Matthew Odle

A Walking Sim of My Own

I’ve been playing a lot of story-adventure-exploration games lately (aka “walking sims”), and they really resonate.

I played What Remains of Edith Finch with my daughters this summer when it was just us for the weekend, and we all loved it. It tells the story of Edith’s family in journal/diary format that we experience by walking through the protagonist’s childhood home. As we unlock sections of the house, we collect the stories of each of her family members. The kids were completely glued to it; it held their attention for hours. While we played they would ask questions and tell me how it made them feel, and we’d discuss those reactions. It was good to slow down and really connect in that way.

Since then I’ve been looking for similar games. We found The First Tree and played that this past Friday. I loved the dual story. The superficial story, the one we experience directly, is the journey of a fox to find her kits, and this is mostly what the kids fixated on. They were very concerned for the fox and for the fate of the kits. As we guide the fox through the various areas, we uncover elements of the other protagonist’s past. When we do so, dialogue between the unseen second protagonist and another character slowly reveals the secondary (primary?) story of a boy’s childhood and relationship with his father. The kids didn’t really follow this story very well, but I think that might be part of the charm. It was almost as though we were playing different games, because I was invested in the emotional story of the disembodied second protagonist, and they were wrapped up in the fox’s problems. Later, when they play it again because of the way the fox’s story made them feel, they’ll come to understand the boy’s story as well.

Another game that had been recommended was Gone Home, but I didn’t get to it until a week ago. The kids didn’t like the atmosphere, so we gave it up early, but I finished it later on my own. Even though they didn’t care for it, I absolutely loved the combination of coming-of-age story, the location and time period, the music, and (even though we only meet them through their possessions) the characters. Then I played it again. Then I had to find all the buttons and cassettes and easter eggs. I was obsessed with it for days, even to the point where I now want to start my own grunge band.

These games hardly resemble traditional games. There’s no boss, nobody to save, no way for us to really have any impact on the story or characters at all. We’re just observers. Our job is to absorb the human experience these stories are trying to convey, and that’s pretty much it. That doesn’t seem very exciting on the surface, but it might be the ultimate interactive experience. There are no mechanics or systems to get in the way; often these are distractions from the story and don’t always make sense in context (like gem-matching puzzle games). But the simplest tools are often the most effective. A walking sim is just the storyteller, the characters, and the player, with the thread of human connection running between all three, and there’s not much else to distract ourselves with.

Most of all, these games have made me want to tell my own story.

Emotional issues are hard to address. We don’t want to call attention to ourselves; we’re not really allowed to appear weak. We support our children, families, and friends emotionally, but when it’s our turn to need help, it’s hard to know where to turn for fear of spreading the problems to others. As we get older we learn coping mechanisms (safe and healthy ones hopefully). We learn to keep the problems at bay, suppress them with our will. But it can still be overwhelming.

Walking sims can be a powerful tool to help with our own personal journeys. Even though we’re simply walking through an environment, there’s a lot of conflict, and a lot of opportunity to reflect on our own lives. They can be used to tell the stories we’re too discouraged or afraid to tell plainly, to explore our own issues and abstract them a bit so they’re more approachable, safer for a wider audience to experience.

I’m playing with a few ideas for this type of game; we’ll see where it goes.

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