Exploration Games—not ’Walking Simulators’

It’s time we stopped referring to a particular type of games as ‘walking simulators’.

There was a lot of discussion about this at DiGRA-FDG last week, including one particularly heated debate. Many people felt that classing a game as a ‘walking simulator’ is derogatory—as Alexander Muscat put it, “You don’t call a FPS a ‘first person shooting simulator’”. Though some use the term simply as a genre without malice, others use it to condemn a game as boring.

It’s also misleading, as not all of the games in this category even rely on walking. Yesterday I spent a few hours playing through ABZÛ—a game that I would class as belonging to the ‘walking simulator’ genre despite being set almost entirely underwater.

But what should we call them instead? And what qualifies?

After some thought, I think that it’s reasonable to reframe games of this type as ‘exploration games’.

I know this suggestion has come up before. Rock, Paper, Shotgun ran an article a couple of years ago (Self-Interviewing Devs: Proteus And “Walking Simulators”) that looked at the topic; Ricky Haggett rejected the term ‘explorations games’ but I think he had a rather different notion of it than I do. I’m thinking of it in a pretty dictionary-orientated sense:

1. the action of exploring an unfamiliar area.

2. thorough examination of a subject.

Both of these definitions seem to fit with the mindset and purpose of ‘walking simulators’ so far, in terms of exploring not just environments but narratives and characters too, particularly via environmental storytelling (i.e. rummaging through abandoned diaries).

“But what about something like Bioshock?” someone said at DiGRA-FDG, “You’re always exploring there.” Sure, you’re exploring the city of Rapture and such, but that’s not the focus of the game. The focus is, generally, to not die or to meet changing objectives. Similarly, I think that The Witness may be too puzzle-orientated to qualify. I think focus on exploration (and lack of combat to distract from that) is an important distinction of the ‘walking simulator’ genre as it stands, so I suggest the following redefinition of the genre:

Exploration Games:

– Focus on exploration of an environment and narrative

– Feature environmental storytelling

– Have no combat (excepting cutscenes; the player might be injured, etc., but cannot fight back)

– Have no fail-state (i.e. no capacity for player death as a result of their actions excepting incidents unavoidable in the game’s design)

I expect this will need tweaking, but it should be flexible in any case; there’s always games that don’t fit neatly into any one genre.

Granted, to accept and utilise this definition would be something of a spoiler regarding combat— [highlight whitespace for spoilers] Gone Home would be a very different game if you knew from the beginning that you weren’t going to find a murderer in the basement.

I had thought of adding in something about player agency or role in narrative, but I think that would be too limiting and ultimately wrong; there’s a world of difference between Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture and Journey, for example.

Whited out to avoid spoilers, I think the games listed below fit this description. I’ve only included those which I’ve played to be sure I’m right, but I’m happy to adjust the list if you have suggestions.

[highlight whitespace for spoilers]

  • ABZÛ
  • Dear Esther
  • Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture
  • Firewatch
  • Gone Home
  • Journey
  • Life is Strange
  • Proteus
  • The Beginner’s Guide
  • The Stanley Parable

I don’t usually care about definitions, but this has been bothering me for a while so I wanted to get my thoughts out. This definition is intended more as a prompt for discussion than a be-all-and-end-all, so please do share your thoughts on this!