There is a phrase in the video game industry that is being thrown around quite a bit these days: “walking simulator”. More than often it implies a somewhat playfully negative and ironic attitude towards a game when players grant it to a certain title. Games under the walking simulator category often lacks interesting core gameplay loop other than simply walking around, and is therefore boring to play.
If this definition is true though, how do you explain the overwhelmingly positive reception of What Remains of Edith Finch? Beyond pushing the left and right joy sticks to control movement, there is an interaction button mapped to R2. You play a character that merely walks inside an old family house. From the description above it does sound like a boring game, which, I object, it is not.
To explain why let’s take a look at this graph:
This diagram is a framework taught by Stone Librande, Lead Designer at Riot Games, in his Game Design Fundamentals class at CMU. It outlines the most fundamental elements of a game. Let’s compare What Remains of Edith Finch to this framework bit by bit:
START: Your character first appears on a boat reading a diary left by someone, who also narrates the context of the event. When learns a bit later that that voice is Edith Finch. You are then transferred into her shoe, exploring an old family house. OK then, we have a start. OBSTACLES: You quickly discover that many rooms in the family house are sealed off. There is no direct approach entering them by opening doors. DECISIONS: There is one certain way to enter each room: there is one way only to solve the puzzle. The game does not expect you to think out side the box. It rather presents the intricate and elegant puzzle and interaction of that “box” to you. RULES: There is not much to learn since interactions such as walking and flipping open a notebook are pretty intuitive actions, known to everyone. INTERACTION: Player’s actions that change the game state. In What Remains of Edith Finch, it means completing each family member’s story.
There is one element I intentionally left out: GOAL. To my recollection playing this game, for a relatively long time I did not know what my goal was. Exploring the house? But why did the developer think this was interesting? Why and how does it concern me? What am I getting out of this journey? There were a lot of questions like these during my initial hour of the playthrough.
I was however deep in emotion and thought at the end. Story-wise, What Remains of Edith Finch punches me hard right in the gut. A modern classic on the theme of A Hundred Years of Solitude. But to answer the question, what is the goal of the game? I noticed something special about “walking simulator” games such as these. The game Journey and What Remains of Edith Finch, even INSIDE, did something similar.
These games allow the players to figure out the goal themselves. In Journey the player sort of think the goal is to climb that soaring mountain far in the horizon. This hypothesis is gradually validated through player action and linear storytelling; In What Remains of Edith Finch, the first death story of a family member might shock you, the third intrigues you, and by the time of the tenth, the goal becomes so crystal clear, which is to discover how your family became “cursed” and why you are the only member left. In INSIDE, the game does not provide any kind of information on the world or the playable character. But throughout the journey, as the world become more fleshed out, your brain starts to make sense of the narrative and the goal. Personally, I find setting the goal for a game with this approach very appealing.
Every game I mentioned before has a very clear and easily understandable goal, as long as you continue to the end of the journey. “Walking simulators” require patience and a mindset that could form bigger pictures out of patterns, especially during a time instant gratification populates every corner of the industry. Instead of heading you a clearly stated goal to you from the start, these “walking simulator” gives you the illusion that your action in the world is creating the ultimate goal in the game. It takes its time aligning player psychology with that of the playable character, knowing fully well what that goal is, that at the end road the emotion would hit hard. In many cases it is not the story that stands in the way, but the subdued delivery and presentation, a slow burn that only prolongs “death” that blocks the final discovery.
So, be patient. You are in good hands of a master storyteller.