Why Walking Sim Criticism Doesn't Hold Up, According To Dear Esther's Developer

Dear Esther
(Image credit: The Chinese Room)

Walking simulators have been a new kind of sub-genre that popped up recently; they're a spin-off of first-person adventure games. Some walking sims have received massive criticism from the gaming community that they're not really video games, but one developer believes the criticism doesn't quite hold up.

Dan Pinchbeck from development studio The Chinese Room, recently talked about some of the criticisms aimed at the walking sim Dear Esther to PC GamesN. The remastered edition recently launched for PC and home consoles, giving a new breed and new market an opportunity to experience the title that originally started as a Half-Life mod on the Source Engine and then eventually grew into its own beast.

Nevertheless, criticisms for walking simulators have not subsided, especially after games like Gone Home released, where some people felt they were too walking sim even for walking sims. Pinchbeck defended the genre, saying...

[...] if a game is about having a fail state then does that mean that a game that doesn't punish you for dying, like a Far Cry game where it happens really trivially, does that make it less of a game than Bloodborne where the stakes for death are higher? Whichever way you come at it, you start unpicking those strands and it doesn't really make sense apart from the 'feeling' of what a game ought to do.

Pinchbeck later says that he understands why the walking sim genre is divisive, though, and explains that he's not very good at puzzle games and finds them stressful. It's an interesting observation because for gamers who do like the atmosphere and presentation of puzzle games -- like Obduction, for instance -- but can't muster the wits to complete the puzzles, it just leaves you frustrated. A lot of people had that problem with The Witness, which had great scenery and a very relaxing world to venture through, but the puzzles were insanely hard and not everyone was willing to play through the puzzles to get to the end. Walking sims remove the challenge while retaining the atmosphere.

Nevertheless, it's easy to understand the criticisms of walking simulators when the media sometimes misleads gamers into thinking they're something that they aren't. Lots of high praise for high art like Virginia may bode well for people who like those kind of experiences, but are the limitations of the experience and lack of player agency being properly communicated to potential consumers?

In the case of Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, there's definitely more freedom of exploration in the game than say The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, but there's far less interactivity. If gamers are made aware of how much control they do or do not have in a walking sim -- which is usually conveyed through news articles, previews and reviews -- then I think the backlash might be smaller.

One of the biggest complaints from around the community about Gone Home was that it wasn't what the media said it was. It's true that various outlets portrayed it as more of a horror game, when in reality in it was just a basic walking sim that took place in an empty house. Plenty of people purchased the game based on the media's perception of the title and not necessarily what Gone Home represented as an actual gameplay experience. And in that regards, it's easy to see how people who weren't expecting a walking sim ended up getting a walking sim.

In the case of Dear Esther, The Chinese Room has never shied away from the walking sim label. People mostly understand that it's not a traditional game with fail-states and that it is a walking simulator. Having a clear understanding of what you're getting before you go in certainly helps alleviate criticisms from people who are unclear about the title.

Walking sims will likely always be controversial due to their limitations on player control, agency and interactive depth, but if it's properly communicated from the get-go that they're walking simulators then I think most people will be okay with that.

Will Usher

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend.