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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The Joy of Walking in Games

When the world locked down, I chose to walk. In a world that was slowly closing in, wandering the vast landscapes of walking simulator games felt like a release. I immersed myself in the lives of others: people who were on journeys of their own, my outer and inner worlds blending into one.

I haven’t been alone, either. People turned to video games in droves during the pandemic, and game companies recorded record profits. The philosopher and theologian Saint Augustine coined the Latin phrase “Solvitur ambulando,” meaning “It is solved by walking,” and walking—albeit virtually, is where I turned to steady my mind.

Walking simulators are usually exploration games that focus on your experience as a player. They rely heavily on strong storytelling to hook players in, by putting the player’s experience at the heart of the experience. Compared to general games, they are often short and sweet, but nonetheless impactful, living on in the minds of players long after they have finished.

What Does a Walking Simulator Look Like?

In Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the story is a nonlinear radio play, with a science-fiction eeriness that would not be out of place in an H. G. Wells novel. The potent sense of place and the lives of its inhabitants are what sets the game apart. Players walk around the abandoned Shropshire village of Yaughton accompanied by a glowing orb that guides them from location to location. While Yaughton is fictional, the county where Yaughton is based, Shropshire, is a place I know in real life, and the interiors and village design were startlingly realistic.


That level of detail can be found throughout the game, from the placement of vases in the houses at the top of the stairs to the farmer’s house with farming equipment on his kitchen table—and in devastating contrast, a room laden with makeshift hospital equipment where he had been previously caring for his wife. It is one of the very few games I have played where I felt like I was snooping through actual personal belongings as a literal home invader. Every location captures the humanity of a person who lives in the village, and the overwhelming sense of loss you feel while exploring the abandoned remains is palpable.

Dear Esther is another well-known walking simulator game, set on an uninhabited island off the coast of Scotland. Playing it is a surreal experience, with an ethereal, haunting atmosphere hanging over you as you discover more about the person who lives on the island and why they are there in the first place. The island takes on a more symbolic meaning as you progress through the game. The sparse gameplay gives you an experience that’s experimental, more like a psychological art house film.

Gone Home is another game that’s driven by narrative storytelling and player exploration. It’s a family story told from the point of view of an older sister who returns home from college and discovers that her sister is gone. The tense storm that surrounds the house adds to the ominous mood as you wander from room to room, discovering objects that help flesh out the story and listening to audio diaries addressed to the sister, unravelling the real life and inner torment of her younger sister in the process. The house is meandering and dark, with nooks and crannies and creepy cupboards. You sort through piles of boxes and uncover hidden rooms where the family’s deepest, darkest secrets are revealed. The rawness of alternative teenage life in the '90s is conveyed through a Riot Grrrl soundtrack—played on a cassette player, also straight from the '90s. The game lasts only three hours, but I can guarantee that you will not forget the experience.

Walking Simulators Make Other Games Richer

That’s not to say walking simulators do not work in longer games, even games that you wouldn’t normally consider walking simulators. In Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, there’s a point in the game where you break into a mansion of an elderly explorer named Evelyn, who owns an impressive collection of antiquities, such as an actual sarcophagus and Egyptian amulets, among other historical delights. Trails of letters, leaflets, and old magazines tell the story of the collector’s impressive career and fraught personal life. The dialog feels quite natural between the brothers, and they act as children would, picking up trinkets, trying on hats, and taking a Polaroid of themselves in the process. In typical Uncharted fashion, walking around in the dark is full of suspense, and there is a build-up to an action-packed finale. Plus, who can forget that Crash Bandicoot cameo?

Walking-simulator-style gameplay is also often embedded into open-world games, where players need to travel across open spaces to move from one town or objective to another. I relished playing Red Dead Redemption 2 where the slow pace and realism of Arthur Morgan’s life as a cowboy felt incredibly natural and refreshing, especially when he was in between missions at the base camp. You could overhear his camp mates discussing what had happened that day or the various dramas unfolding between them. Rockstar Games went out of its way to add detailed environments and character development of the main characters, as well as their relationships with one another. Sadie Adler, for example, is one of my favorite female characters in the game because of her vulnerability and fearlessness, traits you don’t often find in female action-game protagonists. You first find her hiding from Arthur and his gang in the opening mission of the game. It’s not often that you get to see the challenging lives of brave women in action games, but Rockstar delivered.

Why Walking Simulators Are So Soothing

Beyond just being fun to play, there are surprising mental and psychological benefits to walking in games. Andrew Przybylski, an experimental psychologist and director of research at the Oxford Internet Research Institute told WIRED in an interview, “We have found that gameplay is positively associated with well-being insofar as play satisfies the psychological needs for competence (sense of efficacy), autonomy (sense of choice), and relatedness (sense of belonging). Games are an important part of their [gamers'] motivation for self-care, coping, and in the case of augmented reality games such as Pokémon Go, having a reason to get out of the house.”

Fancy escaping the stresses of real life to become a firewatcher? Firewatch is a psychological environmental exploration game set in the Wyoming wilderness. You play as Henry, who has left his previous life and marital woes behind to take up his new job as a firewatcher, all alone, in the middle of nowhere.

The Firewatch story unfolds through conversations between your character, Henry, and an intriguing person called Delilah, who is on the other side of a handheld radio in another watchtower. Your dialog choices drive the narrative, which gives your play-through extra resonance. Henry lives a very analog way of life, with his typewriter and handheld radio as the only technology he has at his disposal. As you explore the nature around you and watch the sky transition from night to day, the possibility of spotting smoke and your own isolation are never far from your mind. The distinctive in-game art design was inspired by the work of British illustrator Olly Moss.

Playing Firewatch is as introspective as it is explorative. It is the closest the average person can get to experiencing that degree of isolation. One story strand that stood out to me was when the player discovers a notebook inside a makeshift little fort that a young boy designed and created as his own space in the wilderness. It is littered with school folders, letters to his family, comics, science homework, and even a toy dinosaur. The storytelling is very minimal, and as you leaf through the boy’s belongings, you get a real sense of sobriety and grief. You are the only person who knows his story, and that’s very moving.

Waking simulator games complement other games, and for players, walking simulators create a much needed space where curiosity, joy, and escape all reside. They offer an exit into another world, one that I needed when there was quite literally nowhere else to go. They give us an escape, but also a chance for players to live life in another person’s shoes, processing the physical and psychological journeys of characters along the way. They allow us to explore the joy and humanity of being human as we journey through our world and space, meanwhile questioning ourselves, who we are, and what we are capable of experiencing.

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