With Dear Esther, Thirty Flights of Loving, The Stanley Parable and Gone Home serving as the tip of the spear, the 3D exploration genre pierced mainstream consciousness in 2012 and 2013. It was the result of independent developers taking the traversal that conveyed first-person shooter players from fire-fight to fire-fight; the environmental storytelling that enriched the worlds of immersive sims like Deus Ex and Bioshock, placing them in petri dishes and jotting careful notes on what sprouted.
And in the beginning, there wasn’t much to show for the experiment. Those early games were, as advertised, their parent genres minus the chief ways their antecedents allowed the player to interact with the world. Dear Esther as a concept? I’m all for it. It’s bold. It’s risky. It’s focused on storytelling instead of violence. Dear Esther as a game, though? I miss the guns.
I can feel that absence acutely as I wander Dear Esther’s barren island. And maybe, given the fact that Dear Esther began life as a non-violent mod of Half-Life 2 (as did Stanley), that makes a certain sense. The problem was, it didn’t add anything new to fill the void that violence left.
Gone Home, similarly, eschewed the play-your-way first-person action of the immersive sim in favor of a simple, powerful focus on exploration and storytelling. Developer Fullbright’s inaugural effort fares far better than Dear Esther because, even with combat removed, there’s still an awful lot of gameplay left in an immersive sim. While it follows Dear Esther’s example, placing the bulk of its important A-plot story beats in hard-to-miss audio, it remains smartly entrenched in the Looking Glass tradition, building out its small world in notes scattered throughout the house, using physics objects to simulate the winds of the tempest in a particularly compelling teacup.
Gone Home may be more interesting than Dear Esther (substantially so, in this critic’s estimate: it’s one of my favorite games), but neither is doing anything new mechanically. What these games did do was provide a solid foundation for the walking sims that came later.
And this is a fantastically fertile genre for experimentation. It begins with one —really, just one—essential mechanic: walking. From there, developers can basically add anything— except combat — and in our loose parlance, they’re still making a walking sim.
Firewatch, from the ex-Walking Dead developers at Campo Santo, added dialogue options and a two-way radio to play with. Observer, from Polish devs, Bloober Team, gave the walking sim discernible structure with side quests and a log to track them in. The subgenre that Thirty Flights of Loving inaugurated has evolved in Virginia and Paratopic, with each relying heavily on jump cuts to move the story from setting to setting.
And, after years of watching other developers innovate in the space they helped create, Fullbright returned to the walking sim in 2017 with the release of the long-in-development Tacoma. This time, they introduced something fresh: a rewind mechanic that allowed the player to watch the departed members of the game’s titular space station interact before the mysterious event that left the vessel abandoned. A new kind of environmental storytelling was born and, for maybe the first time, a game world truly justified its audiologs.
Currently, all these games receive the same genre billing, but each presents new ways of interacting with a virtual world. For this reason, 2017’s What Remains of Edith Finch presents a brilliant, kaleidoscopic view of the many genres that could be born as walking sim developers experiment with new mechanics.
Giant Sparrow’s sophomore effort, which follows the brief lives of the many doomed members of the Finch family, is the video game equivalent of a short story collection. Bespoke mechanics are introduced in each compelling vignette, and are forgotten just as quickly. In one level, the player flies a kite. In another, they point and shoot a black-and-white camera. For five minutes, the player is a frightened teenage girl moving through comic panels with only a crutch to defend herself. For five more, they are an imaginative infant in the bathtub.
This game provides a remarkable glimpse into the possible— and maybe even inevitable— future of the genre. Like the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, Edith Finch confuses the language of the walking sim and gives rise to new tongues in the process.
The walking sim was born at the knife’s edge and the genre’s early works bore those scars. But, as 3D exploration titles continue to advance and evolve, the walking simulator may yet become the ancestor of many.