Alice And Pip: What Is (And Isn’t) A Walking Simulator?

Alice and Pip have been off wandering their way through digital worlds from Proteus to Sacramento and are now hobbling towards a shared definition of a walking simulator. Find out what conclusions they’ve reached and why their definition categorically does not include Dear Esther!

Pip: Alice, when I asked you to recommend me your favourite walking simulators so I could go on some digital expeditions what would you say were your criteria?

Alice: That… they surfaced readily in this trash heap of a memory? Which meant they struck me for some reason. I think I picked walking simulators with a spread of form and tone, all quite different but all games where you can mostly just walk around. Some fun! Some colourful! Some spooky! Some so linear they’re literally on rails.

Pip: So is the act of walking the key part of walking simulators for you or is there something more?

Alice: Almost every game can be played as a walking simulator. Many are better that way! The ones I named were all designed with that in mind. But it’s the meandering that I like, pottering about, having a good wander, and seeing something interesting. Purpose-built walking simulators are obviously slanted more towards that.

Pip: I’m currently reading Thoreau’s essay about walking which was published in The Atlantic. As usual I’ve spent the time equally split between eye-rolling, laughing at his nonsense and thinking while he seems to be doing his usual thing of making sweeping statements and sort of not really understanding that people have jobs and can’t go off on walks all the time. So far he’s said we can only really call it a walk if we are “prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.” So I can only really be off on a walk if I’m prepared to abandon everything I know and die while I’m out.

He also adds that “It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker.” Obviously he counts himself as a walker. Everyone else is kind of faking it and doesn’t want to die alone in a forest enough. He’d probably be very cross about the lack of dying in some of your selection, Alice.

Alice: Look, believe you me, I’ll be dead in a forest as soon as I can find the right one.

I like that. It’s good. The embalmed hearts and desolate kingdoms. Then you swing back around and pick up a nice pub lunch. A yorkie the size of your face, filled with veg and gravy. We get back and show off our bloated guts to our desolate kingdoms, then act a bit sheepish when our embalmed hearts turn up in the post a few days later. Look, it felt like an appropriate gesture at the time.

Pip: I think he called that more of a tour: “half the walk is but retracing our steps.” I sort of want to phone his ghost and have a big argument about walking (and other things) but I’ll settle for talking it out with you.

So the walks I went on were: Sacramento, Bernband, Proteus, Secret Habitat, Césure and Hurry The Sorry Word. I also slipped in a refresher playthrough of Dear Esther as a kind of comparison. Any preferences on where we should start?


Alice: Well, let’s start with one people are likely to know: Proteus. You’ve played it a fair bit before, right?

Pip: I have. In fact the relics of a previous playthrough (rather than a previous heart) were there when I booted it up because the colours were all wrong. I forgot I’d tweaked them and so I spawned into an unexpected sea of blood.

Alice: Wednesdays.

Oh shit, it’s Friday.

RIGHT. Proteus captures one of my favourite things about walking, about getting to know a place and seeing it change over time. Plonked onto a procedurally-generated island, I always head to the highest point I can see to get a feel for the lay of the land, then pick a point and head towards it. And am always waylaid by something. I’ll end up following chickens, checking out a cabin, moping around graves… what’s your approach?

Pip: I agree about the watching things change over time. You had it with your pond swimming and I have it with my current place’s garden. I go out every single day and that means I’ve watched changes take place over the seasons. It’s more gradual than Proteus. Proteus does a very distinct four seasons where in real life I’ve been privy to more of an ebb and flow of life, or of watching the different kinds of insect larvae give way to the insects themselves, or discovering what a plant was building towards from bud to bloom. Proteus is more like the longer walking trails around Bath which you can follow. They’re too long to do them daily, or even weekly but you can do them each season pretty easily and note the bigger changes.

In Proteus I don’t think I have a particular approach to what I look at or where I head because, like you say, the island is always a different layout. That means that when I come ashore I’m equally likely to head towards an inviting copse or a crop of gravestones or a ruin. I’d probably prioritise the ruin, I guess? But then I always find myself just wandering about, taking pictures and maybe following a frog or a rabbit or a squirrel.

Booting it up again was a really pleasant experience because I’d forgotten how much variety the game manages to contain and how delightful the intertwining of animations and sounds can be. One thing that felt a little strange to me this time was that you couldn’t loop back to spring. I mean, I get why you can’t and that the way each experience ends is part of Proteus, but as someone who is now looking forward to seeing how winter transitions into spring in real life – how the world wakes up – it felt like a curiously absent stage. You never see the island burst back into life again and that cyclical pattern is such a huge part of observing nature.

Alice: Winter is death, Pip. All spires must fall. All flesh is grass. I’m feeling you’re really not committing to this heart-ripping-out.

I think I like that in Proteus. The winter to spring transition is my favourite part of the year but things will go on without us. I think it’s there to neatly bookend the game, to give a feeling of a stopping point, and provide a structure. Which is something I… I think I often like some vague structure in walking simulators? A sense that it’s fleeting, a moment passing, a moment away in another world.

Pip: Oh, I agree! It’s more that this is the first time I noticed a “missing” stage, you know? I think it’s a consequence of more time spent walking in the real world, perhaps. The fleetingness is good in Proteus. It’s not heavy handed, but you do realise you don’t get to save particular islands or go back to previous seasons. As a result I just find myself taking a lot of screenshots as mementos, as I guess I do in real life, and then moving on. It’s nice to have an echo of those moments which you can refer to but not feel panicked about moving on to the next thing.

Alice: You can… I don’t know if I want to tell you this.


Alice: WELL. You can revisit islands. You can go back. But… it’s not the same? It’s weird. There’s one particular island configuration I still think about a lot, but revisiting feels like being inside a photograph rather than returning to a beloved spot. It’s not quite right. That island’s gone. That me is gone. No going back, Pip. Embalmed hearts etc.

But. Those screenshots you’ve snapped? They contain a wee hidden code saving the island – the colourful strip of pixels in the bottom-left corner. You can go back to all of those places. Pop into the postcards section and click on ’em. You can also share islands with people this way.

But it’s not the same.

Pip: I don’t have a postcards section? OH. I have now read about the way this works on the game website. That’s kind of neat and also kind of horrifying because I am a collector. Let’s just erase this from my memory somehow.

Alice: No going back!

Pip: Now I don’t know where to send my embalmed heart. Shall we go on a different walk instead?

Alice: How about something very different: Bernband.


Alice: I adore Bernband.

Pip: Oh my goodness! Bernband was so much fun. It was a completely different experience too. It wasn’t the walking of a woodland exploration, it was more the walking you’d do in a town or a mall or something. You’ve got this slightly grungy future city with bright lights and hover cars and weird complexes which people seem to live in and you’re meandering about, having a look at it all. There are bars, crowds, deserted walkways, steps, a weird part room off what looks like an empty multistorey carpark, a room which seems to be poking gentle fun at performance art, a little secret pathway which loops you back round if you find it and that reminded me of secret passages in shooters from the nineties… And all the while your arms are flailing about in front of you


Pip: YES! And there’s a plant room! That’s pretty far in but I was so excited to see that! I loved the little discoveries in Bernband. I thought it was smaller than it turned out to be and then there was so much to see. An aquarium was in one of the hallways and the man peeing outside a little nightclub… It definitely had that sense of delighting in exploration. I’d say there was an element of the dollshouse to it, though – looking at decorated rooms. At points I felt like a ghost because no-one reacted to me and I couldn’t interact with them. In Proteus some of the elements respond to your presence, in Bernband the elevator doors and things do but other than that you can feel a bit insubstantial.

I wonder how much interaction I’d say I expect from a walking simulator – probably just enough that I don’t feel like a ghost but not enough that the main activity is interaction not walking?

Alice: I want to say there’s a chap talking on his phone who stops and looks put out if you stand near him – but that might be me projecting.

I always imagine myself as bemused alien tourist delighted by everything they encounter. Whether it’s someone weeing in an alley or accidentally ending up inside an aquarium (yep, the one you mentioned), they’re just happy to be there, waggly hands and tappy feet. I really get into that spirit. Everyone can see you’re a mug but they’re fine with you being there. You’re harmless.

I suppose I wouldn’t object to lots of buttons to press and switches to flip and things to fiddle with. A nice bit of “Coo what’s that? I’ll press it and find out.” Because I’m a grinning tappy fool. I feel very much inside a character in Bernband, filling it with those parts of myself.

Pip: I really liked the bit where you could see out of the window and recognise a walkway far below that you’d crossed previously. That’s something which always tickles me in games; being able to see where you’ve come from from new vantage points. I spent a lot of time in Ocarina of Time just peering at Death Mountain in the distance and marvelling that I could go to that place if I wanted to.

Alice: Yeah! I really like that in games too. Bernband feels disjointed at first, as it’s split into small sections loaded individually, but that makes it even more surprising when you realise they do sort of connect. I’m never quite sure how clear-cut those transitions are meant to be. Some feel a bit like jump cuts, and I like that. You poke around a back-alley bar, walk through a door and… some time later find yourself somewhere else, not really sure how you got there.

Pip: I think that’s part of why it’s hard to get a sense of the scope of the game at first. You’re always going through doorways to the individual bits which are never expansive and the elevators mean you don’t know if you’ve gone up or down or what so it’s only after you’ve gone a fair way that you start to piece it together as a “place”.

Alice: On reflection, I think that inability to interact with anyone is part of why Bernband feels so much like a place to me. There are no repetitions that become clear, no actions which become tired and worn, no limitless potential which quickly narrows down as you see its extents. They’re an abstract crowd, loud and numerous enough to feel very real even if they are entire false (two-dimensional, even).

Pip: I stood in the crowd for a while, looking out at the bright lights of the skyscrapers but positioned so I could see people passing me by just to enjoy that feeling of being in a crowd but not personally being in a hurry. I really like that feeling. It’s the inverse of the feeling when you’re a fast walker trapped on the pavement behind a slow walker.

Alice: I adore Bernband. Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row can kind of do this walking simulatoring, and it’s quite fun, but their vaguest reachings for realism and complex systems feel so unreal. Bernband is loud and busy and bigsmall and colourful and strange and surprising and exciting and lonely and even sometimes scary. It speaks to the heart. It is the essence of that sort of walk.

Secret Habitat

Pip: Is Secret Habitat a good one to talk about next? It has buildings to explore as well but is very different.

Alice: Secret Habitat is always a good one to talk about.

One of the scenes that lurks in the back of my brain, emerging in daydreams, is watching the wavering turquoise trees of this island arthell through the coloured glass of a gallery while squealing music honks. It’s a good scene to have pop up.

Pip: I think this is the part where you might glare at me.

I really really like Secret Habitat and I love being in its world, jumping on buildings and wandering in the galleries and things, but I’m on the fence about it being a walking simulator and I’m not sure I can easily articulate why.

Alice: I AGREE. It is an interesting knobbly bit as we feel around the shape of something hidden under a black velvet cloth. I had meant to put a conker in the list to surprise you too.

I don’t think it is either. Sure, it’s set on a procedurally-generated island, isolated and desolate, no one to chat with or stare at or nothing, and all your interaction is moving around and occasionally flicking a switch… not a walking simulator, no.

Pip: I wonder if it’s partly the tone of the game. There’s something arch about it, I think. It’s taking art galleries and making them part of this playground and procedurally generating the contents and the titles in a way that’s quietly provocative. I think what I’m getting at is that I found myself wanting to add something to the “what I do and don’t expect of a walking simulator” off the back of replaying Secret Habitat but I’ve still not managed to put it into words. Maybe it’s that I expect them to be about exploring a space that exists in a self-contained way, whereas Secret Habitat seems to me to be in dialogue with a lot of other ideas – more a conduit or an expression of a nebulous thought than a place?

Alice: It’s an idea (a debate, even?) given form. I tend to think of walking simulators more as dreams given form, maybe. That’s not quite what I mean. It’s directly confrontational (in a thoroughly delightful way)? It wants us to bring our world with us. Yes. Something. Like what the words you said. Ish.

Pip: I like how you phrased it. Secret Habitat feels more like a debate, or at least part of one. The dream observation brings us neatly to Sacramento as well so well segued!

Alice: I’m too seguesy for my shirt.


Alice: Sacramento is still quite new for me, as I’ve only visited a few times and, well, it only came out recently. I have no super strong convictions around it, other than it’s really quite nice.

Pip: I think it’s strongest when you only play it a few times. That’s not intended as an insult, but I think it’s a space where you arrive at the train station then explore different directions and see what there is to see before being scooped back to the station. I tried three different directions – left, right and centre as I faced out. In my exploration of the little world I found dragonflies and a little hill and jellyfish and glasshouses and a jetty and all kinds of things, each rendered in that beautiful watercolour sketchbook style.

I also found the parts of the world where these directions met up with one another and deliberately went in search of new things. I might go back to see if you can go across the train tracks, but otherwise I think further visits will have that sense of revisiting rather than discovering. I’d probably want to do that in a few months or after I’ve forgotten elements so it’s more like revisiting a book or a stately home or something. If you read it or visit it too often it feels familiar to the point of losing its charm.

Alice: Mm! I agree. I think I might be done with Sacramento. There’s definitely at least one corner I haven’t explored, but I think I will leave it be rather than find the limits.

It’s a snatched moment, a fleeting opportunity to see something before you must leave. Wonderful things are in every direction you see, and surely in those you don’t. But keep it as a dream space, a place where anything could still be waiting, an indefinite place. Maybe the ideal number of times to play is one.

I’m talking again about how the illusion of endless possibility – at least not knowing crude boundaries and limitations – is something I really dig in walking simulators, aren’t I.

Pip: I think it’s a fair point. It’s something I like about them too and it’s important to the idea of walking. One of the aspects of walking which really appeals to me is that I could end up anywhere. I can change my mind or get distracted or follow an interesting bird or realise I’ve gone in a different direction to the one I set off to follow and that’s not a bad thing – in fact it can lead to some of the best moments, so maintaining the sense of expansiveness is part of a walking simulator, I think. Some get around it with a multiplicity of pathways, some have procedural generation on their side, and some you end up needing to work to maintain that illusion for yourself if you want it.


Alice: Is this where Césure comes in? Césure is VAST and TERRIFYING.

Pip: You mean how it drops you near the top of this weird mechanical structure that’s sort of dilapidated and kind of threatening and definitely abandoned but sort of alive and then leaves you to it? Because that’s one experience of Césure. I should possibly add that my own experience of Césure was kind of more about it being a person-as-rollercoaster sim because of how fast you can run down the spiralling rail tracks.

Alice: Hah! That is also a good experience. It’s your walk. And I definitely see that side of it, especially towards the bottom, as the stairs buckle and twist, warped by… whatever that thing is.

I think I was a touch more awed and horrified. The implications of the space, the sense of something terrible having happened, something vast and timeless and beyond humanity. It feels like the aftermath of a sci-fi horror novel, a scale and awfulness that few virtual spaces actually manage to convey. Characters spout cheesy lines while staring at something unimpressive.

Did you have much of a run around in the black waters and white sands down the bottom?

Pip: I did for a while – I think I ended up spending most of my time trying to glitch-climb my way up a crystal so it reminded me a bit of my mountaineering efforts in Skyrim, trying to brute force my way to a summit.

There’s definitely a monumentality to this one. It’s a mysterious industrial wreckage that’s also still a massive *thing*. I enjoyed it for a different sense of space and scrambling around in a different way. The downward movement is so fast it’s more like running but the jumps are so floofy they are more like floating. The velocity does interesting things, is what I’m getting at. But it also made me think about how walking simulators rarely get the walking part right.

As in, you traipse around and sometimes there’s a sort of head bob or a pair of hands moving about to indicate you’re moving in a vaguely human way rather than as a hovercam at a fixed height, but when you walk in the real world you realise how many different movements it enfolds. I went on a National Trust trail local to Bath recently and that act of walking involved skidding down slightly muddy banks, trying to stop yourself building up too much momentum on a hillside, scrambling across unstable terrain, climbing a stone stile, picking your way around waterlogged bits, avoiding cow pats, pushing past vegetation, tripping on roots and uneven stone, lagging on steep inclines and so on and so on.

That’s one of the things I liked seeing in Firewatch, actually. The main character slips down a little incline that’s all loose stone, and the camera tips to one side as he vaults a tree trunk. Césure made me think about that variety because it introduces a little to the experience itself.

Alice: Definitely! Walking simulators are rarely that bothered about walking. They might make you move a bit slower than ‘normal’ or disable jump but there’s rarely a strong sense of body.

I should’ve mentioned Miasmata to you. It’s a first-person survival botany sort of doodad, about trying to create a cure for a disease by gathering and studying flora while evading a monster. It thinks an awful lot about walking too. You have inertia and don’t magically stick to surfaces. You can slip and fall over while walking down an incline if you aren’t careful. Seeing if you can climb a hill isn’t about walking up and testing whether it’ll bump into an invisible wall, rather trying to judge a slope to see if you’ll end up arse-over-tits as it all gets away from you. It is very serious about walking. It is frustrating and quite delightful.

Pip: I was talking about Miasmata recently with Alec but more for the plant side of things. If I remember rightly he was saying you need to also do things like triangulating your position and whatnot to determine locations. It sounded pretty interesting but not quite what I was in the mood for at the time. I think I’ll add it back onto my list though.

I think the thing which bothers me a bit about walking simulators’ general approach to walking is that in the real world it’s this natural human-scale activity where, even if you’re walking a long way and you don’t want to, there’s a sense to the pace you’re going at. In walking sims (and most other games) walking pace still feels too slow. I don’t know if that’s because in games we have no sense of bodily restrictions so there’s no resultant feeling of going at a comfy pace, or whether there’s something askew in terms of the world building which makes it feel wrong. Perhaps it’s just that we’re used to holding down shift and running everywhere. Regardless of the reason, it’s still an awkwardness in most games.

Alice: I think it’s an afterthought in a lot of walking simulators. They often seem to use movement presets in Unity or whatever. I’m not sure how much of that is a decision to make the movement ‘invisible’ – by being the same as many games – so you slip right into it, or because they didn’t think much about it.

I suspect the walking pace in many walking simulators is actually a fair nick faster than we walk in reality, but that still feels slower. There’s a distortion in virtual spaces when our bodies aren’t engaged with anything, making everything seem to take so much longer – it’s a constraint of an artificial system we’re butting up against, not our bodies or our will. It’s enforced. Like a toddler held by reins, we can go slower and dawdle if we want but we can’t ever go faster.

That’s part of why I like the wacky movement physics glitches you can learn in games like Quake, making my own pace beyond what’s meant to be allowed. I think I’m still a bit too hungover to form a unifying theory combining walking simulators, Quake 2 physics glitches, and Counter-Strike surfing levels.

Hurry The Sorry Word

Pip: Reasonable. It does lead us onto the last one, though. Hurry The Sorry Word is a curious thing. It’s literally an on-rails game in that you’re on a ghostly train track that’s coming apart as you walk it. There’s an imperative to keep moving because if you don’t any of the timbers you stand on will start to sink downwards and carry you with them, but you can find little ways to play with the idea so it’s not the same as in a Mario level where you just keep moving forward (or, perhaps more relevantly here, of a train bearing down on you).

I worked out that by jumping I could leave sections of the track intact and made a little game of bouncing forward for a while then bouncing back the way I’d come, gradually losing the beams to gravity and making the jumps eventually impossible to land.

At the same time you’re seeing these ghostly telegraph poles and discarded wheels towards the side. It’s like a stripped-down version of walking where it shows you the markers you might take active note of to mark your progress but none of the interstitial bits. There are no weeds or pebbles or dusty ground to knit the scene together. Then at the end you land in a cabin, gradually following a bed down into the depths as you stay on it.

I think, in combination with Dear Esther, it made me think of our trip to Reculver. Reculver has the desolate coastal ruins and bleakness of Esther but Hurry The Sorry Word added the bit where we were on the big rocks they use to try to help deal with coastal erosion – the ones where you can make your own games, jumping from one to the next or investigating little spaces between the boulders. Dear Esther shows you the seaside but doesn’t let you do any of the playful things you’d do if you were actually there. No skimming stones, no writing your name in the sand, no peering into rock pools, no clambering.

I love Dear Esther’s sense of place; like with Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture it felt like they showed an environment that rarely features in games. There’s a coastal desolation with its lichen and wild grasses and clouds which I miss and which Dear Esther offers up in spades. That it then adds in a story which it remixes is… I mean, I get the whole psychological landscape thing and I like that they were experimenting with combining the story and the space in that way, but going back to it with walking simulators in mind I’d say it definitely isn’t a walking simulator. It’s a digital staging of a radio play, maybe? That doesn’t sound quite right but hopefully you know what I mean by it.

Alice: Yes! I entirely agree. I too eject Dear Esther from the canon of walking simulators.

It is a pleasant place but we’re not really there, and dawdling and dallying undermines its heart – which I also agree is a radio play sort of thing. One of BBC Radio 4’s more poetic monologues given visual foley.

It’s closed to possibilities. Even in Hurry the Sorry Word, your movements and meanderings are interesting and enjoyable but they feel inconsequential in Dear Esther – it controls what scenery you see, which dialogue lines you have a chance of triggering. I think its ‘realistic’ art style and geography work against that sort of imagination space too. No, it’s trying to do something else. But that imagination space is what I like most about walking simulators.

Pip: So the thought which occurred to me while walking this morning was that walking simulators afford the player more space than usual in which to mentally inhabit the digital environment, and they also interfere less than usual. So Proteus gives you options and there are ways to move to a new scene, and Sacramento and Hurry The Sorry Word have a kind of time constraint which serves to underline the idea of a fleeting moment or a changing one, but other than that you’re left alone. Dear Esther has a story it wants to impart and a way it wants you to move and things it wants you to see in the order it wants you to see them.

At this point there were a thing from the Thoreau essay that seemed more helpful than he usually is. It was the idea of simply going out and picking a direction to walk in. That freedom is kind of absent in some of the games we’ve talked about but in the ones we’ve left classed as walking simulators there’s still a comparable sense of freedom in some sense, and a sort of leaving-you-to-your-own-thoughts. Thoreau talks a bit about just going on instinct and seeing where that takes you (he tends towards West/Southwest). I find myself drifting in the games I classify as walking simulators, letting my mind do the same and just ending up… wherever and that being fine. It’s neither wrong nor right. It just is.

Dear Esther is a strange one in that respect because it was the first game I ever heard being referred to as a walking simulator (albeit as a casual insult) and, having tried to work out a definition of a walking simulator for myself a few years on it’s so very definitely not meeting any of the criteria!

Alice: ‘Walking simulator’ is a bit of a wonky term, so vague, and yet I know exactly what sort of games I mean when I say it. A ‘wandering simulator’ is what Ricky Haggett called Proteus and maybe that’s more appropriate but here we are with walking simulator, and lord it was enough work to subvert that. I do still like that it came from pejorative roots – complaining about DayZ and rolling its eyes at Dear Esther – but is now such a celebratory term. By which I mean I’m using it that way and the rest of the world can lick me. Heck yeah I like games where you walk around!

What would you call The Sorts Of Games That Are Definitely Recognisable And Definable As A Class Of ‘Walking Simulators’ But Aren’t Really, Y’Know, Simulating Walking?

Pip: You mean the games covered by this sort-of working definition we’ve felt out through the velvet cloth and want to send our embalmed hearts to when we get its postcode?

Alice: Please never ever lift the velvet cloth. Do not peek beneath the velvet cloth.

Pip: If I’m trying to sum up their shared core, maybe it’s more accurate to call them meditation games, but that sounds so waffly and offputting. It also means I’m not mentioning the movement part and I think that exploration is a big part of the genre(?)/subgenre(??). Move-itation games? Oh god, I think I’ve just made myself vomit.

Alice: This is why the only genres I’ll coin are Verb ‘Em Ups.

I still think the problem with many games is that they really want to be walking simulators at heart but the devs didn’t quite realise and made Thing ‘Em Ups instead. You can see them screaming to be walking simulators, furious that someone has bound them with Thinging. Pointless dialogue, bad puzzles, uninteresting combat, dull resource management etc. smothering somewhere that’d be quite a nice place for a potter.

Pip: THAT’S THE WORD! Pottering games. Or maybe pootling games. That’s what they are. They let you be in your own space comfortably – in your own mind comfortably. That’s why I like them. There’s enough to focus on that you’re not in the wilds of your own mind, needing to dodge any unwanted thoughts. But you’re not having to perform feats or meet targets. They help neutralise the more daunting parts of meditation and just let you potter or pootle.

Alice: Does that make Proteus a Beatrix Potterer?

Not that walking simulators have exclusive claim to pottering, of course. I’ve had lovely times pottering in everything from Skyrim to Grand Theft Auto, but I inevitably bump into bandits or bump someone who’ll bop my nose… not to say it’s bad when that happens – it’s a different experience. Maybe Grand Theft Auto is Sacramento with a ‘realistic’ slant – pootle around in you car until you accidentally spark a police chase and the moment is lost.

Pip: I was going to say that multiplayer GTA V is a pootler, but obviously it involves other people, so perhaps the multiplayer version of a walking simulator is a playground? GTA V is kind of Digital Bird Playground but with cars instead of bicycles and slightly higher production values.

Alice: I’m really into a vision of video games where all virtual worlds are categorised as a Bernband ’em up or a Digital Bird Playgrounder.

Pip: I could cosign that vision. But Alice? You know it’s spelled “videogame”, right?

[Disclosure: Alice is pally with Proteus dev Ed Key and Hurry the Sorry Word’s Nate Gallardo.]


  1. Bobcat says:

    Killscreen also released a cool article today on Walking Simulators, collecting writers’ and developers’ opinions on the term ‘walking simulator’. link to

  2. caff says:

    I love Pip and Alice chats.

    And Bernband is the bestest. To think I would never have discovered this were it not for RPS and a random allusion to it by Alice one day.

    Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor saisfied my Bernband itch a bit. But not a lot.

    • gwop_the_derailer says:

      I tried Bernband right after finishing Anachronox, so I was in the perfect mood for it. I wish we would get more cityscapes like that.

  3. DelrueOfDetroit says:

    How does one creature a cure?

    • DelrueOfDetroit says:

      I also had no idea Proteus gave you different islands. I must have never “finished” the game because I keep getting the same island every time.

      • April March says:

        The game is very obvious when you finish, so if you’re putting quotation marks on it you likely didn’t.

      • LTK says:

        Every island has a unique geography that’s then filled with the same elements – one wooden cabin, a graveyard, a stone circle, a totem circle, and a handful of monoliths, among other things. That might be why you didn’t recognise them as different.

  4. cpt_freakout says:

    I played a few of these before ever playing Dear Esther, which I finally did recently, and this might not make sense to some but it felt gamey to me – even if it is haphazard and loose about it, it’s got a relatively definable point to make. There’s no point to Proteus and Bernband, which is why they’re so amazing, at least to me. They’re play, just play, at its best. Anyway, this was a blast to read!

  5. Halk says:

    How about we stop using that term which isn’t even accurate? People came up with it to degrade such games. How dumb is it to just adopt it?

    • gwop_the_derailer says:

      Not dumb at all. For instance, queer used to be a pejorative term, before the LGBT community reclaimed it.

      It’s much more fun taking away the power of your enemy’s words.

      • hannahnicklin says:

        it’s got a long history too, as an act. ‘Impressionism’ was famously an insult when first coined by a critic (in 1874).

        • gwop_the_derailer says:

          Hah! I had no idea!

        • RandyBacon says:

          As well as “intellectual”, back in the times of the Dreyfus Affair. “J’accuse!”

      • batraz says:

        “Take away the power” : next step is using that power on innocent people by telling them how to speak, and which words they should use… So no there’s no such things, there is only becoming a bully yourself. Besides, “walking simulator” is obviously a tongue-in-cheek thing, a good name altogether.
        Did you know btw, that grunge bands didnt call them selves “grunge” ? Not clever enough to “take away the power”, those bands.

        • gwop_the_derailer says:

          Asking people to be considerate isn’t bullying.

        • Spakkenkhrist says:

          Thurston Moore on the term grunge:

          “That word “grunge” came out of Sub Pop records as a joke to the New York Times to create a terminology of what all these bands at the time were doing.”

          So they did call themselves that, not that it’s a good analogy anyway.

    • aepervius says:

      “degrade” is your impression. Your opinion. For me it is simply a fact, that if there is no win state, no failure state, and barely any input, then it is a walk simulator, probably on the same level as visual novel. It is not pejorative unless you want it so. It is a fair assessment of many game like dear esther. Now you may not like the term, but the problem is more with you then, isn’t it ?

      • USER47 says:

        Frankly, Dear Esther has quite a classic structure, it’s a linear path from A to B with a story and ending. The only difference from more gamey first person games is that you don’t have to point a cursor at things and click a mouse buton.

        I don’t really like the term walking simulator either to be honest. Flying simulators are all about simulating how to drive a plane, racing simulators are all about simulating a racing cars, fishing simulators are all about simulating fishing…But those so called “walking simulators” have nothing to do with simulating walking. In games like Dear Esther you move around by walking, but the core of the experience is about something else entirely.

        • Sarfrin says:

          They simulate the act of going for a walk, not the mechanics of walking.

          • Bobcat says:

            The only true ‘walking simulator’ is QWOP, which is not a walking simulator…

  6. trashbat says:

    ARMA would be a good bet for this. Quickest option: use the editor to play on an empty map as a civilian.

  7. X_kot says:

    Wow, I just developed a crush on that Sacramento art style.

  8. plsgodontvisitheforums_ says:

    A walking sim is anything where you don’t get to shoot a zombie in the head every 23 seconds. Sorry but it isn’t a thing. It’s something someone from rps thought sounds funny for all the wrong reasons.

    • Morph says:

      Not a thing? So how do you classify these games then?

      • plsgodontvisitheforums_ says:

        A waste of time? Don’t think in boxes, man.

        • fiasco says:

          “Don’t think in boxes,” says the person dismissing an entire type of game

  9. Morph says:

    Yeah this article is why RPS is the best gaming site.

  10. Ben King says:

    These are always great talks between pip and Alice, and I’m also excited to find out about new walking sims to explore. this Sacramento one will need to go on my list. Bernband gave me an insane headache for some reason, but Cesure was really splendid. I also really enjoyed Sing Me to Sleep- different aesthetic but similar dwarfed and alien feel. Miasmata is one of my fondest gaming memories of the past few years, but I’m not sure how much I would enjoy returning to it. Also in the states where I’m at a “Yorkie” is slang for the small dog breed Yorkshire Terrier…. what kind of Yorkie is being referred to in the section about Thoreau with gravy and veg? is this a kind of sandwich?

  11. oyog says:

    Did anyone else enjoy Fract OST as a walking simulator more than a puzzle game (or synthesizer if anyone used it that way)?

    I got to a point where I was unable to continue, I think because I’m unfamiliar with how synthesizers function, but until that point the only reason I bothered completing the puzzles was just to explore that neon world.

  12. Geebs says:

    I still find that I have a bit of the problem with the genre of Level-designer Simulators, and it’s entirely centred on the rejection of interactivity. What’s the point of taking an interactive medium and not doing or saying anything, of not communicating, of not learning? Yeah, these things are striking to look at, but the most popular ones are mostly about wandering about a nice garden, which is really a bit bourgeois.

    They can be off-puttingly narcissistic – Dear Esther being the most preening and unfriendly of the bunch. Gone Home, otherwise an interesting experience, has an audio log of the central character talking about how she got on stage at a gig and how great it was that everybody was paying attention to her. The same character then makes a fairly short-sighted decision to dive headlong into poverty because another, older, more experienced character makes her feel special. You could certainly argue that it’s a character piece, but the music going bananas with immensity at that point gives that the lie.

    The sad part is that they seem to meet the same attitudes reflected back from the player – that these games are good because they let you get inside your own head and zone out. As someone who has already charted the most intimate topologies of my own navel (it’s pretty easy, I’m an outie), I don’t see art that encourages me to be more introverted and less engaged to be very interesting.

    TL:DR Dear Esther is basically Call of Duty with nationalism exchanged for narcissism and Dan Pinckbeck is Malcolm McLaren, and the genre would be better off moving away from both of them

    • Eight Rooks says:

      You may not be aware of this, but “non-interactive” media can also communicate stuff and possibly even help us learn things. Crazy, I know, but it’s true, honest. Some people have even been known to say that on coming back to a “non-interactive” work to experience it again they find their perspective differs – as if the work itself, well, changed, if you will. Seriously. Perhaps – and bear with me here – PRESS BUTTON, SEE THING HAPPEN might not always be the highest purpose to which videogames can aspire?

      • Geebs says:

        In my mind, interactivity is what makes videogames better than all that dusty old last-century media. I know you’re being overly reductive because sneering condescension is so much more cathartic than engaging the ol’ grey matter, but on average, if there’s a button to press, I’d prefer that it mattered whether I chose to press it or not.

        The really odd thing is that the artists behind the Dolly Simulators feel that they’re producing something new or “making games grow up” by grabbing my line of sight. Valve figured out how to make the player look in the right direction without wrestling the camera control away a decade ago.

    • Aninhumer says:

      I think the reason for the non-interactivity is simply that interactivity is much harder, both in terms of creative effort to do something interesting with it, and the practical effort of implementing it.

    • April March says:

      I agree with you re: Dear Esther, which was pants. But it seems your beef with Gone Home is that the story was pants, in your opinion (I didn’t dislike it as much as you did but agree completely with your points and found the ending worrisome rather than empowering). I don’t think those problems with Gone Home are relevant to the genre as a whole, or a result of the genre it’s in. That’s like saying rap isn’t real music because you don’t like how Baby Got Back is solely about butts.

      • Geebs says:

        Fair point, although I’d argue that, with Baby Got Back, Sir Mix-A-Lot is sincerely attempting to engage with his audience on booty-related issues, demonstrating impressive awareness and empathy of the role of booty across a range of cultures and contexts. In addition, Mix-A-Lot’s call-out of waist and hip measurements in the last few stanzas places the butt in context and shows that, while he has chosen to really focus on the ass in order to deliver his message, he is fully cogniscent of the bigger picture.

        Which is to say that, I liked Gone Home more than I may have let on, but I’m still not sold on the look-don’t-touch examples of the genre. People have talked about theatre in the thread; I’d much rather see Shakespeare at The Globe than some shut-up-and-watch venue.

  13. Sin Vega says:

    All this talk of abandoned kingdoms and pub lunches makes me want to read The History of Mr Polly for the second time this year. It’s not until the final act that it becomes entirely relevant, but I’ve always felt the faint urge to do exactly that. But, y’know, money. And urbanisation, and mass transit, and etc, etc.

    (it can be read here, it’s not about walking per se but definitely taps the same vein link to

  14. ephesus64 says:

    I think unusually often about the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George try to sell network executives on the idea of a sitcom which is a show about nothing. Jerry mentions something about a thing happening, but then George gets carried away and says no, it’s a show where absolutely nothing happens at all. Could that possibly be happening here? Can absolutely nothing ever happen, else it’s no longer a walking simulator?

    Oh! If at the end of Dear Esther (spoiler spoiler spoiler!!! Just saying.), you had the option to either walk off the edge of the radio tower OR retrace your steps all the way through the island in silence at dusk, as long as you desired, then could it reclaim the Alice and Pip sanctioned definition of walking sim? Not claiming that’s Canon, just curious what everyone thought. I’ve heard other people say that not including that option was a missed opportunity in Dear Esther, and I think I agree.

  15. Laurentius says:

    Hmm, thing that really put me off from these games, is something that is mentioned here briefly. These games called “walking simulators” are actually really bad at simiulating human walk. I walka lot, but in these game it is all wrong, from field of viev to movement and pace. I would really like to play well developed walking simulator.

  16. Turkey says:

    Someone should make a walking simulator where you play as Dee Dee from Limmy’s show and you have 15 minutes to explore Yoker before he freaks out and runs back to the bus.

  17. aoanla says:

    As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m a little vexed by a lot of conscious and unconscious assumptions in the framing of some of the discussion around “walking simulators”, “if calling things games or not games is an inherent value judgement” etc.

    What I will say is that I am pretty sure that what “walking simulators”, if we’re going to use that term, do is essentially what theatre does. They’re about set design, and dressing, and arranging tone and a sort of limited-interactivity with respect to a performance which you can’t influence.
    To be precise, they’re essentially software “promenade theatre” – which is a form in which the performance happens around the audience, who are free to move through the performance space (like “ghosts” observing and invisible).

    [This is also why I think it’s actually damaging to call them “games” – they’re “theatre”, and all of the critical tools people use to judge them are the same tools we use to judge theatre…]

    • Thirith says:

      I very much agree with your point re: promenade theater – I think that’s exactly what these titles are, with the added benefit of being able to create spaces and performances that aren’t possible in actual theatre. I think that distinguishing them entirely from games is throwing the baby out with the bath water, though; a lot of more overtly gamey games use elements of promenade theatre, and in fact the entire medium of games is a magpie medium in many ways. There might be useful ways to look at games through the lens of theatre as much as vice versa.

      • April March says:

        Agreed. Theatre is more influential on games than most people realize; there’s no reason not think of walking simulators as both theatre and games.

    • Aninhumer says:

      I think saying walking simulators aren’t games because they draw on the creative tools of theatre is like saying multi-camera sitcoms aren’t TV shows for the same reason.

      But more generally, I think arguing about the meaning of words is almost always pointless. If you don’t agree (and can’t resolve that quickly), then the word is useless for furthering discussion. Choose more specific words for what you want to actually talk about, and move on.

      No amount of semantic argument is going to bring forth a perfectly unambiguous lexicon that everyone agrees with.

  18. vogre says:

    Does anyone have a copy of Césure? Official link seems dead, and doesn’t seem to have stored it.

    • Sarfrin says:

      I’m curious about it too. Wonder why it’s not available any more.

      • April March says:

        Came here to post about it – the offical link has been 404’d.

    • johnkdbell says:

      I’ve been looking everywhere and I can’t find a copy either. Hopefully, someone will provide a link.

  19. thelastpointer says:

    For me, a walking simulator (a good one at least) is a game that places emphasis on the environment instead of story or mechanics. It also has to have a first or third person perspective for some reason.

    Bernband, Césure and Secret Habitat are the best, just inviting me to an interesting world and let me do whatever I want with it. Orihaus summed it up nicely: he “makes strange places and calls them games”.

    Interestingly, I get similar satisfaction from quite a few other games despite their mechanics, most notably Unreal (’98) and GTA SA. But I suspect this was the main reason I loved Might and Magic and Ultima too. Back then it just didn’t matter that I had to do stuff while wandering around aimlessly.

  20. JakeOfRavenclaw says:

    Sacramento was lovely; thanks for posting about it :-)

    This may be heretical, but I do like my Walking Simulators with a bit of structure, which I think may be why Proteus is my favorite of the ones I’ve played. Its loose birth/life/death narrative was genuinely moving to me, and the ending–rising inexorably away from the island, into the aurora, your eyes slowing closing even as you want to keep looking around–is beautiful and elegant and heartbreaking. I loved it. (Actually Sacramento sort of does something similar–at least for me my reaction was “Wait! No! I wasn’t finished!” as I was dragged back to the start).

  21. Urthman says:

    I love Miasmata so much. The triangulation mapping mechanic is a really great innovation, a reason to explore that’s not collecting things or puzzle-solving. It’s a little bit like a twist on having the player find an photograph particular things. It’s almost as good as the [spoiler] mechanic The Witness has for getting the player to explore everywhere.

  22. Urthman says:

    My favorite variation on Walking Simulators is Flying/Swimming/Jumping/Climbing/Swinging/Driving simulators, where you have an interesting or beautiful environment to explore but some sort of engaging movement mechanic that is enjoyable for it’s own sake. I’d put here games like ABZÛ, Journey, Fruits of a Feather, PaperPlane, Endless Ocean, Grow Home, Naissancee, CONDOR (a Mirror’s Edgeish indie game about finding your way to the highest point in a cyberpunkish cityscape). Mirror’s Edge sorta counts too. Also open-world driving games when you tell the racing/story parts to piss off: Fuel, The Crew, GTA games, etc. Some of the open-world Spider-Man games.

    • April March says:

      Oh, I’d really love a game that was openly a “driving simulator” in which you could, well, do what most people do in a GTA game.

  23. planet Jane says:

    I seem to have missed the daily comment wave so I don’t know if anyone will read this but I’ve always found the idea that this genre (walking sims, environmental games, whatever you want to call them) is new very peculiar. It goes back at least as far as The LSD Dream Emulator which came out in 1998.

    And I know I’m not blowing anyone’s minds by mentioning it which is why I find it so odd that it’s *never brought up at all*. It’s not like it wasn’t influential in its own way.