Walking: The Game. The Fine Line That Defines a Game

By Randy Gerson

In more recent history, video games, still a relatively a young form of media, have finally been accepted as forms of art. Games once seen as only useful for a means of keeping kids and awkward teens busy in a dark basement, have now become a world wide form of entertainment. Bringing in billions of dollars annually, There is no longer an argument that games are just a craft for a small selection of nerds to play, but instead they have grown to be one of our most well respected forms of entertainment. Many argue that some games are becoming more of a narrative experience than they are defined by their interactivity, but this raises the question, how far can a game go, focusing less on less on its interactions, until it is no longer able to be called a game?

According to investopedia, interactive media is “ a method of communication in which the program’s outputs depend on the user’s inputs, and the user’s inputs in turn affect the program’s outputs. Interactive media engage the user and interact with him or her in a way that non-interactive media do not.” By this definition a video game is clearly interactive media, but what distinguishes a game from a movie? What if no matter the input the output does not change on a macro level. This has been an ongoing debate among game designers with the rise of the genre of games known as walking simulators.

A walking simulator, or empathy/ narrative game, is a game that limits the player’s input and maximizes the player’s immersion into a narrative. In this process, the game tends to limit nearly all puzzling aspects, and instead forces the player to focus on exploring an environment and making micro decisions as to the progression of a story.

This has created a strange phenomena within some gamers, where they feel their inputs have no bearing on the outcome of the game. Like most games, barring the few with multiple endings, walking simulators provide a linear story, and since challenges aren’t provided along the way, many feel that these experiences cannot be described as games. The argument goes that if the full experience of a “game” can be experienced by watching someone else play through the media, can it be called a game or does it need to be called something else entirely? If the interaction is provided simply via exploration, is this a game, or is it simply a movie that allows the viewer to decide the pacing of when the next scene plays?

There is little argument one can make that these experiences aren’t interactive. Simply by giving the player control of the camera, the experience is now a form of interactive media since player input changes the output. Though this is true of games, this is also true of many other forms of media, such as websites, apps, and anything else which accepts input. So now one must figure out if at their most basic, does the addition of a narrative and the faintest hints of choice make a walking simulator a game, or is it now some other form of entertainment?

To answer this question once and for all- they are games.

The term game defines many more activities than one may think of initially, basically meaning anything one does for entertainment. By this definition, a game is anything that is fun, including dancing, singing, jumping and so on. Nearly anything can be a game, but why do walking simulators bring up discomfort in so many?

Many games do have some criteria beyond fun. Games have to have rules, there is an established goal, and a game needs to have chance or the randomization of some element in its mechanics. That right there is the kicker; do walking simulators introduce chance into the experience? Since the term game began to mostly refer to activities like table top games and cards, a certain level of chance has become the expectation, from the random outcome of cards, the unknown moves of a competitor, or simply the roll of a dice. This act of randomness, provided some level of challenge or opposing force to the player.

Walking simulators would seem not to have any of this aspect of established forms of gaming. There is no opposition to the player. There is sometimes not even any challenge at all; with no chance of dying, losing or in turn learning and growing as a player through gameplay mechanics. The entire experience is told to the player through narrative, and the player is entertained in much of the same way as a movie audience.

Why is a walking simulator not just an interactive comic, and is instead considered a game? The narrative experience is given to the player, and many have debated how much this counts as a game, simply because the experience doesn’t change no matter who the player is. If the same experience can be gained from watching another play the game, the same story, and the same challenges (or lack there of) are all given to every person interacting with the game, how is it unlike a movie?

To settle the debate once and for all, the answer is very simple. Control of the exploration. The narrative may play out the same no matter who plays, and there may be no choices to actually make, besides turning left or turning right when exploring an open field, but this ability to turn one’s head, is giving the player choice beyond what one can experience in a movie. There is choice, and chance, there is a certain level of the unknown, a puzzle in learning what will happen next that a player must figure out, even in the most linear designed gameplay experiences.

Games which are heavily debated such as the various games telltale games makes, shouldn’t even be up for discussion. They often have puzzles to solve, oppositional forces (even if they are only on a scene by scene basis), and they are known for giving their players choice. These may not be challenging games, but they are without a doubt games. By this definition, choose your own adventure books are games, providing chance and giving the reader choice, making games like stanley parable, albeit games with almost no option of failure, games nonetheless. Harder still to argue would be games like Dear Esther, Gone Home, The Beginner’s Guide, Layers of Fear, or That Dragon Cancer. These experiences are profound, but many provide very little in terms of game play experiences. Besides simply giving a player movement controls, it forces the player to question what their experience was. Yet the answer is simple: the act of exploring gives the player the power of choice, and the chance of progressing a story quickly or shortly. They have rules, confining the player to a playable area, the have a goal, even if it is simply to walk forward until one reaches the end, and they have chance, provided by the player’s own decisions in their exploration of the digital spaces. This means very simply:

Walking simulators are games.

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