Hot Right Now: Walking Simulators

Brett Bates
Indie Games Games
Indie Games Games

With the release this week of Firewatch, coupled with last month’s long-anticipated The Witness, the “walking simulator” genre is dominating the game news cycle at the moment.

Did your eyes glaze over at the phrase “walking simulator”? You’ll want to perk up, because the games loosely identified with this tag are actually some of the most intriguing titles being developed today — and with the VR revolution imminent, you’re going to be hearing a lot more about them in the months to come.

Read on to find out why “walking” may be the biggest innovation in gaming since Mario flattened his first Goomba.

What Is a Walking Simulator?

Walking simulators can roughly be cataloged as follows:

  • They use the first-person perspective.
  • They eschew weaponry.
  • They take a leisurely pace.
  • They tell their stories immersively, without relying on cutscenes.

While these games may not grab gamers looking to optimize their K/D ratio, they are gripping in their own way, whether through an emotional gut-punch of a story, daunting environmental puzzles, or simple exploration and discovery.

Why Are They Suddenly Popular?

First-person games that don’t bolt a gun to the bottom of your HUD aren’t actually new, or even niche — just look at the ’90s PC behemoth Myst and the countless imitators it produced, or the billion-dollar juggernaut that is Minecraft.

But you can largely trace the through line of the current crop of indie hits — games like The Witness and Firewatch — to two factors: game developers burnt out by programming and playing endless shoot-fests, eager to try something new when striking out on their own; and the resurgence of the adventure genre, fueled in large part by recent hits from Telltale Games such as The Walking Dead.

While not all walking simulators fit neatly into that box, it’s no accident that the developers of games like Gone Home and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter cut their teeth on FPS franchises like BioShock 2 and Bulletstorm. The first-person perspective is unique to video games, and it allows for an emotional intimacy that other visual mediums like film and TV can’t match. It makes sense that people with the skills to build immersive first-person worlds would be curious to apply those skills to new and creative uses when unburdened by the financial pressures of a large publisher.

It also makes sense that Firewatch‘s creators include two of the leads from Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Telltale’s episodic games made it cool to focus on narrative over action and proved that there was an audience hungry for emotionally complex, non-gratuitous, adult video games. With a small team and low overhead, that audience is more than big enough to turn indie studios a profit.

While it remains to be seen if major game companies will take the walking simulator plunge, the coming release of the Oculus Rift, Valve’s OpenVR, and the PlayStation VR bodes very well for the genre. Making a game in the first person is obvious when you’re building for VR, and, as Polygon recently pointed out, killing humans in virtual reality may be tough to stomach for even the most hardened Call of Duty junkies.

So what to do instead? Maybe explore the fractured remains of your space station in zero gravity, like in Adr1ft. Or travel as a small boy to a far-off world filled with dinosaurs, like in Robinson: The Journey. Game developers are only getting started.

What Walking Simulators Should I Play Right Now?

Keep an eye out for Steam sales, where you can pick up most of these titles for a few bucks apiece.

Gone Home (PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One)

A young woman returns home from a trip abroad and finds her family’s suburban Oregon home empty. As the woman, you explore the house to find out what happened, uncovering the rich inner lives of her parents and her sister. Gone Home came out to extremely positive reviews on PC back in 2013. A console edition just came out this past January.

The Stanley Parable (PC, Mac)

“The cake is a lie.” “Would you kindly…” The Stanley Parable takes themes about player agency explored in games like BioShock and Portal and builds an entire game out of them. To say anything more would be to spoil the fun.

The Witness (PC, PS4)

Jonathan Blow’s follow-up to Braid took nearly seven years to complete (read why here), but if you’re a puzzle fan, it was worth the wait. The Witness drops you on an abandoned tropical island filled with mind-bending puzzles — and tons of other secrets Blow promises it will take collectively gamers months to uncover.

Firewatch (PC, Mac, PS4)

From first-time developers Campo Santo, Firewatch puts you in the shoes of Henry, an alcoholic dealing with a devastating personal event, who flees his troubles to take a job as a fire lookout in a Wyoming national park. I’ve only played about an hour of the game so far (it released today), but I’m already sucked in by its emotionally nuanced lead characters — and by the stunning vistas overseen by acclaimed artist Olly Moss.

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Brett Bates
Brett Bates is a staff writer at Fandom. He's been in the video game industry for eight years as a writer and as a developer for companies like BioWare, Rumble, EGM, and Bitmob. According to his business card, he's a fan of indie games, crime comics, and boxer dogs.
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