Over the past few years, walking simulators have been the subject of many a lively discussion. For some, they're fascinating and involving experiences, while others find them utterly dull and lacking engagement. There's been argument over whether walking simulators are actually games or not, and even the term "walking simulator" has been debated, with some feeling that it's a disparaging way to describe the genre.
For me, "walking simulator" is simply a convenient moniker that has become a part of the general gaming vernacular – a universally understood way to describe a certain kind of interactive, story-driven gaming experience. And yes, I said "gaming" experience. Despite their often-simplified controls and stripped-down mechanics, I think of walking simulators as games. While I believe that they sit on periphery of our favorite pastime, they nevertheless fulfill the most basic definition of the medium: A game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or other display screen, and indeed the word game: An activity engaged in for diversion or amusement.
Despite "walking simulator" being a relatively new descriptor, I think that they've actually been around for a long time: They've simply come back into fashion, facilitated by more recent advances in gaming tech. Early 90s CD-ROM games like 7th Guest and Myst – originally referred to as interactive movie puzzle adventure games – feel very much like progenitor examples of the genre. Both are quite heavily puzzle-oriented, but the way they fundamentally function is akin to many modern walking simulators.
My point? I'm simply saying that I believe walking simulators are very much a part of gaming, and that they have a long history. Sure, they're not for everyone, but I think they can deliver really interesting and potentially emotive experiences that can challenge your perceptions, make you think, and leave a lasting impression. To that end, I've listed a selection of my favorites that I believe are true Digital Gems.
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture
Platform: PS4, PC
Perhaps my favorite walking simulator yet, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture takes elements of a radio play, underpins it with a core of classic "cozy catastrophe" science fiction literature, and wraps it into a combination of walking simulator and slice of semi-interactive drama to create a simply gorgeous piece of software.
The proceedings are set in the fictional English village of Yaughton in 1984, a picturesque hamlet whose inhabitants have mysteriously disappeared overnight. As the last remaining survivor, the player explores this bucolic Marie Celeste in search of the ghostly after-images of the vanished villages, listening to snatches of their conversations to glean clues as to what has transpired.
While it's very low on interactivity, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture features astonishingly detailed graphics, fantastic voice acting, and an absolutely marvelous, melancholic soundtrack. But what really makes it a winner for me is its slow-burn story, which builds to a gripping climax that'll have you thinking about it for days afterwards.
Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Gone Home opens with the cliché of all story clichés – a dark and stormy night. It's 1995, and you're Katie Greenbriar, freshly returned from an extended, year-long vacation in Europe to find her new family home devoid of inhabitants. Where are her parents and younger sister? Figuring that out is the objective as you search through the house for clues.
Every so often, you'll find an object that triggers a piece of audio narrative from Sam, Katie's sister. These almost feel like journal entries, and as you progress through the game, they meld into a back-story that gives you insight into Sam's life and feelings. Household items, letters, and discarded notes further reveal the Greenbriar family routine, and while piecing together everyday family life doesn't sound particularly exciting, it's strangely compelling - and nostalgic too, especially if you grew up in the 90s.
Originally released in 2013, Gone Home has been much lauded, and rightly so. It's a really intriguing walking simulator that has very good eye for period detail. It does require the player to pay full attention to get the most out of it, but assuming you're prepared to spend time thoroughly rummaging around the house, it's amazing how much of a story can be gleaned from this brilliant game.
The Stanley Parable
Most video games are designed around telling the player where to go, and what to do next, and The Stanley Parable is no exception. But the trick here is to not follow what the narrator is telling you to do, and instead make your own choices, whatever the threatened consequences may be. This is the shtick of this particularly novel, superbly-designed walking simulator, which essentially sends up the linear form of many video games, and toys with the concept of player choice.
Featuring no less than nineteen different endings, The Stanley Parable is exceptionally well presented, packs a ton of surprises, and has a very sharp, dry sense of humor. Best of all though is the absolutely outstanding narration, which makes interacting with the game a truly memorable experience.
Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Virginia is a mystery-thriller set in 1992 that's inspired by classic TV shows like the X-Files and Twin Peaks. The player takes the role of Anne Tarver, a recently-graduated FBI agent who, along with her more experienced partner Maria Halperin, is tasked to investigate the disappearance of Lucas Fairfax, a young boy from the rural town of Kingdom, Virginia. The stylistically-rendered action is viewed from a first-person perspective, and plays out over 42 chapters, which are essentially individual scenes that each take a few minutes to navigate through.
There's no dialogue. Instead, the onus is on the player to carefully observe what's going as the characters interact with one another. Emotions and messages are conveyed through the physical actions, reactions, and expressions of the cast, and must be interpreted by the viewer. It's fairly subtle stuff, requiring you to pay full attention so that you don't miss key details, such as a knowing nod, or a sly sideways glance that silently speaks volumes. It’s also important that you consider settings and their context as the story unfolds, and there are also some rather bizarre dream sequences to make sense of.
An absolutely fantastic soundtrack, smart cinematic editing, and the clever juxtaposition of scenes and timelines help give the game dramatic impact, and the more I played it, the more I got sucked into its increasingly ambiguous and strange storyline. I found it fascinating, but also a little confusing – but a second playthrough helped me make more sense of it. Ultimately, I found it oddly emotionally affecting – a very different kind of interactive experience that I'm really glad I undertook.
Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Set in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming in 1989, Firewatch follows the story of Henry, who's freshly arrived at the park to take on the eponymous duties. He's a sad old soul who's just lost his wife to early onset dementia, and sees his new solitary gig as affording him the opportunity to come to terms with the tragedy.
Initially, he spends his time exploring the game's gorgeously-stylized environment, taking care of the tasks that his supervisor Delilah sets for him. They converse often over walkie-talkie by means of a limited choice of dialogue options, and over time they begin to build a relationship. As the summer wears on, strange things begin to happen to both Henry and Delilah, setting off an intriguing mystery that's up to the player to solve.
Firewatch is a really entertaining adventure-mystery that builds very nicely through its midpoint to become exceptionally compelling towards its penultimate act. However, it doesn't maintain that momentum through to the finale, resulting in a slightly flat ending. Despite that, though, I absolutely loved the game, and I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Delilah and Henry. It's just very well written, and a joy to interact with.
Platform: PC, PS4
Providing a nice contrast to the many oh-so-serious games on this list is this very silly, genuinely funny, and highly entertaining slice of video gaming comedy. Jazzpunk casts you as secret agent Polyblank, who's sent on a series of bizarre missions around an alternate 1950s world. Each task has a clear and simple goal, and you can take as long as you like to complete it.
Indeed, taking your time and wandering around the game's surreal environments is where the real fun is to be had. Scattered across the landscapes are a myriad of NPCs and objects that you can interact with to set off a humorous action or amusing minigame, and while not all of them hit the mark, some are absolutely hilarious.
I think mixing together video games and humor is a particularly challenging exercise, but developer Necrophone Games has successfully pulled it off. The game is basically a sandbox filled with toys to play with, and it's packed full of surprises. Sure, it can sometimes get a little frustrating as you wander around looking for the next joke, but overall Jazzpunk is a really fun title that delivers a unique gaming experience. One that'll very likely make you laugh out loud – on more than a few occasions.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Platform: PC, PS4
Like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is absolutely gorgeous. Some of its beautifully verdant and serene landscaping almost feels like a painting. Fortunately, the game isn't just a pretty face. It's actually a really compelling paranormal mystery in which the player takes the role of Paul Prospero, a psychic investigator who's received a letter from 16-year-old Ethan Carter. Alarmed by what he reads, he travels to Ethan's hometown of Red Creek Valley, Wisconsin, and soon encounters quite terrifying unearthly activities.
If there's anything to fault about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, it's that it's very linear in nature. You really have to make sure that you thoroughly investigate every one of its scenes, because if you miss something you'll very likely have to backtrack to find it, which, speaking from experience, can be frustrating. However, that irritation aside – and it's only an irritation because it broke me out of the game's excellent immersion whenever it happened - The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a really absorbing and involving mystery. It can be a little ambiguous at times, but its fantastic finale ultimately makes a deep and lasting impression.
Platform: PC, PS4
Ether One is an exploration-puzzle game that articulates a journey inside the mind of Jean Thompson, a 69-year-old woman who's been diagnosed with dementia. The player takes the role of a "Restorer," a medical technician working at the Ether Institute of Telepathic Medicine whose job it is to enter a series of 3D recreations of Jean's memories that have been pieced together from her subconscious, and cure her of her condition.
Although Ether One's narrative is somewhat convoluted, and its puzzles sometimes frustratingly tricky, the sad story it weaves is really fascinating, and packs some really surprising twists and turns. One thing I will say is that it's a very slow-paced game that gives little in the way of pointers, so it can occasionally really test your patience, but if you stick with it and are prepared to explore all of the game's nooks and crannies, it delivers a memorable experience.
I wouldn’t recommend Ether One to those who are new to walking simulators, but if you're an experienced adventurer, it's a journey well worth taking.