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Behold the birth, and resonance, of walking simulators

(Washington Post illustration; Sumo Digital; Sony Interactive Entertainment)

On Valentine’s Day 2012, “Dear Esther” launched as a stand-alone title on the PC gaming store front Steam. Buoyed by an oblique and poetic trailer, it asked players to wander a bleak island landscape, listening to narrative fragments play as they slowly made their way toward a blinking tower. Weeks later, on March 13, “Journey” landed on the PlayStation 3’s digital store. It, too, gave players a world to move through, piecing together a fantastical pilgrimage across a memorable landscape. This double maneuver, a month apart, changed the shape of video games.

While these games looked and played quite differently, they shared an approach that, in retrospect, appeared to be a tipping point in games culture. Both games had a willingness to sit with time and space — to let the gameplay experience wash over you. The wandering from point-to-point was the endeavor. They stood out starkly against the major players dominating the industry at the time like Call of Duty or Halo, and there was a world of difference between the kinds of emotions these indie games played on and narrative-driven AAA titles, like the massive science fiction melodrama of March 6’s “Mass Effect 3.” By stripping interactions down to simply walking and experiencing an environment, these games worked within a grammar that was unfamiliar in the majority of commercial games.

Over the next few years, a name for this genre emerged in the video game lexicon: “walking simulators.” Deployed regularly in the pejorative sense, in that all one did in these games was “walk,” the term was deployed as a bludgeon to discipline a wildly diverse group of games. Debuting later in 2012, “Thirty Flights of Loving” changed how a lot of players understood the relation between games and cinema. The following year saw the release of the musical exploration game “Proteus,” the stand-alone release of the sardonic metagame “The Stanley Parable,” and the middle-class mystery “Gone Home.” These games all garnered substantial attention in the video games press, in many cases because it was controversial to consider them games in the first place.

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The battle around the walking simulator term, like many definitional fights, was a political one. Calling something a walking simulator carried a declarative weight to it, as if the act of walking was so surface level and pointless that to call it a “game” had no value. At the time, Paste Magazine’s Austin Walker connected the motivating conversations in game design and criticism together, noting that discussions of form and content always resolved into bigger historical debates about what does and does not belong within any given culture. The discussion reached an apex with a 2016 Kill Screen piece that interviewed critics and developers of these games about how they understood walking simulators and the discourse around them. The opinions were mixed. For some, “walking simulator” was a useful descriptor that allowed them to connect with a player base. For others, it trivialized artistic achievement. Others were concerned about overly broad usage. What’s clear, reading the article years later, is that by 2016 the term had taken root. These were walking simulators, and they had a tradition, expectations and an audience.

That same year, “Firewatch” released, a game that would later become regarded as the high water mark for the genre. It combined the extremely high production values of the biggest releases with the limited mechanical interactions endemic to walking sims. You look for fires, you learn about characters and you slowly unravel a mystery, but the majority of the game is spent alone, with your thoughts, walking slowly through nature and trying to learn the lay of the land. Characters take you through the world, but the world is the reason you are there.

“Dear Esther” and “Journey,” hitting different audiences at roughly the same time, pried open the game development imagination like can openers. The games are quite different in how they play. The Chinese Room’s “Dear Esther” is a first-person, solo experience where players explore an uninhabited island off the Scottish mainland while triggering audio clips that piece together a haunting story. By contrast, the wordless story of “Journey,” developed by Thatgamecompany, unfolds across abandoned and spectacular fantasy biomes that players traverse in third person, running into other players along the way.

However, the two shared key similarities that left a lasting impression on the industry. They were short games that could be played in around an hour. They were also mechanically simple yet visually polished, meaning they could be enjoyed by people who were otherwise not invested in games. They both proved that if you could get a person navigating in 3D, you could make something engaging as long as players were open to the experience. And as those popular releases from the following years showed, if you did all of the above and added a mechanic or two, people would be very willing to explore and engage.

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Of course, all of this was not brought into existence simply by the release of two video games. These ideas were swimming in the aether for years beforehand. Technological capabilities, like the increased ease of using the Unity engine, helped make these games possible, clearly evidenced by the existence of “Dear Esther” and “The Stanley Parable” as game mods for years before their stand-alone releases. The opening of digital distribution like the Steam, Xbox and PlayStation marketplaces were critical for these smaller titles to find purchase in their market niches. There have been multiple attempts to outline the “true” history of the walking simulator, each reaching deep in the past for contemplative experiences. While there is no one cause, no linear causation, games like “Dear Esther" and “Journey” demarcate a palpable shifting point. The world of video games was changing in the early 2010s, and these games are flashes of that change as much as they are objects.

These influences have also spread into some of the biggest games in the industry, although it seems like they have moved there through the everywhere-and-nowhere maneuver of a gradually changing culture. Entire segments of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and Uncharted franchises depend on mimicking the walking sim’s slow movement through space, soaking up the environment and preparing for the eventual fall back into action. Kojima Productions’ “Death Stranding” was even jokingly referred to as a walking simulator as it tasks players with delivering packages across desolate landscapes with nothing but the wind to keep them company.

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Here, 10 years on, I can feel the impact of “Dear Esther” and “Journey” and the avalanche of games that came along after them that shaped and honed some latent ideas that had been in video games for a long while. At the end of last year, when I was playing “Halo Infinite” and walking down a hallway slowly while characters spookily communicated plot information to me, I thought, “Wow, we’re in a Dear Esther.” The willingness to strip a player down to their experience of a space, and to ask them to sit with how they exist in that digital zone for a few moments, is a radical pause.

These games asked players to look at the world not as a set of challenges, and instead as a thing to be explored and appreciated for its own sake. They asked one to do less and experience more. When you have these moments in games now, you’re riding the ripples of a stone that dropped in 2012. These games live on, beyond themselves, as changed assumptions and assertions in the wider culture of video games.

Cameron Kunzelman is a critic who writes about games. His byline has appeared at Waypoint, Polygon, Kotaku and Paste. He has a podcast where he and his co-host are reading all of Stephen King in publication order. He’s on Twitter @ckunzelman.