Walking Simulators – Are they still games?

What distinguishes video games from the other, older media? The most obvious, and hazy at the same time, answer is: interactivity. So we have FPS and TPS games, platformers, adventure games, strategies, each requiring some interaction. And then, at the very end, we have so-called Walking Simulators. But are they true games or not anymore?


I was inspired to make this entry by a short Youtube clip (and a discussion on Reddit decicated to it) about walking simulators. Now, to be precise, what I have in mind while talking about walking simulators is: such first-person perspective games where narrative, setting and mood are the most important elements, limiting the gameplay mechanics and the interactivity in the process. Perhaps not the best definition but it will do.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about this „genre”. On one hand, I appreciate artsy, original and narrative-driven stuff, so I’m all cool with that, but on the other, I tend to perceive those as… sort of interactive movies or interactive books on screen than proper games. It’s an interesting topic, really, how we perceive games and how the game genres evolve. That’s why I want to talk today about Walking Simulators and give you some arguments for and against considering them proper video games. But first, let’s watch the video.

Arguments for Walking Simulators being true games

 

1. They are still interactive, although in a different way

In FPS games, you run and shoot things, in RPG games you play as a (own-made) character and interact with the world. In both genres you have lots of interaction with the game and its content. And how about Walking Simulators?

Eric Zimmerman[1] in order to establish what „games” are, had to decide what narrative and interactivity mean. Thus, he divided interactivity into four different categories, as he rightly noted that narratives (game = narrative) differ in a way how they are interactive. Therefore, we can distinguish:

  • cognitive interactivity – it is how we react emotionally and mentally to the narrative, to the content of a text; example: replaying a video game from your childhood may evoke different emotions
  • functional interactivity – it is the way in which we interact with the fabric, with the structure of the text; example: changing settings or creating new levels
  • explicit interactivity – it is our interaction, reaction and engagement in the content, something what I would identify as the core gameplay of the game; example: deciding to save John Smith instead of killing him, climbing a building to strike an enemy guard from above;
  • meta-interacivity – it is our interaction about the text, our cultural perception, cultural interaction; example: creating mods, writing fan-fiction

My understanding is that Walking Simulators revolve around cognitive interactivity (as opposed to explicit one), as they rely on emotional engagement. This leads ultimately to „neglection” of more standard types of interactivity. Either way, we still interact with our surroundings: even exploring a mysterious area puts us in a position of performer, not a viewer. And that’s where we go to another argument, which is…

 

2. We are still participants and not passive viewers

No matter how linear the game is, it is us who steer the character. We choose when and how to move forward. Mirosław Filiciak, a Polish ludologist, made an interesting analogy with football:

For a passive spectator in the stands, a match constitutes a narrative – it has its start and its end with ups and downs of the teams in the middle. However, in case of video games we are not the spectators. We are the players – we determine the outcome, so we should use a perspective of a player. And what a player experiences during the match cannot be reduced to a simple story. [translation mine]

I find it difficult to disagree with this statement. What separates video games from books or movies is the fact that we aren’t simply watching but controlling, choosing and acting. My comparison would be probably swaping places with the actors on a stage. Instead of just watching a drama, we participate in it.

 

3. Technically, they are games

There is an ongoing conflict (which perhaps has diminished in the recent years) between ludologists and narratologists about what video games are. Narratologists perceive games as a cyber-drama, an evolution of older forms of narrative, meaning that literary and narrative methodology should be applied in video games research. Ludologists disagree with such statements. To them, games could be described as simulations. Each game has its start, an action/a progress and an outcome, which can be positive (win) or negative (loss). It is all determined by the player’s actions. Walking Simulators still are simulations, although fairly limited. Our outcome could be either reaching the end of the story (win) or even better, getting the good ending by completing some tasks, or failing to do so by being stuck at some point etc.

fpe_elements

Arguments for Walking Simulators being NOT true games

 

1. Limited interactivity

I mentioned earlier the different types of interactivity and how Walking Simulators rely on cognitive interactivity rather than on the explicit one. For some it might be enough to identify them as interactive movies or interactive narratives. Games are meant to be won, there must be two outcomes with one of them being success and the other being defeat. In Walking Simulators such factors are rather limited, don’t you think? Certainly, there are titles that do incorporate lots of puzzles and other game mechanics. But when I’m reffering to Walking Simulators, I have in mind all those non-gameplayish games that are being laughed at. Aren’t they trying to hard to be artsy? In my opinion, they sometimes are but this might be caused by how video games are perceived. Thinking „video game” we think of something different. Perhaps an interactive story would be a better name for Walking Simulators?

 

2. Spectatorship over immersion

One might even argue that we are not playing but just spectating. Analysing the clues and getting deeper and deeper into the story is interesting but the same could be said about books or movies. Where is the play part – one could ask. Here I will cite Gordon Celleja[2], who has created a hexagonal model of digital game involvement, which consists of:

  • tactical involvement (decision-making);
  • performative involvement (movement and controls);
  • affective involvement (variety of emotion evoked or not in the player);
  • shared involvement (interaction with AIs and other players);
  • narrative involvement (the lore and the players’ interpretation of the story);
  • spatial involvement (exploration)

Now, here’s the graphic representation of the model.

schemat

For the purpose of the entry, I modified it a little, adding those weird triangles. The red figure on the model represents Walking Simulators as I believe they could be represented. The green one could represent a typical RTS game where tactics and engagement are very important. This might mean, that there could not be much of the gameplay in Walking Simulators. Of course, our expectations and attitude determine our immersion in game, so we if we are willing to embrace the interactive storytelling, then such disproportions would not be a problem. Nevertheless, the spectatorship-like nature of Walking Simulator can be baffling. Where’s the line between interactive narrative and narrative interaction? How minimalist games can be before turning into an experimental experience? I would say that walking simulators are more than pure spectatorship but less than pure gaming experience. They are a weird construct stuck in between. They could be reffered to as interactive stories, interactive narratives or even as interactive experiences, which is a vague term indeed, although still more appropriate.

 

3. Lack of challenge and impossibility to win

I mentioned earlier that games are simulations with a start, an action/progress and the positive/negative outcome. But what does the outcome mean? Can you win Walking Simulators? Is there any challenge? Should there be any challenge? Once again, it is a matter of perspective. Eric Zimmerman defined a game as „a voluntary interactive activity, in which one or more players follow rules that constrain their behavior, enacting an artificial conflict that ends in a quantifiable outcome.”[ibidem] which makes sense, unless we apply that to Walking Simulators. What kind of conflict do we have and what kind of outcome do we recieve? Might be a conflict between a player and the environment (puzzles, obstacles) but that’s it. We cannot be in a conflict with a story, can we? Then, coming to the outcome: if we agree that reaching the end of a story is an accomplishment, then yes, you can win Walking Simulators. Collecting 100% of X and getting the true ending might be considered winning as well. But for some it is not enough. No challenge = no fun, and so we have that. Things get difficult when we stop and think about such titles that incorporate puzzle elements. I believe it depends on the ratio and the function of a game. If it’s an exploration game foremost and then a puzzle game, we might consider it an interactive experience.

 

Conclusion

All in all, Walking Simulators can or cannot be games, depending on our stance. They are interactive, although the type of interaction differs from the other genres. For some it is enough to classify them as mere interactive performances or interactive narratives. Apart from that, can you ever win such games? The lack of progress and/or accomplishment can disqualify Walking Simulators from being video games but once again, the matter is too complicated and we should rely on our intuition.


1. E. Zimmerman, Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four naughty concepts in need of discipline
2. G. Calleja, A Conceptual Model for the Analysis of Digital Game Involvement
 
Additional sources that I based my entry on:
3. R. Bomba, Gry komputerowe w perspektywie antropologii codzienności
4. J. Dovey, H. Kennedy, Game Cultures: Computer Games as New Media
5. J. Juul, Games Telling stories? – A brief note on games and narratives

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