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What Makes a Video Game? The Case of Walking Simulators



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Video games are no longer as simple as they once were. In the modern era, the range of games is so diverse that the nature of the experience can differ entirely from genre to genre, not just in terms of the narrative, but also other elements including gameplay and graphics. The level of interactivity that the player has fluctuates, and different aspects, such as story and gameplay, become more or less important depending on the experience the title is aiming to provide.

A growing phenomenon in gaming has caused a lot of controversy: the games often derisively referred to as ‘walking simulators’. Such titles often emphasise story over gameplay, seeking to provide the player with a nuanced narrative experience through morally-ambiguous choices, exploration, and immersion. When they do not prize narrative, they go for an accentuated mood, focusing on a particular feeling and allowing exploration of the emotions that result. Regularly bracketed under the ‘adventure’ label, since they allow the player to interact with and explore a variety of environments, they are less interested in a complex gameplay experience.

Games are unique because of their interactivity. As a result, this agency can be utilised to tell a story that would be diminished in other mediums, leaning on interaction to add further layers to make the tale being told more interesting. The level of interactivity varies across walking simulators, but generally the intent is not to get the player to solve complex puzzles, kill enemies, or destroy strongholds, but allow them to be a part of the tale being told. As such, the confines placed on the amount of interactions, whether that means the player can only travel in certain areas or interact with certain things, is also not necessarily a bad thing. These games are about exploring themes, and the degree of freedom offered to the player allows them to explore those ideas at their leisure, but also in the way the game wants them to.

Telltale Games has played a large part in the rejuvenation of the adventure genre, and has been accused of reducing the concept of games to measly, insignificant components. Titles including The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us pride themselves on the way they tell intricate stories, but also on how they involve players in decision making. They also emphasise complex, nuanced interactions between the player character and non-player characters, encouraging thought regarding how to react and respond to other characters’ utterances. These decisions have an impact on the story, and on the reactions other characters have towards the player. As such, decision-making forms the embodiment of the involvement the player has in proceedings. The user’s role is rarely to run around shooting things and solving extremely complex puzzles, but it never needed to be.


As a result, games such as these, together with the likes of Gone Home, Firewatch, Tacomaand The Fidelio Incident, are never about providing the player with a challenging gaming experience in the mould of a first-person shooter or a particularly tricky RPG (for example, Dark Souls), but about dropping the player into an experience packed with atmosphere, tension, and a compelling narrative.

This expectation to receive a gameplay-based challenge explains the difference between critical and fan reception to such games. Gone Home, in particular, has been extremely divisive among the fan community, but uniformly praised by critics who relished its well- told story and subtle gameplay mechanics. While some fans reacted equally enthusiastically, presumably those familiar with genre distinctions in the world of gaming, others lambasted the title for a lack of emphasis on gameplay, and the relative ‘ease’ with which it can be completed. Other reactions had to do with the nature of the story, which angered some for promoting progressive values, and those are probably the more troublesome complaints, but in the question of whether Gone Home is a game, to argue for the negative is unequivocally wrong. Walking simulators absolutely are interactive; they just place a different emphasis on their various elements to Call of Duty. Both remain, indisputably, games.

Whether or not a title like Gone Home is classified in the end as ‘interactive literature’, (another designation commonly used to distance these titles from others on the market), is almost irrelevant to the discussion about whether or not it is a game. Such projects definitely could be classified in that way, but that does not mean that the world of the game is not there to be explored, or that the player’s role is redundant.Users still have things to do to progress the story, to figure out the pieces and put them together to construct the full picture. This agency makes the player’s role important, regardless of the difficulty, and when the interaction with the literature plays an active role, classifying so-called ‘walking simulators’ as games becomes very simple. Even the most straightforward versions, that merely invite players to walk through various environments, allow for exploration of surroundings and setting. Furthermore, they should be respected as titles that aim for—and often achieve—a wholly different effect to other genres. After all, Age of Empires is vastly different from Assassin’s Creed in what it seeks to achieve. How are these games any different?


Three Single-Player Games to Watch Out for in July 2019



Three Single Player Games (July 2019) - Sea of Solitude, Fire Emblem Three Houses, Wolfenstein Youngblood

July, the middle of winter down here in Australia. Even in the bizarre New South Wales climate, the biting cold makes for a great excuse to stay inside and play games. 

Weirdly for single players, quite a few prestige games this month include additional co-op modes. With acclaimed designers behind them, such games will hopefully avoid the pitfalls of accommodating multiple players, as too many games have done in the past.

Sea of Solitude

Release Date: July 5, 2019
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

At first blush, Sea of Solitude looks like yet another story of a young adult struggling with questions of identity and mental health while exploring a beautiful but harsh fantasy world.

Actually, that’s what it is. ‘Quirky, life affirming indie adventure’ is a whole cottage industry these days, but the fact that such games are now more prevalent should never dismay.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was a masterpiece of refined design and storytelling, and Sea of Solitude appears be something similar—this time dealing with a fantastical vision of depression that turns ordinary people into literal monsters.

Players take charge of Kay, who has sought out the eponymous Sea—or rather, a flooded city based on Berlin—in the hope that there is a cure for monstrosity. However, despite its name, she is not the only person in the Sea. Avoiding the other monsters of the Sea seems to be a major part of the gameplay. These tense encounters are likely to provide rhythm and variety to the adventure and keep it from being a just walking simulator. (Not that being a walking simulator is inherently a problem.)

Although published by EA Originals, one would do well to remember that EA the company does not actually profit off the Originals that they publish. With a focused story and themes that still are not often explored in bigger games, Sea of Solitude should be of great interest to single player fans in a month otherwise dominated by multiplayer titles.


Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Release Date: July 26, 2019
Platform: Nintendo Switch

Almost certainly the biggest single player release of the month, and tied with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 as another massive Switch exclusive, Fire Emblem: Three Houses might be exactly what single players need right now.

Lately the Fire Emblem franchise has exploded in both its popular profile and sales success, buoyed by a hunger for both deep anime RPGs and polished tactics games. Three Houses seems to have doubled down on exciting trends and features in both genres: particularly a Persona/Harry Potter inspired magic school setting and an even deeper tactical battle system that ditches the rock-paper-scissors for more nuanced character progression options. As with many Japanese RPGs, the story is also a major focus and hinges upon a time-jump.

The early part casts the player as a teacher at the Officer’s Academy, situated in the center of the game world and attended by students from the three most powerful nations. Five years later, the second and likely larger part concerns the drama between the player’s teacher and their former students, whose nations are now locked in a massive three-way conflict.

As is to be expected for a series finally coming back to consoles after a long time on the 3DS, Three Houses is a massive technical leap over its predecessors. The game boasts better realised battlefields, more detailed armies, and a slick animated style that appears much more consistent compared with the three or four different art styles on the 3DS.

With such improvements, as well as the overall pedigree of the Fire Emblem brand, Three Houses should have no trouble satisfying single player fans looking for a meaty middle-of-the-year RPG.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood

Release Date: July 26, 2019
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One

The recent Wolfenstein revival series is such a remarkable achievement in traditional shooter design and great, if goofy, sci-fi worldbuilding that the co-op focus of this latest instalment is somewhat disappointing.

Yes, as with F.E.A.R. 3 and Dead Space 3, following a well-received second chapter the Wolfenstein series now pivots to a co-operative focused chapter. Though the game is not a mandatory multiplayer experience, combat encounters and puzzles have been redesigned to accommodate the two player mode, giving single players an AI-controlled partner and bullet sponge enemies.

However, all hope is not lost for Wolfenstein: why else would it be the third game on the list? The narrative has been pushed forward in time, as B.J.’s twin daughters are now in their adolescence, now giving players a glimpse at the 1980s of Wolfenstein‘s skewed universe. Additionally, the level design itself is more freeform thanks to development assistance from Arkane, the developers of the Dishonored series.

Will Wolfenstein: Youngblood successfully deliver more of the series’s goofy charm and crazy alternate reality? Almost certainly. On the other hand, will the game be as fun to play alone as in multiplayer? That remains to be seen. Last month’s E3 demo that raised such concerns was naturally only a snapshot of a game in development, so MachineGames and Arkane have had plenty of time to resolve these potential downsides to a co-op focused game.

Those are our three big single player games to look out for this month. Other interesting titles coming soon include Stranger Things 3 on July 4 and Attack on Titan 2 on July 5, both games hitting Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

On July 12 we will see the sequel to an almost-fantastic Minecraft-like RPG spinoff, Dragon Quest Builders 2 on Switch and PlayStation 4, as well as the Switch port of “anime Monster Hunter”, God Eater 3

The week after, July 19 brings us Switch-exclusive Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, and at an undetermined time during the month Klei Entertainment’s anticipated survival-sim Oxygen Not Included will finally leave early access on PC.

Have we missed anything that you’re looking forward to? Let us know in the comments below and be sure bookmark OnlySP and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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