“Walking simulator” is largely a term of derision. At least as far as I’ve seen. While there are definitely people who’ll defend the artistic integrity of games like “Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture” and “Gone Home”, there’s another group of people who’ll simply tell you that you’re talking bollocks (or your cultural equivalent) and that walking simulators “aren’t games”. I’ve avoided them to this point, purely because none of them really caught my attention. But no more, for two came out recently that really drew me in; horror game Layers of Fear and hiking n’ intrigue-em-up Firewatch.
First up, Layers of Feeeeaaaaar (wiggles fingers spookily)
Those of you familiar with my backlog (or who know me personally) will know that I love P.T. It’s a game that haunts me to this day and its cancellation is a still a sore spot. Fortunately for me, Layers of Fear really wants to be P.T. It has a similar concept, similar use of impossible space and even an almost identical scare (though not nearly as good) but rather than stop at just being a lot like P.T it broadens in scope to become its own game with its own identity. You play an unnamed painter desperately trying to complete his magnum opus (one layer of which is seen above), wandering around his house finding ingredients to craft it one layer at a time. There are three twists to this. Firstly, due to said painter being in the grips of some horrifying hallucination-heavy mental illness the house defies any and all logic; doors lead to completely different rooms to what you expect, turning around will often lead to you being in a completely different part of the house and the house gets increasingly dilapidated and nightmarish as the game goes on. Whereas P.T used that one hallway to great effect, wringing as much tension and horror out of it as it could, Layers instead keeps you on edge by never giving you any sense of security or safety- literally anything could be on the other side of the next door. Secondly, the house is filled with notes, letters and mementos that tell the backstory of this painter, a genuinely quite upsetting tale about how a loving relationship completely fell apart after a horrible accident lead to alcoholism and hateful indifference. The only time the game gives any story to you directly is right at the very end, everything else you have to seek out yourself and it’s worth seeking out. Thirdly, the aforementioned ingredients are, without wishing to spoil anything, not your average painting gear. On the downside, like P.T it is rather short, but unlike P.T you have to pay for it (around a tenner, but I bought the Xbone game preview version. It might be more now). It took me around two and a half to three hours to beat it; there was one puzzle, nothing to fight or anything of that ilk, you just walk around the house and things happen. Now, I understand ten pounds for three hours of game is a fair bit, and that will put people off. However, it is a very effective experience- the story and characters, glimpsed through a haze are excellent, they all tie into the horrible things assaulting your senses in this nightmarish house, and it all ends on a wonderfully grim note that really tied it all together, for me at least. Is it as good as P.T? No. It won’t replace P.T either, partly due to the context and all the furore surrounding it, but now that P.T isn’t available this fills the void well, and its a solid horror experience in its own right.
Next up, Firewatch
Interestingly, while Layers of Fear reminds me of P.T, I can’t think of anything I’ve played that I can compare Firewatch to (apart from one aspect that made me think of SOMA, but only that one aspect). A text-based choose your own adventure at the start tells you that you are Henry and you have taken a job in the woods of Wyoming to get away from the ten-tonne emotional weight of your wife having dementia way to bloody young. He’s a firewatcher- sitting up in a tower keeping an eye out for forest fires and making sure no one burns the woods down like a tit. Now that wouldn’t make for much of a videogame at all, so an encounter with two teenage girls who later go missing gets something of a mystery/thriller plot going. You spend the majority of your time hiking around the woods with a map and compass seeking different goals- you never interact with anyone up close, barely see anyone, never fight anything. Instead, your only consistent interaction is with your boss Delilah over a walkie-talkie (this is the aforementioned SOMA-esque feature), reporting your progress and choosing dialogue options during lengthier conversations. This relationship with Delilah and the aforementioned hiking are its main selling points; Henry and Delilah are convincing as individuals and as coworkers/friends/somethingmoremaybeorisitnospoilers. Choosing when to interact with her and having to actually make your way around an open world with a map and compass set it aside from games where you simply wander around and have story told to you when the game deems you worthy of it. The game is also surprisingly really unnerving at times, expertly playing on the idea of being alone in the woods with people watching you. Or are they? If they are, what are you going to do about it? It’s not a horror game, but it did creep me out on more than one occasion. Any problems? Well the hiking can get annoying sometimes, particularly if you go the wrong way, but the game looks lovely and giving you the agency to get there by yourself without a waypoint and/or intrusive HUD makes it worthwhile. Overall it works- the central relationship is good, the ending goes in an interestingly anticlimactic direction (in a good way though) and if you’re looking for something different it’s definitely worth a look.
So then, two “walking simulators” that turned out to be bloody good. They’ve actually given me incentive to check out Gone Home at some point, and to give the genre more attention in the future. Both of them work, both come recommended. If I had to pick one over the other it’d be Layers of Fear, but they’re both worth the (admittedly short) time it takes to beat them.
By James Lambert