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Surely there’s a better name for games like Gone Home than “walking simulator”

Tacoma (Screenshot: Fullbright)
Tacoma (Screenshot: Fullbright)

Keyboard Geniuses is our weekly glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the Gameological discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity. You can follow the links to see the full threads.

Walk It Out

This week, Clayton Purdom gave us a review of Tacoma, the new game from developers of Gone Home. It’s very much an evolution of the style that Gone Home helped architect and many games since have shared. For whatever reason, a lot of people out there get really pissed off that these narrative-focused, conflict-free games exist, and such irrationally angry detractors started derisively calling these games “walking simulators.” The term got so widespread that it’s become something of a reclamation project for fans. Clayton made use of it in passing, kickstarting a conversation about the label down in the comments and a search for a more accurate, less loaded term. SpaceCop summed up the issues:

I really dislike the term “walking simulator.” Maybe it is the best term to describe this brand of first-person adventure game, but it feels laden with condescension. You don’t call FPSes “shooting simulators” or turn-based RPGs “queuing simulators,” but this genre—whose most famous example, non-coincidentally, highlights LGBTQ characters and relationships— gets reduced to “Well, all it does is simulate going for a walk. You can do that anywhere, it’s lazy, it’s pretentious, and why can’t those SJWs keep their politics out of our games and give me a gun!”

I see mostly assholes call them “walking simulators” is what I mean.

Venerable Monk dug deeper into why the label started seeing use as an insult:

I’m sure we’ve had this conversation before. I tend to dislike terms like walking simulator because they’re often used derisively to indicate what the speaker perceives as missing from the game. Rather than trying to come up with some other name that more accurately describes what you do in such a game, the topic that’s more compelling to me is what exactly makes these games work for the people that love them.

I think what some folks are getting at when they employ walking simulator as a category is that it’s a game largely without mechanical challenge. Meaning your mastery of a controller or mouse and keyboard is never tested in such games. You’re not really expected to think strategically or solve difficult spatial or logic puzzles. But I’ve definitely talked with folks about challenges that have nothing to do with the typical metrics of game mastery. Like Yumzux said elsewhere in the thread, you can’t exactly measure someone’s connection of loose narrative clues and award them an achievement for contextual awareness.

There’s also no way to measure how well someone identifies with a character or how strongly they feel about a conflict. I’d say games like Gone Home endeavor to help you challenge your assumptions about people that are unlike yourself. It’s something we’ve been doing for centuries with all other kinds of media, and I honestly don’t know whether people threw a fit in the early days of writing when a book challenged them to think about others in a new way, rather than offering an exciting adventure or a mystery to solve. My guess is some did. I doubt many people burned books because they wanted the protagonist to marry someone else at the end.

Westernwolf4 talked about how fans are starting to take the term back:

I think a lot of the condescension is gone now that it has become a common term to describe these games. I use the term, and I am a fan of this kind of game (Firewatch, Gone Home, etc.). So, I think it started out as a way to call a game “not really a game,” but now I just use it the same way I would a term like FPS.

As for what to actually call this micro-genre, Fionn Murray rattled off a rather cumbersome example of a name that has started to take root: “environmental narrative game.” Alex Franklin had one that, as WoodSword pointed out is too broad: “first person exploration” games. And Merve took us back to the good ole days when we had a much simpler name:

A few years ago we used to just call them all “art games.” Fun times.

User Reviews

Screenshot: Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age/Square Enix

Tucked into this week’s What Are You Playing This Weekend? thread was an excellent review of a game Drinking With Skeletons just finished: Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. We’ve clipped a few choice sections to highlight here, but the whole post is very insightful and worth checking out:

I consider it one of the best Final Fantasies, and certainly one of the most unique in the mainline franchise.

Plot II—So what is the story about? At one level, it’s about freeing a city-state from foreign rule. At another, it’s about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. At another, it’s about a rebellion against the gods who would control the fate of mortals. In the background there’s lots of discussion about what makes a good ruler and the forms that oppression takes, but interestingly at no point is the world in actual peril. Nobody wants to end all life or acquire immortality. It is remarkably grounded.

On Religion—What are the Occuria, exactly? Are they actually gods? The game has no interest in that question. The truth of their claims is of little concern. In development, they were originally slated to be a race of Mindflayers, and the team shifted them to a more overtly divine form. What matters is that their mindset is unjust, and the entire game builds to a rejection of their worldview.

Themes—This is a hell of a thematically rich game. Everything is layered and reflects other elements of the game. Let’s just look at the Espers, beings created by the Occuria who, like the party, rebelled against the Occuria. We have Belias, a two-headed creature that is “both man and beast.” It is both loyal to the Dynast-King, serving him even after his death, and yet rebelled against his original masters who found him wanting. In one being, he reflects the duality of Basch and Gabranth, the twin knights who are mistreated by the Empire and compared, in Gabranth’s case, to a servile dog, each of whom is defined by their search for a worthy master. Or how about Mateus and Zalera, each of whom protects himself with a woman, and how their dynamics are reflected by the relationships between Vaan and Penelo and Balthier and Fran? Ultima’s heart is unknown, much like Ashe’s decision is not clear until she reaches the Sun-Cryst. The game is chock full of these kinds of reflections, and it adds up to a remarkably cohesive game even despite the relatively short running time of the story.

That’ll do it for this week, Gameologinistas. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!