Here’s why walking sims are as important as any other gaming genre

Games that strip away those "gaming" mechanics are brave, not boring

So. How was your Halloween? Any trick-or-treaters darken your door this year? It was storming it up in my soggy corner of South Wales, which meant we had exactly zero kids stagger to our front door Sunday night. In polite company I suppose I’d insist it was a shame that our candy supplies went unclaimed, but you and I both know that I needed no excuse to stuff my face with sweeties whilst watching The Exorcist and pretending it doesn’t scare me any more.

When you’re into horror, Halloween becomes a tad surplus to requirements, really. I don’t really need a special day to dress weird, scare myself, and eat shit all day because for me, that’s called a Tuesday. But in-between those terrible marketing emails – “enjoy this terrifyingly good deal on us this Halloween!” – one of the positive side-effects of spooky season is that there’s usually a temporary lift in the number of horror-flavoured games on offer. While most of the year, horror fans are scrabbling around for something – Christ, anything – vaguely creepy to watch/read/play, Halloween spawns a glut. Not all of it’s good, no, but I’ll take no-good over nothing at all. Well. Most of the time. Even those pesky “walking simulators”.

Especially those walking simulators.

The problem with horror is that what scares me will very possibly not scare you, which makes pitching a horror game that will affect all players equally incredibly difficult. I can sit through, say, indie intruder horror Scrutinized, and barely flinch, whereas Fatal Frame – any Fatal Frame, quite honestly – leaves me a shaken, sobbing mess.

Project Zero: Maiden Of The Black Water
Project Zero: Maiden Of The Black Water. Credit: Koei Tecmo.

The other issue is, what, exactly, a horror game wants you to do. Are you collecting battery packs in Poppy Playtime (whilst simultaneously trying not to shit yourself), or are you suffering through yet another Granny clone fetch-quest nightmare, trying to escape? Do your in-game objectives affect how scared you are, or eventually just piss you off? Do you like it when item placements are randomised every time you play, or does that kind of thing just infuriate you? And how do you feel about those “walking sims”? Those games that set you off on a path and just let you follow it, wandering from location to location – from secret to secret – content to let its story shine.

Walking sims have a bad rap, and they’re particularly derided in horror circles. You’ve no doubt seen the “fan” comments on social media – some people throw about the term “walking sim” as if it’s a debilitating slur – but I don’t get what’s so terrible about a game that quietly immerses you in someone else’s life, particularly when it comes to horror. I say this as a friend, and as someone with a natural penchant for gore and guns, but not all games need to have enemies and combat sequences, you know.

The things that attract me about walking sims are, unsurprisingly enough, the things that seem to put off others, and I’ve found a quiet appreciation for games that require little from me other than a willingness to listen and bumble about a bit, especially in horror. There may be no “gameplay” or puzzles. No tasks or fetch quests. You might not even interact with a single other person or creature in the entire game, and certainly, experience little-to-no combat sequences or respawns. That’s okay, though. Games can still be games if they don’t have game-y bits in them. Yes, really.

The Stanley Parable Ultra Deluxe
The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe. Credit: Crows Crows Crows

That’s the bit that irritates people, I reckon. The fact there’s not much gameiness in walking sims. There’s a particular type of gamer that scoffs and kicks off about “interactive movies” as if, in their world, an interactive movie is somehow a dreadful thing, where I wager it’s a cool-as-fuck one. So no, I don’t have an issue with “walking sims”, be they horror-flavoured or otherwise. Take Bloober Team‘s Layers of Fear, for instance. That ran on rails so tight there was zero option for any organic exploration, but the story it was telling – and the fictional mind I was forced to inhabit – was too engrossing for me to even notice, let alone care.

Walking sims are about discovery, revelation, and personal interpretation, where stories unravel gently and unhurriedly – yes, even horror tales. Games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Layers of Fear, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Gone Home, What Remains of Edith Finch, The Stanley Parable; these are special not because of their clever UI or complex crafting systems, but because – despite demanding very little from the player – we were still thinking about them long after we set down our controllers. I’d go as far as to say that it’s daunting – occasionally even terrifying – for any game to force us into a stranger’s life without the comfort of autosaves or a handy shotgun, “walking sim” or otherwise.

Vikki Blake is a columnist for NME.

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