Self-Interviewing Devs: Proteus And “Walking Simulators”

By Alice O'Connor on June 28th, 2014 at 12:00 pm.

I've returned to this particular Proteus island many times. But am I simulating walking or exploring or wandering or dreaming or?

I’ve discovered a novel way to conduct interviews: tweet vaguely about something you’re interested in, then wait for two game designers you like and respect to have a chat about it and send you the logs. I carefully laid my bait: “I use ‘walking simulator’ warmly and earnestly. I adore walking around looking at stuff and reflecting. Walking is great! Sim it to the max.”

The trap snared my chums Ed Key and Ricky Haggett. Ed created walking simulator Proteus while Ricky is working on Hohokum, a dicking-about sim for PlayStations which might, with fewer puzzles, be called a walking simulator. Unsuspecting, they discussed Proteus, the ‘genre,’ exploring and wandering, and what a “walking simulator” even is. Afterwards they decided “Just email it to Alice,” rather than blog about the chat themselves. “She can turn it into ‘news,’” they said. Suckers!

While I’ll enthuse “It’s a walking simulator!” about a game, others might hiss “It’s a walking simulator” in the same tone as (and often followed with) “It’s not even a game.” I’d like to reclaim it from the grumps because it’s fun, it’s funny (for a joke that’s since been worn out), and even if the name is nonsense, it’s useful because we understand the vague and wonderful area of games it refers to.

We can’t tell how many of the Steam users who’ve tagged 44 games “walking simulator” enough to have that label stick did it as a friendly aide for others or a dire warning. But some clearly dislike walk ‘em ups enough to use it as a slur, tagging games like counter-terrorism FPS Takedown: Red Sabre to mean “I think this game is bad.” It’s a weird hotspot for trouble in the imagined war between The Proper Games and Those Bad Indie Games Ruining Proper Games.

Which I imagine is partly why Ed isn’t wholly pleased as we join my little patsies mid-conversation:

Ricky: So it’s the “simulator” part you object to more than the “walking” part?

Ed: Maybe both, although I think “simulator” amplifies walking?

Ricky: I can’t tell if Alice was being serious but I totally agree with her. Walking is great. Games that simulate the sense of walking and half-exploring and thinking your own thoughts are great.

I certainly do enjoy finding ocean-facing hillside graveyards for quiet contemplation.

Ed: I think a large part of my annoyance with “walking simulator” is that it’s a re-phrasing of the comment “If I wanted to go for a walk I can go to the park any time I want” common on YouTube etc.

My usual thought in response to that is “Would you say the same about a painting of a mountain?” or something.

So maybe the issue of what is a “simulator” is important? People play flight sims because they can’t really fly a 747?

Ricky: I think it’s true to say that going for a nice walk in the park is a substitute for playing Proteus if you go in the right mindset, but the fact of a completely different environment to explore is extremely powerful.

Ed: Fuck off really? “Substitute”?

Ricky: Well, I mean the power of both of them is the mindset you can achieve.

Ed: Right, but are these things interchangeable?

Ricky: Mostly not–but mainly for practical reasons.

Ed: In the sense of say 2048 and Threes being interchangeable, or two different cups of coffee?

Ricky: Oh I see. Well, in the case of the YouTube comment “If I wanted to go for a walk I can go to the park any time I want,” that is obviously implying that it’s arbitrary and they’re interchangeable, which I don’t agree with.

I am saying that the joy of playing a game like Proteus overlaps a lot more with going for a nice walk in a park than it does playing a different sort of game, in terms of the space it fills in the brain. That’s why I think “walking simulator” is a potentially positive term, but of course I can see how you’d be sensitive to it in the context of its misuse.

Instead of this Endless Ocean 2 screen you may, if you wish, imagine World of Diving.

Ed: I think that’s partly fair about the overlap. But then, is Knytt a walking simulator?

Ricky: I never played the first one really, only Knytt Stories, but yes, it is. The default, easy levels definitely. And so is Endless Ocean, that Wii game where you go scuba diving–even though you don’t walk.

Ed: I’m not up to date with Steam tags, but aren’t Gone Home and The Stanley Parable also called walking simulators?

Ricky: It’s just Proteus, Dear Esther and Passage so far. Maybe Gone Home is. Stanley Parable definitely isn’t. [They're all tagged by now. -ed]

Ed: Maybe… any game without guns is.

Ricky: It’s more about the mindset of walking than the verb.

But is Gone Home REALLY a walking simulator?

Ed: Why not find a different term, rather than one that’s already in use by Steam morons to describe “FPS where you don’t shoot”?

Ricky: A ‘better term’ would be ‘meditative games’ but that has an awful hippy-sounding air that I don’t like.

Ed: Or ‘exploration games.’

Ricky: No, exploration is quite different. The mindset is different. Like the bits of Knytt Stories where you have to think about which branch to take or remember where to use a power-up.

Ed: By calling something a walking simulator are you excluding exploration?

Ricky: Yes, I am. I am using the term to describe the sense of going for a walk for no particular reason.

Ed: Wouldn’t you say this is a huge difference between Dear Esther and Proteus?

Ricky: There’s an aimlessness to it for the first 15-20 minutes of Dear Esther. It feels like there’s more to it but after that I realised it was just a pretty linear thing, and that I was supposed to just walk and go with it.

Ed: Well, there’s walks and walks. Like, hiking a route, or walking through a park you’ve walked through hundreds of times.

Dear Esther, Everyone keeps telling me that you're not even a game. What's their deal? Yrs, Alice XXXO

Ricky: Yeah. I’m not talking about orienteering. I’m saying you know where you are at all times. You don’t necessarily know where you’re going. When you get to a fork you could go left or right as the fancy takes you, the brain is occupied with the mechanics of walking, and making sure you don’t wander into a bog, or get murdered, or whatever, but only so much. You are pretty absorbed visually but not on something you need to focus directly on.

Ed: The mechanics of walking is another issue… Like, flight “simulators” are largely about the mechanics of flying.

Ricky: Yeah, “simulator” is kind of absurd when paired with “walking.”

Ed: QWOP is my example…

Ricky: The point is that walking doesn’t require simulation.

Ed: Right, but simulation also means something like a holodeck, so reinforces that YouTube comment mentality.

Ricky: Yeah, I get that. I only like the ridiculousness of “simulator.”

Or a running simulator, technically. Stumbling. Falling?

Ed: Hah this is one of the best YouTube comments:

“Huh, nowadays software tries fully adapt us to its digital deception. Instead of going outside, to walk in parks and woods, we choose to sit in front of a monitor and watch this pixel ‘world’… and imagine(?)”

Another:

“I didn’t play the game but I can walk in a frigging forest if I want to why should I try to it in a computer game?”

Ricky: To which I would say, “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”

Ed: There are nice comments too:

“Are you kidding? Have you heard of this thing called art? You wouldn’t say the same thing of a painting if it was depicting a forest, would you?

Besides, I’d understand your point if it was a game with photorealistic graphics just trying to imitating a walk in nature; but it isn’t, there is much more to it. Like it or not, this is actually a great, refreshing game.”

Ricky: Yeah.

Ed: hahaha

“This seems really good, but I’ll have to read up on whether it has a solid plot or not. If it does, I’m buying it for sure.?”

Not graves.

Ricky: I don’t think Proteus is an exploring game. It kind of confounds exploring. I’ve never played it and not wandered around according to my whim. I’ve never tried to be systematic about it or mapped it.

Ed: Yes, it’s more of a wandering and being surprised game.

Ricky: Yes! Wandering. It’s a Wandering Simulator.

Ed: Exploring in the sense of “here’s this unexplained thing, see what’s inside,” rather than “explore this continent for Queen Victoria.” But then maybe those are the same. I mean, you explore and maybe draw a map out of necessity.

Ricky: Well, I think again it’s down to mindset.

Ed: No, I mean: exploration is finding new stuff, not surveying or mapping, but in Proteus you’ll only find major new stuff the first 2-3 times. But might find new mountains after that. You only find new stuff in darkest Africa the first n times.

Ricky: Right, but when you travel into Africa, you have a purpose. When you play Proteus it is not like “I am going to try to find something new,” or at least not for me.

I actually started trying to get the trophies on Vita but it made me feel a bit weird. Trying to work out these puzzles and not getting them, and that sense of being ‘stuck,’ felt very odd. So I gave up. (Sorry.)

Ed: Hmm! Interesting. But yeah that’s fine… obviously they are just there because they have to be.

Ricky: Actually, playing with my son we usually have a very singular purpose, which is to find a frog. That’s all he wants to do.

I assume working on an unannounced PC version of Hohokum is why you're too busy to blog, RICKY.

Ricky: I might have to write a blog post (I will never get around to it).

Ed: Ugh that means I would have to.

We should have made this a podcast.

Ricky: Let’s just email it to Alice. She can turn it into ‘news.’

Ed: hahaha

Ok, doing it.

Ricky: haha

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90 Comments »

  1. GardenOfSun says:

    I’d be glad if TB came around to read this. He can be a very honest and competent critic, but I feel he’s got a far too traditionalist and rigid view of what “interactive media” can and should be for his own sake – especially because he tends to systematically expunge from all of his analyses what I could call the “artistic” point of view.
    Point in case: Dear Esther. Actually, I’d still very much like a conversation like this centered on that one; even these good lads seem to implicitly bash it a little. And of course it’s understandable that as a “videogame” in a traditional sense it might seem foundamentally lacking in interactivity. But I feel that’s also the whole point. Any analysis of Dear Esther should first and foremost be concerned with A) the intrinsic artistic value of its writing, in my opinion one of the best – in a “literary” sense – ever seen in a videogame B) how it’s insertion at a peculiar junction between freedom (you can or can not move) and totally directed experience (it’s totally linear and minimally interactive) raises question about the objective nature of “interactivity” itself. The argument would be long, but basically the gist is that the interactivity you experience generally in a game is a far removed thing from the “foundamental” human freedom (the anguish-inducing of the existentialist, which then becomes the heideggerian dasein, but also what can one paradoxically experience only insofar as he renounces his determinate will). That is, that interactivity is explicitly what allows you to be dispensed from that feeling of freedom, of the infinite, since the “real” part of the deciding has already been done with in the structural framework that allows only limited (and often totally obvious) alternate choices.
    I think it’s sad that a bright fellow like TB doesn’t grasp how a game that boldly and brazenly challenges this conceit of “free interaction” like Dear Esther (admittedly more in the name of art than videogames) would be of great value as a critical reflection on his own stance – especially since he on the contrary liked The Stanley Parable quite a lot, not grasping, again, how that “game” too aimes to deconstruct “choice” as well.

    • KDR_11k says:

      Dear Ester gets some flak for its story too, not just the way it chooses to be story-focused. That may not make it a good subject for such a discussion because it muddles the comparison by not only being a bad traditional game but also being a bad art game.

      I haven’t “played” it myself but I think it makes sense to criticize a “game” that’s not really interactive because that may be the wrong medium choice then. Nobody’s stopping The Chinese Room from making a movie but that would raise expectations because moviegoers are used to story-only works. Their Amnesia game was criticized for failing to be scary which is pretty damning for a horror game.

      Stanley Parable is interactive, it doesn’t have failure but it does matter what the player does, the Stanley Parable would not work in any other medium because the player is a key part of its function as an art installation. It may not warrant the term “game” but it is a system of branching paths that explore various what-if scenarios, even if it’s only in a completely nonsensical world. The closest conventional thing would be a simulator although it’s a static simulation where outcomes are hardcoded rather than determined by math. Simulators don’t necessarily have fail states either though, just an examination of different possible outcomes based on inputs.

      • joa says:

        On the contrary I don’t think Dear Esther would work as a film at all. Nor is it story focused – I think it’s more focused on the auditory and visual experience. And letting you walk around and take that in for yourself is part of that. Simply watching a recording of someone else playing it wouldn’t be half as good.

        Perhaps it’s worth noting I’ve only played the mod though. I might feel differently if I had paid money for the game expecting something completely different. And that’s why I think it’s important to respect the point of view of the not-a-real-game people.

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          Continuity says:

          Yes, when I’ve tried to explain Dear Esther in the past i’ve come up with “experiential poem”.
          The “story”, which I’m not sure is a term that I agree with as you’re not being told a story, nor are you following a plot, you’re just experiencing the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist, but anyway, the story is overtly literary and is much closer in feel to a poem than any prose I’ve read. To try and crystallise that into a “Script” is to completely miss the point.
          The other aspect of course is the atmosphere and effect of the setting, and the discovery element of progressing through the terrain, this focuses not on exploration but more on the experience of uncovering something, something beautiful, sad, and scary all at once.

          If you boil it down to mechanics, Dear Esther may not be a “computer game” by some strict definitions, but I loved it, and personally that is the only criteria I’m interested in, and I feel sorry for those that are limiting the scope of their enjoyment for the sake of a pedantic definition.

      • GameCat says:

        “Their Amnesia game was criticized for failing to be scary which is pretty damning for a horror game.”

        Well, to be honest, first Amnesia was overhyped hide and seek/pac-man wrapped with horror-themed paper.
        And most of the horror games aren’t scary, at least not beyond fucking cheap jumpscares.

      • Robert H. Dylan says:

        Hi all. I’ve tried remixing both Dear Esther’s script: http://www.moddb.com/groups/writers-club/forum/thread/dear-esther-script-tweaks, and Ed Key’s post What Are Games: http://alienfiction.com/2014/06/01/the-artificial-meta-game-of-proteus/. Am still planning to buy Proteus for the mods though ;-)

      • jaypettitt says:

        Dear Esther doesn’t have a story. It prods your brain with randomised and hidden hints that there should be one – but joining the dots, coming up with a narrative and fleshing out the characters is up to you. It’s that improvisation game where the celebrity wit creates a funny skit after the audience suggest a handful of assorted plot points. That’s the game – the fail state is not having subconscioused up a compelling tale by the end of your walk.

        • El Mariachi says:

          Saying that Dear Esther doesn’t have a story is like saying that William Burroughs didn’t write novels. The player isn’t inventing the story based on disjointed random shards, the way your brain sees patterns in TV static or hears a faint melody in the white noise of a desk fan. There is a concrete story there, it’s just revealed nonlinearly.

    • SkittleDiddler says:

      Could it be that TB is just bored by narrative-centric “art house” games like Dear Esther? Meaningful critical analysis is kind of sidelined when boredom rears its head.

      I’ve never seen TB do a playthrough of games like Gone Home or Dear Esther, so I really don’t know what his true opinion on walking simulators is. However, if The Stanley Parable appealed to him, I can hazard a guess as to why: humor. He likes the funny stuff, and Dear Esther is on par with a cancer diagnosis in that regard.

      • Philotic Symmetrist says:

        I think the humour is key to his actual enjoyment of The Stanley Parable but not necessarily to his acceptance of it as a ‘game’, or at least it needn’t be essential. Your actions in The Stanley Parable greatly affect what you experience but although there are different lines that you may hear in Dear Esther from what I’ve heard which particular line you hear is just random; your actions in Dear Esther never really affect anything at all.

        I also don’t get why Gone Home is always lumped in with Dear Esther, I feel Gone Home has more in common with Adventure games. You search areas, interact with objects, find clues, find secrets; it may not be ‘challenging’ to reach the end but there is a substantial amount of meaningful interaction.

        Edit: I should probably include my 2c regarding an actual definition of game…Snakes and Ladders is called a game, and this terminology is so entrenched that no-one will ever be able to successful argue for this to change so…I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything we could effect even if there was consensus amongst all [computer-]gamers.

        • SkittleDiddler says:

          You make a fair point about Gone Home. For my part, I find narrative games to be insanely tedious, so I tend to lump them together with little to no regard for variation.

          • noodlecake says:

            Really?

            So Broken Age, Blackwell series, Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us, Heavy Rain and Dreamfall are all not your cup of tea?

            I think I just play games mostly for escapism and usually a well realised universe to immerse myself in works for me, often even if the gameplay mechanics themselves aren’t all that bad. You can’t really wander around yourself in a book or film and feel like you’re part of it to the same degree as a video game, so there definitely is merit for mostly narrative driven games.

        • Serpok says:

          Gone Home offers just as much interaction as a DVD Chapter Select menu.

          Adventure games at least give you some challenge in conversation and and interaction puzzles.

          • thaquoth says:

            There is plenty of spatial interaction with the environment. Like, you know, picking stuff up, rotating it etc. Shooting people in the face is also spatial interaction. There are differences, of course, but not fundamentally, really. Somehow though one qualifies as “interaction” or “gameplay,” the other one doesn’t.

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        Continuity says:

        The truth is that TB is a smug philistine with very little tolerance for views that don’t fit with his own narrow minded assertions. That said I’m a big fan, I just don’t pay any attention to his opinions when he’s talking about anything other than mechanics or visceral enjoyment.

        • noodlecake says:

          Yeah but he never assert that his own opinions on an artier game are objective facts. He usually says that he doesn’t really get it and he’s probably not the best judge of a game. You can kind of take it with a pinchj of salt really. I like his WTF videos a lot of the time. They are very informative in some ways, but I don’t watch them expecting an artist or art critic’s impression. I can make my mind up about qualities like that myself, or watch another video games commentator.

    • michaellfox says:

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      http://WWW.JOBSAA.COM

    • soldant says:

      Actually, that mindset is exactly why I don’t consider Dear Ester to be a game – because if I do, I’d be compelled to judge it on the merit of being a game, and I’d have to call it a pretty rubbish game. The problem with something like Dear Ester is that it’s more like an interactive walkthrough of a diorama or art piece, and the experience isn’t significant different to watching a Let’s Play of it in many ways. I think it’s important that they’re separated based on that criteria.

      I’m also one of the people who wouldn’t call Stanley Parable a game – I think a game needs opposition and a fail state which that lacks – but the interactive medium is essential for it to work, because a lot of it depends on choices. Something like Dear Ester or Gone Home doesn’t really need that.

      Honestly, I feel like ‘art games’ are just shoehorning somebody’s other art project (sometimes bad art at that) into video games because it’s something novel and more likely to attract positive attention.

    • danatcarpenter says:

      my co-worker’s sister makes $69 an hour on the laptop . She has been without work for 6 months but last month her check was $13775 just working on the laptop for a few hours. look at this web-site………..

      http://WWW.JOBSAA.COM

  2. KommanderKlobb says:

    hello, Ricky here!

    Mmm I agree that it sort of comes off like I’m bashing Dear Esther, which is a shame because I absolutely love it! The writing is indeed fantastic, but – probably because of the freedom to wander – I found myself drifting in and out of what the protagonist was saying as I played for the first time, letting his story wash over me as I half-thought my own thoughts.. I think that is absolutely part of the power of Esther (as well as Proteus) – both games allow you the space to drift off as you play..

    • GardenOfSun says:

      Aye that’s an important part as well. Playing (and loving) both of them, I remember most distinctly how both of them almost spontaneously led me to meditate on a whole range of subjects, almost without effort. In that light I’d almost call them “thought catalysts”. But then again, maybe any artistic work can be called that.

      • Darth Gangrel says:

        With that in mind, I’d call them Wander & Ponder games, which at least fits some of the qualities of these kinds of games.

  3. joa says:

    While I was originally of the ‘games can be whatever’ opinion, I’ve gradually come round to the other way of thinking. A game has always been defined as a competitive thing. You fight or use some skills to reach some goal. The games derided as ‘walking simulators’ completely lack that. They are more about an experience, like a novel or a film.

    And that’s certainly not a bad thing. I loved Dear Esther when I played the original mod version. But that’s not what most people are looking for in a game. And that’s why it makes sense to use different terminology for both. Otherwise you’re just sticking two fingers up at the people who like traditional games; you’re saying “well I’m going to keep tricking you and calling these things you hate games, because I know better than you”.

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      Gus the Crocodile says:

      You are using skills to reach a goal, though. Dear Esther has an end (and Proteus has an…”end”), so there are at least those goals implicitly. (There may also be other more ethereal goals, like “figure out where you are, who you are, why you’re there” etc but let’s stick to mechanics for the moment)

      And you are required to “correctly” navigate the world in order to reach that end. That takes skill. Sure, it’s a fairly easy application of skill for most of us, but hey, Barbie Horse Adventures is pretty easy for most of us too and I’m sure we’d generally still call it a game. Easy games are still games.

      That said, I don’t have a problem with anyone for whom things like DE don’t fit in their personal definition of a game. That’s fine; I don’t mean this to be a “no ur rong” argument. It’s only when people act like others are somehow obligated to exclude these things from being labelled a game that problems arise.

      Personally, even putting aside pedantic mechanics discussions, I prefer to call them games because I think (for no particularly evidence-based reason) that inclusive definitions engender more interesting thought and discussion, and encourage more interplay and emergence within the medium; more examination of the things these games do that could be beneficial in other games (and vice versa). Excluding them feels like pushing them off into some corner where they can be safely ignored. I don’t see the advantage of not calling them games, compared to just not putting them in the same genre as other games.

      • joa says:

        Well you can stretch the definitions of words to say what you like – but we all know there is a meaningful difference between a game-game and a some would say not-a-game.

        Personally I do not need restrict the definition of ‘game’ – these games certainly don’t offend me and I enjoy a lot of them. However it clearly is very important to a lot of people, and it is a problem for them to have what they consider the fundamental parts of their genre — the competitive element, the skills, the fighting, etc — disregarded. I don’t think any interesting conversations arise when you call these ‘walking simulators’ – just arguments.

        I mean if you went down to your local cinema and paid to see a film, and then found it was just shots of landscapes and buildings with Philip Glass music playing, you wouldn’t be too happy. It may be a good film on its own terms, but it’s not what most people are looking for. And in a democracy, you have to respect that.

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          tumbleworld says:

          Koyaanisqatsi took over $3 million at the box office — back in ’82, when that was a big chunk more money than it is today — so in fact lots of people did exactly that.

          There is no universally acceptable definition of the word “game”. Until everyone agrees precisely what the word means, this discussion is just “I like it” vs “I don’t like it”. Which is great — but not a matter for debate.

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          Gus the Crocodile says:

          Yeah, as a big fan of Koyaanisqatsi that example doesn’t work so well for me. As for what most people want, I’m afraid I can’t muster much sympathy for people who pay to go see a film they know nothing about and then complain it wasn’t what they expected. If you don’t want to do five minutes homework you’re always going to get bitten now and then, regardless of whether less-gamey-games exist.

          And yeah, there is a difference between DE/Proteus etc and, say, Quake. But there’s also a difference between Quake and chess, or Super Mario and SimCity. Differences are normal.

          • joa says:

            I wasn’t using that film as an example of something bad (I actually haven’t seen it, just heard some of the music from it) but as something that’s very different from what most people expect from a movie. If you told someone they were going to see a Star Trek or Avengers type movie and then showed them that, they wouldn’t like it.

            I think that’s what’s going on with these games. They are advertised and sold in the same place as traditional games like Call of Duty, so gamers looking for traditional game experiences put down their money on these things and instead get something they hate. I think that’s why there is such an angry reaction to them.

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            Stellar Duck says:

            @joa

            “If you told someone they were going to see a Star Trek or Avengers type movie and then showed them that, they wouldn’t like it.”

            When did anything like that happen? It sounds to me like plenty of people liked the movie mentioned above and I rather doubt it was billed as an action movie.

            I’m not normally a fan of caveat emptor but on the flipside, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people to at least take a cursory glance at what they’re buying.

            When was Dear Esther sold as a Quake like? Or Gone Home? Or Proteus? Or any other “hiking sim”.

          • Jeroen D Stout says:

            If art films suddenly appear in a main stream cinema (kindly ignore the measured polarisation in my example) and cinema goers walk in based on poster alone, then that is just a phase of angry mistakes we will all have to go through. Nobody is being lied to. Just people who afore (apparently) selected games based on one screenshot now will have to research like every other poor soul.

          • Shuck says:

            @joa: “If you told someone they were going to see a Star Trek or Avengers type movie and then showed them that, they wouldn’t like it.”
            If I’m going to see, say, a Rowan Atkinson movie, and he’s not in the film, I’m going to be upset. Therefore no one wants to see movies that don’t have Rowan Atkinson in them? If Rowan Atkinson’s not in the film, it’s not a proper movie?

        • duffers says:

          @joa: “If you told someone they were going to see a Star Trek or Avengers type movie and then showed them that, they wouldn’t like it.”

          Then I’d say, in a democracy, you have to accept that.

    • GardenOfSun says:

      Isn’t it meaningful and interesting though that we have no other proper and instictive term for them aside from “games”? I agree that one can argue that they kind of place themselves at the borders and straggle the line – but isn’t that something that we can see as meritorious?
      After all any strict (cathegorical, one could call it in maths) definition of “games” is bound to fail sir. For example: where’s the competition in kicking a ball against a wall? But that’s playing as well.

      • Paul.Power says:

        This is why I’ve always liked Will Wright’s “software toy” term to describe SimCity, SimEarth, etc.

      • Serpok says:

        I like to call them dioramas, because they offer that same ‘you can look but you can’t touch’ deal.

    • Zwebbie says:

      True story: When I first played the Dear Esther mod, I didn’t have the slightest clue as to what it was and simply expected a game. I spent a lot of time in it trying to find ways to manipulate the world and figure out the rules, and I walked around the little house at the beginning for several minutes trying to understand what I had to achieve at that place before I noticed there wasn’t anything to. It was odd, I was lost, I kept looking for things that weren’t there and I kept expecting things that I wasn’t given. By the end of it, I summarised my opinion of it as interesting, but not a game by any stretch of the word. And I played it again the day after with that mentality — this isn’t a game — and fell in love with when I knew the right state of mind to enjoy it. This is why I’ve always been sceptical of the people who want games to be an inclusive term. It creates expectations that aren’t fair towards things that aren’t about manipulation and competition (I would consider Dear Esther to be installation art). Instead, we can do more with game engines than just make games! Rejoice!

      • The Random One says:

        You say: I played it thinking it was a game, and it wasn’t. I enjoyed it more knowing it wasn’t a game. People would enjoy these more if they knew it was a game.

        I say: You played it thinking it was a kind of game you knew, but it was a kind of game you had never played. You enjoyed it more when you knew what kind of game it was. People will enjoy these more when they simply accept it is a different kind of game.

        Compare: “I played Hitman thinking it was a game, and tried to kill all the enemies, but I didn’t have enough ammo and they swarmed me too fast. That was when I realized it wasn’t a game, it was a stealth simulator. When I realized that, I started to enjoy it immensely. It’s self-defeating to refer to Hitman as a game, since it just makes everyone think it’s exactly like Doom.”

        • soldant says:

          Doom and Hitman still have more in common than Doom and Dear Ester – namely the challenge and presence of a fail state, with progression limited by that challenge. Dear Ester has none of that – and no, ‘navigating the path’ isn’t a challenge or an opposing force to overcome for progression.

          • Distec says:

            Bingo.

            Experiences like Dear Esther or Gone Home lack features that are intrinsic to every other genre, so to say it’s just a different kind of game is just stretching it. They are no more games than a photo slideshow is a movie.

            Nothing personal or demeaning with that assessment, but it is what it is.

            EDIT: Holy crap, I realized you expressed roughly the same phrasing further down.

  4. Metalfish says:

    Someone call the game police and file a report!

    I don’t care what you call your piece of media, does it engage me? Does it entertain me? Does it consume a few more putrid hours of this meaningless existence well enough to stave off this Kierkegaardian despair?

    How many guns has it got?

  5. Jeroen D Stout says:

    I always feel the ‘simulator’ dismissal comes from gamers fetishising choice so much. A simulator has the implied context that it does not glorify your choices and rather represents a cold, hard logical world. But that is not really what the artistic context of these games is, which is frequently neglected entirely to focus endlessly on the interaction. My framework for Dear Esther is a virtual landscape painting, and I find it serves me well.

    To be fair, I could hardly care less what my work is called, as long as Steam sells it and Rock Paper Shotgun covers it. Though with acquaintances I always just refer to them as games as I prefer a large continuum, like all novels are novels, and not also split up in distinct categories which regard one-another with suspicion.

    The true sad fact is we had more discussions about ‘what are games’ than we had interesting games that question that supposed norm. The whole medium is to a large degree artistically stillborn, which is sad and denies it the grandeur it could have.

    • GardenOfSun says:

      Aye, I tend to agree. Although it’s difficult to say about the state of medium, since it’s still too young. It’s easy to mistake infancy for failure.
      But in a broder sense such a debate could kind of trascend the fate of videogames as well. Just as some movies – being truly art – trascend the fate of that medium Bolly/Hollywood powered distraction and entertainment factory, nothing impedes such a thing to happen for games as well. That’s why we should abandon the idea that the debate is about the use of a word. You’re right, it’s not at all important how we call them. But the problem is that a lot of people say “they aren’t games” and mean “they are useless” – while they should have all interest in saying that they’re games because not only they’re clearly related to that concept, but in some ways they’re even better than most of what we tend to call “game”.

      • Jeroen D Stout says:

        True—my usage of ‘stillborn’ is ill-advised in that sense. I hope the arthouse game scene emerges more distinctly than it has so far.

        I think it is not wrong to say (for them) that ‘art games’ are useless; after all, a pretty China vase is useless, a walk in the country is useless, most sex is useless. All art is quite useless. I would almost be better to attack the notion that the games which offer you ‘choice’ are useful. Or, embrace it: the games are useless, after all they only please the soul.

    • Premium User Badge

      tumbleworld says:

      I don’t know if you’ll find this encouraging or depressing, but as a publisher, I can assure you that there are plenty of people willing to write off entire categories of books as “not proper novels” — because they don’t have enough plot; because they have too much plot; because they’re about the “wrong” subjects; and on and on and on.

      It’s the nature of artistic media. A certain type of person is always dismissive about the categories that they don’t like. This “debate” is just the same, tired “Yes, but is it art?” as usual.

      The trouble is that there are no hard, universally accepted definitions. Get everyone to agree what “game” means, and then we can start having meaningful discussions about what is or is not a game. Until then, someone saying “It’s not a game” is actually saying nothing more than “I don’t like it”.

      • Shuck says:

        Surely, in that context, “not proper novels” simply means “not commercially feasible.” That’s quite different from denying that it’s a book, a work of fiction, or even, really, a novel.

    • Geebs says:

      The word “simulator” is meant sarcastically; it was then (perfectly fairly) re-appropriated by the people who like these sort of experiences. No further analysis needed.

      • The Random One says:

        It isn’t need, but it is interesting to try and figure out why ‘simulator’ was used, specifically.

        To imagine that some great secret on the mind of gamer culture lies that way, though, is over-analysing. Over-something, anyways.

        • Geebs says:

          It’s inverted humour, like calling the biggest member of your merry men “little John”, isn’t it? Sims are notoriously complicated in their mechanics, and allow you to perform an activity most people don’t do, which is often dangerous or at least requires a high level of skill. What happens in a sim is partly directed by the player and partly emergent from the sim.

          Walking simulators consist of a terrain-following algorithm and maybe, if you’re really going for it, earth-normal gravity. Nothing emerges from simulation and everything happens in the player’s head. They usually go so far as to remove the jump action, because they know that most gamers will bunny hop everywhere when they get bored and that’s far too much agency and will distract from the creator’s vision or something.

          So yeah, it’s an activity that (most) people don’t even think about, it doesn’t involve any real simulation, and the player has no agency and never really interacts with anything, in a classical walking sim.

          This year I have played both NaissanceE and Lifeless Planet, both of which are “walking sims” and both of which I loved to bits. I think the difference between art installations *ptooie* and games is that games engage with/expect at least a minimal contribution from the player – they don’t need challenge or fail states to qualify, they just need to ask the player a question and in some way acknowledge the answer.

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        AngelTear says:

        Yep. It was fashionable to bash on actual “simulators” as crappy games, non-games or whatever (some indeed are pretty broken, like Warehouse simulator, woodcutter simulator and others, but the hate bandwagon, in which I have to admit I was a bit caught up in, didn’t distinguish between those and a well-made product like Euro Truck Simulator – now fewer people bash on ETS though).
        The word Simulator then became shorthand for “bad games” for most gamers, and it’s used in that sense in “Goat Simulator”. By calling them “Walking Simulators”, gamers originally wanted to lump these games with the ones above in order to classify them as bad games or indeed not-games.

      • Jeroen D Stout says:

        I believe your ready dismissal of the need of analysis is itself befit for lengthy analysis.

    • Shuck says:

      “The true sad fact is we had more discussions about ‘what are games’ than we had interesting games that question that supposed norm.”
      Ha – I laugh ruefully – that’s so unfortunately true.
      I think your characterization as “artistically stillborn” is apt.. I think the artistically minded inheritors of the label “game” may sustain themselves by feasting on the stillborn corpse, but are coming from other lineages altogether, not from the game industry which is closed off and traditionally entirely uninterested in such things.

  6. KommanderKlobb says:

    yeah there’s a whole continuum between ‘not a game at all’ and ‘definitely a game’, with infinite subtleties and variations along the way..

    Unfortunately words are lumpen, atomic things: if you don’t find particular words useful, you are entirely free to use (or invent) different ones – and hey, maybe they’ll catch on! But trying to prescribe how other people use language is utterly futile (although this hasn’t stopped people trying, seemingly for as long as language has existed)

  7. Spacewalk says:

    Proteus is a Lovely Game.

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    Gus the Crocodile says:

    I don’t like “Walking Simulator” because it constantly feels like it’s got its roots stuck in a pretty derogatory beginning. For a long time when I first heard the phrase it was being used exclusively as a dismissive, jokey insult – I assumed fuelled by the running joke of the still-increasing amount of serious or semi-serious XYZ Simulator games being released. For me it’ll take a while for this stigma to wear off, and I expect it won’t, completely. Even if the term becomes generally accepted as harmless it’ll probably remain one of those genre labels I just choose not to ever use myself, like MOBA.

    And as was said in the article, I don’t feel these games simulate walking. A flight simulator simulates the actions involved in flight, as do most of the various Simulator games to varying degree. Games like Proteus and Dear Esther simulate walking no more deeply than Doom does. And yet nobody calls Doom a Walking And Shooting Demons Simulator. Or Mass Effect a Being A Space Hero Simulator. Again, it feels dismissive; like “these games aren’t worth thinking about that much, let’s just take the function of the main button used and add Simulator, that’ll do”.

    • iridescence says:

      I think the insult is that those games are focused on walking and there’s really nothing else to do in them while in other games walking is just a means to an end. For me I just like more “stuff” and actual mechanics in my game than most of these seem to provide. Maybe one day one will come along that seems interesting enough for me to buy it but it hasn’t happened yet.

    • The Random One says:

      The word “Impressionist” was also first used as a derogatory term, meaning that the painters based themselves only on a vague impression of their subject. It is now the proper term for the school.

      You can remove a stigma by embracing it. In the case of walking simulators, it embraces that the fact that when walking is the main verb it is not a handicap, but a deliberate choice that brings different things to focus.

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        SuddenSight says:

        I agree with you entirely.

        And I would like to defend the word choice in simulator too.

        This idea that flight sims, or driving sims, or what have you simulate the entirety of their subject is nonsense. All of them inevitably end up focusing on just a couple aspects (such flap an throttle control in a typical flight sim) and ignore others (such as fuel usage). This is sometimes done because the developers didn’t have the resources to include it, but often it is done because those aspects just aren’t as fun or interesting (at least in the context of that game).

        And so it should be for walking simulators. I don’t have to think about every step, QWOP like, when I walk in real life. I spend that time admiring the scenery, thinking thoughts and enjoying the conversation of any (disembodied computer) friends that accompany me. Thus, SP, GH, DE, and Proteus all sound exactly like what I picture a waking simulator should be.

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          AngelTear says:

          Your comment made me think there may be an underlying misunderstanding/confusion/ambiguity in the term walking of “Walking simulator” that each side of the argument bends to their advantage: Walking as a physical activity (like QWOP, a certain movement made possible by ordinate contractions of certain muscles) and walking as in taking a walk, relaxing, enjoying the scenery more of a mental activity.

          Incidentally, many hardcore gamers who hate on the genre hate it because they can’t engage in that mental activity, and I want to say they can’t because they don’t want to/they don’t let themselves, rather than because they are incapable of it or they genuinely don’t like it. (Indeed some people genuinely don’t like them, and it’s ok, but it’s the difference between not liking an horror film because it’s not to your taste and because you don’t engage with it/let it engage with you in the first place)

      • Turkey says:

        Walking simulators are the kraut rock of video games.

  9. Philotic Symmetrist says:

    I always found it faintly disappointing that you couldn’t run, jump or climb trees in Proteus; there’s a joyfulness and playfulness to the aesthetic and ambience but not in the movement system. Of course that may have made discovering the bees more gleeful than it otherwise would have been but even so…

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    melnificent says:

    Absolutely love proteus. The graphics remind me of a childs painting. A 3D explorable childs painting, like I used to paint when I was younger.

    It’s also served a good secondary function in that my 4 year old has learnt how to navigate 3D game space without having guns, text or plot to worry about. I’ve still not told her that she can’t catch the animals.

  11. Geebs says:

    Key is pretty smug for a guy who can’t get a few flat-shaded polygons to animate at 60 fps.

    “Steam morons”, really? Grow up.

  12. Robert Post's Child says:

    I’ve taken to calling these sorts of games ‘walkabouts’, although that might not be the best official term because of the Aboriginal connotation. Easier to say and less cynical sounding, though. Still, it’s a little hard to group them all together categorically, just because, despite a mechanical similarity, what comes to mind in regard to the nature of the games isn’t always so similar: Dear Esther is a poem, Gone Home is a YA novel, etc.

    • GameCat says:

      But aren’t walkabouts some sort of survival and rite of passage? It more the word for Minecraft than anything like Dear Esther or Proteus.

      BTW, watch the movie Walkabout, it’s very good.

      • Robert Post's Child says:

        Yeah, that’s what I meant about it maybe not being the best name – I just use it in the sense of ‘walking about’, is all.

        I’ve been meaning to see that movie for a while, actually, think it might be on Hulu or something. Will check it out.

  13. kwyjibo says:

    The ‘walking simulator’ tag was a really good indicator of a certain type of title on Steam to begin with. But now it’s being used as a generic slur.

    • CookPassBabtridge says:

      Hang on. I’ve got it.

      STROLL ‘EM UP

      Yes.

      • BooleanBob says:

        Careful how you say that, we don’t want Bethesda lawyers all over here issuing writs.

    • Runs With Foxes says:

      Pretty sure it was always a slur.

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        Continuity says:

        Absolutely, Alice here is the only person I’ve come across who is using it as an honest genre classification, whether through naivety or bloodymindedness I’m not sure.

      • kwyjibo says:

        Well, the difference then, was that it was useful. It actually still is, I read the article and thought it’d be full of games like Takedown, but the majority is still walk ‘em ups.

  14. MadTinkerer says:

    Is it just me, or does anyone else think of “Walking Simulator” as a recommendation rather than an insult? I actually kind of would like to play Pleasant Neighborhood Simulator.

    That said, I did wish at the time that Dear Esther had more verbs like running, crouching, jumping, climbing, and so on. I wish you could put a couple objects in your backpack in Gone Home and pull them out later in different rooms. I wish I could pick the grass and see what’s inside that darn house in Proteus. I REALLY WISH ALL OF THESE GAMES HAD CHARACTERS TO MEET IN PERSON.

    I want to do more exploration themed things that I used to do all the time as a kid. I think that may be part of what some of the critics are actually thinking, without expressing it properly. It’s not so much a matter of “this game is dumb because there are no weapons” as “man, I want to be able to do more thematically appropriate things than just walking”.

    EDIT: And they don’t even have to be “important” characters! Maybe there’s just one old geezer out on Proteus Island and you can’t understand his jibber-jabber talk, but he likes to get up and go fishing and then go back to his house and he doesn’t mind you walking around even though neither of you can understand what the other is saying. That’s all I need. I don’t need Alyx or Elizabeth or Lydia, or a bad guy to fight, or someone who wants me to do a mission for them. I just need a guy who goes fishing sometimes. Hat tipping optional.

    • Philotic Symmetrist says:

      I second the desire for more verbs, particularly in Proteus; I don’t recall ever really feeling like climbing or jumping in Dear Esther- the world just felt a bit too unapproachable to me I think- but I definitely felt like climbing trees in Proteus.

  15. Shuck says:

    I’m not sure what the issue is with the label “exploring game.” That’s the label that leaps into my mind, and the more I think about it, the more appropriate it seems. Exploration, in some sense, is a fundamental part of most gameplay – not just exploring virtual space, but exploring game mechanics, exploring social dynamics, etc. “Wandering and being surprised”? That’s pretty much the definition of exploring. It doesn’t have to involve being lost, orienteering, or even being non-linear. I can “explore” a street by walking down it. Even if you come into it with no expectations or goals, it’s still exploring. Granted, if you’re repeatedly playing the game to the point where it’s completely familiar, or you’re going into it purely to create a particular frame of mind, you aren’t, personally, exploring, but that doesn’t stop it from being an exploring game. I could go into an FPS with the same intent, and even if I’m playing it such that I’m not shooting anything, it’s still an FPS game.

  16. CookPassBabtridge says:

    I don’t know why Dear Esther and the word “game” continue to come up in the same sentence, exposing it to such a bizarre criticism. The original summary of the mod went like this:

    “A deserted island… a lost man… memories of a fatal crash… a book written by a dying explorer. Dear Esther is a ghost story told using first-person gaming technologies. Rather than traditional gameplay, the focus here is on exploration, uncovering the mystery of the island, of who you are and why you are here. Fragments of story are randomly triggered by moving around the environments, making every telling unique. Forget the normal rules of play; if nothing seems real here, it’s because it may just be all a delusion. What is the significance of the aerial – What happened on the motorway – is the island real or imagined – who is Esther and why has she chosen to summon you here? The answers are out there, on the lost beach and the tunnels under the island. Or then again, they may just not be, after all…”

    Having played the mod and read the above at the time may have made me more receptive to it, but nonetheless I thought the full release was wonderful. Putting it down for a lack of gameplay mechanics seems as pointless as going to a modern art gallery, and complaining as you leave that the installations you saw there didn’t have enough rollercoaster sections. They were never intended to be a theme park.

    • Shuck says:

      Why? Because, the way “games” are defined, it’s a game. (See: Wittgenstein’s idea of “Family resemblance.”) Just because the games industry has been successful at creating a narrow, limited definition of “video game” by releasing games with narrow, limited mechanics, doesn’t mean that something like Dear Esther doesn’t belong under that category. On top of which we don’t have any alternative terminology that’s in common use that we might also use to describe it. So it’s a computer or video game.
      The problem is not that we’re using the wrong terminology that brings with it the wrong expectations; the problem is that too many people have the wrong expectations about what a game is, at least when it comes to games on computers.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        I agree with your second point – its about misplaced expectation of what a game should be, and what should be called a game. Personally the game definition never occurred to me as necessary in this case and the whole thing seemed like a storm in a beautifully rendered, first person teacup: It was described as a ghost story.

        Similarly, Gone Home is a story told from a real time FP perspective. I will make up my own term so I can grumble about these things. Its an RTFPS – Real Time First Person Story.

      • Runs With Foxes says:

        Because, the way “games” are defined, it’s a game. (See: Wittgenstein’s idea of “Family resemblance.”)

        Isn’t this exactly the point of contention though, whether they do have sufficient resemblance to be called games? That’s where the disagreement lies, so all you’re really saying it “they are games because they are games” and others are saying “they are not games because they are not games”, which isn’t very helpful.

        You’re also conflating the term “videogame” as a class of software with the term “game” as designed object. In other words, there are different meanings using the same signifier of “game”. We have things called “puzzle games”, for example, which from a design point of view are also not games; they are puzzles. But we call them “puzzle games” because they are puzzles that fit into the “video/computer/digital game” class of software. We could also call Proteus etc “walking games”, and the term would be used the same way (and could still be sold on Steam, can still be discussed on game sites, etc). But I think it’s kind of ignorant and unhelpful to deny the meaning of “game” as a design term too, especially given its ancient history.

        On top of which we don’t have any alternative terminology that’s in common use

        In this case perhaps, but it’s not always the case with these discussions about the term game. For instance, there is a tendency among some people to refer to visual novels as “games” too if they are “played” on a computer, and yet that kind of object already has a term for it with a fairly long history. A “visual novel game” seems like an absurd term to me. Same with “interactive fiction”; it already has a label and the label has a long and proud history. It’s quite a recent phenomenon to refer to interactive fiction as a “game”. The blurring of lines becomes much greater in the case of Gone Home, which has more in common with interactive fiction than games (in the design sense), but uses existing videogame technologies and marketing tactics.

        Why this tendency exists is a matter of economics and marketing, I think. If you want to commercialise your artistic creation you need a market. If you can’t create a whole new market (and you probably can’t), you piggyback on another one. And the established market for digital entertainment software is “videogames”. I think that’s ultimately why we’re seeing more things referred to as “games” now. The disagreement is about whether that’s a broadening of the software class or a corruption of it.

      • soldant says:

        If you want to take a broader look at what ‘games’ are outside of video games, Dear Ester doesn’t fit in with any of those either. It has more in common with installation art pieces than games. It’s like saying that a slide show is a movie because they both rely on visual imagery while ignoring the fundamental differences between them.

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          Continuity says:

          Ultimately though, a pedantic analysis of the word “game” is really pointless. Definitions of words and terms have always and will always be malleable, changing with common usage. Call these “walking simulators” games often enough and they will become part of the de facto definition of “computer game”. So I say so long as these “games” have entertainment value, let them be, the problem of categorisation and definition will disappear with time.

    • Geebs says:

      Dear Esther is a Will Self’s Internal Monologue simulator.

  17. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    YES! Wandering (or maybe wanderlust) is just the right word for my primary mode of enjoyment of at least Proteus, Dear Esther, Minecraft, TES games, and Xenoblade. (QWOP…not so much.) For me, the physical meandering and the discovery of new or remembered things and places are pretty strongly intertwined. My generic/inward mental wandering quota is filled around bedtime, so mental wandering while physically wandering consists mostly of history extrapolation or behavior rule deduction of whatever I come across. Dry as that may sound, there’s a potentially massive amount of mental wandering involved there, and I love it! And I’d say it all applies to real-life wandering, too.

    Based on this article news and the comments here, I’d say the essential characteristic of the “genre” here is that it means different things to different people (meditation, contemplation, discovery, rage induction, …). Overly-broad terms like “role-playing game” or “action adventure” can — oh, no, it’s happening again: I’m contemplating and attempting to verbalize the uselessness of genres. It’s past my bedtime, and the mental wandering gremlins have broken free!! AAAAAAGHRGLUBLUBlub…

  18. Frank says:

    I’m a fan of many games dubbed “walking simulator” by steamgoers (including Proteus). People who use that term to denigrate first-person non-shooters need to grow up.

    I reserve the term for games I despise that artificially increase their length by making the player walk (or gallop or drive — the point is it’s a very shallow experience they’ve fashioned, nothing like Proteus). I’m thinking of almost every MMO, most singleplayer RPGs that choose to rip off MMO conventions and The Elder Scrolls. Oh, and the Path, quite possibly the most overrated non-AAA game of all time. I know that no one else uses the term this way, but from me, that’s what it means.

  19. submorrino says:

    Spotted this on IGN a while back, asking why gamers enjoy non-combative exploration games: http://m.uk.ign.com/articles/2014/04/24/why-non-violent-games-are-taking-over-an-industry

  20. sysdefect says:

    This discussion reminds me of the excellent ps1 game LSD: Dream Emulator. You enter dream worlds, move into random objects and events that cause a dream world transition, and see the patterns emerge from the choices you’ve made in past dreams.

    It’s difficult to describe, but there’s no goal, it’s just about engaging the rich content of the game and exploring the randomly generated environments, an expression of the developer’s design.

    That was entirely rewarding in itself despite the fact that some would say there’s never anything within video games meritable in the artistic sense. The content, art or not, was entirely curious. I think this speaks the same for games like proteus, gone home, or yume nikki that are not games in a traditional sense where you’re playing for a score or to some objective.

    It is appealing to have an entire world full of content to explore, sometimes no matter the context. That’s why so many people will read volumes of schlocky fantasy. Now walking simulator may have been applied mockingly, but for LSD, walking was how you engaged the content and it was not a shameful thing.

  21. tasteful says:

    this is one of the best rps articles ive read