Trailblazers: Firewatch and the rise of the walking simulator
Five great examples from the much-derided genre
Firewatch, where compass and map reading skills are more important than machine gun skills
Independent games are great. Their meteoric rise over recent years – thanks to the enormous success of digital distribution platforms like Steam and the PlayStation Store – has birthed classics like Journey, Braid and the all-conquering Minecraft (which has now very much transcended into popular culture). And this boom has given birth to a popular but divisive sub-genre of games. Fans of these titles might call them 'first person adventures', 'narrative experiences' or 'exploration games', but another sobriquet has stuck hard: 'walking simulators'.
It's a disparaging term which is reductive and unfair; movement is the main action in almost every game, and so it should be. Games like Destiny and the Battlefield and Far Cry series are all set in beautiful environments that are designed to be admired and explored; the only problem is that these gorgeous landscapes are littered with people who just want to shoot you.
I like walking simulators (I'm reappropriating the term). By removing combat and focusing on atmosphere and story, games can be transformative experiences, and they're a good way into gaming for people who might otherwise be put off. I've chosen five of my favourite examples, and I've noticed they all share some things in common: a sombre story, a stunning environment, a melancholy soundtrack, and a lead character who is (by and large) alone and who cannot die. Beyond these common threads, each game is unique.
Firewatch (PC, PS4)
The most recent walking simulator is Campo Santo's debut game, Firewatch, which has garnered much attention for its beautifully stylised depiction of the Wyoming wilderness. Based on designs by popular British graphic artist Olly Moss, the vast outdoor environment is stunningly depicted in vivid colours and stark shadows. And while it resembles a cartoon, its combination of great writing, sound design and voice acting (including Mad Men's Rich Sommer) ensures its story feels authentic and personal. The inspired prologue features a series of multiple choice questions which set up the ensuing game, efficiently creating a strong emotional bond with the main character.
Dear Esther (PC)
Originally released as a free-to-play title in 2008, Dear Esther is arguably the first walking simulator and was polished for a beautiful commercial release four years later. You appear on a deserted Hebridean island and walk around its mainly linear pathways while a narrator reads excerpts from a series of letters to a mysterious woman named Esther. The story is pieced together as you venture deeper into the island, itself a thing of stark, majestic beauty. Dear Esther is a pure walking simulator with no interaction beyond the ability to move and look around, and it's accompanied by a gorgeous soundtrack composed by Jessica Curry.
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture (PS4)
In 2015, Dear Esther developer The Chinese Room hooked up with Sony for this game set in the 1980s in a mysteriously deserted English village. Unlike its progenitor, Rapture requires some obscure puzzlework to advance the story, and these sections fall a little short. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful evocation of rural England, inspired by 1960s / 70s British sci-fi literature such as John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids and Charles Eric Maine's The Tide Went Out. It's full of incidental detail across a vast and diverse area, and it's much larger than Dear Esther (probably thanks to Sony's money).
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (PC, PS4)
Closest in execution to Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, this mystery is set in stunning Wisconsin countryside. You play Paul Prospero, a paranormal investigator drawn to a beautiful mining village where you uncover clues to the whereabouts of the titular missing child. Thanks to its use of a graphical technique called photogrammetry, the environment is incredibly lifelike. It's just a shame when some of the paranormal detective elements interfere with the progression of the story, although this has been somewhat mitigated by a 'redux' update.
Gone Home (PC, PS4, Xbox)
Gone Home is the poster girl of walking simulators and has sadly attracted a lot of flak for its positive depiction of LGBT characters. You play a 21-year-old woman who returns to her family home in Oregon to find the house mysteriously empty. The story of how this came to be is drip fed by your progression around the house as you examine various objects and uncover clues. Although the presentation sometimes suggests you're playing a slow-burning horror story, particularly as it ominously leads you upstairs towards a confrontation in the attic, Gone Home plays out as a familial drama with a positive story at its heart.
And for any Call of Duty players (of which I'm one) who insist it's not a game if all you do is walk around, let's not forget you can complete the opening level of Black Ops without firing a shot . . .