Two Minute Game Crit – Walking Simulators and Phantom Rides


Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit. I’m Stephen Beirne, you can find me in longform at Normally Rascal.

Today I’m going to be talking about a genre of games like The Legacy here. In The Legacy, you walk around this deserted wasteland and eventually come across a few things of interest. It’s wonderful for a bunch of reasons I won’t get into in this video.

Now, games like The Legacy are often uncharitably called “Walking Simulators,” or “First Person Walkers,” usually by people who want to dismiss them. My gripe is, it’s a way of looking at the genre that’s stuck in a limiting mentality of what games can do and how the medium works in general.

So I want to break down some of the underlying subtext of these terms and challenge their continued use.

First there’s First Person Walker, or the alternative wanky version, First Person Experiencer. Personally I don’t like these variations because focussing on camera perspective misses the forest for the trees. It’s a common shared attribute but it’s not really What’s Going On, you know?

Anyway, they’re far more often called by the pejorative Walking Simulators, which is a name that came about through a very literal way to describe what you do in these games.

You walk.

Walking’s not seen as something especially interesting for a game to have because millions of other games feature walking already. It’s boring and normal. Most players are able to go outside and experience the joys of walking in real life. Through this logic, a game that simulates walking is connoted as valueless.

Now, this all comes from a mentality which erases anything that’s not a game’s mechanics from consideration of the medium’s formal structure. But look it, what the player does mechanically in a game isn’t always a clear indicator of what a game does in general. We’re used to this idea with horror games, so it’s weird how it’s a problem with something like The Legacy or Proteus or Dear Esther.

There’s been some effort to reclaim the term “Walking Simulator” but it’s so rooted in this backward thinking, I feel it’s still a fairly wrongheaded way to describe these sorts of games.

Instead I think we should call them “Phantom Rides,” after the genre of early films where the camera was shlapped to the front of a train.

Back when people were figuring out how cinema worked, Phantom Rides pioneered the whole idea of moving the camera on a rail to give a sense of animation to the viewer. People used to go to the cinema just to be “transported” from the theatre to a journey on a railway line. But it wasn’t just the novel sensation of movement, it was an opportunity for them to experience local sights in new ways, or to visit faraway places they’d never be otherwise able to see.

These types of movies were popular for a brief period before phasing out and being incorporated as film techniques into movies as a whole.

So rather than thinking of The Legacy and all them as “games that simulate walking” or focusing on other coincidental aspects, I think it’d be useful to reframe things to reflect what they actually do: transport us to other places for new experiences. That way, we can find better ways to express ourselves and to understand these games, without the burdensome language put there by people who, to put it nicely, aren’t really interested.

So there we are. Phantom Rides.

I’m Stephen Beirne, you can find me at Normally Rascal and on Twitter, or support my work by popping over to Patreon and becoming a patron. Cheers for watching.