As a preface, I've had parts of this discussion many times with different people on Twitter, and after having so many fragmented attempts at chewing on this bigger-than-140 topic, I thought I'd just collect it all right here. If you read my stuff on social media, apologies if some (or all) of this sounds familiar.
So, I like indie games and I like stories, so it seems to figure that the "walking simulator" narrative-driven experience we're seeing so much of lately would be right up my alley. But really, I find myself bouncing off of most of them.
One of the biggest issues I have is that some of these games get the idea for a story and then put it into an electronic format without taking the gameplay side of things into consideration.
I'm not trying to sound harsh, but countless tales have been written by people who are fantastic at writing, and walking sims generally can't compete with people who are pros at spinning yarns. However, game-makers have an advantage – there are so many opportunities to be interactive and to add dimensions to their stories that books or films can't.
…But if developers fail to capitalize on this? It's a big problem for me.
When a game offers the chance to play detective and uncover something in a clever way, or when it creates a scene where someone must hide in the shadows as something scary patrols nearby, that's something a book can't do. When a player gets to make a choice that legitimately changes the flow of events and makes them feel as though they're an active part of what's going on, that's something that only occurs in a game.
When these things happen, it's amazing. Truly. It's where videogames come into their own.
But when I play something whose main action is to walk from Point A to Point B and click a button to read some text or listen to an audio log, not only is that mechanically boring, it's a boring way to tell a story. Simply relating events or talking about a situation isn't going to cut it, and having an avatar hunt around for notebook scraps is infinitely more laborious and time-consuming than just turning a page.
And If I'm being completely honest here, a lot of the walking sims I've played lately fail at crafting stories with broad appeal.
Making a game that means something significant to the creator is a fine thing, but the trick is to be able to communicate that thought or feeling to someone who is not the creator. It's not an easy task, and making a script ‘playable' doesn't automatically make it accessible or relatable. Of course, creating niche content for a niche audience is fine, but if I'm not finding my way into the story, the only thing left for me is the gameplay. This means, then, that in titles without any real gameplay, there's nothing to fall back on. It's very easily a lose-lose.
So just to be clear, I didn't compile this tweet summary with the intention of railing against walking sims as a genre — not at all — but as a way of explaining why I don't feel the need to celebrate every one, and why I expect them to do more than get their game engine functional enough to deliver the writing. The best of them combine their ideas with the things that only the electronic medium can do, and they do it in a way which communicates and elevates the material. That's the gold standard to strive for, and I applaud the ones that achieve it.