Critical Play: Walking Simulators

I played Dear Esther, a walking simulator developed by TheChineseRoom. It is available for Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and now mobile devices (which I played it on). It is a single-player game where the objective is to uncover all of the details of the narrator’s wife’s death. This is usually the outcome of the game – there is not really a way to “lose,” unless you just do not finish the game. The sole procedure to do this is through walking, and a corresponding rule is that you cannot climb over rocks or objects that are above a certain height. You are also bounded to the island.

The target audience seems to be young adults or older, since the game’s story is a bit dark. Also, the game is purely walking (no interactions), so I imagine it would not be suitable for children or others who might prefer more stimulative activities.

The main types of fun in Dear Esther, like most walking simulators, are narrative and discovery. As we walk, details of the story are revealed and we discover new spots on the island.  I also think there is sensation involved – the visuals are truly breathtaking, and the music really sets the mood. 

I had so many “epic fail” moments. Immediately after opening the game, the background music and narrator’s voice scared me so much that I had to shut off the game and come back to it a few hours later (only after reading an article that assured me that this is not a horror game). When playing, I fell off cliffs ~2 times and drowned ~5 times. When you fall off a cliff, you have no choice but to walk back up, which can be very time-consuming. When you drown, though, the game revives you to a spot close by where you drown, which I found very helpful.

What makes Dear Esther special is that all you do is walk, so I am hesitant to propose changes since I think that there is definitely an audience for this kind of game. However, for me personally, I needed a bit more guidance. Even an arrow at the top right pointing me in the general direction of where I needed to walk next would have eased a lot of the frustration I felt when playing. 

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