Why are we so afraid to walk?

In the penultimate hour of The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a fifteen-hour episodic documentary by film critic and historian Mark Cousins released in 2011, director Gus Van Sant traces his inspirations for his films Gerry (2002) and Elephant (2003) partly to playing videogames. Here, Gus Van Sant talks about Core Design’s original 1996 game Tomb Raider, and what he finds significant is how videogames provide a continual experience of unbroken time to accomplish seemingly trivial actions like walking from one point to another. What’s remarkable about the observations of this seasoned artist on a medium unfamiliar to him is his valuing of inactivity and what action-oriented games consider negligible to the overall experience. For Gus Van Sant, the act of walking carries profound importance, and he channels the uninterrupted duration of walking in third-person videogames to his films. The effect is repetitive yet mesmerizing. By stripping his films to the act of walking and seeing, he reevaluates the simplest ways in which we can come to experience our surrounding world.

This ethos of extended temporal duration and minimalist activity in favor of basic actions has found expressive purpose in the realm of videogames, particularly in the nebulous and under-studied area of “first-person walker” games. The discussions largely started in 2012 upon the release of The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther. This term loosely refers to a fairly recent trend of minimalist first-person videogames stripped down of complex gameplay mechanics in favor of decelerated movement and the basic act of seeing. In the years since, the idea has been explored by games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, The Beginner’s Guide, Gone Home, The Old City: Leviathan, Home Is Where One Starts, 9.03m, Ether One, Sunset, The Stanley Parable, Proteus, NaissanceE, Eidolon, Only If, Thirty Flights of Loving, and many, many others.

Despite all of these titles, first-person walkers as a developing category of games has not been extensively theorized and examined by many critics, though a handful of insightful analyses lay some foundation. But what’s particularly troubling is that even the moniker “first-person walker” remains imprecise and contested; a lack of common critical understanding is failing these games. Still, there’s something to that name. The term “first-person walker” is an artistically cohesive movement of videogames, and I believe we ought to use this specific term over the ones people have suggested: walking simulators, first-person explorers, phantom ride games, environmental puzzle games, etc. These other prevalent terms are misleading and fail to illustrate what these works can do in the service of advancing games as a medium.

I’m resistant in calling this collection of games a “genre” like survival horror, but more like a movement (purposeful or not) akin to Dogme 95 in cinema or Stuckism in contemporary art. As such, first-person walkers as an ongoing artistic movement have unified criteria that ought to be identified and, at the very least, named more precisely than “walking simulators.”

Finding a name matters because of the increasing output of games falling under its criteria and the ineffectiveness of the alternatives. For one, the prevalent misuse of the term “walking simulator” to characterize these games not only carries a tone of sly condescension by some but misattributes the act of walking as a perfunctory, emotionless action to be simulated rather than identify these games’ treatment of it as a complex and meaningful form of expression. That The Chinese Room developer Dan Pinchbeck would feel the need to “reclaim” the term suggests its misuse and need for clarification. This term is the unfortunate, prevailing tag on the Steam Store to categorize these games despite the lack of the formal elements that typically comprise simulator games: a focus on hyperrealism in mechanics to mimic real-world equivalents like operating an aircraft, a simulacrum of situations and settings from the everyday world, quantifiable systems that can be learned and predicted, and so on.

these games are often charged as being “not games”

Moreover, the term “walking simulator” carries the negative connotation that these games lack meaningful mechanics, since only walking remains the central part of gameplay. In consequence, these games are often charged as being “not games” or failing to adhere to familiar means of expression. I remember the frustration of many video uploaders and commenters who failed to find value in games whose primary means of play revolves around basic movements and no discernible challenges to overcome. Such attitudes are reactionary, revealing how those developers of first-person walker games are successfully disrupting expectations of what games should feel, play, and look like. Rather than boast complex, capital-G Gameplay™, the first-person walker style exhibits a decidedly minimalist attitude that makes for a more atmospheric and contemplative form of play.

Likewise, the related but still inexact term “first-person explorer” supposes an added qualifier to the act of walking over considering movement on its own terms. Calling these games “explorers” instead of “walkers” connotes a more loaded objective instead of simply appreciating the unadorned act of walking. Although unrestricted exploration may be involved in games like the procedurally generated, open-world Proteus and even some puzzle-solving like in Ether One, walking remains the common denominator that unites these titles. Accordingly, the term “walker” can thus be applied to similarly minded third-person works like those Tale of Tales’ The Graveyard and The Path. What I would call “third-person walker” games also involve minimalist mechanics that center on the act of walking and seeing. The Graveyard particularly deemphasizes exploration in favor of a tightly controlled, linear walkway.

The roots of first-person walkers can be traced back to art-minded adventure games such as Cyan’s Myst in 1993. Indeed, The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther seems like a revisitation of familiar ground. Despite Pinchbeck’s aversion to the game, Dear Esther evokes Myst’s island of secretive scientific ventures but left eroding and abandoned for nearly two decades. Unexplained scientific calculations decorate ramshackle outbuildings, and a funereal tone pervades throughout the game, lending the proceedings a ghostly quality. Even more suggestive of the ongoing phenomenon of first-person walkers is the elusive and surreal LSD: Dream Emulator from 1998. Here, the minimalist gameplay and imagery closely mirrors such cryptic works as The Old City: Leviathan, wherein players are left to wander and experience dreamlike environments and make sense of the arcane imagery for themselves.

The experience of these games often hums with ambiguity and anxiety because it forfeits familiar patterns of gameplay with fundamental basics, a style that rarely appears in more complex games. Because first-person walkers emphasize minimalist interaction, a paradox emerges. These games curtail gameplay yet place a heavy emphasis on a clear form of interaction. Indeed, these games usually demand more from players, asking them to consider the worth of environmental storytelling and embedded narratives by calling attention to their input via walking and looking. These games privilege the habitation of a singular consciousness in a cerebral space, often filtering our experience of the world through solipsistic voiceover narration. We walk and we look through a single perspective, whether that be a flesh-and-blood character or something more ethereal and nonphysical, a consciousness or a temperament.

First-person walkers employ movement within an environment to convey moods and ideas more crucially than other kinds of games, encouraging a contemplative, participatory mindset over guided directness. Decelerating action underlines what videogames can do at its most basic level—movement and sight—and attentive players willing to engage with such works will be rewarded not with the escapism of many more popular games but a deeper entrance towards sensations and experiences often overlooked.

Take, for example, one of The Chinese Room’s earliest games, 2008’s Conscientious Objector, an experimental mod for Doom 3 that strips down its original environment and funnels the player through its first three levels without the act of killing. Reproducing the original levels of Doom 3 serves a purpose beyond mere reference, however, reflexively toying with our assumptions of what it means to play a first-person game and producing newfangled, strange experiences by removing consequential violence from the game. The first release of The Stanley Parable in 2011 expanded on this idea, recreating a similarly stripped down opening level of Half-Life 2 and asking of players to revisit the area under new terms divorced from the immediate context of a first-person shooter.

toying with our assumptions of what it means to play a first-person game

The stripped down, familiar spaces of Conscientious Objector and The Stanley Parable convey an eerie, uncanny atmosphere, and this melancholic register is typical of first-person walkers. As I’ve said of Dear Esther, these games can prove ghostly and even sublime. It’s no surprise then that many game developers seem keen on applying the techniques of first-person walkers to horror games.

The Chinese Room most clearly signaled the close kinship of first-person walkers and horror with their 2013 game Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. Instead of reproducing the conventional survival horror elements of its predecessor, Frictional’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, this 2013 title instead re-contextualized the series within the parameters of a first-person walker. The inventory was removed in favor of direct interaction with the environment, further minimizing gameplay in line with the values of the company’s previous game, Dear Esther. And perhaps the far-reaching influence of first-person walkers can be even more clearly witnessed in a game like Hideo Kojima’s 2014 game P.T., a work precisely concerned with the back-to-basics gameplay valued by first-person walkers—namely, the bare actions of walking and looking.

Whether or not first-person walkers will continue flourishing and proliferating in years to come remains to be seen. The critical success of such recent works as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and P.T. would suggest a promising future. This kind of mainstream critical and commercial achievement would ideally shed light on this classification of games for a broader audience, offering a gateway to more abstract, cerebral titles. And yet despite this evolution, the inverse occurs just as distinctly. This year’s entry by Tale of Tales, the refreshingly novelistic and masterfully realized Sunset, met sour reception with people uncertain how to adequately respond to a first-person walker game that departs from immediately familiar tropes. Its aesthetic and political interests caught many off guard and appeared to discourage enough sales to inspire a eulogy announcing the closure of perhaps the most prolific art-game studio in the medium’s history.

These failures beg certain questions surrounding the production of art in games and the first-person walker. Namely: what kinds of audiences do these developers have in mind to appreciate such games, and how can we be better able to discover and appreciate worthwhile titles lest they go unnoticed?

Developers who craft first-person walker games certainly have intended consumers, a demographic I would imagine as the equivalent of cineastes that venerate arthouse films—like Gus Van Sant’s audience, for example. There is a particular kind of mindset necessary when approaching first-person walker games. One must think of these works in relation to one another under a common criteria, much in the same way that we can examine a catalog of Italian neorealist films or a compilation of magical realist novels. To think and write about these videogames without consideration of the burgeoning artistic movement fails to precisely identify what makes them significant. In many ways, first-person walker games serve as definite evidence of a trailblazing, artistically cohesive movement of artists that can be thoroughly examined and defined.

If we are not articulate about what these games are and do, then we undermine the work of the artists behind them. When a crowd of gamers is able to collectively introduce and popularize the term “walking simulator” as a term of derision before this movement can find a broader voice, then the medium suffers a regression towards safe, conservative tastes. The aesthetic rigor of these existing works cannot be denied; these are important videogames that demand an understanding as an ongoing phenomenon with a rich and varied palate. To discover these works requires open-mindedness to new forms of narrative and play. Games like Dear Esther may have suffered some reactionary negative response from those unfamiliar with the then-nascent movement, but first-person walkers have since multiplied and grown in popularity. We should have a better sense of what these games set out to accomplish. By emphasizing the lasting power of imagery and the subtlest of gestures, first-person walker games broaden the medium’s means of expression.

Last year, I played PostMod Softworks’ The Old City: Leviathan, a thoughtfully dense and enigmatic first-person walker more thematically daring than any I had since encountered. What PostMod created is surprising, oracular, quietly thrilling, and—for my money—a revelatory kind of videogame. It did not have the kind of wider draw of games like Gone Home or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but underappreciation is a risk for developers working in the avant-garde. Many of these games simply will not click with wider audiences because we are only just beginning to theorize and unpack what first-person walkers can do. So if a number of studios creating first-person walker games are failures, then they unintentionally reflect these makers’ integrity. What emerges, successful or not, are videogames from confident artists too forthright, too groundbreaking, and too visionary for their own good. And where were we?