What’s the point of walking simulators?

The conceit of a “walking simulator” game is that you can interact with the world around you, but not to the extent that it affects the plot. In Gone Home, you can listen to cassette tapes and flip lights on and off, but you can’t go outside and reconnect the phone line to call your parents and bring the game to an early end. In Kentucky Route Zero, you decide the name of your dog, but no matter his name he silently sticks by your side. In Firewatch, you talk over the radio with Delilah, and what you say affects subsequent conversations, but no matter how those conversations go you’re fated to discover and solve the same mystery, and your relationship is destined to end in the same way. The Stanley Parable calls out this odd balance of power, making a lot of the fact that you can turn left when the narrator says you should go right, but then mocking you when you quickly reach the limits of your freedom.

Hardcore gamers think this is boring, which is where the term “walking simulator” came from: You’re just walking around! These gamers consider the point of playing to be finishing with the highest score or fastest time—or perhaps more precisely the enjoyment of exercising the skills necessary to reach that score or time. They bear a family resemblance to readers who consider the reveal of the plot’s conclusion, or the tension savored on the way to that conclusion, to be the point of fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself as you employ the hand-eye coordination or puzzle-solving ability necessary to play a game, or with enjoying narrative tension, but thinking of that as the main or only point of reading or playing closes you off to the pleasures of books in which “nothing happens” or games in which the broad arc of what happens is out of your control.

What pleasures? Why play if not to exercise a set of skills or attain a high score? Why have any interaction in a walking simulator at all? Why not just make it into a movie that you can lean back and watch?

One answer is that even if decisions do not affect the plot, they may affect tone. This is true in Kentucky Route Zero: The player’s choices inflect the game, just as actors will differently inflect the same script.

What if your interactions don’t affect tone either? If your interactions doesn’t actually accomplish anything in the game, maybe they are there to teach you: to make you consider your complicity, or foster empathy, or train you to “level up” in real life.

Which is all fine, I suppose. But it rubs me the wrong way if interaction is only there for the purpose of changing you and not the game. Providing a “control” that controls nothing, that exists only so that the person pushing it is made to feel something, sounds like an interesting piece of conceptual art, or perhaps a lab experiment, but packaged as a game it feels like false pretenses. Plus, that leaves the formal question unanswered: That button in front is you is connected to the screen, you are making a change. What is the nature of that change?

An analogy is helpful: The pleasures of interactivity in the absence of any kind of control over the plot are much the same as the pleasures of reading a book in which “nothing happens.” What are the pleasures of a book aside from plot? One of the best explanations I’ve come across is in Joshua Ferris’s review of Don DeLillo’s Zero K:

I don’t read a DeLillo novel for its plot, character, setting; for who betrayed whom and how hard life with Mother was; for Phoenix days and Bombay nights; or for how to tune a fiddle. I read a DeLillo novel for its sentences. And sentence by sentence, DeLillo magically slips the knot of criticism and gives his readers what Nabokov maintained was all that mattered in life and art: individual genius. Sentence by sentence, DeLillo seduces. And I don’t just mean on the question of thumbs up or down; I mean that his sentences juke and weave around the best defenses, so that not only is the playing field of the past 50 years strewn with conservative critics of all stripes, but text, subtext, ultimate meanings remain elusive and the game, at least in part, now seems original to him.

This sentence-by-sentence seduction is what (some) prose has in common with poetry. Games have many opportunities for poetry: In prose rendered typographically or delivered aurally, in careful mise-in-scene, in painterly art direction, in music timed just so. But games are unique in that you, the viewer/reader/player can dial in the amount of that you want. Walking simulators are rarely Choose Your Own Adventure, but usually and charmingly Choose Your Own Digressions. Imagine a dial like on a toaster, but instead of Light to Dark you are tuning to your preferred setting between Plot-Driven Thriller and Aimless Aesthetic Meditation.


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