Imagine this hypothetical scenario; In a parallel universe, I am not merely an imposter with a penchant for thesauruses who once played Bubsy 3D for twenty minutes and feels that grants me the inalienable right to pontificate endlessly about games on the internet, but an actual game designer with, you know, talent and vision and all that good stuff I try to compensate for by having a really dope beard. In this fantastical new reality, I decide to invent a game in which you play the part of a highly regarded cult actor, famous for his bizarrely endearing vocal inflections. I make the game. It sells well. The video game press churn out relentless coverage, but, since my game doesn’t fit neatly within easily definable genre norms, some enterprising young forum troll decides that it needs a label. Due to a particularly memorable scene where my protagonist stores an antique watch inside his rectal passage, they decide that my game, and any game that looks like it, shall henceforth be known as a Walken Simulator.

Walking/Walken Simulator

When I set out to make this game, Christopher Walken didn’t even cross my mind. Admittedly, now the comparisons have been made, I can see why someone might come to that conclusion. The game does feature Walken-like mechanics, but they’re generally in service to a greater whole. The actual crux of the experience; the emotional investment encouraged by player-led discovery of narrative clues, the subtle environmental storytelling, the vividly paradoxical sense of both belonging and displacement arisen from temporary citizenship in a digital dreamscape – these elements are relegated to secondary concerns by its detractors. The important part, as far as the discussion goes, is all the goddamn Walken.

Walken on Sunshine

A few years go by, and the term Walken Simulator has burrowed its way into the terminological circlejerk of games journalism newspeak. All other games that feature elements that could even vaguely be described as Walken-esque are now beholden to this label. It’s not enough to define an experience by the ultimately inconsequential method with which you interface with said experience – like calling books ‘reading simulators’ – but now this definition has to be slapped on literally anything that even remotely falls into this category. Art can no longer stand on its merits, but only in relation to vaguely defined subclasses that distill their essences into empty mimetic signifiers – the linguistic equivalent of shovelware. Then Polygon writes this article, which doesn’t even spell Walken Simulator correctly. Then the sun explodes.

This is, of course, completely hypothetical. Srsly tho. The term Walking Simulator ultimately reduces the tangible experience of a game into a method of traversal. To then cover the messy tracks left by a complete misnomer of a term by retroactively carving up cohesive pieces of art into a succession of faddy micro-genres harms both the future of creativity, and the conversation around it. And then the sun explodes, but for reals this time.

*Images from the Christopher Walkenthrough YouTube series by the Game Society channel


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Nic Reuben

Nic Reuben likes to pause games every five minutes to ponder the thematic implications of explosive barrel placement. When he's not having an existential crisis over CAPTCHA verifications that ask him to prove he's not a robot, he's reading sci-fi and fantasy short stories, watching cartoons, and mourning the writing standards in Game of Thrones.
  • jhan2294

    Just curious, could this be taken as a critical observation of all genre labels (FPS, RPG, etc.) or just for the label “Walking Simulator”?

    If it’s just for the label “Walking Simulator”, I can certainly understand, it’s a bit wide-scoped in all the types of video games that are folded into it’s umbrella.

    However, can other genre labels, bearing with them expectations, have a similar affect on video games as “Walking Simulator” does?

    For me, the big difference is the stigma that comes with the genre label when compared to others genre labels. It seems to be less an issue with the genre label, but rather an issue with how it is viewed in gaming culture and community.

  • jhan2294

    Just curious, could this be taken as a critical observation of all genre labels (FPS, RPG, etc.) or just for the label “Walking Simulator”?

    If it’s just for the label “Walking Simulator”, I can certainly understand, it’s a bit wide-scoped in all the types of video games that are folded into it’s umbrella.

    However, can other genre labels, bearing with them expectations, have a similar affect on video games as “Walking Simulator” does?

    For me, the big difference is the stigma that comes with the label “Walking Simulator” when compared to others genres. It seems to be less an issue with the genre label itself, but rather an issue with how it is viewed in gaming culture and community.

    • Nic Reuben

      Yeah, I think you nailed it really. All labels set expectations, and so we’re immediately influenced before taking a game on it’s own terms. I can’t speak for developers obviously, but I’m sure a few have found the broad strokes of development – or least marketing – limited by what’s already marketable.

      And yeah, the stigma thing is an issue too, it’s such a reductive way to look at experiences. I think there’s also a bit of macho posturing involved in it too, but that’s another article. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      • jhan2294

        I personally go back and forth on how I feel about genres or labels.

        On one hand, genre expectations can be very limiting to a community and how they experience a video game, or how they think they should experience it. This has personally frustrated me with some video games or films I’ve really loved, but were not as well received because of their rejection of conventional design principals or genre expectations.

        That said, genres provide shortcuts for developers to minimize risk and time commitment in the development of some design areas so they may (in theory) be able to evolve that genre with experimentation in other areas of design.

        Also, genres can be patterns for scholars and critics to observe and discuss, which can only lead to further understanding of what video games actually are. It’s difficult to build any deep knowledge of a subject when the wheel is expected to be re-invented constantly.