The phrase ‘walking simulator’ is often used in a negative way to describe games lacking in action sequences. While hardcore gamers may consider any title that doesn’t involve swinging swords or shooting bad guys to be boring, over the years many developers have taken a simpler approach to video game design, choosing to create a complex and intriguing story instead of a button-mashing frenzy. Listed below are 5 of the very best games that, in my opinion, defy the negative stereotype of the boring walking simulator, instead delivering experiences that have the player eager to uncover the narrative. Without further ado, these are my picks – in no particular order – for the top 5 walking simulators.
Developed by Variable State and published by 505 Games, Virginia tells the tale of Anne Tarver’s first case as a rookie FBI agent in the fictional town of Kingdom, Virginia. A boy has gone missing, and both you and your partner, Maria, are tasked with finding him within the game’s short playtime. What makes Virginia shine is its ability to keep you intrigued throughout without a single word being uttered. By utilising a beautiful score (expertly crafted by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra), intriguing character behaviours and masterful art design, the game delivers an emotional and complex experience.
Despite adequate gameplay on PS4, I can’t help but think that Virginia would be best suited to a mouse and keyboard. Its core design is not unlike the other titles on this list, although on consoles the game’s camera sensitivity feels inconsistent, often taking multiple movements to interact with basic objects.
The direction of the game, however, is exquisite. By taking the player on a journey with limited freedom of choice or branching paths, Virginia must use other means to keep you entertained, which it achieves quite pleasantly. The story jumps from one location to another, constantly feeding you hints about where the game will take you next. Because of this, I was always eager to see what was around the corner. Thanks to its linear nature, Virginia is a game that I never felt like I was wasting time on. Everything in Virginia has a reason to be there, so at no point was I ever interacting with items that were irrelevant to the story wishing I could finally get to the next cutscene. Virginia is as refined as they come.
Originally released as a Source engine mod in 2008, Dear Esther is often credited as the pioneer of the walking-sim genre. More recently ported to home consoles in a ‘Landmark Edition’, Dear Esther has aged well during the decade it has been available, with jaw-dropping visuals that are still impressive to this day. At no point during my approximately 90-minute playthrough did it ever feel like I was playing a video game – instead I was transported to the remote, desolate island off the coast of mainland Scotland where the entire game takes place. Although the plot didn’t leave a lasting impression, the haunting aura and intense sound design captivated me throughout the journey. Even after the credits rolled, the game’s flawless atmosphere lingered in my mind for days after.
Of all the games on this list, Dear Esther is the most deserving of the title ‘walking simulator,’ as the gameplay consists solely of the player walking around the environment as the excellently voice-acted narrator presents you with a story that will leave you more questions than you had going in.
Dear Esther is not exciting or exhilarating in any way. Instead, the game evokes the feeling of loneliness and solitude. Despite Dear Esther being a game I wouldn’t necessarily say I enjoyed playing, it is one I immensely respect and appreciate.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Taking inspiration from other titles in the genre, What Remains of Edith Finch capitalizes on everything we love about walking simulators whiling managing to create a wonderful narrative centered around the seemingly-cursed Finch family. Giant Sparrow once again delivers a truly innovative and thought-provoking tale about the untimely death of every Finch family member dating back to the late 1800s.
You play as last surviving heir, Edith Finch, who spends the game’s 2 hour runtime uncovering the secrets of the Finch ancestral, which was mysteriously vacated in a hurry. Because of this, at no point does the house feel like a video game setting. The detail given to each room makes it feel like the house has been lived in for generations, with each character clearly having put their stamp on their respective rooms.
The gameplay, while consistent, is nothing new. You will find yourself navigating the house systematically room-by-room, collecting and interacting with objects to gain insight to the tumultuous events that occurred in the Finch home. However, once you begin to investigate the demise of a new family member, the game presents mini-games that perfectly break up the monotonous walking sections. Each section feels different from the last. From thunderstorms to comic books, the tale of every character’s death is presented in a fresh and inventive way.
What Remains of Edith Finch is a masterpiece merging traditional walking simulator mechanics with innovative and diverse sequences to perfectly balance gameplay with narrative. While there are games on this list I think are fundamentally better, I’m hard put to think of a walking simulator I enjoyed more than this one.
I really enjoyed my time with Firewatch. Set in 1989, this adventure takes place in the harsh woodlands of Wyoming. You play as Henry, a simple man who takes a job as a fire lookout in a large, expansive national park to escape the troubles of everyday life. While the game is lacks a large cast of characters, Henry is accompanied by the voice of Delilah, his supervisor (excellently voice acted by Cissy Jones). Despite starting somewhat slowly, the game’s story will begin intrigue you from around the ‘Day 2’ mark, which is where the 4-hour narrative began to constantly keep me guessing.
With an intriguing focus on script-based decision making, Firewatch briefly talks you through Henry’s life with his partner, Julia, and how the pair dealt with the unfortunate news of Julia’s developing Alzheimer’s. From there, you are presented with a luscious open world that you’re free to explore to your heart’s content. The expansive nature of Firewatch could have presented flaws with the gameplay, however other than a few frame-rate drops here or there the game gets through the story with limited issues.
Where Firewatch shines best is in its excellent visuals. The game’s colour palette scrumptiously complements the setting, with rich oranges imitating the sunlight bouncing off trees, and the clear blue sky perfectly contrasting with the darker greens and browns of the Wyoming wilderness. Despite not being as engaging and emotionally riveting as other games on this list, Firewatch is by far the prettiest.
In the short 2 hour play time, Gone Home will take you through a rollercoaster of emotions. The game follows protagonist Katie Greenbriar as she returns home from a lengthy journey across Europe, only to find the Greenbriar family home empty. As you slowly explore the first few rooms, you become aware of an ominous and eerie feel. You must navigate the dark, empty corridors to uncover the many hidden secrets that lie within the walls of the house. Each of the many rooms is littered with 90s references such as Pulp Fiction cinema tickets and old punk rock posters, giving the game an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. The attention to detail truly has you feeling like you’ve been transported back to the mid-1990s.
After you slowly progress through the story, examining every little detail, you will begin to see the game’s true colours. The main narrative focuses around Katie’s sister Sam and her budding relationship with fellow schoolmate Lonnie. Despite the game’s short runtime, at no point does the development of Sam and Lonnie’s relationship feel rushed. Instead, due to the efficient pacing, the friendship feels incredibly natural, right up to the gut-wrenching conclusion.
After spending the first half of Gone Home interacting with items such as letters, postcards and hidden passages, you begin to relate to, and eventually love the characters of Sam and Katie, thanks to excellent voice acting by both Sarah Elmaleh and Sarah Grayson. What becomes of their characters and the story is nothing short of masterful.
Simply put, Gone Home is the most compelling narrative I’ve experienced in a video game to date. Thanks to excellent writing, masterful atmosphere and a wonderful setting, Gone Home is an absolute must-play for both PC and console gamers alike.