The rise of the walking sim

Steve Hogarty
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The rural Shropshire village in Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

Walking. Everybody’s doing it. Striding here and there, flouncing up and down flights of stairs, marching wherever they please. What more proof is needed of walking’s supremacy than that, as soon as we learn how to do it, we promptly forego all of our previous methods of getting from place to place. Crawling? Old news. Rolling around on our stomachs and tumbling off soft furnishings? Simply inefficient in this fast-paced and demanding world.

Nope, walking is where it’s at, and the rapid rise of a genre of videogames seemingly centred around it gives credence to the notion that it’s humanity’s preferred mode of getting about. Last month’s release of the PlayStation 4 exclusive Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture invited players to the fictional and entirely gunless Shropshire village of Yaughton, a giant and idyllic chunk of British countryside mysteriously bereft of its recently departed inhabitants. Everybody, as you could probably guess, has hurriedly popped off to the rapture with nary a word of warning.

The game, developed by Portsmouth-based independent studio The Chinese Room, is a first person experience entirely anathema to the genre’s typical gun-blasting mega-violence. Where you might expect to find armies of mutants, or Nazis, or mutant Nazis, you’ll instead find photorealistically depicted thatched cottages and abandoned homes littered with the varied and detailed minutiae of an everyday life suddenly left behind.

Your goal in this quiet world is to investigate and to explore rather than murder and dismember. You open cupboards and uncover notes, revealing the game’s softly paced narrative through audio records and environmental clues, and slowly piece together precisely what dragged this sleepy village into apparent oblivion. Dry grass crunches underfoot, silence is cut short by ringing payphones. The entire world is built to be looked at, listened to and walked through, and it’s that degree of sedated interactivity that’s earned the game, and others like it, the perhaps unfairly reductive label of “walking simulators”.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture builds on the studio’s previous work in creating snail-paced experiential games about wandering around desolate surroundings. Dear Esther (PC, 2012) dropped you into a bleak Scottish island somewhere in the Hebrides, with little more than the relentless monologuing of an unseen and oppressively morose narrator, who reads a series of letters to his dead wife, to guide you. On the other hand, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs (PC, 2013) offered a little more for players to do, trapping the player in a puzzle-heavy survival horror nightmare beset by marauding manpigs. Which is, for videogames at least, far more ordinary than poking about a pub garden in Shropshire.

The rise of this kind of first person experience, especially among the current clutch of independent developers, largely stems from an open frustration with the industry’s big-budget first person shooters, with which smaller studios can’t possibly hope to contend. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (PC, PS4, 2014) eschews the explosions and death and gore and maddening gunplay of Call of Duty in favour of yet another abandoned world, this time in a wooded and oddly corpse-addled region of rural Wisconsin.

Thematically, many walking simulators are linked by their notable lack of other characters to interact with. That’s no fluke, but rather a direct reflection of these cash-strapped indie studios’ lack of resources, and their ability to work around these restrictions while still creating a compelling and realistic world to exist in and explore.

Animation, artificial intelligence, rendering believeable looking human faces, bodies and clothing; it all becomes unnecessary when you’re the last known survivor in a deserted world. Which is why it’s hardly a surprise that upcoming games in the genre are following this well worn formula of lonely desolation, too. Adrift, scheduled for release this month on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC, is a first person astronaut simulator set aboard a ruined space station in which, you guessed it, you’re the only person left alive.

The closest we’ll get to a videogame adaptation of Gravity, Adrift will have you solving puzzles, repairing broken bits of space-machinery and uncovering clues to piece together the events leading up to the station’s destruction. Just don’t expect to spot any 3D Clooneys up there.

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