Why I Love Walking Sims
Walking sims, a somewhat derogatory term for atmospheric, story based games with little or no skill level required, are among my very favourite things in the world. I love them for how open they are to all people, not just the elite who grew up on video games. It is with walking sims that games have truly grown up and developed into an artform that has more to say than shooting somebody with a large gun. There are many brilliant walking sims, but I am going to talk about my six favourites.
"Do me wrong, do me right. Tell me lies but hold me tight
Save your good-byes for the morning light, but don't let me be lonely tonight
Say goodbye and say hello. Sure enough good to see you, but it's time to go
Don't say yes but please don't say no, I don't want to be lonely tonight."
Firewatch is my favourite walking sim, and for good reasons. It is one of the most visually stunning games I have ever seen or played, and it has a story that is unrivaled in the genre, and indeed the medium. It is a story about isolation, about running away from responsibilities and the veneration of the natural world. It is a story about getting straight again through drawing power from the Earth and becoming comfortable with your own company. The game is a mystery, but it is ultimately a mystery about your own person, and how you can come to terms with yourself and with the woman you loved. Through discovering the truth about what happened in your environment, you discover the truth about yourself, a long delayed acknowledgement of your own wrongs.
Firewatch is my favourite Walking Sim because it gets to the emotion of the thing better than anything else I've played in the genre. It is neck and neck with my favourite created work of all time, Bioshock Infinite, and indeed it has much in common with that classic: for how it expresses so purely, and with such artistry, the crisis of soul that comes at our darkest times. While Bioshock Infinite is in its gameplay style more easily classifiable as a traditional video game, at its heart Infinite is obsessed with the kind of environmental focused story telling, as well as getting to know a character over a radio. The ending is so beautiful, getting to the heart of the crushing loneliness that comes from becoming a stranger to yourself. Firewatch probably requires the most traditional video game skills of any of the games listed here, but don't let that put you off. Put in a little bit of work and you will get a huge reward. Trust me. One of the best games of the last decade.
"My shadow doesn't show in the dark
The night time is inclined to my heart
The emptiness I felt from the start
Will follow me till I fall apart
Nocturnal, nocturnal, nocturnal, nocturnal."
Virginia is my second favourite game on this list, for its sublime visual style, for a story told all in visuals with no dialogue, and for a mysterious and poignant ending that rivals Twin Peaks The Return for pure emotional wallop. Virginia, like Life Is Strange - which I wrote about yesterday - is heavily indebted to David Lynch and Mark Frost's creation. Virginia takes all of the surreal beauty that is to be found in Frost and Lynch's work and pushes it through an interactive medium that brings a unique sense of immersion with it. Virginia is about an FBI special agent - helloooooooOOOoO! - who is tasked with investigating her colleague for Internal Affairs, while having the appearance of investigating a missing boy.
Fans of Twin Peaks are sure to love this gorgeous bit of game design, for its similarly fearless heart and for the dense and profound mystery to be found in the game's closing moments. That a game like this could be made, and further that it could be something of a success is remarkable and a sign of how the medium has grown up over the years. This is so far from the stereotype of grey, dull as fuck military masturbating first person shooters, that it makes me incredibly happy. Absolutely zero video game know how required to play this, which I think is a huge positive. Shout out to my Twin Peaks friends, who I think would love this game.
Remember there's always tomorrow
So what if we have to part
We'll be together again
Are memories I'll treasure forever
So try thinking with your heart
We'll be together again."
Dear Esther, released in 2012, though originally appearing in 2008 as a free to play Source mod, basically invented the walking sim. While it is not as flashy or as complex as the other games listed on here, it remains a moving experience that set the standard for all games in this style to follow. Dear Esther tells a story about coming to terms with losing your love, and how you can fit into society. Here the sheer majesty and desolation of the environments speaks on the mental and emotional state of the character you play. In this sense, it is a definite influence on something like Firewatch.
Dear Esther is a pure experience. It is not concerned with how good you are at video games. The challenge here is in understanding and appreciating the story being told. Dear Esther's lack of any characters other than your own, as well as no objectives other than finding your way to your next memory, makes The Chinese Room's game an exercise in minimalism, which it does very well indeed. Dear Esther was the recipient of a lot of noisy guff around the question over whether it was a "real" game or not. My feeling today remains the same, as when this hideous little mental virus took hold some years back: it doesn't fucking matter. What matters is that this work is damn good. The sheer number of great titles Dear Esther inspired is a lasting testament to its power and innovation.
Everybody's Gone To The Rapture
"Mister Sandman bring me a dream
Make him the cutest that I've ever seen
Give him two lips like roses and clover
Then tell him that his lonesome nights are over."
Another game by The Chinese Room, and in my opinion far superior to Dear Esther: for its scope in storytelling, for its intriguing and riveting science fiction/metaphysical story, and for its unusual setting. I played Everybody's Gone To The Rapture with my brother when it was released in 2015. It remains one of my most treasured game playing experiences, as we both became immersed in the setting and the story, and found it all to be incredibly moving. I think of this game whenever people complain that walking sims might as well just be movies. Well, a playthrough of Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, and indeed any game on this list, will let you know why that is so, so wrong. There is a level of immersion into the world, that a movie cannot compare with. Even if you are stuck in a linear story, the fact that you are still directing the action makes it connect with you in a way that no other medium can compare with.
Everybody's Gone To The Rapture is about a science experiment gone wrong, but is in many ways a work about the line between scientific belief and religious conviction. That makes it sound kind of annoying, but trust me when I say it isn't. It is one of the most rewarding game playing experiences of my life, and if you give it a chance it can be one of yours too. I feel sorry for people who throw all of these games under the heading of NOT REAL GAMES and don't even try to understand why so many people are brought so much joy by them.
What Remains of Edith Finch
"The fundamental things apply, as time goes by."
What Remains of Edith Finch is one of the best games I've played in the last year, up there with Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It is an incredibly assured work of elite artistry, that recalls the games that preceded it, but never makes one feel like they are experiencing something they have already seen. The premise is very similar to Gone Home - which I will discuss in a little bit - but the way it is executed makes it stand out from the crowd. Edith Finch returns to her family home to uncover the tragedy that has eaten away every member one by one. The game by Giant Sparrow is a beautiful thing to experience, as each piece of the puzzle is revealed, and you become fully enlightened as to the reasons behind so many tragedies.
The scene where you are in the body of a baby, who then drowns in a bath, is one of the most affecting and moving scenes in anything I witnessed in 2017. It alternates between desperate sadness and astonishment at the wonder of existence. If there is any deeper meaning to be found in Edith Finch, it is this: don't let your history define your future. The game's closing moments are profound, as the family line is continued, in spite of all of the horrific baggage that comes with being a Finch. If you want to see why walking sims are the best thing going in video games today, you couldn't do better than starting here.
"I got my eyes on you
You're everything that I see
I want your high loving emotion endlessly
I can't get over you
You left your mark on me
I want your high loving emotion endlessly
Cause you're a good girl and you know it
You act so different around me
Cause you're a good girl and you know it
I know exactly who you could be
Just hold on we're going home
Just hold on we're going home
It's hard to do these things alone
Just hold on we're going home."
Developed by Fullbright, Gone Home is to many people the quintessential walking sim, and for good reason: it is one of the most satisfying pieces of storytelling in video games. It is easy to see that three of the staff at Fullbright worked on the brilliant Bioshock 2 DLC, Minerva's Den, which was arguably better than the game it was expanding on. The concept is perfect in its minimalism: you come home to find your family gone, when they were supposed to meet you. Through a careful exploration of your family home, you uncover long held secrets. Like all of the games on this list, there is no game playing skill required to enjoy every part of this game. Yet, that immersion unique to the medium gives you a far more personal feeling about everything than you would had you just watched a playthrough on Youtube, which some very foolish people do.
Gone Home is incredibly well observed, and delivers a major emotional punch right to the feelings. It is not obvious or cliche in the way it tackles the pains of growing up and of finding your first love, no matter how it looks to your parents. While it could have been easy to depict the parents here as some kind of monsters, they are just very human. You believe that everyone here is real and human, in spite of the fact that you never meet anyone in the game. The level of detail in the house is incredible, and it really feels lived in. For many people this will be their favourite game on this list, and it is very nearly mine, so heavyweight is it in the story its telling.
While I have listed my six favourites here, there are so many more to discover out there on Steam, PSN and elsewhere. I also have to give a major shout out to The Beginner's Guide, which is so unusual in its approach that I felt it best to leave it off this list. It is never the less one of the most compelling and original games I have ever played. Similar shout out to Journey, which is, while not in the first person perspective, equally as concerned with overpowering atmosphere, visual beauty and a story that rewards repeated playing.