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, Tacoma, and 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?