When the world locked up, I chose to walk. In a world that was slowly drawing closer, wandering the vast landscapes of walking simulation games felt like a liberation. I immersed myself in the lives of others: people on their own journeys, my outer and inner worlds merging into one.
I haven’t been alone either. People turned to video games en masse during the pandemic, and gaming companies have posted record profits. The philosopher and theologian Saint Augustine coined the Latin expression “Is solved by walkingMeaning “It resolves by walking”, and it was while walking, albeit virtually, that I turned to stabilize my mind.
Walking simulators are generally exploration games that focus on your experience as a gamer. They rely heavily on strong storytelling to engage players, putting the player experience at the heart of the experience. Compared to general games, they’re often short and sweet, yet punchy nonetheless, living in players’ minds long after they’re done.
What does a walking simulator look like?
In Everyone’s gone for the kidnapping, the story is a non-linear radio play, with a sci-fi strangeness that wouldn’t be out of place in an HG Wells novel. The powerful sense of place and life of its people is what sets the game apart. Players walk through the abandoned Shropshire village of Yaughton accompanied by a glowing orb that guides them from place to place. While Yaughton is fictional, the county where Yaughton is based, Shropshire, is a place I know in real life, and the interiors and design of the village were surprisingly realistic.
This level of detail can be found throughout the game, from the placement of vases in houses up the stairs to the farmer’s house with farming equipment on his kitchen table – and in a devastating contrast, a room laden with makeshift hospital facilities where he previously looked after his wife. This is one of the few games I’ve played where I felt like I was snooping through real personal belongings as a house invader. Each location captures the humanity of a person who lives in the village, and the overwhelming sense of loss you feel as you explore the abandoned remains is palpable.
Dear Esther is another well-known walking simulation game, set on an uninhabited island off the coast of Scotland. Playing it is a surreal experience, with an ethereal and haunting atmosphere hanging over you as you learn more about the person who lives on the island and why they are there in the first place. The island takes on more symbolic meaning as you progress through the game. The sparse gameplay gives you an experimental experience, more like a psychological essay film.
Gone home is another game focused on storytelling and player exploration. It’s a family story told from the perspective of an older sister who comes home from college and finds her sister is gone. The tense storm surrounding the house adds to the eerie ambience as you wander from room to room, discovering artifacts that help flesh out the story and listening to audio diaries addressed to the sister, revealing real life and torment inside her younger sister in the process. The house is curvy and dark, with creepy nooks and crannies and cupboards. You sort through piles of boxes and uncover hidden rooms where the family’s deepest and darkest secrets are revealed. The rawness of the alternative teenage life of the 90s is conveyed by a Riot Grrrl soundtrack, played on a cassette player, also straight from the 90s. The game is only three hours long, but I can guarantee you that you will not forget the experience.
Walking simulators make other games richer
That’s not to say that walking simulators don’t work in longer games, even games you wouldn’t normally think of as walking simulators. In Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, there is a point in the game where you break into the mansion of an elderly explorer named Evelyn, who has an impressive collection of antiques, such as a real sarcophagus and Egyptian amulets, among other historical delicacies. Trails of letters, leaflets and old magazines tell the story of the collector’s impressive career and his eventful personal life. The dialogue seems pretty natural between the brothers, and they act like children, picking up trinkets, trying on hats, and taking a Polaroid of themselves in the process. In typical Unexplored Fashion, strolling in the dark is full of suspense, and there’s a prep for an action-packed finale. Moreover, who can forget that Crash Bandicoot cameo?
Walking simulator-style gameplay is also often incorporated into open-world games, where players have to travel through open spaces to move from one city or objective to another. I loved playing Red Dead Redemption 2 where the slow pace and realism of Arthur Morgan’s life as a cowboy was incredibly natural and refreshing, especially when he was between missions at base camp. You could hear his campmates discussing what had happened that day or the various tragedies that were unfolding between them. Rockstar Games have gone out of their way to add detailed environments and the character development of the main characters, as well as their relationships to each other. Sadie Adler, for example, is one of my favorite female characters in the game due to her vulnerability and fearlessness, traits not often found in female protagonists in action games. You first find her hidden from Arthur and his gang in the game’s opening mission. It’s not often that you see the tough lives of brave women in action games, but Rockstar has held its ground. promises.
Why walking simulators are so calming
Beyond just being fun to play, there are some surprising mental and psychological benefits of walking in games. André Przybylski, experimental psychologist and research director at Oxford Internet Research Institute told WIRED in an interview, “We have found that gameplay is positively associated with well-being to the extent that the game satisfies the psychological needs of competence (sense of efficiency), autonomy (sense of choice) and of kinship (feeling of belonging). Games are an important part of their [gamers’] motivation for self-care, adaptation and, in the case of augmented reality games such as Pokémon Go, have a reason to get out of the house.
Want to escape the stress of real life to become a lookout? Fire watch is a psychological environmental exploration game set in the Wyoming wilderness. You play as Henry, who left behind his previous life and marital problems to occupy his new job as a lookout, all alone, in the middle of nowhere.