10 of the most Interesting and Satisfying Walking Simulator Games
Walking simulators emerged over the last decade, quickly becoming popular all around the world. However, in the gaming circles, they are quite controversial, not because of their content – as is often the case – but due to the lack of it. Hardcore gamers often deride these narrative games while some game reviewers point out their lack of players’ agency as proof they barely qualify as games. Even the designation “walking simulator” originated as a derogatory term that got embraced by the fans.
Unlike traditional games, walking simulators are far more concerned with telling a story and providing a unique experience. Many of them have been critically and commercially successful and may very well be genuine works of art. Don’t believe us? Try your hand with one of these eccentric, unique and sometimes quirky titles on our list of the most interesting and most satisfying walking simulator games out there today.
10. SOMA (2015)
Simon Jarret is a victim of a car crash who, after undergoing an experimental brain scan, finds himself in PATHOS-II, an underwater laboratory somewhere at the bottom of Atlantic Ocean. Since the facility is dangerously unstable, Simon needs to escape quickly. However, there are strange hybrids of people and machines lurking in the facility’s darkened hallways. Alone and unarmed, Simon needs to sneak around and use his wits to survive.
It’s funny how easy it is to turn first person shooters into horror games – you just remove all the weapons. Swedish production company Frictional Game made a name for itself with its critically acclaimed 2010 game Amnesia: The Dark Descent and its 2013 not-really-sequel sequel Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. Both of these games are first-person horror games in which players have to carefully manage their resources while hiding from monsters. Developed in 2015, Soma leaves out the inventory management altogether while emphasizing the creepy atmosphere of its underwater setting as well as its story, heavily influenced by the reality-questioning sci-fi novels of Philip K. Dick.
9. ETHER ONE (2014)
Ether One presents an ambitious, if somewhat convoluted premise: in the game, the player takes on a role of a Restorer, an expert who navigates the minds of the elderly patients, helping them retrieve their lost memories using the advanced 3D simulations. Restorer’s latest patient at the Ether Institute of Telepathic Medicine is Jean Thompson, an old woman whose childhood memories revolve around the English mining town called Pinwheel. As Restorer explores the town, the player discovers the true story.
Ether One was developed by a six-person team at the company White Paper Games. The game combines exploration with the occasional puzzle solving. The player can easily choose to skip the puzzles altogether but, in doing so, misses an opportunity to visit hidden areas of the game. Released in 2014, Ether One isn’t as well-known as other titles on this list. However, it has been favorably reviewed, with some critics going so far to compare it with the legendary 1993 adventure game Myst.
8. THE VANISHING OF ETHAN CARTER (2014)
After receiving a letter from 16-year old Ethan Carter, psychic detective Paul Prospero travels to the small mining town of Red Creek Valley to investigate mysterious events surrounding Ethan’s family. It seems that the Carters have fallen under the shadow of an ancient supernatural entity called The Sleeper. There are grisly murders, and the fate of the world may very well be at stake. And yet, as you learn while playing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, all is not as it seems.
Released in 2014, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a horror adventure game set in the beautifully rendered autumn forest. The player explores Red Creek Valley and its surroundings, searching for clues that, in turn, allow Paul Prospero to psychically recreate past events. Looking for clues in a huge open world, no matter how beautiful, can get challenging though. The game’s ending – far darker than mere horror – divided players and critics alike. Even so, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter showcases what walking simulators can do.
7. DEAR ESTHER (2008)
It’s impossible to talk about walking simulators without mentioning Dear Esther, a major milestone among narrative games. Dear Esther was first released in 2008 by Thechineseroom as a free-to-play game based on the Source engine used by Half-Life 2. The game proved out successful enough that in 2012 it got redeveloped for a commercial release. Its creators later went to produce fantastic Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture that also appears on this list.
The story of Dear Esther is rudimentary at best. The player plays an unnamed man exploring the uninhabited island somewhere off the coast of Scotland. As the game progresses, the protagonist reads a series of letter fragments written to a woman named Esther, learning about the tragedy that has befallen both her and the protagonist. Despite having no traditional gaming elements, Dear Esther uses music, visuals, sounds, and narration to a devastating effect. Its depiction of one man’s tragedy lingers in player’s mind long after the game is over.
6. VIRGINIA (2016)
If Dear Esther opened the way for other walking simulators, Virginia might very well be the next step in their evolution. Developed by Variable State and published by 505 Games, the game plays out more like an interactive animated movie than a game. Directed by Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny, Virginia uses a number of cinematic techniques like cuts and dissolves. While the effect is disorienting at first, Virginia nevertheless manages to tell a compelling story.
Taking place in the summer of 1992 the game follows rookie FBI agent Anne Tarver as she investigates the case of a missing teenager in the rural town of Kingdom, Virginia. Black and female, both Tarver and her more experienced partner Maria Halperin struggle daily against prejudice in the field and conformity in the office. Inspired by TV shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, it doesn’t take long for Virginia to veer into paranoia, nightmares and downright hallucinations, making its puzzling ending open to interpretation.
5. GONE HOME (2013)
After a long trip overseas, college student Katie Greenbriar returns home one day and finds both of her parents and her 18-year-old sister Samantha missing. Like Katie, the player then spends the game exploring the huge old mansion her family recently moved into, picking up the clues about the events leading up to their disappearance.
Released by The Fullbright Company in 2013, Gone Home plays with the conventions of the horror genre, literally taking place in a creepy old house on a dark and stormy night. But instead of mere thrills and chills, the game quickly turns into something far more humane. As the player rummages through the Greenbriars’ private belongings, he pieces together their troubled private lives and the way they deeply care about each other. Set in 1995, Gone Home lovingly recreates the decade using objects like diaries, letters, notes, postcards and cassette tapes to tell its story.
4. WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH (2017)
17-year old Edith Finch is the last surviving scion of the eccentric Finch family. All of her immediate relatives and family have died violently in young age, leading to rumors about a family curse. Now, Edith is on her way to her Finch mansion – a bizarre, ramshackle building hidden deep within the forests of the state of Washington. Once there, she intends to research her family’s history and learn the truth behind the alleged curse.
First announced way back in 2014, What Remains of Edith Finch has been finally published by Annapurna Interactive in 2017. Not unlike Gone Home, the premise of this game leads the player to expect a horror, while it is, in fact, a heartfelt tale of family, secrets, and loss. What Remains of Edith Finch tells some short stories about the various members of the Finch family. It also keeps changing the way the stories are told. While, say, one of them resembles a comic book, the other told from the point of view of a toddler.
3. THE STANLEY PARABLE (2011)
Like Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable was also created as a free-to-play game using the Source game engine. In it, the player takes on the role of Stanley, an office drone who comes to work one day only to learn that his entire existence is an illusion. As the game grows ever more ridiculous and surreal, the nameless narrator (wonderfully voice-acted by Kevan Brighting) in turns warns, cajoles, begs and insults Stanley to get him back into the “proper” game.
Designed almost entirely by Davey Wreden, The Stanley Parable is a darkly humorous comment on the choices – or the lack of them – in computer games. The true protagonist here is the real-life player searching for all the crazy ways of defying the constrictions of the game: from disobeying the narrator and walking through the wrong door to literally escaping the confines of the game level. Naturally, these petty acts of rebellion have also been pre-scripted into the game by its creator, and most of the fun comes from seeing just how much off-track can the player go.
2. FIREWATCH (2016)
Another game on our list set in the not-too-distant past, Firewatch took place in 1989. After suffering a devastating personal tragedy, Henry (voiced by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer) takes on a summer job as a fire lookout in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest. Henry’s sole companion is his immediate supervisor and a fellow lookout Delilah (Cissy Jones) whom he talks to daily over the radio. And yet, something is not right. Someone is eavesdropping on their radio chatter, there’s a mysterious facility deep in the forest, and even Delilah seems to hide something.
Firewatch is an open world adventure game developed by Campo Santo and released in 2016. Clever, mature story deftly mixes a mystery story with the deeply personal drama about grief and responsibility. Heavily-stylized yet nevertheless striking environments of the game are loosely inspired by the 1930s promotional posters for the National Park Service. Upon its release, Firewatch was universally praised by the critics upon its release. There have even been talks about turning the game into a feature film.
1. EVERYBODY’S GONE TO THE RAPTURE (2015)
In June 1984, an entire population of a village called Yaughton vanished, seemingly without a trace. As you explore the beautifully rendered countryside, you find distressing evidence of ominous events: abandoned cars, droplets of blood, road blockades and warnings about a quarantine. And then there are the mysterious, floating lights that, when approached, reproduce snippets of conversations between the villagers. Throughout the game, you not only discover the true nature of the disaster but also learn about the complex, interlocking lives of various villagers.
If there ever was a style of story perfect for walking simulators, it’s the “cozy catastrophe”. This very British sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction deals with the world very similar to our own in which most of the humanity has perished due to some disaster, leaving the protagonists to struggle for survival in an empty world. The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture does an amazing job of capturing the melancholic feel of such a world as well as the unsettling contrast between the serene beauty of an English countryside and the human tragedy it hides.