The very term "walking simulator" sounds stupid because it is. It was coined by a detractor of the genre, but like many great terms, the community took ownership of a term of derision and embraced it.

So what is a walking simulator? There's no hard rules. Some games are full of puzzles and quests, some have aspects of horror, some are very linear to the point of being nearly an interactive movie. But the theme that builds the games together is a primary emphasis on storytelling – on atmosphere, world-building, and mood – with gameplay challenges coming second, if at all. The genre pushes the bounds in the art of storytelling, shucking traditional "game" paradigms like villains, weapons, and action, and replacing them with discovery, curiosity, and immersion. The experience is somewhere between a video game, choose-your-own-adventure book, and a movie, and it is unlike anything else.

To 16-year-old gamer Branden, these games would be boring. All you do is walk around! But to 36-year-old Branden, this is my new favorite genre; this is what I now look for in games. So here's my guide, reviewing all the games in this genre I've played so far.

the guide

Myst

Game Stats Review
Release1993 Storytelling★★★★
Approx Length4 hours World-building★★★★★
Challenges?Puzzles Gameplay★★★★
World TypeFantasy World Overall★★★★★

I'm starting this list with Myst, which came out in 1993 when I was 12 years old, because it is, in my opinion, the spiritual ancestor of walking simulators. It is the original 3D "walk around and explore" game, where the superficial gameplay is nothing more than some neat puzzles, but the meat of the game comes from the narrative developed when solving these puzzles. The story is what is important here, and it's aided by the majestic environments and memorable music. The pre-rendered 3D nature of the game has not aged well, but luckily, you can now play the remake "realMyst", which pulls the game into full 3D.

Riven

Game Stats Review
Release1997 Storytelling★★★★★
Approx Length8 hours World-building★★★★
Challenges?Puzzles Gameplay
World TypeFantasy World Overall★★★

This is the sequel to Myst. It was released in 1997 four years after Myst's wild success, and wasn't as good as Myst. While it did expand on the storytelling and universe of the original, unfortunately it focused too much on the puzzles, and they are very complex and intricate. Add in the pre-rendered frame-by-frame nature of exploration, and an arduous onslaught of unskippable Quicktime movie cutscenes, in 2019 Riven is best played with a walkthrough in hand. Even with a walkthrough the puzzles are still challenging, and this will allow you to experience the story without being too frustrated by them.

After Riven, there's a whole chain of additional Myst sequels which I've never played. They're on my list, though. One day.

Firewatch

Game Stats Review
Release2016 Storytelling★★★★★
Approx Length3 hours World-building★★★★★
Challenges?Adventure Gameplay★★★★★
World TypeRealistic Forest Overall★★★★★

Firewatch was my re-entry to video games, and my gateway to walking simulators. This game simply blew me away. The storytelling is superb, the visuals are jaw-dropping, the characters and acting and environment are exquisite. This game took me by complete surprise, I had never played anything like it before, and I immediately wanted more. The story takes place in the 1980s, in the woods of Wyoming, where your character manages the forests. Your primary 'weapon' is a walkie talkie, which you use to chat with your boss, stationed at the watchtower some miles distant. There's a surprising amount of emotion packed into this assuming package, and it is shocking how 'real' this story feels. The only possible downsides I could list about Firewatch are that it's only a few hours long, and the replay value is limited. But don't let that stop you – play this is an experience that I will always remember.

Gone Home

Game Stats Review
Release2013 Storytelling★★★★★
Approx Length1.5 hours World-building★★★★
Challenges?Exploration Gameplay★★★★★
World TypeRealistic House Overall★★★★★

This is again a story that takes place in a specific place and time – rural Oregon in 1995. This game tells an intensely personal story, and it does it through the player exploring their character's childhood house and reading notes and papers left behind by the family members. For so basic a setup, the emotional punches delivered in this game are profound. The graphics here are nothing special; they service the story, but the real stand-out elements are the details in each room of the house, plus the soundtrack, which is delivered via cassette tapes the player finds while exploring.

Tacoma

Game Stats Review
Release2017 Storytelling★★★★
Approx Length2 hours World-building★★★★
Challenges?Exploration and Puzzles Gameplay★★★★★
World TypeNear Future in Space Overall★★★★★

Created by the same team as Gone Home, Tacoma completely flips the environment. The player character now begins the game by docking with the abandoned space station Tacoma, and the story comes from discovering everything about the situation – what it's like to live in this near-future vision of the world, how the space station works, the characters' backstories and fates, and so on. The storytelling is voice-over driven, and the acting is top-notch. The station is logically thought-through and fun to explore, and if I had any complaints its only that at some points the voice-overs run too long, especially when you're having to re-watch them in order for clues to unlock the next chapter. Overall, this is a great example of the genre, and a fun game, even if it lacks the emotional depth of Gone Home or Firewatch.

The Stanley Parable

Game Stats Review
Release2013 Storytelling★★★★★
Approx Length4 hours World-building★★★
Challenges?Decision-based Gameplay★★★★★
World TypeNarrative-based Overall★★★★

It's difficult to talk about this game's experience without ruining the fun of the story, so I'll just tell you how it starts. You as the player character are in your office at work and a narrator tells you what to do. It goes from there, and boy does it go. What the game lacks in an expansive created universe, it makes up in philosophical depth, and the cleverness with which it lampoons traditional video game storylines results in a funny-but-brutal teardown of video game decision making. The narrator's voice acting is so good it's memorable. My only complaint is that there's no final conclusion to the game.

The Beginner's Guide

Game Stats Review
Release2015 Storytelling★★★★★
Approx Length1.5 hours World-building★★★★★
Challenges?None Gameplay★★★
World TypeNarrative-based Overall★★★★

This story is the follow-up work from the same creator as The Stanley Parable, and wherein the Parable he deconstructs video games, in this story he deconstructs video game designers. This an entirely linear story, with almost zero gameplay elements, but you as the player do wander around some beautiful 3D environments and do basic interactions with props in order to tell the story. Like before, the voice acting here is superb, and there is real emotional connection. And unlike before there's a real conclusion, and it's solid – I felt a need to discuss the meaning, the same as a good movie.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

Game Stats Review
Release2014 Storytelling★★★★★
Approx Length14 hours World-building★★★★★
Challenges?Metaphysical Puzzles Gameplay★★★★★
World TypeRealistic Ghost Town Overall★★★★★

The closest to traditional horror title on this list, the Vanishing of Ethan Carter starts your player character in rural American ghost town, complete with abandoned railroads, houses, and mines. Your character is a detective tasked with solving the eponymous disappearance, which provides an excellent excuse for you to nose around every corner of this world finding out what you can from all the long-abandoned scraps of civilization. The story here is long and complex, but rewardingly so, as it is broken into five smaller stories which together build the larger, overarching story. The town is masterfully crafted, and the vistas are beautiful. I'm a wimp for shock horror, which thankfully this game does not have; rather the horror here comes directly from the macabre storytelling. This is another title which packs a large emotional punch, and an exemplar of the genre.

Dear Esther

Game Stats Review
Release2012 Storytelling★★★★
Approx Length1.5 hours World-building★★★★★
Challenges?Exploration Gameplay★★★
World TypeRealistic Scottish Island Overall★★★★

This game drops you onto an island in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, cold, overcast, with emotive music playing, and leaves you to wander around and explore. As you do so, you'll come across abandoned structures and items, and voiceovers will play, re-telling a mish-mash story. As you progress further, the environment slowly morphs, and the voiceovers become more urgent. This all builds towards an emotional, immersive climax, but what exactly is the meaning of it all is left up to you. I struggled with the disjointed, layered story – I'm still completely lost as to what actually happened – but maybe it was more about mood than details. Unfortunately I was also aggravated by the slothlike pace you're limited to while moving; it dampened my urge to explore, even though the world looks so beautiful. Despite some reservations I still would recommend playing this, it is a worthwhile experience.

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

Game Stats Review
Release2015 Storytelling★★★
Approx Length5 hours World-building★★★★
Challenges?Exploration Gameplay★★
World TypeRealistic English Town Overall★★★

This is a "spiritual sequel" to Dear Esther. Like before, limiting enjoyment of the game is the mindbogglingly slow character movement. Here, you find yourself in a small English town where, like the title says, everybody has disappeared. As you wander around, you discover their stories via voiceover, and by interacting with these strange glowing orbs. The game starts mid-day, looking strikingly ordinary, and then as it progresses the environment's beauty builds in intensity, paired with some wonderful music. The voiceovers come from a large cast of characters, too many to keep straight, especially when their stories are coming at you in no particular order, and there's no visual clues to help you keep track of who is who. Unlike Dear Esther, however, I feel like this game does have a coherent narrative, just one that's not clearly told. This frustrated me and detracted from my enjoyment, but luckily the the soundtrack made up for it: the music here is the best on the list, especially when paired with the beautiful lighting towards end-game. Despite this, the total sum of this game lacks the punch of the previous title.

Homesick

Game Stats Review
Release2015 Storytelling★★★★★
Approx Length3 hours World-building★★★★★
Challenges?Puzzles Gameplay★★★★
World TypePost-Apocalyptic Russia Overall★★★★

Like many of the best titles on this list, this game starts by telling you nothing, forcing you to discover the world around you. The story comes in through this mechanic – the clues left in the rooms you walk through serve to envelope you in the story. Here you wake up in an abandoned apartment building with heavy Soviet vibes, and solve simple puzzles to progress into more areas. While the game may be small in scope, the story is well thought through, and, as I've said about many, connects emotionally. With an undercurrent of the macabre, this is one of the more horror-leaning titles on this list, but again doesn't go for cheap scares.

Eastshade

Game Stats Review
Release2019 Storytelling★★★★
Approx Length14 hours World-building★★★★★
Challenges?Quests Gameplay★★★★★
World TypeHigh Fantasy Overall★★★★★

Eastshade throws you right into a world of high fantasy, complete with anthropomorphised animal races, quests to complete, and magic potions to imbibe. You explore the island of Eastshade at your own pace – this has the basic structure of a roll-playing-game, but none of the violence or deep strategy. Your character doesn't wield a sword, but instead an easel, and you go around painting the landscape. The quests offer mild challenges, usually the difficulty is just finding the item or person in question. All of it serves to have you wander the island. And the island is absolutely magnificently beautiful. Everything about this game is bright and cheerful, sometimes saccharine, but you're never in a desperate struggle to survive. The one weakness of the game is that there's not a strong overarching story – there's myriad small dramas you take part in, but the main driving point of visiting Eastshade ends up being just one more quest to complete. Nonetheless, the game is worth exploring: the island is engrossing and obviously well though-through, and the universe is complete and feels lived-in. Hopefully there's a sequel, and we get to see more of this universe.

Caligo

Game Stats Review
Release2017 Storytelling★★
Approx Length1.5 hours World-building★★★
Challenges?None Gameplay★★
World TypeDark Fantasy Overall★★

This game sadly is not a successful example of the genre. While it contains some of the elements needed – mainly in the masterfully created virtual worlds – the goofy voice-acting, obnoxious high-school-philosophy paper storyline, slow drudging pace of character movement, and strict linearity all bring the game down and hinder enjoyment. While the game is pretty to look at, the constant, droning, unbearable voiceover work kills the game. Rather than letting the player explore and absorb the ambiance of the world, you are instead told what you are supposed to be feeling. By the end of the game I just didn't care anymore, and walked through the motions just to see it completed.

Proteus

Game Stats Review
Release2013 Storytelling
Approx Length30 minutes World-building
Challenges?None Gameplay★★
World TypeGenerated Islands Overall

This "game" is simply a procedurally generated island that you wander around. The island is filled with pretty colors and various objects, but the complete absence of a storyline or a meaning to it any of it kills any emotional attachment to the game. Calling it a game at all is even questionable, it's more like a software toy. Maybe it's really engrossing to play this while on drugs, but otherwise I'd recommend skipping this.

what's next?

Despite a few misses, I continue to look forward to new "walking simulator" games. I am fascinated by this genre and all the potential present with this method of storytelling. The "drop you in an alien world with no clues" style of storytelling is such a great paradigm for 3D virtual world adventure that I will happily continue soaking up games like this. I have a few more in my Steam library yet unplayed, such as 35mm, Obduction, and the other Myst sequels, so I've got enough for now, but I will soon need more...