Dear Esther, What Remains of Edith Finch, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Proteus, Tacoma, Firewatch, Gone Home, Journey, Outer Wilds, Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and Death Stranding, to name a few.
A genre of their own: introspective, interactive mystery games. Kind of like how Horror has that offshoot genre of "Intellectual Horror" (think Hereditary, Under the Shadow, Get Out) which signifies a kind of prestige and deep-thinking that doesn't come with party-film slasher flicks, these "Intellectual Games" are about exploration and narrative over cheap thrills and the desire to win or complete a quest. Not necessarily about gameplay and features, one commonality these experiences share is their use of breath-taking scenery, and how nice it feels to be there.
BYE REALITY, I'M GOING TO GO CHASE RIBBONS OF MAGICAL LIGHT IN SHROPSHIRE
Though not an indication that they are better, worse, more of a game, or less of a game than others, Walking Simulators exist as the perfect bridge between gaming and everything else.*
Here, Interactive Fiction is at it's best, using subdued storytelling that relies on taking the player to an environment and immersing them in it. Calling to mind point-and-click adventure classics like Myst or The Curse of Monkey Island, these games often will pare back to the bare essentials of what is needed to traditionally qualify as a game. In point-and-clicks, there is an expectation to solve puzzles, pick the correct dialogue options, and progress the plot - basically, the "adventure" in the name. However, in the Walking Sims I'm discussing, the need to get from A to B isn't an objective. We aren't really advancing anything, we are sightseeing. We don't change the world, we discover. Whilst curious about the mysteries, the onus isn't on you, the player, to crack the code, or act under pressure, but to participate as a voyeur or witness. More often your existence is ghost-like, and you are bodiless; it's this passivity that can inspire relaxation and peace, allowing you to act a benevolent spirit, overlooking the human world and collecting wisps and memories that are left haunting the earth.
I will take you through my chosen highlights of these standout classic Walking Sims and talk about why they are so effective, accessible, (with as gentle spoilers as possible), and discuss why interactive narratives of this kind are BASICALLY flat Virtual Reality.
MENTALLY, I'M IN THE OUTER HEBRIDIES
Dan Pinchbeck, developer of Dear Esther, explains that it's inception came from his Phd on virtual reality and first-person shooters.
I started off doing story and virtual reality, and how if you go back before technology you’ve got… virtual reality’s really, really old and it’s basically about using, redefining, the space to layer something over the top of it. And it goes back to cave paintings and stuff like that. So, if you have a degree of a narrative thread through that you can increase the sense of immersion and presence. So it was about going, ‘Well, how can we just use story without any technology elements? To make virtual reality stronger’.
And then that kind of turned into me sitting there playing TimeSplitters one night, and going, ‘This is a mass market virtual reality. Hang on a minute, I’ve been playing these things for three decades and I love them. Why isn’t my PhD around first person shooters?’
He's as eloquent as me. Early in development Pinchbeck merely wanted to test games as an instrument for storytelling, realising they were a pre-existing medium for immersion that already utilised content, character, and plot, without the need to reinvent the wheel and make an immersive simulation. Since then, Dear Esther has received critical acclaim, gathering awards and pushing boundaries, even being performed live on tour around the UK at venues like the Barbican and Brighton Dome.
Conversely, it's not uncommon to see Dear Esther discussed by the gaming community as "overpriced pretentious wank". It's true, at the time of release players would not be getting much bang for their buck, seeing as the game lasts around the hour-mark, and strips back all the traditional gaming cues one might be expecting, like jumping or running. This reaction was a product of it's time, in the gaming community - now we can consider the mould thoroughly, and forever, broken.
While the gameplay omits the ability to pick up objects, it leaves in subtle indications that you are present in this world. The player has no arms, legs, reflection, or voice, but when passing through grass we hear footsteps. When entering small spaces, the camera lowers, as if to duck. Against the tide movement slows down, indicating rushing waters are affecting our "physical being". When ascending out of water the visuals take a second to blur, and readjust, like the camera/player's eyes are filled with water. In the game universe, a torch will autonomously turn on and off when needed- later, when we fall, the torch is present, not in our hand, but on the ground, smashed. The lack of characteristics is a purposeful decision to reflect the ambiguity in whom the player is representing, but these small additional details are used to create presence in the player.
The game world is decidedly sparse of information. The map is empty, the sights are for admiring, and the clues are few and far in-between. The very act of getting lost, walking slowly (read: a realistic pace!) with not much to do, gives the player time to think and space to breathe. The game uses the themes and symbols together in a harmonious hum. Forcing you to walk at a steady pace makes you physically embody the narrator: you are climbing, you are injured, you are carrying a body. Or even simpler, you are contemplative, in the moment. Something significant is happening, so you must savour it. There is nothing to rush for, here.
Beyond the conversations about Dear Esther being a landmark in gaming history, there is merit in its artistic approach, alone. Randomly generated, the story unravels through a series of snippets of narration, unravelling over a smattering of moments throughout the player's journey. They are poetic, and ambiguous, and different playthroughs may draw from different themes. The music is subdued and sombre, matching the dappled Scottish skies in the early evening, gaining momentous foreboding as the sky turns to night, and ominous chants can be heard as the narrator's headspace spins out of control.
The narration uses a variation of descriptive prose, metaphors, and symbolism, phrases like "the pain is crashing in on waves, winter tides against my shoreline, drowning out the ache of my stones" are used to wrestle various themes against each other. The mix of allegories add to the confusion, conflating between the narrator's mind, the island, illness, motorways, drinking, seagulls, boats, birth, aerials, stars, chemistry, a hermit, a shepherd, syphilis...
The game utilises its ambiguity to let the audience tell their own story. The narrative is invented in the player's mind through the clues they are randomly given, and they create meaning themselves, becoming their own director of the environment, physically and narratively.
Dear Esther is happier than anything to relinquish control, and does not fear letting the audience decide their own path. Clues and images can be randomly generated and never seen, and the game is confident enough to go without them. Little did I know until recently, that there are even blink-and-you'll-miss-it spectral sightings within the game. That's right. I'm talking ghosts.
LEVEL DESIGN Similar to Directing or Cinematography in film, Level Design is creating the visual milestones the audience will be expected to hit. It's the creation of the path you will walk, the "rails" if it is linear, but it's also the option of scenic routes and secrets if the player is so inclined to look for them.
In interactive media, creators learn that they must let go. Once a product is playable, like a lot of art, it's no longer in their control. Like most of anything interactive, audiences will do their best to test their limits and will break your shit if they can. Yes, they will choose their own cinematic framing, but they will also walk off of cliffs, and try to drown themselves - two things you can also do in Dear Esther. Unable to lose or die, however, you as the player are free to walk into the sea, only to experience visions of the mysterious aerial beacon, and will promptly [FADE IN] back on dry land. This is a reminder to follow the in-game beacon, the guiding signpost of the game. A red blinking light, the beacon subliminally directs the player where to go, deliberately placed to slink into sight just when you may be in need of direction.
Lighting and composition guide one's eye to the next destination. Physical fences and paths help here too. But despite this, many pathways will lead the player to a dead end. Here, there will be a composed and idyllic frame. Upon turning around, the landscape is designed so as a second pathway had been present all along, easy to miss upon your immediate arrival, but so easy to catch when you turn back to retrace your steps. This is expert level design, forcing again slow pacing, and an element of rambling confusion we feel present in the script.
Dear Esther utilises limited user interaction to ease the player through scenes, and physical cues such as footsteps to embody them there. The story is intertwined with the environment, and the "being there" and "being them" of VR is completely relevant in this particular world.
Guys, this is a virtual reality game. It was originally a virtual reality conception that turned into a flat game, for what essentially was a proof-of-concept. The scenery of our haunting, mystery island is glorious, and a welcome escape for those who want to be lost. Forgivingly, not much is asked of you, the player, and your mere participation is interaction enough. If only someone could mod this game into a VR experience (Oh wait...)
THE VANISHING OF ETHAN CARTER
NOTHING DISTURBING HERE, JUST ENJOYING A FRESH AUTUMN WALK
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a 4-hourish length walking sim, complete with all the puzzles and dirty secrets you could desire. The road to the story's conclusion, however, is less-than straightforward.
TVoEC is an interactive game with a stroke more functionality than Dear Esther, expecting more from the player in terms of item collection and clicky-clicky-go-here-now. In Red Valley Creek, the game opens with a clear warning, spelling out to the player that their hand will not be held. What follows is a layered and grisly mystery, in which the player will be figuratively and literally getting lost in the game.
The developer's choice to not railroad the player is a conscious one. The devs kick you out the house, wave you bye and tell you to be home for dinner. Wandering Red Valley Creek can take all day if you're unlucky, and the map loops accordingly, letting you solve 9-ish individual stories in no particular order, all at once.
In this game you play as Paul Prospero, a pulpy Private Eye, who narrates to himself (not unlike Dear Esther or most other First Person games) titbits of information on the case, his conclusions on events, and hints to his own history as a paranormal investigator. As Paul, we don't see our body, but we do pick up and place items, and we even drive around on minecarts and neat stuff like that.
By interacting with physical puzzle-based objects we are actively participating, solving problems and advancing the plot. Some actions are more reactive than others; for example, one may be the turning of a valve, which requires repetitive clicking of the mouse (or button-pressing on a controller). Conversely, the very first 'story bit' the player may encounter is the possibility of walking into, and activating five dangerous-looking traps. If you are like me, you may jump at the surprise. Even with a "gotcha!" moment like this, we find ourselves personally effected, mentally involved to look out for future situations.
The game also features footsteps, a head-bob when moving, and the ability to run. One almost token-horror sequence involves a labyrinth in which a zombie-miner will attack and (not kill) send the player back to the beginning of the maze.
Narratively, the mystery that unravels is about Ethan and his family, and not the player, Paul. Throughout the story, we don't learn anything personal about him. Besides his noiry self-reflections, there is not much else to indicate classic gum shoe tropes. As a personality, we are not expected to connect. We are a vessel to solve a mystery, a one-dimensional device.
However... there is a larger conversation to be had on Paul's physical embodiment in the game. Highlight for spoilers: Paul is a figment of Ethan's imagination, which post-game can cause some reconsideration in regards to his physical self. Is the whole town accurate to Ethan's reality? Is Paul a ghost, able to touch objects in our dimensional plane? He does pass through portals, open windows of ethereal flashbacks into the past - and a lot of it is very, clearly implied to be fantasy, while other interactions are not. The last moments of the game include Paul and Ethan meeting, followed by what is suggested to be the most accurate depiction of reality, a revelation that "it was all a dream", or something to that extent. If we believe the fantastical elements, we instead can decide Ethan wrote stories to save the family from suffering and defeat The Sleeper. After this, he then conjured Paul up INTO the world. Arguably, a lot of this is left ambiguous. Either way, we are less intended to become someone else, and more encouraged to put on our own investigative fedora when in Ethan Carter's world.
ARTISTIC CHOICES & LEVEL DESIGN
To avoid descending into rambling chaos trying to separate the two, I'm combining them.
TVoEC's clearest stumbling block, often discussed in forums and clearly felt when playing, is its decision in "not holding the players hand", which as I mentioned earlier, is textually explained when a new game begins. With a choice to solve 9-ish substory puzzle pieces in whichever order, the player can reach the end of the game and find that they have missed something, and the true ending can only reveal itself when all the boxes are checked. This mechanic can sadly feel longwinded and cruel, resulting in long journeys to backtrack, and combing the map for minute details, adding hours to gameplay at worst.
We can complain about the difficulty level, walking sims being boring, and the lack of fast-travelling from place to place, but let's be clear - linear storytelling does exist. "Railroading" as it is sometimes called, is used in first-person, walking sim, and mystery games all the time. Half-Life 2, the Amnesia series, Life is Strange. These games use their linearity as a subconscious device to tell the player no, you can't go back! Playing Ethan Carter reminded me of something more disorientating and spooky, like The Path, or even Slender.
So, why weren't we restricted to one area at a time, one scene, or one house? The
developers made the decision to let me run myself ragged, zipping from A to B to A again, until one tiny problem was solved. When analysing the rest of the game's choices, we can make some conclusive guesses that it has something to do with immersion.
If you had to break it down into just a few sentences, what would you say is the core experience you’re hoping for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter to provide? Past all the mechanics, environments, and situations the game contains, what is the fundamental draw to your game?
A journey to another time and place that stays with you for a while.
From an interview with Adrian Chmielarz here.
TVoEC uses atmosphere and environments to sink it's hooks into the player, using psychological horror at one end, and a gorgeous mountainous views at the other. To railroad the story would be to take autonomy from the audience, and would produce inappropriate urgency where it doesn't belong. The game exists in a limbo, a never-ending evening about exploration and looking in the details. Our detective-prowess might be terrible, but the hike is great.
It's worth mentioning here about the use of music and sound design. Crows exist for plot purposes, but wildlife is otherwise absent. We hear creaking bridges, rushing rivers, and a haunting soundtrack that like Dear Esther, nurtures subdued introspection. Although some sections of the game are scary, foreboding, and set around murder, the lighter sides of the soundtrack invoked hammy adventure for me, notably more cheesy than lowkey-Lord-of-the-Rings-level nostalgia-fuel used in something like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. But again, this is completely in tune with the themes.
Again from the same interview as before.
Some designers believe that the atmosphere, the mood of a video game is more important than the story it’s trying to say. I’m inclined to agree. What games can potentially do very well is to give the player a sense of presence that other art forms cannot match. I am deeply interested in that escapist aspect of video games.
I have some good news for you readers. TVoEC was made available on SteamVR. Chmielarz has always been a huge advocate for Virtual Reality, always intending to port Ethan to the next dimension as soon as the early 2010-boom began. The game was created with the same tenets in mind for a VR experience: immersion, presence, and interaction.
A sensory-overloading medium like VR also compliments TVoEC's gameplay. Not only is the interaction simple, the puzzles aren't hard! The game is about journeying through a beautiful place, and it becomes lightly thrilling when you want more. Like we love to say in the biz, this is an experience.
WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH
I CAN BE A LITTLE KID AGAIN :)
A monumental triumph in storytelling that just happens to fall under our ever-nebulous category of "game".
Contrary to my two other examples of interaction fiction, within What Remains of Edith Finch, we, the player, visually see ourselves embodied as the titular character - not to mention, a whole slew of other bodily hosts. The narrative follows a linear path, taking us on what feels like a fairground ride through Edith's childhood home, to unlock the history of the Finch family one by one, using a colourful array of storytelling vehicles. A flip book, a Viewmaster, a poem, a comic book - every Finch story is told with a unique flair that makes for dynamic gameplay.
Beyond the entertaining gameplay, the story itself is sensational, too. This charming and absorbing 2-hour-ish long journey plays with tone, balancing fun moments with touching ones. And at no point does it shy away from alluding to it's own metaverse of fiction-within-fiction-within-fiction.
In Edith Finch we embody every character at their (ambiguously embellished) time of death. When we look down throughout the game, we see Edith's body under us, and her diary is narrated to us in her voice from the get-go. When the game puts us in the shoes of say, a cat, a boy, or a baby, we see their body as our own, and the movement we can now do is limited to that body's capabilities. Almost like a series of minigames, each story has it's own individual mechanics to match the personality and world of the character you play. To interact, the game allows a kind of ghostly puppeteering movement, (a bit like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, or a David Cage game) where we move our analogue stick/computer mouse in a direction, and the character fluidly completes the motion, with more dexterity or flair than maybe our basic "go left" wiggle would suggest. This does not break immersion, instead simply contributes to the flow. A gentle use of interaction does not distract us through challenging controls, but instead we are given the space and the pacing to digest the events we see. Like my use of the word puppeteering indicates, the characters are our instruments, or we are theirs, and much like a pop-up book, a lot of information is unveiled at the pull of a simple tab.
Each section is accompanied with narration, often but not always by the character we "are" at the time, recited as some kind of ode to the person's life, or their love of the vice that took theirs. With the narration throughout Edith, we are given creative subtitles that integrate with the world around us. Never are we watching the bottom of our screen for text, but instead we are steered around the environment. When the text isn't layered on objects or walls, it is physically played with, or smashed apart, one time even blown off a dandelion. This use of subtitles creates a beautiful, seamless effect, that is used masterfully to enhance and support the story and it's themes, while still being accessible to every player who may actually rely on them.
Addressing death, family, fate, and stories, the themes harmonise with the gameplay mechanics, sound design, and visuals, marrying to make a cohesive sum of all parts. The use of family bonds unites the 12 different stories, winding the relationships through time and place, repeating names and connections just enough times to keep the audience cognizant of it all.
So, the plot is a bit like this. The infamous legacy of the Finch family is their "curse", the fact that all family members are fated to die under tragic circumstances. Through the story the player must play through fantastical reproductions of the family deaths. Subtly, however, each demise leaves the player with clues, alluding to an alternative natural - not supernatural - nature of events.
Reading into these hints, we can conclude each death can be as mundane as any other horrible accident. But this itself, this duality between make-believe and normalcy is represented in two major characters, too. Dawn, Edith's mother is the singular serious member of the family, the only one to attempt an escape from the Finch family home, twice, in fact. Her grandmother, Edie (uncoincidentally also an Edith) is the reverse, a story-lover, obsessed with history and the family curse, she immortalises her family members in permanent shrines around the house. While Dawn tries to shut the fantasy away by gluing these rooms shut, Edie has drilled peepholes and placed plaques on the doors, further preserving them as tombs. These design choices are physical manifestations of the characters motives and personalities. And that's just one example.
Are the developers trying to suggest to their audience that death is inevitable, chaotic, and cruel? Or are we to believe the Finch curse is real? From what we can theorise, the curse acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, each Finch living a more dangerous life than the next, deadly flames fanned by Great-Grandma Edie's penchant for favouring imaginative exaggerations, over sad realities, or simply parental neglect. The Finch curse is almost the legacy itself, once written down or spoken, it leaves the black mark of death on the next relative that discovers it. Our final moments of the game Highlight for Spoiler: tell us the spell remains unbroken, a cast on our protagonist's broken wrist indicating danger is indeed a present factor in their life. It's inevitable - we read the diary with them, after all!
Symbolically and literally, even Edie's name carries on - Edith being technically an Edie Junior, another symbol of the unending Finch "bad luck".
Although linear, the game gives the player space to explore, and the freedom to discover supplementary layers of context through the level design. For example, upon beginning the game, at the entrance to the Finch property, players may miss the option to turn around and comment on the chain-link fence behind them. Objects of interaction throughout are subtly highlighted, and easy to miss. But, finding these small additional details are an expectation of the player. These chance observations, when they happen, enhance gameplay, giving the player an element of personalisation and world-building in what is primarily an A-to-B world.
The space of the house becomes more surreal as the player explores. Beyond the initial, unassuming ground floor of the house, the layout becomes absurd, and nonsensical. It's secret passageways, shrine-like bedrooms, and newly-constructed bizzaro-tower create a descent (ascent) into an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole - or more on theme, into a fantasy book.
Like Dear Esther, when backtracking (a rarity) we are secretly guided by things like doors that have moved, and exit signs being switched on. For the rest of the time, areas are teased to the player before admission. Peepholes to each bedroom are available to use early on, and in one sequence the player must enter the house's basement three layers deep: in-comic book and in-panel, before entering it "for real" as Edith. This creates a sense of familiarity and context when we are in these spaces. For example, seeing a tangled swing set and knowing the fate of the last person to use it changes the audience's perspective in regards to the object and to the scene. The aforementioned basement we originally experience as a hammy, cartoonish horror comic, we now see first-hand, a tangible reality, but still tainted with our memories from before.
What Remains of Edith Finch is desperate in itself to emulate the properties in which Virtual Reality can uniquely employ. These interviews with Ian Dallas explains the developers' vision to create not only feelings of awe, but the ability to be in new and amazing situations, tropes VR is lauded for.
Our focus was always on the experience of how it feels to be in a given situation (e.g., being a child on a swing set), rather than focusing on things like the characters themselves or the overall story.
So, each story began as a basic mechanic that explored some feeling, like flying a kite on a beach.
And it was only after those prototypes started to feel cohesive that we began worrying about any other elements of what it would take to tell that story.
They’re really explorations of the unknown and trying to put players into spaces that they’ve never been before and seeing the world through new eyes; which inherently has the potential to create moments of wonder and awe, and just the experience of something shockingly new.
In this interview, Dallas explains that for himself, creating Edith Finch was more about creating moments for the player over creating a mystery to solve. The player is invited to think about the characters and their choices, abstractly reliving their last moments, without directly becoming the characters and affecting their lives. They are short, fiction-in-fiction, self-referential and therefore ambiguous to as how accurate to true events they may be.
In this way, I believe Dallas and the team use embodiment as a form of ethical and thoughtful empathy, winking through the fourth-wall, welcoming the player to be in the virtual world, interacting with but not effecting it. By fictionalising the character's lives as stories, they are intending the audience to identify with someone else's lived experience, but not to "understand" or "have lived it" themselves. The multiple universes, gameplay styles, and perspectives emphasise this.
Discussion of how well Edith Finch would work in VR is redundant. While it happens to have amazing potential, Edith Finch is successful as a flat virtual reality experience as it is. VR has been discussed as having different kinds of Embodied Presence, Social & Mental Presence, Active Presence, and Emotional Presence. I believe we could argue What Remains of Edith Finch has all the markers of presence, bar the physical, sensory ones...
Basically, it does not need to be ported. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't like to see it done.
That said, I would not advocate swinging all the way round a swing set in VR.
In conclusion, all three games utilise the walking sim genre to create different types of presence, immersion, and VR-specific tropes. For my personal taste, I prefer Dear Esther and Edith Finch's deliberate choice in forcing the player to move at a slow pace, wherein Ethan Carter this is not strictly enforced. Because backtracking is nonessential, the map's sizes are small, and running is out-of-character for the story/character/us, in these slower journeys we are forced into a state of contemplation, unable to skip ahead.
The clearest thread between these three experiences is not the mystery and sinister storylines, but the quiet. We are not distracted by urgent action sequences, or fiddly game mechanics. When stripping back everything "traditional" and leaving story, immersion, and presence standing strong, we are left with something of a meditation simulator. A slice of life. A long walk in nature. A reflection on our relationships. A simple sense of calm.
Regardless of the state of our actual lives, people have always sought games as a source of escapism. Getting lost in a world does not require distraction in the form of doing.
Whether it was admiring the Halo Array in Halo Combat Evolved, or running around Croft Mansion in Tomb Raider II, there's always been beauty for the sake of beauty when the action stops. And even when we're given the option to do nothing instead of something, we will happily do that too. We shake orange juice in Heavy Rain. We read our journal in Red Dead Redemption 2. And in Truck Simulator, sometimes we just blow the horn.
Maybe you know of the concept of "ma" in Japanese culture. Ma roughly translates to "negative space" or "emptiness". Popularized recently on my Tumblr feed, an interview between Roger Ebert and Hayao Miyazaki discusses the latter man's use of ma in his filmography, to emphasise the sense of time and place and who the characters are. Here, I'd argue walking sims are king at utilising this very same concept, addressing the absolute necessity for nothingness. Nothing just works - a sentiment that rings true even in Interactive.
Walking sims are like VR, because especially at this crucial point in time (VR's infancy), there is no need for overstimulation, and there is no need to enhance what does not need enhancing. We don't need to be shocked, strong-armed, or put through virtual pain, when we can learn about love, loss, and life with a gentler touch.
What VR does best in my opinion is put audiences into nice places. And that's something these three games do, too. We can have a nice walk but we can examine our thoughts and feelings. They create a space to breathe, relax, and find oneself.
You'd hardly guess all these games feature murder.
MAYBE NOT PROTEUS
Thank you for reading.
If you don't agree, and walking sims don't reek of everything virtual and simulation to you, then perhaps we can agree they may be some kind of gateway drug. If you are someone who hasn't played much of either, I recommend making your start from the experiences listed at the top of the page.
*Everything else being forms of art, or the medium of interactive.