Postdoctoral Research Associate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dr. Sercan Şengün is a researcher exploring phenomena at the intersections of cultural informatics, video game studies, virtual identities, and digital interactive narratives. He is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducting research as a part of MIT CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) and MIT ICE Lab (Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory). In the first half of 2017, he will also be stationed in Doha, Qatar within Qatar Computing Research Institute as a visiting scientist. His latest work can be followed through the website www.sercansengun.com.
Walking simulator video games are a comparatively new genre comprising those games that offer little to no ludic interactivity and agency to their players other than moving through virtual spaces to discover fragments of narratives that may or may not form a coherent story. To understand this genre better, this study focuses on its emergence, relation to the medium in general, and possible engagement appeal for its players. Walking simulator video games construct passive spectatorship roles for their players contrary to more action-centered video games, limit their ludic agency, recount past events rather than offering simultaneous storytelling, and utilize tabula rasa main characters. Derived from the definitions of voyeurism in film and theatre, the concept of ludic voyeurism is further defined to explain the kinds of pleasure a passive spectatorship role can offer to video game players.
On a stormy summer night in 1995, college student Kaitlin Greenbriar returns to her home in Oregon from a long stay abroad to find her family home completely empty. The house feels like its dwellers left very recently, and Kaitlin learns her parents, Carol and Terry, as well as her sister, Samantha, are nowhere to be found. Kaitlin puts the clues she finds in her family home together to try and discover where they have gone. This is the main premise of The Fullbright Company’s video game Gone Home, released in 2013 for home computers and then in 2016 for video game consoles. The video game’s official website characterizes its genre as “a story exploration video game,” and yet the dominant player tag for the video game on the popular distribution platform, Steam, is that of a “walking simulator”—initially used as a derogatory term of ridicule, but later transformed into an established genre. 
In this article, I discuss the issues regarding this video game genre: how it emerged, how it utilizes interactivity in ways that differ from the rest of the medium, and finally how it engages its players. For this final point, I argue that in its ludic participation—a general concept describing playful interactions and gameplay—the relationship between walking simulator video games and their players is based on two main elements: 1) the obliviousness of the video game world toward the players, thus assigning them a position that will be called here a passive spectatorship, trapped between the temporality when the narrative takes place and when it is being discovered, and 2) the exchange of pleasure of control, or agency, for another attraction in this article called ludic voyeurism: an experience I describe as existing between the voyeurisms of cinema and theatre. 
The term “walking simulator” originally emerged from Steam’s player tagging system, introduced in early 2014 with controversial results. One of these results was the widespread tagging of Gone Home as “not a game.”  This tag was later removed from the system by Steam along with other offensive tags like “hipster garbage.”  Considering that the Steam platform accounts for almost 75% of all video games sold for home computer platforms, it is clear how crucial any representation of a video game on it can be.  Initially the name “walking simulator” was devised as a derogatory term to ridicule those games whose sole interaction was typically the exploration of a narrative through movement in space; however, the term was eventually neutralized through widespread adoption.  As of January 12, 2017, Steamspy—an unofficial website using Steam’s officially-provided real-time data to report the system’s statistics with self-reported error margins—noted 210 games with this tag.  Upon manually digging through this list, one sees that some of these tags are still used as insults; for example, video games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Mechwarrior Online also have this tag, when clearly the scope of each game is much more extensive. Ironically, a tag devised to mark those video games not considered “proper” video games now requires more digging to dissociate them from the “true” walking simulators. My own manual analysis revealed that only 54 of these video games had the walking simulator tag in the first position of their definition on the Steam platform.  Indeed, a video game can have many tags, but only the most dominant five are shown on the video game’s page in the order of the number of players using the tag to define the experience. The other dominant tags used for these video games are indie (41%), adventure (35%), exploration (14%), casual (9%), atmospheric (7%), horror (7%), female protagonist (6%), and first-person (5%). The 6 leading walking simulators also had 5000+ user reviews with 17% on average marked as negative by their reviewers: Firewatch (20,487, 13%), Gone Home (14,127, 23%), The Way of Life (6,893, 24%), The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (6,582, 10%), Dear Esther (5,767, 24%), and Layers of Fear (5,640, 7%).
Upon its release, Gone Home sparked discussions about whether it was a “proper” video game: after many popular gaming websites published pieces debating its game status, Gone Home’s writer and designer, Steve Gaynor, defended the “gameness” of the product in a talk at the Game Developer’s Conference in 2014.  At the height of the debate, a video by satiric fan website Dorkly detailed how Gone Home could become a “real” video game: in this video, Kaitlin’s sister was kidnapped, and to get her back, she had to fight Nazi soldiers that had invaded her family home in first-person, shooter video game style.  This perspective, lampooned by Dorkly but espoused by others, derides Gone Home’s non-gameness due to its lack of action, conflict, fighting, or other forms of excitement. Despite Polygon naming Gone Home its 2013 “Game of the Year,” it was still criticized for lacking the kind of interactivity to which gamers were accustomed.  The video game obstructed active agency, relegating gamers to positions of mildly passive spectatorship, thereby causing resistance from them in turn.
Earlier video game studies offer interactivity as an indispensable feature of the medium and occasionally even a synonym for gameplay.  Justifiably, interactivity became a central pillar in video game analysis.  However, interactivity is not a monolithic phenomenon; instead, it can operate in various layers within the medium. Michael Sellers proposes five ways interactivity is experienced in video games: 1) perceptual and physical interactivity governing repetitive game actions like walking, jumping, shooting, etc.; 2) short-term cognitive interactivity facilitating the overcoming of short-term puzzles and objectives; 3) long-term cognitive interactivity allowing players to devise long-term strategies in long or consecutive gameplay sessions; 4) social interactivity emerging in online games between players; and finally 5) cultural interactivity establishing cultural norms and long-term perception changes from the video game experience.  Among these layers, the first form of interactivity that may be offered is an immediate perception of gameplay. The feeling of video game control, once merged with the instant feedback on the screen, is defined as a dominant pleasure offered by the medium.  The obstruction and emaciation of this familiar pleasure in general may also have the potential of complicating the players’ feelings toward the video game, and thus a reluctance to categorize the experience as a “game” emerges.
Consider another experimental video game called 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness by Kloonigames, which won an innovation award in 2009 at Nordic Game Jam.  In this video game—named after the experimental composer John Cage’s famous piece 4’33”—the “players” are allowed no interactivity. The way to win the game is to be the only person online in the world who is playing it for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. If another player starts playing while someone else is already counting down, they will both lose, and the system will disconnect them both. The visual output of the game is just a full-screen black and white progress bar. A similar discussion of the putative gameness of 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness has also taken place.  However, this was a relatively easy argument to address, since the game was not a commercial product, but rather a free experimental indie art game. Commercial versions of such video game categories often meet with resistance and hostility in various gamer groups.  When Gone Home was released as a commercial video game and praised by various news outlets for its innovative storytelling approach, its status as an isolated, experimental, and quirky project within a marginal game genre transformed into a standard-bearer for an audience seeking visibility and recognition.
Another video game, Dear Esther, gained positive feedback in 2008 when it was released as a free product.  In 2012—the year before Gone Home was released—Dear Esther was commercially released by developer Thechineseroom. Upon its commercial release, this game was also tagged as a walking simulator on the Steam platform. In Dear Esther, the only agency given to the player is walking a predetermined path on a desolate island, listening to non-sequential narrative audio fragments adding up to obscure and dissociative narratives of a man who is suffering from the loss of his wife in a car accident, an 18th century shepherd who lived on the island, and an explorer named Donnelly. On each play through, the recorded narrative fragments randomly change, offering the player more and more details of each story. Other than that, the video game contains no other objectives or achievements.
Both video games paved the way for alternative forms of textual pleasure wherein the ludic power of the player is diminished to privilege the game’s authorial vision. In defining the video game as a media text to be read, I follow the literary theory of Roland Barthes, who has described a text as that which is “experienced only in an activity of production.”  Video game texts like these and the subsequent walking simulators that followed are not experienced with the intensity identified with traditional game play, but rather as an activity of meaning-making. They fail to integrate with the medium in terms of ludic agency, but not in form. In this sense, they contrast with Cage’s 4’33”, wherein musical form is upended (“silence” becomes music) and audience agency becomes paramount; frequently the piece is identified with the sounds of an orchestra turning pages, the noises of the venue environment, and an audience shuffling, coughing, talking, or walking out of the performance.  It is even possible to compare walking simulators to amusement park rides, where participants move through space triggering events, animations, and story fragments without the ability to perform meaningful interactions either with the story or with the space. These experiences could be considered environmental storytelling—a concept previously used for theme park industry, but later adapted to video game discourse.  Walking simulators appropriate the form of video games, but disrupt participant agency with this kind of environmental storytelling.
Passive Spectatorship Using the Tabula Rasa Device
Jesper Juul asserts that there is an inherent inconsistency between narration and interactivity.  Previous theorists have defined narratives as the recounting of past events, and they include the appeal of inevitability and invariability in their definitions.  Using this viewpoint, the term “interactive narrative” is an oxymoron since it is not possible to have narration and interactivity at the same time; the narrated events have already happened in the past, and having the ability to make choices to change their flow is a disruption of the concept. A possible solution to this dilemma might be the application of Genette’s (histoire, récit, and narration), Stierle’s (geschehen, geschichte, and text der geschichte), or Rimmon-Kenan’s (story, text, and narration), each of which outline triple structures of interactive storytelling.  In these triple structures, the first part points to a signified narrative content (histoire, geschichte, or story), the second points to a signifier narrative statement or text (récit, text der geschichte, or text), and the third to the production of this text, mainly to the process of transforming a signified narrative into a signifier text (narration, geschehen, or narration). After adapting this structure to interactive narratives, the whole universe of narrative possibilities in an interactive story (or video game) becomes the histoire/geschichte/story which encapsulates all the narrative pieces players can discover and explore. Récit/text der geschichte/text, on the other hand, becomes the happenings of a single play session within a whole universe of possibilities. This focus encapsulates the consequences of all choices made by the player during that session, namely how the story has progressed, and, eventually, how it all ends. The final piece of the puzzle is narration/geschehen/narration, which is the story of the player playing in that specific session—the creation process for the récit/text der geschichte/text. This final piece historicizes why the players made their choices, how their ludic performances interacted with the overall story, and how their play processes became the components of this single play session.
Walking simulators present a different approach to this dilemma. Players may have a certain degree of interactive agency in deciding how to move through the video game space and in what order they interact with objects to reveal narrative pieces; however, they remain mainly passive in the actual flow of the story. Players are not expected to make choices and participate in the formation of a narrative. To the contrary, after a short time they become aware that the events in the video game space have already transpired, and possibly even finalized. Their role is only to find the pieces and bring them together to learn and understand the story, not change or decide how it ends. This characteristic of walking simulators is a solution to the conflict between narration and interactivity. The story they present is not interactive; however, the process of discovering that story is.
Compare this approach with two different examples. The first is The Stanley Parable, a critically-acclaimed video game designed by Davey Wreden released in 2013; the second is the Nobel Laureate author Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, which is both a novel and a physical museum in Istanbul that hosts the objects and memorabilia existing in the novel. Although The Stanley Parable is a walking simulator in definition (the only agency afforded to the player is movement through space and simple interactions with certain objects), when checking the Steam webpage of this video game, it was not tagged as such as of January 2017.  Its top five tags are comedy, narration, indie, first-person, and satire. This departure from the walking simulator genre is possibly because, during gameplay, players can make choices between different walking paths that result in different endings. For both the players and the themes presented here, such a simple form of interactive agency during the story seemingly pushed The Stanley Parable out of the bounds of walking simulators. Even though the puzzles and path selections are relatively straightforward, the forking narrative changes the genre. It is also possible to mention similar simple puzzles in Gone Home, such as finding papers with safe codes written on them, or checking maps to find secret passages. However, these clues are merely there to guarantee your discovery of the narrative in its correct order, so they fail to create a feeling of another genre. If Gone Home had alternate story paths and endings, would it still be popularly understood as, and tagged as a walking simulator? When crudely comparing it with The Stanley Parable, the answer is seemingly “no.” It is also significant that the latter video game has very different subject matter and storytelling techniques and is often referred to as a meta-video game about video games.  Still, this comparison only makes sense in terms of the genre form, not its context.
Similarities might also be drawn between Gone Home and Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence. A museum of the same name was inaugurated in 2012, and it displayed the fictional house and objects part of the novel’s narrative in Istanbul as a distinctive mode of novel interactivity.  The physical Museum of Innocence offers a complementary narrative to the novel, augmenting the visitor’s understanding of that story, but not changing it. Visitors to the museum cannot intervene in events of the novel that have already happened; rather, they experience events from an augmented perspective. This focus is like visiting the family home in Gone Home: players can only observe or discover the story, but not intervene in its outcome.
A comparison between the experiences constructed by The Stanley Parable and The Museum of Innocence reveals important differences. In The Stanley Parable, all choices performed by the player are recounted through a voiceover as if they are the experiences of the main character, Stanley. Moreover, even when the distinction between Stanley as the character and the game player as the choice-maker emerges, the narrator maintains the façade of a connection between the two. In The Museum of Innocence, the readers become aware of the main character Kemal’s pain over the years through his obsession as voyeur and collector of memorabilia belonging to his lost love, Füsun. Conversely, in Gone Home, the main character Kaitlin is a tabula rasa, a character with little to no background story, dialogue, monologue, or development throughout the story. Although Samantha, Terry, and Carol all have interesting and multi-layered stories, there is no story or character-building about Kaitlin in the narrative components found inside the house. Knowing almost nothing about Kaitlin invalidates her experience solving the mystery of her family, flattening the experiences of récit and narration layers, thereby making the experience of discovery not hers, but ours as game players. Players know nothing about her feelings as they are exploring the sexual identity of her sister, the out-of-marriage relationship of her mother’s, or the sexual abuse her father endured as a child in this same house: her personality and her feelings are absent, the character functions only as a tabula rasa for players’ experiences.
Gone Home’s dominant story is Samantha’s coming-of-age and coming-out narrative. This marks the video game as part of the historiographical archive of queer politics.  Ian Bogost offers the video game as a coming of age for the medium itself.  To explore the story of Samantha, players must discover the secret hiding places in the house that thematically coincide with Samantha’s hidden identity. Whenever the visible parts of the house are transgressed and the player uncovers secret rooms, passages, and boxes, the sexual identity of Samantha hidden under her depressed adolescent moods become visible. With each discovered mixed tape, fanzine, letter, note, and voice recording, the player is drawn deeper into the story of Samantha and her girlfriend Lonnie. The players do not discover this love story as the older sister Samantha, but as themselves—save for the single instance when Kaitlin refuses to read a letter describing Samantha’s first sexual experience with Lonnie. In this moment, Kaitlin’s role as a tabula rasa is temporarily forfeited and her presence reasserts itself.
The stories of Kaitlin’s parents are not as central as those of Samantha’s, but they are engaging and well worth discovering. The outcome of Carol’s out-of-marriage relationship is not resolved in the game, but since Terry and Carol seem to be at a couple’s holiday resort, players might reason they are trying to revive their marriage. Terry’s story is the hardest to put together, not due to the video game’s mechanics, but rather how the presented pieces need more interpretation and exposition. A coherent timeline of Terry’s abuse as a child by his Uncle Oscar explains his obsession with the year 1963, when the abuse took place, justifying his failed venture as an author of novels about special agents returning to that specific year to prevent the JFK assassination. 
As players progress deeper into these storylines, the role of Kaitlin as a tabula rasa character becomes ever more critical. What emotions would a young woman experience while revealing secrets belonging to her abused father, her cheating mother, or her sister whose sexual identity she should have been aware of probably earlier and whom she hadn’t been there to support? This lack of character-driven exposition provides players with the freedom to reflect on these themes without being bound to a single perspective. An even more alarming prospect would be the chance to meet the family members. This kind of encounter would potentially force players from their voyeuristic positions and into active roles in which they must make decisions and judgments about events from Kaitlin’s (or their own) perspective. This encounter would also disrupt the temporality of the video game; these events have already happened before the summer of 1995—the timeline of the game—and not during game play in real time. Thus, suddenly being torn from the role of passive spectator and pushed into a decision-maker role for possible dialogue options confronting family crises would disrupt player experience. Thankfully, this encounter never happens.
Ludic Voyeurism as an Unlikely Video Game Engagement
To understand the concept of voyeurism and how it operates within the walking simulator genre, it is fruitful to examine the similar concept of voyeurism in film theory. The concepts of a voyeur and exhibitor exist in close dualities as “active/passive, subject/object, seeing/being seen”: Christian Metz asserts both cinema and theater are exhibitionist forms displaying different characteristics in terms of the experiences they offer to their voyeurs.  Cinema exhibits its content, but typically refuses to acknowledge its exhibitionism and the presence of voyeurs since there is an inherent temporal and spatial distance ever-present between the form and its audience—a notion also called cinematic voyeurism or fetishism.  This type of voyeurism is offered as one of the main reasons why characters on screen rarely interact with the audience or look directly at the camera. In theatre, however, the direct contact between the audience’s voyeurism and the physical reality of the stage is one of the important factors constructing theatrical pleasure.  Here pleasure is enhanced by both proximity and distance operating at the same time. The performers, the set, and the objects on the stage are very close, but touching them is not allowed. This rejection of what one might personally possess creates spectatorial dissatisfaction both producing and maintaining desire. 
I position ludic voyeurism between these voyeurisms of cinema and theatre. Storytelling video games rarely acknowledge their status as fictional narrative engines, but instead construct cinematic voyeurism through camera-like viewports into the story worlds they simulate, their creators frequently obsessing over issues like realism and high-technology presentation for even greater pleasure.  However, these video games build a feeling of proximity and interaction with the objects of desire they portray, be it objects, characters, or the storylines. The players can possess and interact with them, but only from a ludic proximity governed by the video game developer—in effect, it is the developer who decides what kind of actions are allowed. In many cases players are encouraged to possess and experiment: players can climb, break, move, even kill, and each time the video game is reloaded, it resets for further alternative experiences. However, they cannot possess or interact with other elements out of reach (or more precisely, designed to be out of reach by developers) unless they cheat or reprogram the software code. The same relationship can be extrapolated to video game narrative: players can only choose and observe outcomes of narrative paths allowed to them—they remain distanced from paths they can imagine but cannot undertake. This satisfaction / dissatisfaction relation between the game world and players forms the basis of ludic voyeurism.
In Gone Home, players can pick up objects of importance and revolve their 3D models to discover more details about them. This is a selective possession, as not every object can be interacted with, and not every kind of interaction is possible with every object. This aspect is painfully apparent in Dear Esther, where no interaction is allowed with any object in the game. The island is not a performance stage; the tabula rasa male character walking through it is simply a cinematic camera, and the video game never acknowledges any fictionality. The family home of Gone Home is a limited theatre stage offering a selection of interactive objects and portions of the house that reveal secret locations. The peak of spectatorial dissatisfaction emerges with the discovery of the letter detailing the sexual life of Samantha and Lonnie, and Kaitlin refuses to read it.
Still another component of ludic voyeurism operates on the contextual and ideological level. Players are invited to interactively snoop inside the life stories of an ordinary American family. The video game exhibits these underlying themes and thus is transformed into a critical performance of concepts like gender identities, family values, monogamy, and the abuse of children—both the sexual abuse Terry experienced as a child and the psychological abuse Samantha endured as a non-heterosexual individual. Players experience this performance voyeuristically; they may touch and fiddle with objects presented in the house as a part of the nostalgic narrative, much like someone inside a museum featuring an American family.  However, they cannot “touch” and experiment with that narrative; they can only reveal it step by step.
As a result, ludic voyeurism operates on three distinct levels: 1) within the video game world wherein players engage with selected items, characters, and locations to predetermined extents, which both facilitates and inhibits voyeuristic fetishisms; 2) within the video game narrative wherein players experiment with different paths to alter outcomes; and 3) within the contextual level wherein authorial power facilitates players’ immersion regarding social themes through their actions.
Initially, walking simulators were recognized for their lack of interactive and ludic agency, thus causing strong resistance from some video game players. However, these video games present new ways to experiment with narrative by utilizing tabula rasa characters who engender passive spectatorships in which players discover past narratives rather than engaging in real-time play. This article presents the concept of ludic voyeurism to define the combination of cinematic and theatrical voyeurisms in walking simulator video games, where players interact with the performance space and feel the pleasure of possession, while at the same time remaining at a distance from the actual narrative.
More broadly, any critical outlook into the emergence of a new genre like walking simulators can contribute to our understanding on several levels. Firstly, a critical assessment can anticipate and interpret the reasons causing player resistance and thus expand our cultural understanding of the player base and industry mechanics. Secondly, examining the different ways of engagement the genre offers in contrast to the already-established video game engagement studies broadens our understanding of audience engagement. Thirdly, it gives scholars and critics the opportunity to revisit the concepts of interactivity and agency in new contexts. Finally, it allows us to draw on the riches of other disciplines and discover counterparts from other media, like voyeurism, that also exist inside the video game medium in different ways. As this article is a current snapshot of walking simulators, future developments in the genre will prompt additional discussion of participation and agency that shape creation of, and engagement with ludic voyeurism. Video game genres will continue to emerge from new modes of narrative interaction, propelled by game creators who challenge normative player immersion to facilitate audience confrontation with social issues and movements.
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