One Thing That Makes “Walking Simulator” Horror Games Interesting

2022 Artwork Horror walking sim locations article sketch

Well, for this article in the second season of my “Horror Videogames Series“, I thought that I’d talk about one thing that makes “walking simulator”-style horror games interesting.

This article may contain mild SPOILERS for the survival horror game “Silent Hill 3” (2003), and the walking simulator games “Gone Home” (2013) and “Anemoiapolis” (2022?).

This was something I ended up thinking about when, whilst trying to think of an idea for today’s article a few months ago, I ended up watching random Youtube videos… and stumbled across some gameplay footage of an upcoming “walking simulator” horror game – with mild puzzle and “run away” elements – called “Anemoiapolis” (2022?). Although my PC is almost certainly well below the system requirements for this game, I still found myself absolutely gripped by the footage of it.

A lot of this was because it was very different from the small number of “walking simulator” horror games that I’ve played. Even though the actual gameplay in the footage looked fairly typical for the genre, I still found myself glued to the screen because it actually contained at least some level of genuine creativity with the location designs.

Yes, the concept behind it appears to be somewhat inspired by the “poolrooms” elements (which also seem to have been turned into eerie CGI footage like this and this, and were also apparently made into a short game last year ) of an internet creepypasta from 2019 called “The Backrooms“, but the fact that someone has taken this basic idea and made a game which distinctly looks like it’s own thing (eg: less eerily anonymous than “the poolrooms”, with more detail, realistic elements and variety) is still very creative.

It is set in a mysterious underground leisure centre, a giant sprawling maze of different swimming pools Frankensteined together. On the one hand, seeing these normally busy locations completely deserted is kind of eerie, yet the sheer level of visual variety keeps everything eerily unpredictable and oddly fascinating at the same time. It is a genuinely creative location choice that instantly intrigues the audience.

And it is creepy too, not in a predictable “haunted mansion with jump-scares” way, but just the sheer… coldness… of the locations. Sterile tiled walls and pools of pristine water, without a single window in sight. Abandoned pool toys. Bright joyous paintings on some of the walls. Sometimes there is “vaporwave” music, but there are eerily quiet segments filled with ominous ambient echoing. There is the occasional sight of a shadowy ghost or a nervous piece of “voice-over” style text from the main character. Although I haven’t played it, it actually looks like it could… possibly… be a good “walking simulator” horror game and this can teach us something about the genre.

One problem with “walking simulator” horror games is that they don’t always pay enough attention to the concept behind their locations. Because these games don’t have that much in the way of gameplay, they have to keep the player interested via other means. And, whilst a good story can help here, a creative concept and/or location matters a lot more.

Yes, the footage I’ve seen of “Anemoiapolis” (2022?) technically fits into the same concept as pretty much every other “walking sim” horror game out there – namely that you find yourself alone in an abandoned building of some kind. However, the footage was more compelling than I’d expected because it wasn’t yet another generic “haunted mansion” or “P.T.” (2014)-inspired apartment. It was actually a 1980s/1990s-style swimming pool, an entire surreal game-world built out of numerous old swimming pools.

This is creativity! It may possibly be inspired by “The Backrooms”, but it still seems different to most other horror games out there. It is the type of location that instantly evokes that strange mixture of fascination and nervous cautiousness that the very best horror games do. One that, if you grew up during the late 20th century or the early 21st century, will instantly evoke childhood nostalgia – yet in an eerie and unsettling way.

Don’t get me wrong, “walking simulator” horror games can do interesting things with “haunted mansion” locations – such as in “Layers Of Fear” (2016). Plus, the genre-defining survival horror game “Resident Evil” (1996) helped to popularise the setting too. Not to mention that the setting also endures due to both its instant recognisability as a “horror” location and because it is easier for game developers to make (eg: no outdoor locations, the textures are probably easy to get or make etc…). Still, once you’ve seen a few of them, they do become a little bit less scary.

This sort of thing was being satirised all the way back in 2003 with the “Borley Haunted Mansion”  segment in “Silent Hill 3” (2003). “Walking simulator” horror games weren’t even a thing back in 2003, when this survival horror game included a deliberately linear jump-scare filled haunted mansion as a bit of a “joke” set-piece.

Not only that, the 2013 “walking simulator” game “Gone Home” – a game from when the genre was still in its infancy – used a “large old house” setting as a way of messing with the player’s expectations. From the location, you’ll probably expect this game to be a horror game – and things like the gloomy lighting, a few documents mentioning a ghost etc… – may give you that impression at first. But it actually isn’t a horror game at all. This was just the game messing with the player for laughs, it’s actually more of a “serious drama” kind of game, with a story about a romantic relationship.

And there are even earlier examples too – with several novels doing slightly satirical and/or creative things with “creepy mansion” locations, like Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” (1817) and Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting Of Hill House” (1959), many years before videogames were a popular entertainment medium.

But, yes, “walking simulator” horror games can’t really grip the player with their gameplay – so things like genuine creativity and intriguingly different location designs matter a lot in this genre. Again, I haven’t actually played this game – my computer probably wouldn’t run it – but even footage alone was enough to fascinate me. And I’m not even really a fan of “walking simulator” games!

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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