The history of the term “walking simulator” is short but heated. 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 that 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 a recent 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—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. A couple years ago, Kill Screen challenged the term “indie,” arguing that it lacks any use due to it being so hard to define in the videogame space. “Walking simulator” isn’t quite so elusive, but the issue some have with it 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 (2013), Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (2015), Firewatch, The Stanley Parable (2013), Virginia, and Proteus (2013), and many more.
These are games that cover a range of different topics and tones. To some people, it seems unfair to categorize 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.
With that in mind, we decided to grab some of our writers as well as a bunch of people who have made games classified as “walking simulators” to argue FOR or AGAINST the term. Those opinions are listed below, with a few people refusing to fall on either side, which have been put into the just as admirable NEITHER camp. We’re not looking for a definitive answer here but, perhaps, among these opinions, you’ll be able to arrive at an answer that works for you.
Personally I’m a fan of using terms that everyone can collectively agree on for meaning. Everyone already knows what “walking simulator” means in reference to videogames. I’d rather co-opt the term and use it positively than try to convince a subset of gamers to stop using it negatively. I’ve had several players express that they only became interested in TIMEframe because it was labeled as a “walking simulator.” A label that many consider a disparaging term is being used as marketing shorthand to reach precisely the niche players that I wanted to find when I made the game in the first place.
I think the greatest asset of the term is that, like other art movements’ names (e.g. impressionism) it’s been applied derisively but in many cases captures the spirit of the things well. As someone who loves walking, it has a good balance of “I can’t tell if you’re being ironic” and “Yes that sounds like a good time.” A potent blend!
Levi Rubeck (Writer)
Genre is garbage, but there is power in signification. “Walking simulator” is a reclamation of the positive, active aspects of walking. Especially in a Robert Frost sense, active participation in an outside world through the senses rather than creation/destruction/colonization. A habitation of space where so many other games have to “incentivize” the player into interacting with the high-resolution worlds they’ve molded because they are otherwise zipping through so fast that details minor and major leave no lasting impact.
Walking is all about taking a place in a world, not taking over that world, and since videogames establish so many fantastic worlds, there should be no shame in embracing one’s small but sensitive position in them. And by this point the phrase has transcended the condescending tones of the original epithet. Or we can just call most sports games “running simulators.”
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.
But 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.
For hundreds of millions of people, walking is a favourite pastime, so I’ve always found the assumption that anything wishing to simulate it is inherently dull and uninteresting, a little reductive. Many of the best games I’ve played in the last decade are often referred to as “walking simulators”, and the fact that it’s mostly used as a term of derision probably tells us more about the people who use it than the things it’s used to describe. It’s also proved unexpectedly useful, since I’ve no problem at all with those people steering entirely clear of my work.
Connor Sherlock (Walking Simulator A Month Club)
I’m all for the term! It’s silly yet technically correct. My games often don’t focus on narrative, so “interactive narrative” doesn’t fit them well, and neither does “empathy games.” I’d be fine with “exploration game” but that doesn’t have the same ring to it. I’m not sure if I lucked out and “walking sim” describes my games perfectly, or if I’ve changed what I make to fit the term better, but I’m happy with the result.
Walking Simulators also seem to have gathered the critical mass needed for it to become (almost) a real genre, which will help to sell future walking sims on Steam or GOG. I think trying to pull away from the term after its got its claws this deep into the industry will only help these games fall through the cracks between First Person Shooters and Role Playing Games. At the end of the day I don’t care what we call them if it will get people playing them.
Julian Glander (Lovely Weather We’re Having)
There are probably a lot of better descriptors for this kind of game: Explorey Thing, Computer Dream, Movement Zone. In comparison, “Walking Simulator” feels dismissive and derogatory—I don’t know who even coined the term but it’s hard to imagine they were a fan. But that’s what I like about it, it’s such an amazingly uncool combination of words. It has cultural power as a label because rather than trying to sell you on glamour or action, it takes the core criticisms of the genre—all you do is *walk*, it’s so *boring*, it’s not even a *game*—and reclaims them as values.
Emma Kidwell (Writer)
You look up from your keyboard. Walking Simulator is standing in front of you, tapping their foot. “Give me a second,” you say. “I need to figure out how to describe you.” Walking Simulator rolls their eyes. “My name describes me pretty accurately, don’t you think?” they ask. You lean back into your seat. “Yeah, but I need to find a better way to talk about you.” Walking Simulator crosses their arms. “Okay, I’m all ears.” You shrug. “What if we called you an experience?” Walking Simulator laughs in your face. “‘Experience’ is too broad. Every game is an experience.” They have a point. Walking Simulator isn’t a derogatory term. It’s an accurate description. But it’s unfairly shoved into this box where people might look at it and mark things off: no combat? Check. Focuses on telling a very specific story? Check. Minimal player agency? Check. It’s not offensive. It’s niche.
Personally, I believe walking simulators are perfect vehicles for developers wishing to provide their player base with in most cases a carefully choreographed narrative experience (as we tried with [the now-canceled] Child of Cooper). In some cases, it is simply opportunity to try out the viability of some new concepts. The reality is walking simulators make up a minuscule percentage of the gaming landscape and the industry would be much worse off without their existence (see titles from The Chinese Room etc).
At this point, I read the term as meaning “a game that is probably played from the first-person perspective and doesn’t have guns.” It makes it easier to discuss games. I know its origins are from a disparaging place, but at this point I feel the term has been disseminated and genericized to the point where it no longer bears its original edges.
I am in favor of not discussing the term “walking simulator”and using our time at least discussing more important issues, or better researching this damn medium before it completely disappears.
So I guess this means I am for the term because that seems to be the option that produces the least amount of wasted time talking about words. And then there’s more time left for actually talking about things, the world, ideas, and so on.
Fernando Ramallo (Panoramical)
My answer is NEITHER. I don’t think these labels are helpful at all. Terms come and go and the labels we put on them mostly come from commercializing these works and making them fit into neat little categories or tags storefronts want their users to sort through to have preconceived expectations like HOW MUCH ENJOYMENT CAN I TAKE FROM THIS PRODUCT FOR EVERY DOLLAR I SPEND.
Sure, walking simulator I guess started as a joke, turned into an insult, got reclaimed as a proud little badge and now is meaningless. This will happen with whatever we come up with next.
I’d say burn it all down. The storefronts, the buying, the commenting, the tagging. Let’s start a utopian way of experiencing playful art where game developers advancing the medium are paid like doctors, anyone can become one and has a voice, games are free and a big part of society’s everyday life, families sit down after dinner to play the latest experimental game and have a meaningful conversation about it, and the world unites in celebration of this glorious new medium that has finally brought change, unity and peace.
I unfortunately think that my position on this matter is one of general apathy.
Sam Zucchi (Writer)
Too many indelible connotations of assumed pretentiousness, artistic preening, and jejune ambition—the same kind of assertions made by the culture at large to, say, modern poetry. It also parallels the phrase “SJW” in this regard—the term doesn’t actually signify anything except the misguided points its critics think are native to the concept. And I have no idea if/whether the term has any merit in being reclaimed/redeemed from that mess.
Gareth Damian Martin (Writer)
In many ways the word simulator represents some of the worst instincts of games. Simulators make a pretense of being non-artistic, culturally benign objects. Think of “flight simulators,” or “space simulators,” genres where the term is used without a hint of irony. Those genres function on the idea that there is an objective reality which can be distilled down into a series of interactions, and drive towards a 1:1 recreation of the real world in a virtual space as the manifest destiny of games.
This is an attitude that has been parodied in games like Goat Simulator (2014), Surgeon Simulator (2013), Job Simulator, where the distance between reality and the reality of videogames is stretched for the sake of comic effect. Yet despite this, the word retains a strong connection to a particular view of games, one which requires them to adhere to a philosophy of imitation, “believability” and “immersion.” The term “Walking Simulator” emerged as a slur, an answer to the shrill whine of “but what do you do?” It privileges simulation as the defining aspect of any game and in doing so strengthens that position as the center point, the orthodoxy of games. When applied to a diverse set of games whose only connective material seems to be a nebulous focus on narrative, this term means defining those games in relation to a dull and limited view of what games are.
This definition comes from a place of privilege, from those who have sought to close down definition of games to only their own myopic fantasies, who wish to preserve the idea of games as “just entertainment” though that time has long passed, if it ever lived at all. I have no issue with the term’s accuracy; what genre name has accuracy? I have issue with its hegemonic power, with its intent to sideline games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture as strange or abnormal, when they are as much a part of the mainstream of videogame culture as any “triple A” release.
Why does it matter? Because for games, genre is more than a label. Videogames are obsessed by genre, haunted by it. Perhaps that is because it provides the necessary signposting for a form whose variety seems near limitless. But the side-effect of this is that genre is used as a weapon as often as it is used as a tool. Critics review games on their adherence or deviation from genre, and more importantly, developers can be seen to add features just to meet genre expectations. This is no playful game of expectation and diversion—it is a straitjacket of creative restriction. If we champion “Walking Simulator” as a genre, it will create a feedback loop, a self-fulfilling prophecy where critics will start talking about “walkfeel,” and creators will turn a space of experimentation into just another set of rules for success.
However, this is a futile argument. The continued life of this ugly term now seems guaranteed, but I can’t help but feel frustrated when developers use it describe their own work. It feels like stepping willfully into a segregated corner, away from the “real games” and the “real gamers,” and reneging any claim on the form. It feels like laughing along with the bullies in the hope that they might let us join their club, or at least leave us alone.
Delphine Forneau (Sacramento)
I’d say I’m against the term “walking simulator.” Mainly because I don’t like labels, but also because it sounds very negative. It’s like it emphasizes there’s nothing to see or to do in the game, and that you’re just walking. And “simulator” sounds like a terrible link to reality for me.
Most of the time the main interest of this kind of game is not focused on the way you’re moving, but on the surroundings, the experience, the feelings, exploration & discovery of clues left by the creator to make you understand a world. I’m not good with words, but I’d prefer “exploration game,” for example.
Elwin Verploegen (Fragments of Him)
I feel like the term “Walking Simulator” was coined by those who don’t enjoy the genre of game, back when these type of games first started to pop up. At the time we didn’t have a better definition, and I’m pretty sure that at the time the entire “simulator” joke/meme was at its height. For those who don’t care about a story, the term is fine, but it’s not what these games are about. Usually they’re about exploring a world, about a story or learning about characters. Because of that, I very much prefer the term “Interactive Narrative Experience” or just “Interactive Narrative,” as these games generally focus on the story, not the gameplay.
Pete Bottomley (Ether One)
I guess overall I’m against the term, but possibly not for the same reasons as other people. The walking simulator term doesn’t necessarily appear on my radar too often. I’ve never heard more than a handful of people use the term ‘walking simulator’ when referring to Ether One (2014) and when it did, it was mostly when the term was gaining momentum a couple of years back.
The reason I’m against the term is because of the negative connotations connected to it. People use it as a derogatory term and I’ve never come across anyone saying ‘I’m looking for another good walking simulator’. It also simplifies a game which could have complex systems behind it which the designers wanted to hide from the player to provide simplified experience for the player.
I often use the term narrative exploration instead. This could define an entire game, or it could define an element of the game. For example, Ether One was a first-person adventure with narrative exploration. I think we’ll see the walking simulator term quickly die out as these games and the developers behind them evolve over time. The main reason for the approach to games like these is mostly a technical one. You set up with a small team and limited (or no) resources and you try to create the best experience possible within your team’s skillset.
Most of the time, this is without a 3D representation of character but aided by a strong sense of world which becomes the main character. As you see these teams develop, Fullbright being a great example of this, you’ll see a refining of the process with an expanded skillset and a more ambitious game design. This isn’t to say they’ll be bigger or longer or even change in tone. I believe they’ll continue to explore interesting subject themes and, if anything, remain shorter more crafted and well executed experiences.
I’m personally really excited to play the 2nd, 3rd, 4th games from the developers who created the first wave of ‘walking simulators’ because I think we’re going to experience some incredible stories.
Raphael van Lierop (The Long Dark)
I think calling something a “walking simulator” is doing it an injustice, particularly since the label is often applied disparagingly. It somehow implies that moving around a game world is a lesser experience than “shooting” or “role-playing,” while in fact walking is movement and movement is exploration, and really, exploration is what games are all about.
A big inspiration for The Long Dark was the countless hours I spent exploring the abandoned wastelands of Fallout 3 (2008). Yes, there was some levelling up, the occasional bit of fighting, a whole lot of looting, but mostly—walking, walking, and more walking. That, to me, was the game’s strongest draw—its ability to present a destination on the horizon, then make me feeling something as I walked towards it. Walking down a dusty, broken highway with the promise of some new location to explore was Fallout 3’s magic. Walking = exploring.
So, I’d opt to replace the label “walking simulator” with “exploration game,” and if appropriate, “first-person explorer.”
Ed Key (Proteus)
It’s both a term and a categorization.
The term is annoying because it’s lifted straight from a derogatory, reactionary Steam tag, so I kinda hate that the press took it up. “Reclaiming” is fair enough but it’s probably nice for the target(s) to be the people reclaiming a derogatory term.
The categorization is annoying (with some reservations) because it’s saying that Proteus and Gone Home have more in common than say, Proteus and FUGL or Gone Home and (another coming-of-age story that I can’t think of). It’s perhaps also highlighted by people saying the Abzu is a great walking simulator, when it’s obviously a “swimming simulator.”
To take the previous example, Proteus and Gone Home are massively different in their approach to narrative and even interaction design, but according to Steam users they are the same thing because they are non-violent?
I was discussing this with someone recently (who was writing an academic thesis on “walking simulators”!) and since then I’ve been wondering: maybe the assertion that people are accidentally-profoundly making with this tag is that the mode of movement is the fundamental way of categorizing games? Even then, I’m not sure that’s right, as aesthetically and philosophically I’d call Sworcery (2011) one of the proto-walking simulators, in the sense of “going for a walk” rather than “walking around an environment uncovering a story.”
I would personally rather split it that way: games about the sensation of wandering, and games about discovering a narrative. I’m sure there is some overlap between those two! So, as for alternative terms, it depends on the categorization. Either “Non violent games” or “Wander games” (or “wander-em-up” or “walk-em-up” for a jokey touch).
I think my primary motivation in voting against is simply an attempt to better categorize what these various kinds of interactive experiences are. Walking simulator just humorously focuses on the non-frenetic pace that most of them have in common without really highlighting any of the strong features that revolve around exploration—surprising discovery, deeper storytelling, meaningful environments, cerebral observation and connection—the fact that the journey is just as rewarding as the achievement. We need a broad phrase that wraps all that up into a neat little package. Let me know when you get it.
Davis Cox (Writer)
If games are ever going to “grow up” beyond having protagonists be floating hands holding guns shooting at other things holding guns, inherently dismissive phrases like walking simulators denote a kind of “non-game” status to titles that explore that idea.
Still, everything needs to be called something, and a name’s just a name. Other sub-genre titles like “shoegaze” and “emo” started as derogatory terms, too. I can’t think of a suitable replacement, so … maybe I’m actually supportive of the term, even if I’m not a fan of it?
Reid McCarter (Writer)
“Walking simulator” is one of those game terms that bugs me on sort of a basic, reactionary level. When I think about why that is, it’s maybe a little bit to do with the derogatory connotations it carries—narrow definitions of what exactly a game is are inherently self-defeating—but, more than that, because it’s a descriptor that’s so antithetical to why I find games interesting. It uses a form of input to force diverse work into a nonsensical genre, one whose category is defined by basic mechanical interaction rather than the tone and intent of the game itself.
Most videogame categories are bunk anyway (just look at how every game is, really, a role-playing game), but “walking simulator” is the apex of an outmoded, limiting way of thinking about what games are and can be. It glosses over the actual substance of an experience by reducing it to the most simplistic, basic level. It’s a hangover term from the days of feature-list game reviews—a bizarre, reductive attempt to create a genre where none exists so as to fit a new form of design into archaic ways of thinking and talking about games.
Dan Solberg (Writer)
My main problem with the term “walking simulator” is the redundancy of “simulator” as shorthand for an action in a virtual space which isn’t part of the identification of other genres. It’s not “first-person shooter simulators.” If anything, there is often the word “game” attached to the end of these, such as “platformer game,” in which case the inclusion of simulator leaves no room for the “game” designation. There is no “walking simulator game,” just “walking simulator” and I think that informs the dialogue around these games.
The term “simulator” also seems to have gotten increasingly muddy with all of the ironic simulators floating around, feels like it’s all part of a joke. It’s one thing for these “walking sims” to try to reclaim the term, but I don’t think they have the pervasive visibility to pull it off, and every time a new one pops up, it gets hit with the “walking sim” label from the outside like a mallet on a whack-a-mole game. Joke simulators are far more visible, which is separately a problem if you’re actually looking for a real simulator (i.e. a training program).
I don’t for a moment discount that some players feel a need to assign a genre to newer styles of games, but like with many genre names (“alternative music,” anyone?), the name “walking simulator” is a poor descriptor. Does it describe games like Dear Esther, which, yes, has walking, but no, does not contain simulation elements? If so, is that because the game is one of narrative discovery, as opposed to, say, challenged-based action? If it is, then “walking simulator” becomes only derisive and, frankly, unhelpful. If assigning a genre name helps legitimize games like this to a wider audience, or helps them better understand it beforehand, then by all means, let’s do it—but I know we can do better!
I absolutely abhor the term “walking simulator.” I’d love to know where it originated because it sounds like it may have started as an insult, as if “what a dumb game … all you do is walk around.” Navigation is only one aspect of this style of gaming. To name an entire genre after this one action? It’s ludicrous. Or ignorant.
These so-called “walking games” typically have narratives, puzzles, characters, staging, visual design, music. The game creators combine these elements and more in complex and creative ways to create entertaining and thought-provoking experiences. Yes, as you play, you walk (maybe). But you also become the main character in another reality—another world. Focusing on the walking seems besides the point.
And by the way, calling it a “simulator” is an additional way to demean the genre. Which is why Valve doesn’t list games as “FPS simulator” or “adventure simulator.” At some level, even Valve is aware that this tag is a bizarre and bad way to sell something. Calling something a simulation breaks the suspension of disbelief before you purchase the game. It makes the game look ridiculous.
I’d be surprised if any game creators in the “walking simulator” genre love the specificity focusing of this term. We need something better. I feel we need a term that’s more ambiguous: that doesn’t try to nail down the genre so specifically. When French New Wave cinema came along, the term didn’t try to describe a single quality of the genre. The same is needed here: a term that instantly signifies the genre without focusing on any aspects of game-making or game-playing.