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The problem with 'walking sims'

Dear Esther developer clarifies debate on burgeoning genre

In the past few years, a game genre has emerged that's found millions of fans. So-called "walking sims" like Dear Esther, Gone Home, Firewatch and Virginia have extended the definition of games, from physical and mental challenges, to narrative experiences that tease nuanced emotional responses from players.

These games have also attracted plenty of criticism from people who refuse to recognize them as games, due to their general lack of puzzle or physical manipulation elements.

Critics scorn such games as "walking simulations," a name that has since been ironically embraced by fans of the genre, and is now becoming a fairly neutral genre rubric. However, it is not universally accepted. Other descriptors include "narrative games" or "empathy games."

The release last week of Virginiaa brilliant tale of belonging, identity and ethics — has reignited the debate.

This week, Dan Pinchbeck, one of the creators of Dear Esther, offered up some illuminating thoughts on the subject. Speaking to PCGamesN he said, "The idea that games have to be defended from innovation is new, as well as being something which I just don’t agree with. It’s not a conversation I ever remember having up until a few years ago."

His game, launched back in 2012 on Windows PC and last week on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, was a key milestone in the history of games in which the player is expected to follow a fairly straight story path. The game, set on a remote island, is challenging at an emotional and intellectual level, but eschews physical barriers or mental gymnastics.

Likewise, Virginia only ever tasks the player with proceeding through the story and observing narrative elements along the way. This has once again prompted comments threads with the "But is it really a game?" school of thought.

Speaking of Dear Esther and the genre in general, Pinchbeck added, "It doesn’t matter if you understand it or it doesn’t matter if you ‘get’ it. It’s not a problem to be solved, it’s just a thing to be in for a while."

Critics insist that a game is only a game if it presents some kind of challenge, or a definitive fail-state. Pinchbeck takes issue with this view, while acknowledging the difficulty of hard and fast definitions.

"Maybe it’s because I started playing games in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The stuff coming out was just completely crazy, people just trying stuff left, right and centre. It felt like games were always about questioning what they could be."

"I think it’s one of those things that once you start unpicking it, it starts coming apart at the seams. If it’s all about a game has to have mechanics well then you start to go, well, Space Invaders, is that less of a game than Far Cry because it’s got fewer mechanics? Or, 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."

No doubt, the debate will go on as more games like Virginia find wide audiences and dedicated fans.

Here's Polygon’s review of Virginia.

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