Call them what you will: "Walking Simulators," "Environmental Puzzle Games," or "First-Person Feels." Whatever classification you file these games under, one fact remains clear: They've given us some of the most atypical and captivating video game experiences of the last few years.
If you're new to the world of walking simulators, though, diving into this altogether different style of game can be intimidating. Even if you're down with their laid-back, contemplative approach to play and storytelling, the subject matter of these experiences can vary wildly, so there's no guarantee you'll connect with each and every one. So if you don't know where to start, have no fear: The following walking simulators will break you into a new style of games you never thought you'd love.
The Big Daddy of its chosen genre, Gone Home goes for (and successfully accomplishes) an absolutely faithful recreation of the year 1995. And even if you weren't a troubled teen in the go-go '90s, its story and themes should still be universal to anyone who's ever had to go through that deeply sincere and terrifyingly emotional adolescent phase of life. It's rich in atmosphere, too: The entirety of Gone Home takes place in a sprawling, abandoned house (on a stormy night, no less) the protagonist explores in search of her seemingly missing family, with drawers, closets, and other ordinary household items containing clues about their possible fates—and dark secrets. Definitely start here if you want to know what all the fuss is about.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Games shouldn't be judged by their graphics alone, but The Vanishing of Ethan Carter can't be called anything but "jaw-droppingly gorgeous"—a real achievement for an indie production. But Ethan Carter doesn't skate by on looks alone: In it, you play a supernatural detective, tasked with finding a missing boy in the picturesque Red Creek Valley. But you won't just be wandering through its wooded, winding trails: Periodically, you'll come across crime scenes—which gradually add up to a larger story—that task you with putting their events in order, from beginning to end. If the "walking" part of the walking simulators doesn't grab you, then Ethan Carter's handful of well-crafted puzzles should keep you pushing forward—along with a desire to see how its twisted story wraps up.
The Old City: Leviathan
By the end of The Old City: Leviathan, you may not know exactly what happened; but, if you'll excuse the trite expression, the journey is more valuable than the destination. If anything, The Old City gets extra points for doing something interesting with the post-apocalypse: undeniably, one of the most overused settings in our little medium. But with Leviathan's people-free world, you're forced to put together the pieces yourself, and the game provides no easy answers. Games have a tendency to overexplain themselves, but Leviathan bucks this trend with its refreshing sense of ambiguity.
Proteus has the "walking" part of "walking simulator" down pat—it's basically all you do. That said, if you're interested in any sort of story, you may want to look elsewhere, Proteus feels much more like an art installation than your average video game experience. All it asks of you is to walk, explore, and soak up the visuals and music that react organically to your movements. There's no explicit point or purpose to Proteus, which may rub some people the wrong way, but if you're looking for something to help you relax—or something to play in an altered state—Proteus certainly does its job.
In terms of premise, Sunset definitely strives for originality. In it, you play an American expat in the fictional communist utopia of Anchuria, forced to get by on blue collar labor once a military coup radically changes the country's political trajectory. Every day, you're tasked with cleaning the posh apartment of a wealthy man with ties to this new government, and as the weeks stretch on, you learn more about him and the fate of this former paradise. While Sunset's simulation of monotonous labor may lean a little too close to the real thing, pushing through its sleepier moments is worth it, if only to see how its one-of-a-kind story wraps up.
Jazzpunk aims for a much different goal than most video games: getting you to laugh. This first-person spy adventure essentially acts an interactive issue of MAD Magazine, cramming in as many jokes as humanly possible. And while not all of them stick, Jazzpunk's "comedy sandbox" is worth exploring, if only to see what bizarre thing it wants to show you next. That's what Jazzpunk's all about, really: Its espionage-based premise is just an excuse to throw you into as many crazy situations as humanly possible. Few games simply want to take the form of a joke machine, and that's what makes Jazzpunk so special.
The Stanley Parable
If you're sick of storytelling trends in modern games, give The Stanley Parable a try. It essentially sends up the linear nature that most games adhere to by giving the player the choice to defy the narrator and his intentions. Of course, as you do this, he throws more and more obstacles in your way in an attempt to get you back on the path he's masterfully designed for you. With lots of branching pathways and 19 (!) possible endings, The Stanley Parable definitely offers room for experimentation and replays, if only to see how far you can push the narrator's patience.
30 Flights of Loving
Do you have 15 free minutes? Then you have time to play through 30 Flights of Loving. This micro-game tells the story of a heist gone horribly wrong, but uses filmic techniques to eliminate all the chaff we typically suffer through in ordinary games. So, if you're walking down the end of a long hallway, 30 Flights simply makes a "cut" from the beginning to the end, instantly zapping you to your destination. And 30 Flights' short length works in tandem with its non-linear narrative structure. If you can't put all the pieces together on your first try, it doesn't take much of an investment to give it another go. 30 Flights of Loving may be a short ride, but it's certainly a wild one.