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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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(?)”
“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.”
“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.?”
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.
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.’
Ok, doing it.