Walking Simulators: Interactive Storytelling in Video Games

Before video games were a widespread form of entertainment, stories usually only came from movies and books. Even when they did start to pick up steam in the 80s and 90s, with the advent of home consoles, most games were lacking in the story department. Stories were more seen as a simple reason to keep the gameplay going. Why does this Italian plumber need to keep running towards the right of the screen while stomping on any enemies in his way? Because he needs to save the princess of Mushroom Kingdom, of course! Now, that is not to say that there weren’t any great stories in videogames before the turn of the millennium. RPGs like the Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger are still known to this day as having some excellent stories and world-building.

My point, however, is the incredible increase in games which focus solely on the story element while disregarding gameplay almost entirely. Practically becoming playable movies, the player functions as a sort of walking camera — these games are typically from a first-person POV — which can (sometimes) slightly interact with its surroundings. The genre born out of this game design philosophy is called “walking simulator”, making fun of the fact that the player mostly just walks around with the occasional button to push or puzzle to solve.

Now, while this description may make games from this genre sound unusually boring, I can say with confidence that some of my favourite games are labelled walking simulators, and I’d like to introduce some of them to you, alongside the ways they tell their stories.

“The Convenience Store | 夜勤事件” Creator: Chilla’s Art

In “The Convenience Store”, the player controls a Japanese college girl who has the unfortunate job of working the night shifts at the local convenience store. Over the course of a week, she keeps getting sent tapes by someone that seem to be videos of her working. The gameplay loop, if you can call it that, consists of waking up, watching that day’s tape, and then doing your various tasks at the store. Every night, weird things seem to keep occurring. From creepy customers to seeing loads of dead birds behind the store, combined with the fact that your manager’s been missing for a few days now, the atmosphere is meticulously crafted to be as unsettling as possible. The distinct art style that Chilla’s Art is now well-known for also furthers this.

As you may have already guessed by now, this is a horror game. I feel like horror stories especially can take great advantage of the half-interactive/half-narrative storytelling that walking simulators are capable of. Players won’t get bogged down by gameplay mechanics, therefore really pulling their attention to the story, but are also still in control of the main character, giving the player a sense of immersion that traditional storytelling media like books and movies just can’t achieve.

“The Beginner’s Guide” Creator: Everything Unlimited Ltd.

Shifting away from horror, “The Beginner’s Guide” is “a story of a person struggling to deal with something they do not understand”, as the opening screen puts it. This game practically feels like a guided tour at times, which it intends to be. In “The Beginner’s Guide”, the player is immediately greeted by the narrator, who accompanies the player and guides them around constantly. The narrator is a self-insert of the creator of the game, Davey Wreden, who made another popular walking simulator game titled “The Stanley Parable”. Davey talks about a friend of his, called Coda, who developed many short, simple games which Davey loved. One day, however, Coda seemingly disappears from the face of the earth and Davey must deal with the fact that he won’t play any of his games anymore. He then decided to create this game and make it a compilation of all of Coda’s games, which he guides the player through while telling Coda’s story. A story which Davey frames as one of mental health.

That’s as far as I can go without spoiling the game’s many great moments. The concept of being told a person’s story through playing the games they’ve created, all while being guided by a third party is a fascinating idea. At just 90 minutes long with an entrance fee of €9,- I highly recommend this game to anyone.

“Firewatch” Creator: Campo Santo

Probably the most famous game on this list, “Firewatch” encapsulates the walking simulator genre perfectly. The player takes control of Henry, who decided he needed a break after some personal issues in his life and consequently now works as a fire lookout in the middle of nowhere. Expecting a year of quiet, Henry is called by his supervisor Delilah who keeps him, the player, company for most of the game. Over the course of the game, the player does rather basic stuff like walking around the forest, exploring all the areas, and traversing from one task to the other. Another thing “Firewatch” does, which the other games I discussed do not, is allowing the player to choose dialogue options which impact future conversations.

The highlight of this game really is the relationship between Henry and Delilah, who is his only social contact throughout the entire game. At certain points, when Delilah doesn’t pop in to talk to Henry for extended periods of time, the forests become extremely unsettling and lonely. It even has some light psychological horror elements, when Henry starts seeing things which shouldn’t be there, and when he starts doubting if Delilah is really looking out for his best interests or not. This all combined with the beautiful soundtrack makes the €20,- price tag for the roughly 3 hours of playtime completely worth it in my book.

Hopefully I didn’t ramble on too long. In conclusion, I would like to say that you should check out these games, as they offer a different, interactive way of experiencing stories, which is infinitely more immersive to me.