When video games first arrived on the scene, they were born out of a military need and still remain an important recruiting tool today. The very first games were designed and created by the Department of Defense to simulate what war would be like with the Soviet Union .
With that in mind, it only makes sense that the majority of PC games are centered around themes of war or tactical missions. However, the gaming industry has become much more diversified and genres like walking simulators represent a major departure from traditional games.
Detractors of walking sims complain there’s a pointlessness to their existence since they’re often driven by exploration-based narratives over missions, puzzles, and the threats of danger.
However, walking simulators offer compelling gameplay for gamers looking for a more introspective experience where you can unsnarl a complex narrative at your own leisurely pace in an open world
What’s a walking simulator?
Although walking simulators vary in style, they have a few unifying elements like generally being slower-paced and lacking puzzles the player has to solve before moving on. There are typically no obstructions to understanding the game’s full story, although a player may find and interact with objects or other characters relevant to the narrative as they travel.
Players don’t usually die in walking simulators and if you fail to succeed at a mission, it won’t be in a way that requires you to try again until you do.
Instead of action-packed objectives, these games center around unraveling a narrative the player discovers as they explore the world of the game. Storytelling can either be straightforward and linear or change based on a choose-your-own-adventure style of in-game decision-making.
1. Firewatch by Campo Santo
Release date: February 2016
Firewatch’s story is a fan-favorite for its true-to-life dialogue, beautiful airbrushed art by British artist Olly Moss, and engaging storyline. As a player, you inhabit a character named Henry who heads out to work as a fire lookout at Shoshone National Forest to leave behind past personal traumas.
The sense of isolation is immediate because your only connection to the outside world is through a two-way radio with Delilah, your lookout supervisor located on a distant peak. What starts off as a fairly small incident - kids lighting fireworks during a particularly dry and hot summer - quickly snowballs in a larger mystery.
As Henry communicates with Delilah and explores the park, plot points are moved along in tandem. The timeline slows or quickens depending on your pace of discovery. If you appreciate a strong narrative and open-world exploration, this is a great game to dive into and try for yourself.
2. The Stanley Parable by Galactic Cafe
Release date: October 2013
This first-person walking simulator follows Stanley, a 9 to 5 office worker, as he (you, by extension) tries to uncover the mystery of why his office is suddenly empty. This game has been lauded for its narration, humor, and its direct and indirect commentary of the narrative limitations of games.
One of the most unique aspects of the game is that it puts the choice for how to proceed through the game entirely in your hands. You can follow the narrator’s instructions, or not. At times, you seem to have limitless power and in other instances, your choice is curtailed. It’s a game of contradictions but one that invites players to explore its secrets and mysteries.
Although the gameplay itself is relatively short, the possibility of multiple different endings keeps players coming back for more.
3. The Long Dark by Hinterland Studio
Release date: September 2014
Categorized as a survival-exploration game, The Long Dark forces players to explore the limits of their solo endurance skills in the face of a ruthless winter landscape. You must balance your basic needs and monitor variables like Hunger, Thirst, Fatigue, and Cold to ensure that you can continue on through the Northern Canadian tundra. Every action you take expends calories and the clock is ticking...
As a departure from other walking simulators, players in The Long Dark can die. You can choose your Experience Mode which ranges from the pensive Pilgrim Mode to the most intense and challenging Interloper Mode.
The game gives no hints, only information that the player must use to survive.
4. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter by The Astronauts
Release date: September 2014
In the Vanishing of Ethan Carter, you step into the shoes of Paul Prospero, a paranormal detective who receives a distressing letter from a boy named Ethan Carter. Once Paul arrives at Carter’s residence, he discovers Ethan has gone missing and the town where he’s from has seen recent violence.
The player’s goal is to find out what happened to Ethan and uncover the mystery of the spate of deaths in town. Using Prospero’s ability to talk to the dead, players must piece together the storyline to uncover the truth.
5. What Remains of Edith by Giant Sparrow
Release date: April 2017
This is one of the most highly-decorated games on our list. It’s won the British Academy Games Award for Best Game 2017 and won the Best Narrative category at the 2018 Game Developers Choice Awards as well as The Game Awards 2017, among other accolades.
The game starts by following a character carrying the journal of Edith Finch on a ferry to Orcas Island off the coast of Washington. Edith is the last remaining member of her family and explains her most recent return to her family’s vacant, abandoned home on the island, along with the tragic history of her lineage.
The player sees the story unfold through Edith’s eyes from this point on. The storyline centers around a curse: all except one member of the family will die within each generation although Edith has her suspicions that the Finches have willed the curse into existence.
As Edith explores her childhood home, it’s revealed that each bedroom in the house is a memorial to the deceased family member to whom it belonged. The player visits each room, triggering a short vignette of the family member’s death that’s guided by Edith’s narration. Each of these flashbacks shows variation in both video game genre and visual style. Lauded for its narration, visual quality, and character-driven plot, this game was a huge hit when it came out in 2017.
6. Night in the Woods by Infinite Fall
Release date: January 2017
Meet Mae, a 20-year-old college sophomore, who has dropped out of college to return to a life of wandering and aimlessness with her friends in the town of Possum Springs. Unfortunately for Mae, things are a little different from how she left them. Her friends have their own lives, the town has changed, and there’s something strange going on in the forest.
Players interact with a robust cast of characters and explore the game scape to try to solve the mystery of Mae’s new abilities that give her access to formerly inaccessible parts of her town. The ultimate goal is to discover the truth of what’s lurking in the woods behind the town’s abandoned mine.
Characterized by a flat, whimsical 2D-art style, Night in the Woods is a trip into the mysteries of what it means to come to terms with adulthood.
7. Gone Home by Blitworks & Fullbright
Release date: August 2013
It’s June 7th, 1995, late at night. You arrive home to a completely empty house in Portland after returning from a year abroad. Something’s not right and it’s up to you to piece together the clues to figure it out. This interactive exploration simulator encourages players to piece together clues to find out what has happened.
Players are transported back to the 1990s where you can explore rooms filled with wicker furniture, neon patterns, and jewel tones that defined the decade. There are no puzzles to solve and no fighting to survive, just you and the mystery of the eerily quiet house.
To solve the mystery of what happened to the Greenbriar family, you’ll need to closely inspect the family members’ possessions as well as the notes scattered throughout the residence.
8. Dear Esther by The Chinese Room
Release date: February 2012
Dear Esther, a critical darling, is based on the story of a man on a deserted island handling the emotional trauma of the loss of his wife, Esther. It was first released in 2008 and redeveloped in 2012 for commercial release.
As you enter the game, you’ll be met with a haunting sense of isolation and despair - it’s just you and the narrator on an abandoned island. There are no puzzles to solve, your only job as the player is to explore the incredibly realistic landscape that unfolds before you just like the prose and events of the story itself.
The narration and visuals draw heavily from the written works of American author William S. Burroughs and focus on poetic prose over descriptive instructions, as is the convention in gaming narrative structures.
One of the most unique features of the game is its semi-randomized storytelling. Each time you play, it’s a unique experience. It’s considered one of the most original first-personal games to come out in the walking simulator gaming genre.
9. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture by The Chinese Room & The SCE Santa Monica Studio
Release Date: August 2015
What would you do if suddenly everyone you know in your town is gone? That’s the premise of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. As the player, you trek through an empty English ghost town in 1984. Your task? Find out where everyone went and why.
Players can interact with orbs of light that show you previous events revealing clues to the nature of the mass disappearances.
The game is structured around five different areas tied to different characters. Part alien-abduction, part-paranormal, the game explores the mystery of the town’s sudden demise in this interactive, haunting thriller.
10. Virginia by Variable State
Release Date: September 2016
Recalling shows and films like Twin Peaks, Fargo, and True Detective, this first-person thriller is set in 1992 in the small town of Kingdom, Virginia. Lucas Fairfax has disappeared and FBI agent Anne Tarver is tasked with finding him.
As the investigation becomes more in-depth, Anne has to balance the suspicions of uninviting townspeople, a growing, confusing list of suspects, and choices that will irrevocably shape your life and that of your partner, Maria Halperin.
11. Jazzpunk by Necrophone Games
Release Date: February 2014
Jazzpunk is categorized as a comedy-adventure set in a universe called Cold War World, filled with spies, cybercriminals, and martinis that are way more than just stirred, they’re actually alive.
Taking inspiration from spoof comedy films, this game sends players on a wild roller-coaster adventure filled with classic film references, visual gags, and mini-games. With its over-the-top humor, strange tasks, and oddball characters, Jazzpunk is a fun ride for those who enjoy quirky gameplay.
The next frontier in walking simulators is using virtual reality
to add another layer of intrigue and experience to this genre. Bound
was one of the first VR-ready walking simulators that exemplified how VR might be the perfect medium for these contemplative games. The story unfolds inside the mind of a pregnant woman who explores her childhood home and the memories therein. The player takes on the role of an unnamed princess and ballet dancer, as she explores a surreal, abstract environment.
Although walking simulators have their detractors, this style of the game genre is diverse and rich with unique narratives. If you’ve never tried any of these games, it’s time to dive in and explore an open-world that requires a different kind of gameplay.