Have you ever felt the urge to peek into another person’s life?
Many video games labeled as ‘walking simulators’ put players in a position to pry into the lives of others. This prying or snooping is usually in service to the overarching narrative and may involve piecing together a character’s past or determining when and why a character went missing. Walking simulators often present unique and personal stories that lead to a level of closeness with their characters.
If you put “walking simulator” into a search engine, you might see games like Firewatch, What Remains of Edith Finch, Gone Home, and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture pop up in the results. These games have some similar features–walking is the primary mode of navigation through each game’s world, exploration is a key component of gameplay, and players can interact with various objects, including audio fragments and/or written documents that reveal narrative elements. These games tell stories. They don’t typically include boss fights, or leveling up, but they engage in unique and artistic stories not necessarily found in AAA games. In addition to their stories, walking simulators are often known for the sense of atmosphere they create through their environments, music, and characters. Walking simulators come in a variety of forms, but one thing many of them have in common is the way they encourage looking deeply and intimately into their characters’ lives.
Gone Home: A Family’s Secrets
Gone Home presents one of the strongest examples of this. On the game’s official website, Gone Home is billed as “a story exploration video game” and as “an interactive exploration simulator” (gonehome.com). The year is 1995, and a twenty-one-year-old woman (Katie) has returned to her family home in rural Oregon. She finds the house empty with no immediate sign of where her parents (Terry and Janice) and sister (Samantha) may have gone. Katie moves through her family home seeking answers. She discovers that Samantha (Sam) struggled at school but eventually made friends with another girl (Lonnie). The two bonded over music and video games. After attending a concert together, Sam and Lonnie became girlfriends. Through Sam’s messages, Katie learns that their parents struggled with accepting Sam’s sexuality and new relationship. Additionally, there are other secrets to uncover in the house.
Gone Home story is touching and heartfelt. Not only did it present a queer story in an honest way, but it also contributed to discourse of games as art, nudging the medium in a critical direction. There’s so much more to say about this, but I’m going to center my discussion on that question I asked you to hold onto: Do walking simulators satisfy people’s desire to snoop?
I believe one of the many reasons walking simulators find an audience is because they tend to let players safely peek into other people’s lives. We’re not only introduced to different worlds and characters, but we get to go through other people’s stuff with little to no consequence. In fact, players are often encouraged to rummage through belongings and snoop into little mysteries in video games. Open cabinets and drawers. Read through a diary. Listen to audio files left behind by the deceased or missing. These are common tasks in video games but especially in walking simulators. This encouragement to snoop and pry is similar to the appeal presented by many books. This connection was noted in a 2013 review of Gone Home from Adventure Gamers: “Many people read books for the opportunity to see life through someone else’s eyes, but it’s rare for a game to do it as well as this one does.” I agree that Gone Home recreates the opportunity to experience another’s life exceptionally well. Around every corner, in every room, Terry, Janice, and Sam can be felt and imagined. In the absence of characters to directly interact with, the house tells an intimate story. This environmental storytelling lends itself well to those of us that would like to peek into a closet or rummage through a stack of paper left on a desk but would feel too guilty actually doing so in real life.
Firewatch: Old Mysteries, New Curiosities
Firewatch is similar in its attention to detail, the relaying of character lives, and environmental storytelling. The game is described as “a mystery set in the Wyoming wilderness, where your only emotional lifeline is the person on the other end of a handheld radio” (firewatchgame.com). Henry, a new fire lookout, travels to the Shoshone National Forest in 1989 to process grief and re-discover himself. In Firewatch, character and narrative detail is not realized through exploration of a closed off and singular location (like the house in Gone Home) but is instead found in the natural environment Henry is free to explore. Henry is processing the loss of his wife and has left his home for the seeming isolation of a fire lookout tower. However, Henry does not find total isolation. His supervisor, Delilah, frequently talks to him via walkie-talkie, asking him to investigate various incidents. Ultimately, the two unearth a mystery relating to events happening years prior. Players will select dialogue options, pick up gear, and explore the wilderness. The narrative makes itself known from documents and other items found throughout the forest, through exchanges between Henry and Delilah, and by way of other encounters. Due to the remoteness of the game’s environment, the conversations between these two characters develop into something deeply personal. Delilah is a bit of a mystery but so is Henry. Players must unravel their stories over the course of one summer.
One key distinction between Firewatch and Gone Home is that in Gone Home, the ‘story’ has already occurred, and Katie unravels the sequence of events. In Firewatch, there is an old mystery to solve, but much of the game’s narrative beats happen to the protagonist. Yet both games offer a space where curiosity and the urge to snoop are encouraged and rewarded. These games allow players to explore both the mundane and mysterious. They give us a controlled and safe way to dip into the intricate details of other people’s lives.
Mystery and Curiosity in Walking Simulators
Most of the time when I hear people talk about snooping it’s within the context of a jealous partner or ex. Snooping may be the result of a lack of respect or self-discipline. But that doesn’t account for the more general curiosity of wanting to know how another person lives their life and what secrets, regardless of how minor, they may keep. I’ve never actually snooped through someone else’s belongings or home–I’d have too much guilt and anxiety from doing so. But I do enjoy exploring the mysteries presented in video games, especially if that mystery asks that I take a close look at other people. A sense of mystery is key to these kinds of games, I think.
In both Gone Home and Firewatch, guilt over prying into other people’s lives is assuaged by making the player feel like a detective with a pressing mystery to solve. Would I get as much pleasure out of a game that just let me walk through people’s homes prying into their cabinets and closets with no other overarching narrative? Probably not. The scaffolding of a larger narrative, of a greater mystery, is necessary to dissuade any guilt and to provide a purpose for prying into someone else’s business. And it helps that both games are designed in ways to that prompt players to ask questions. Why is the house deserted? What is Delilah hiding?
A game’s setting is also an essential element in fostering curiosity. An article from Intermittent Mechanism states that “the home and what it represents in terms of familiar memories and family matters adds to the narrative.” Not only do these elements add to the narrative but they actively prompt the player to dig, pry, and peek into the lives of Terry, Janice, and Sam. The potential for ‘skeletons in the closet’ sparks the player’s curiosity. Similarly, Firewatch‘s mysteries and Delilah’s sometimes cryptic conversations encourages the player to explore further into the wilderness in an attempt to find answers.
Interacting with journals, letters, and audio files scratches the itch of curiosity. So too does opening drawers and peeking into someone’s study. Investigating a person’s life in such a close manner may feel forbidden but that’s also why it satisfies. What do you think? Do walking simulators satisfy your sense of curiosity in similar ways? Let me know in the comments below.