The hellscape of the video game culture wars is a strange place. It’s completely inscrutable to outsiders and waged around issues that bafflingly create a quasi left-right divide, like “should game journalists play games good?” (Yes, really.)
An even stranger addition to this flamewar are “walking simulators,” which push the boundaries on what could be considered a game, and not in a good way. They function more as a film, with little player choice and few interactive elements. Think of the game Firewatch, where you walk around the woods on a walkie talkie, or Gone Home, where you walk around a house opening cupboards. The core gameplay element of any walking simulator is gratuitous walking.
These types of games are beloved by Feminist Frequency types who hail them as brilliant alternatives to the “male power fantasy” inherent in most big budget violent games. Many jaded, liberal, gen-X reviewers inflate the scores of these titles, saying these are finally games made for “adults,” and chiding the wider industry for its perceived immaturity.
Reviews of these games are often polarized. While the progressive cabal of reviewers are tripping over themselves to praise walking simulators, others score them incredibly low. The underlying sentiment among the low scorers seems to be that because these games try so hard be like films, they should be compared to them. And unsurprisingly they rarely hold up.
Some “hardcore” gamers oppose the idea of such games, arguing that their elevated status is underserved. That’s because so many journalists hold these games up as the future of the industry, which can overshadow games that are actually just trying to be good games.
Jim Sterling, a popular YouTuber who dresses up in an outfit that makes him look like an overweight Heinrich Himmler and talks about video games, recently tried to paint opponents of walking simulators as racist and sexist. Walking simulators are more likely than big blockbuster games to star women and minorities, so attacks on the genre could be seen as reactionary aversion to diversity.
Himmler Sterling trawled a bunch of comment sections in articles about the latest walking simulator, Virginia, found a few toxic comments and declared victory. Some people on the Internet saw the game’s black protagonist as some kind of plot to inject a social justice warrior agenda into gaming. Thanks, Jim, for pointing out that some people in some comments sections have shitty racist opinions.
But just because some people have a reactionary view of “walking simulators” doesn’t taint the well of everyone who finds them troubling. The inordinate praise they receive as pieces of high art distorts the “games as art” debate.
Many in the game media believe that games are exactly art, and should strive to express themselves more like other artistic mediums. But the problem with this kind of thinking is that games are not just art. They are the sum of game and artistic elements, with the game part coming first. Yes, the written narrative, the backdrops, the character designs are art, but the game itself is not. (You wouldn’t call the game of chess “art” either).
Games that strive to be films fail because the game makers rarely rise to the artistic skill of great Hollywood directors. And adding a few clicking elements makes it a bad game. Yet probably the best “artistic” games, Shadow of Colossus and Ico, succeeded because they were incredible games layered with a fantastic story and beautiful design. But at the forefront was the mechanics. The way Shadow allowed you to control your horse deepened your empathic connection with the animal, adding to the story. How the game was played fed into the art.
But with walking simulators, the mechanics are the afterthought. They do not improve your relationship with the story, only superficially separate the game from film.
John Sweeney at SuperNerdLand wrote a great article comparing these types of games to the inaccessibility of modern art. “As art got uglier and deliberately more obtuse, the mass-market for it dried up,” he wrote. “The same will happen to video games as they become less fun and more devoid of mechanics.”
The problem with walking simulators is not any kind of “SJW” agenda, but the fact they get so much misplaced media attention while losing sight of what makes video games unique and special—the interactivity.
The debate around walking simulators is so politicized because it’s a debate about the soul of the industry. On the poles, you have macchiato-sipping hipsters at Polygon who want to “turn arcades into art galleries” and then the so-called 360 No Scope hardcore gamers who want every game to be worthy of million dollar e-sports tournaments. There is certainly room in the middle for great “mature” and “artsy” games, but only if the art crowd realizes that the game should come first.