If you’re a fan of walking simulators, then the name probably sticks in the throat, but let’s ‘own it’ and chuck the best and mightiest of the genre into a bear pit and let them have at it! Hoo-rah!
As with most genre lists, there’s some controversy about what does or doesn’t constitute a walking simulator. Dialogue and navigation is preferred over puzzles and more intensive interaction like combat or QTEs. Jumping/crouching is positively frowned upon. If we were a little bit looser with the definitions, then you’d be seeing games like The Walking Dead, A Short Hike, Into the Woods and Soma on the list, so let’s doff a cap to them, and move on.
Honourable Mentions must be made to To the Moon and Stanley Parable, which should be winging their way to Xbox in the future, and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, which we can always hope will arrive on the Xbox at some point (but won’t).
Strap on your hiking boots and let’s ramble!
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
You wouldn’t be able to tell that this was the debut game from The Astronauts – it’s as assured as you can get. If anything, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s potboiler writing could have done with coming off the stove a little earlier.
But boy is it beautiful; a noir/horror/mystery hybrid that slowly wends you through an autumnal Red Creek Valley, on the hunt for the eponymous Ethan Carter. You play Paul Prospero (obvious reference is obvious), the detective on the case, and you’ll soon grow accustomed to his moody voice-over as you piece together crime scenes and observe the resulting flashbacks.
Some of it is clunky, other parts are overwritten, but it has some truly memorable rug-pulls and an environment that’s probably only matched by Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture for beautiful realism.
Layers of Fear
Walking sims and horror go hand in claw, as a slow-pace, lack of escape route and helpless inactivity are hallmarks of both. You want to fight back? Ha, you can’t! You want to look away? Ha, you’re pressing forward or there’s no game, buddy.
Layers of Fear knows this, and has a grand old time making your life a misery. You play an alcoholic portrait painter holed up in a mansion for ‘inspiration’, and that inspiration happens to become hallucinogenic trips through a nightmarish hellscape. It takes the PT approach of fiddling with the game world when you’re not looking at it, which is a particular nerve ending of mine, and may well be yours too. If you spend the game hugging walls in an effort to keep the whole world in view, you are in good company.
Now, if the antagonists – including a Ringu-like girl and a doll – could have been a bit more original and effective, and the writing was a touch less hammy, then this would have been a place or two higher on the list.
One of the first walking simulators, and certainly the one to draw the most ire from ‘but what is a game?’ pedants, Dear Esther has been superseded since, but has a lot still to offer. Taking place on a Hebridean island, you’re a writer navigating the island and collecting letters to the Esther of the title because, you know, ‘Dear Esther’.
There’s a poetic ambiguity about who you are, who the voice-over is from, and whether they are to be trusted. The art from Rob Briscoe of Mirror’s Edge fame can be delightful, and there are some pause-and-take-in-the-scenery moments. The ending, too, is haunting – and literally, when some ghostly silhouettes start popping up in the background.
It’s a little rough around the edges nowadays, and you have to dial down your pretension sensitivity, but it’s a piece of history that is well worth a visit.
Who said that walking sims had to explore chronological storytelling? Virginia is like a collage of a narrative, cutting up the constituent pieces of a crime story and arranging them in a manner that maximises the disorientation but also the emotional wallop.
You’re a rookie FBI agent investigating a case as well as a fellow agent, and it’s probably best to leave the spoilers there. From then on, it’s a sequence of short vignettes where it’s less whodunnit and more whatprogressesit, as you hunt for the character or item that will move you to the next sequence. It’s all linear and unbranching, but that doesn’t stop the story from being compelling.
For some, the disorientation might be too much, particularly when timelines and similar characters seem to merge, but for others Virginia might be a candidate for the number 1 spot.
Out before Stranger Things and IT Chapters 1 and 2, Oxenfree feels like it comes from a similar milieu of backwards-looking teen horror-lite (not the catchiest of genres: I’ll work on it, alright?). You play a small group of teenagers visiting an abandoned island, all in the name of partying against a backdrop of danger. Soon, things go upside-down, and radio interference and curious phenomena poop the party.
The teen dialogue isn’t wholly authentic, but it’s full of colour and the events that propel the game forward are great. It’s also an unpredictable game, not least because you won’t know what genre the game is heading for, whether it be horror, science fiction or somewhere else entirely (a trick that quite a few games further up this list attempt). Of all the games on the list, Oxenfree is one of the most memorable.
Man, I love Tacoma. Perhaps not as well-reviewed as many of the games on this list, I was a sucker for the high concept and science fiction 2001-esque setting.
Tacoma casts you as Amy Ferrier, a technician brought onto an abandoned space station to download the dormant AI, Odin. Technically, the game then becomes a waiting simulator, as you fill the time while Odin downloads. This means exploring the desolate station and triggering holographic recordings of what made it abandoned, and the story is well, well worth it.
For the first time on the list, the writing feels completely naturalistic, and while the themes are reasonably well-worn – what can life offer when everything is automated; when does duty become too much – you will still probably one-session the game to get to the ending. Toss in some lovely zero-g moments, and you have a cult favourite.
Kentucky Route Zero
Writing about Kentucky Route Zero can feel like a pointless act, as it shouldn’t really be spoiled, and it’s difficult to evoke without being experienced. That might sound pretentious, much like the game itself, but YOU play it, and then try to summarise it in a three paragraph listicle.
It’s art, that’s for sure. More than anything in this list, it’s an artefact that we will be looking at and learning from for years. Visually it’s one of the most stylish games ever released, and it contains some moments that are truly unique. It’s also occasionally twee and self-absorbed, but it can definitely be forgiven.
Not bad for a game that begins with the mundanity of an antique delivery driver who is simply looking to bring a package to 5 Dogwood Drive. Who knew the turns that would be taken over it’s 9-year development and the hunt for the mythical Route Zero?
What Remains of Edith Finch
One of the first games to come to mind when people mention walking simulators, What Remains of Edith Finch is actually the one that comes closest to being ejected from the list for breaking its rules. There’s not actually that much walking, as the wonderful, chimeric house you are in is so dense that you’ll be tiptoeing through it at a snail’s pace. It also scatters it’s narrative with more interactive ‘minigames’, for want of a better word.
But let’s not get nitpicky: What Remains of Edith Finch is rightly revered, casting you as the last remaining member of the Finch family, returning to the family estate to largely reminisce. And it’s the estate that is the focal character – a Frankenstein’s monster of architecture, full of pocket mausoleums all dedicated to fallen family members. It’s a fantastic piece of magic realism, and it’s one of the most memorable houses in gaming (ooh, another listicle topic!).
For some, the stories might be relentlessly downbeat or morbid, being entirely focused on death, but there’s positivity and light to be found. And did I mention the house?
Taking of fantastic houses in gaming, we come to the Greenbriar house, sole location of Gone Home. Props to the Fullbright Company who get two games on this list (Tacoma being their other joint).
Gone Home brings you back to your family’s residence, but it’s empty. The floorboards creak, the lights flicker, and white noise plays through televisions. You find scattered notes and journals from your family, particularly your sister, Samantha, who is going through her formative teens. The puckish devs want you to believe that this is a setting for some jump scares and psychological horror, but the tale they tell is more essential than that.
Gone Home is perfect. Fight me. It’s control over the narrative and what the game is eventually about is masterful. It’s dalliance with genre is brilliant. It manages to fully capture the voice and thoughts of its central teen. I want to go back and play it now, just writing about it.
But it’s not the only perfect game on the list, and loses out solely because there is one game that achieves much the same feat and, gosh darn it, I have to have a preference.
Walking simulators will break your heart. There’s something about the inability to look back; the inexorable movement forward that makes them wistful and emotional, and Firewatch is probably the MacDaddy of all of them. It’s a gut punch.
You play as Henry, employed for a summer to man a fire tower in Wyoming, watching the horizon for suspicious activity and, well, fires. You aren’t the only one with this job, as other fire towers are scattered through the forest, but you will never physically encounter them. Instead, you all keep contact by radio and form a bond with one in particular – Delilah. Your shared loneliness will bring you to some poignant places.
And gosh, Firewatch is gorgeous. It’s a summer holiday in digital form. The forest is somewhat explorable (some might say that breaks the walking sim rule), and that means you can bask in that gorgeousness. If walking simulators are about the views, then Firewatch has got your back.
But if walking sims are instead about the journey, then Firewatch has got your back too. Like many of the games here, there is a playful poking of various genres until the game finally settles on one, and the result couldn’t have been anything else. Firewatch, like Gone Home before it, is perfect – or as negligibly close to perfection that I won’t bother quibbling. If you haven’t played it yet, clear four hours and enjoy.
Hopefully there is still a future for the walking simulator, particularly as some of the developers have publicly turned their backs on the genre (The Chinese Room, reconsider!). But even if the walking simulator were to step off a cliff, we would still have some of the best experiences that this generation has seen. Not bad for a bunch of non-games, eh?