.

Firewatch, one of the most highly-praised walking simulators ever, breaks from tradition by giving the player dialogue options. Allowing the player to make choices while traveling the world gives the player a better sense of agency and investment in the story. It’s happening to you, not someone else.

While most walking sims involve little more than walking or listening, some have attempted to do more interesting things. Brendon Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone have moments including peeling an orange, taking photos of birds, and a high-speed motorcycle chase. Instead of having characters explain all these sequences in audio logs, Chung puts the players directly in the situation, giving the game a lot more impact.

One of the best games of 2017, What Remains of Edith Finch, explores the minds of the Finch family, and it’s bursting at the seams with rich and inventive sequences. One moment, you’re a child in a bath, then you’re a tentacled creature in a forest, and soon you’re a kid flying into the sky on a swing. Edith Finch relies on the mechanical variety of its sequences to draw the player into its stories, rather than simply playing audio as the player walks through an empty house.

Shooters like Wolfenstein II and the Metro series are all about mixing high-stakes combat with slower, more poignant moments, providing a way of exploring complex ideas in ways that still makes you feel like you’re really in the character’s shoes, living out their stories. They have no room for passive observers; they’re too busy letting you inhabit the characters you play.

Fundamentally, there’s nothing really wrong with walking sims. It’s just that other games handle the same topics in ways that invite more participation, and most players are more interested in being the characters they play than hearing about those characters from an epistolary audiobook. They’re not that popular because they’re fairly limited as a form, and once the initial newness wore off, there wasn’t that much to support them.

For the walking sim to thrive now, it’s going to have to move beyond “walk forward while audio plays at you.” Letting players participate in the narrative as it happens, like What Remains of Edith Finch, Firewatch, or Thirty Flights of Loving do, is a great way to push the medium forward. I think, over the next few years, we’re going to see other genres borrowing elements of the walking sim, and if we’re lucky, standouts like Thirty Flights of Loving. The walking sim might be on life support, but if it can evolve, it doesn’t have to be.

from doc in 2022: my game adios was an attempt to evolve this



Doc Burford

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.