Though wilfully reductive, the ‘walking simulator’ label emerged from a crude attempt to categorise the kind of narrative-focused firstperson experience exemplified by Dear Esther. Detractors take issue with a perceived lack of gameplay (in the traditional sense) and find no comfort in brooding atmospheres, layered storylines or the opportunity to explore new places.
But the kinds of games that antagonised those hidebound players were very much the product of a writer’s vision, whereas in this issue we see two examples of the vaguely defined genre as interpreted by game designers. The Witness (p106) takes a simple gameplay premise and wrings what appears to be every possibility from it over the course of dozens of continually surprising hours. And then the game goes even further. Firewatch (p114) similarly subverts expectations, though in another manner altogether. Campo Santo’s tale of intrigue, isolation and human intimacy puts its story first, and then hints at traditional mechanics and gating, before revealing a much subtler take on player progression within its Wyoming canyons and wilderness. And like The Witness, Firewatch provides you with an unexpected level of freedom.
The parents of Joel Green might not have the pedigree of Jonathan Blow or Nels Anderson behind them, but
That Dragon, Cancer (p122) also offers a fresh take on slow-paced exploration games, serving up its melancholy story in a series of vignettes that mix firstperson sections with minigames and kart racing. It’s a loving memorial to, and celebration of, the child they lost to cancer. But like
The Witness and Firewatch, it also points to a future of deep, nuanced storytelling that needn’t be disengaged from abstract gameplay.