When the so-called ‘walking simulator’ genre emerged in modern gaming, it was treated with a certain amount of contempt. Many claimed games within the genre ‘weren’t real games’, and in many cases, completely ignored their vast storytelling potential. Simple mechanics and a lack of interaction have often drawn criticism, but to deny the impact that the genre has, and the emotions that they evoke would be a vast oversight.
Over the past few years, the genre has experienced a new lease of life, with the brilliant Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and more recently, the devastating What Remains of Edith Finch. In the golden age of walking simulators, here are some of the best.
The story of Firewatch is brilliant and moving, with fire lookout Henry taking a job in Shoshone National Forest after his wife begins to suffer from dementia. The start of the game is pure emotion, as Henry is questioned about his life, and the pain of losing his wife. Soon after, Henry finds himself embroiled in the mysteries of Shoshone, guided through a walkie-talkie by Delilah, his supervisor.
We never meet Delilah, but their newly formed relationship guides the action of Firewatch, and explores the pain of loss and the longing for human connection. A conspiracy soon emerges in the forest, as Henry stumbles on mysterious experiments, a missing child and a shadowy figure that appears to watch him from afar. Wandering through the wonderfully stylized forests is a genuine delight, and as you unravel the mysteries of the forest, the depth and emotion of the story is revealed. Firewatch is a master class in storytelling, and one that resonated with me for a long while after.
Gone Home follows the story of Katie Greenbriar, who returns home after an overseas trip to find her whole family missing. All she finds is a note on the door – do not investigate what happened. This mystery sets the tone for the entire game, as Katie begins to search the house, piecing together what happened through the variety of clues she uncovers around the house.
What is revealed is a heart-wrenching tale of love, acceptance, and the complications of family. The tale is beautifully realistic and deeply intimate, involving players directly in the lives of the Greenbriar family. It encourages and rewards deep exploration, with clues to the mystery only presenting themselves after intense scrutiny. Gone Home presented a truly unique experience, and story that felt like nothing else in games, with a willingness to explore even the most private and well-guarded moments of family life.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was a tale that blew me away when I first travelled through its story. On the surface, it was a game about paranormal investigator Paul Prospero as he travels to find the titular protagonist, who has mysteriously vanished. As he travels throughout Ethan’s hometown, Red Creek Valley, he uncovers a series of haunting phenomena, and a hostility that has been bred within the village.
He soon discovers that Ethan has unleashed a being known as The Sleeper into the village, an evil spirit that demands appeasement. The story is guided by a series of puzzles unearthed by exploring the outer reaches of the town. The game provides you with very little help along the way, making the puzzles complex, but ultimately satisfying. As you travel through the brilliantly rendered and genuinely beautiful landscapes, further mysteries present themselves, and you soon realise that nothing is as it seems. The mysteries in Ethan Carter are both engaging and shocking, and the finale is well-realised, but ultimately, devastating.
Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a game built on mystery, where secrets breed more secrets, and the final stanza of the tale is only revealed by putting all the disparate pieces together. Developed by the Chinese Room, it is considered a spiritual sequel to Dear Esther, a game that I was thoroughly unimpressed by. Despite my reservations, I was blown away by the intricacies of the story, and the impact that the game had on me. Set in a sleepy English village, the game reveals very little, with only a whisp of glowing light to guide players through its world.
As you travel through the village, smaller glowing lights, representing people who have quite literally vanished begin to tell you the tale of their departure. But even then, the mystery deepens. Was it truly the rapture that took the lives of those in the village? Was it something else deeper? The further you go, the more clues present themselves, and the more you learn about the inhabitants of the town. Soon, you uncover that not only have the humans vanished, but many of the animals in the village have also died, leading to yet more questions. To say more of the plot would be to spoil it entirely, but the tale presented in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is deep and affecting, and presents one of the most effective forms of storytelling in modern gaming.
What Remains of Edith Finch
I had the pleasure of this reviewing this game earlier in the year, and I was frankly blown away by the tale it told. Edith Finch tells a wholly moving tale of the struggles of the Finch family, whose mysterious history guides protagonist Edith. Much like Gone Home, Edith Finch features its protagonist exploring her family home in order to uncover its secrets. As Edith explores her old decrepit home, she discovers more about her own history, with artfully designed vignettes illustrating each family member’s story.
Each tale is told in a different fashion, from comic-style animated splash pages to a delightful sequence where you take control of a shark. Each vignette showcases the strength of the narrative, and displays the panache of developers Giant Sparrow. Throughout the vignettes, Edith Finch crafts an artfully told and deeply thoughtful narrative about life and death, and all the spaces in between. Allowing the story to be shaped largely by the beauty of the vignettes reveals much about the central characters, and thus Edith Finch presents a thought provoking and beautifully realised tale that marks it out as something truly special.