Is the term “Walking Simulator” right? It’s derogatory and, on the surface, it gives a negative impression of a game it’s supposedly defining.
Whenever I see it as a genre or a description of a game, I picture something where you literally walk without a purpose other than to sightsee. Literally where you walk around a city, visit all the monuments and attractions without ever leaving the comfort of your chair. Something that a country’s tourist board might cook up so you can see attractions without the considerable effort of, you know, actually walking. Seriously, every time I hear those words spoken I just picture the chunky humans from Disney Pixar’s Wall-E floating around on their hover-beds.
It’s a little pet-hate of mine. It’s a lame, unobtrusive pet-hate, sure, but it’s an irritant all the same.
What does it mean, and where has it come from?
The term “walking simulator” has only been around for a short while. It’s only seen wide usage over the past few years and is often applied frivolously. There’s a lot of uncertainties around it but the one thing that’s for sure it it’s a divisive term. Some people see it as a useful way to bunch together a group of games with similar interests—typically slower games, ones about exploration and contemplation. While others abhor it and wish it would go away. But it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, at least, not any time soon.
“Walking simulator” seemed to come into popularity around the time that the standalone version of Dear Esther came out in 2012. It’s a game that involves walking over a coastal landscape while the story is told through a poetic voiceover. At the time, it drew a lot of hatred, partly because it was labelled a “videogame” and some viewed its low interactive demands as not being qualified (it has no true fail state, no “mechanics” outside of walking and looking around), and partly because this type of game was being sold at a price. But there were also a lot of people who loved it: “the people who liked it, loved it, and they loved it because they just let go and went with it,” said Dan Pinchbeck, one of the creators of Dear Esther in an interview with PCGamesN. That interview dredges up what have already become exhausted discussions: is Dear Esther a “videogame,” what is the value of that type of game, should everyone have to like it? What it misses talking about, however, is whether or not “walking simulator” is a fair term for these games in the first place, but…
…should it stay or should it go?
There is no right answer to that question. But most people seem to have an opinion on it. And that makes it worth discussing.
The issue I have with the term “walking simulator” is that it encompasses a range of games that, between them, could also be called “dramas,” “exploration games,” “thrillers,” and “narrative games.” We’re talking Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Firewatch, The Stanley Parable, Virginia, and Proteus, and many more. These are games that cover a range of different topics and tones. So I think that it seems unfair to categorise them under the idea that they’re about walking, and not much else, as the term “walking simulator” implies. However, what’s interesting to see over the past few years is how the term “walking simulator” has gone from being used in a derogatory manner to being somewhat reclaimed by the creators and fans of the games it’s applied to.
Personally, I actually don’t like it. It’s a condescending term born more out of a desire to dismiss than to actually define. It doesn’t really accurately describe what those games are, implying the focus is on the action of walking rather than exploring environments or experiencing a narrative (which is more of the case). And I think there are a lot of different games and philosophies that fall under it. Specifically, you have some Walking Simulators that seem to think player agency and interaction get in the way of the narrative, and others that try to use player agency and interaction to enhance the narrative. Two nearly opposite philosophies falling under the same label. For the most part I think people understand “walking simulators” as narrative-driven games with a non-traditional approach to gameplay and challenge, but even there … games by David Cage and Telltale fit that description but few people would call them Walking Simulators without some qualification. So it’s definitely a confused label that doesn’t adequately describe what it professes to describe, encapsulates some games with opposing philosophies, and fails to encapsulate some games with similar philosophies, so it’s an awkward one really.
So, although I’m not too keen, I can’t see it leaving us anytime soon. Perhaps I just need to stop taking it for face value and look deeper under it’s skin. Maybe it’s not that offensive, and is more niche than anything. When I hear the term “Walking Simulator” at this point, I’m well aware of what it describes and what type of game to expect. I know its origins are from a disparaging place, but at this point I feel the term has been disseminated and generalised to the point where it no longer bears its original, shoddy edges.
The thing is, cultural terms don’t live and die based on their accuracy. Generally they’re something the culture instinctively understands. The term “videogame” is nowhere close to accurately describing the robust combination of audio-visual presentation and player interaction that videogames are. But we still understand what it means, and (setting aside the “are Walking Simulators videogames?” debate) we understand what it does and doesn’t refer to. Same thing with the term “Walking Simulator.” We all mostly understand what sort of game it refers to, and if you tell someone a game is a Walking Simulator, or tends toward being a Walking Simulator, they know what you’re talking about. So I think it’s far more practical to just accept “Walking Simulator,” rather than trying to force a new term that might be technically more accurate.
I suppose that it’s grown in popularity due to it’s irony. The games it describes are, more often than not, critically acclaimed take home a sack full of awards. Back in the day, being called a “nerd” or “geek” was insulting. Now though, people stand proud of who they are and many recognise themselves as these generalisations. In which case, I’m guessing you could draw similarities to “Walking Simulators”.
So, my fellow nerds, are you for or against the term? I’m against it, but I think I’m ready to accept it.