Even back in the days when video games were nothing more than blocky pixels floating around on screen, usually attempting to hit or avoid other blocky pixels, action has always been front and center in game development.
In Pac-Man, you had the intensity of avoiding the fast-moving ghosts; in Space Invaders, there was the impending doom raining down from the alien life-forms above, and if you look at any retro game of the era, the story is consistent.
This remained the case as games became more and more refined and diverse. FPS games would offer boots on the ground, military-realness. Racing games would have you practically feel the G-force as you took a sharp turn, and hack and slash games would have you beat your enemies to a pulp with high-octane button mashing.
In short, gaming, for the most part, has always been an intense, interactive, and ‘in-your-face’ activity. Well, with the birth of the indie gaming scene over a decade ago, things began to change.
This pocket of the game industry gave birth to more conceptual titles that toed the line between interactive visual media and gaming. Offering a narrative-driven adventure where you were merely a passenger exploring and interacting with the world, rather than a hero protagonist with the power of a deity.
These games see players traverse serene, tranquil, and sometimes unsettlingly eerie environments, aiming to uncover mysteries and secrets merely by wandering around, and these games were appropriately dubbed ‘Walking Simulators.’
You might think that name is a jab, but in reality, its the best name for this genre, and while these games aren’t as interactive and mechanic-heavy as other titles out there, a lot of the games of this ilk have been wildly praised for their storytelling, their unique approach, and their format that blurs the lines between gaming and art.
So with that in mind, I thought it would be great fun to take a look at the best games within this genre and help you discover a new genre, that, if given a chance, can change your whole perspective on what a good game is. So join me for a walk, saunter, stroll, or whatever you like to call it, as we look at the Best Indie Walking Simulators on the market; enjoy!
Okay, as usual, with these lists of mine, I have to create some hoops to jump through in order to ensure that all the games on this list deserve to be here. After all, your time is precious, and I’m not about to endorse a terrible walking simulator to you.
This is a genre very close to my heart, and I want to show you all the excellent games it has to offer. So with that in mind, here are my selection criteria:
- These games must be traditional walking sims, so no combat, and, ideally, as few game mechanics as possible
- All games listed must score at least 70% (Aggregate score) on Metacritic
- We won’t be including Survival Horror games that are closely tied with the genre, like Alien: Isolation, for example
- No Narrative adventure games, so no Life is Strange, no Heavy Rain, etc.
- All games must be created by independent studios, and must not be backed by publishers with deep pockets
Okay, admin over, let’s put on our comfiest walking shoes and go exploring!
#1 – Gone Home
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Metacritic Score: 86%
We kick things off with a beautifully told story about the Greenbriar family. You arrive home to an empty house, and your task is to uncover what has happened while you were away, try to understand what happened to your sister, and in the process, understand the trials and tribulations of a family struggling to cope with the pressures of modern life.
It’s a narrative that is tragic, heartwarming, bold, and progressive, and it is all told through the environment you explore. Through items around the house, cassette tapes, hidden spaces in this enormous estate, and newspaper cutouts, you begin to see that the respective members of the Greenbriar family have their own stories to tell.
This game was praised in 2009 for its accessible gameplay, rich narrative, interactive features where you could play around with just about every object in the house, and its progressive LGBTQ+ friendly message. There is so much depth to this game, and the more you explore this huge stately home, the more layers you peel back. If you haven’t played this one yet, it’s a must-play in my book.
#2 – Dear Esther
Developer: The Chinese Room
Metacritic Score: 75%
Okay, so this game is a hard sell when you look at the other offerings on this list. Let’s just say Dear Esther hasn’t aged wonderfully. However, for the legacy that this game leaves behind, it deserves to be on this list.
For you see, Dear Esther is arguably the first ever walking simulator, and the game that would serve as a blueprint for many others on this list. Dear Esther, simply put, is poetry in motion. A game where you walk through the picturesque Scottish Moors and uncover snippets of exposition, which by the end of your stroll marry together to reveal the gut-wrenching reality of the situation, and what you were walking towards.
I still remember the section with the paper boats vividly. It’s a game that, if you view it purely as a game that happens to you rather than a game you play, will stay with you for a very long time. Are there better examples of walking simulators out there? Yeah, absolutely, but only because Dear Esther paved the path. So respect the roots of this genre and give this one the time it deserves.
#3 – Tacoma
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Metacritic Score: 79%
If you liked what Gone Home had to offer and you want more of the same, then Tacoma, a game from the same developer, could do just the trick. This game offers an exploration and narrative-driven adventure that plays out in outer space.
Unlike Gone Home, you will encounter conversations and interactions. However, these will be carried out by holograms of those that inhabited the ship before your arrival. It’s quite like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Deliver Us The Moon in that respect.
This is a poignant tale that showcases the fragility of our world, and the flaws of our human nature. It’s not quite as refined as Gone Home, often due to the game funneling you through a linear process rather than encouraging free exploration. However, it is still worth your time and hits a lot of the same notes as its predecessor.
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Metacritic Score: 88%
When you ask the average gamer to name a walking simulator, this is the game that will fall out of their mouths most often. What Remains of Edith Finch is a game that tells the story of the cursed Finch family, and sees you return to your family home to see who remains, and who succumbed to this family curse.
The game tells the story of each family member in nuanced and varied ways, with mini-game sections offering varied gameplay throughout. You’ll take control of wildlife, you’ll play a mini-horror game, and you’ll explore a top-down RPG world where you rule as king, to name a few examples.
However, the game has you crash back to reality each time, as the harrowing tale of the Finch Family escalates further with each discovery.
The game does suffer from the fact that with so many gameplay approaches, some of them feel janky and unrefined, but due to the ambitiousness and the fresh gameplay this provides throughout, it’s very easy to look past the flaws. This is a seminal walking sim, and if you have somehow missed it, I implore you to rectify that immediately.
#5 – Firewatch
Developer: Campo Santo
Metacritic Score: 81%
There isn’t much to do if you are a nature reserve ranger. The key to success is sitting in your tower and watching the day go by. However, in Firewatch, there are more exciting twists and turns than any National Park employee could ever hope for on their 9-5 shift.
You play as Henry, a man who has taken up a post as a ranger after his wife developed early-onset Dementia. However, this post doesn’t turn out to be the sleepy getaway that he had hoped for.
As the days progress, Henry witnesses strange events within the forest, and with the help of his supervisor Delilah, Henry must find the source of these problems before it’s too late. This is another emotionally powerful tale that sinks its hooks in and never let’s go. The setting is superb, the soundtrack is excellent, and overall, the game is a great example of modern walking simulators. So give this one a blast when you can!
Developer: The Astronauts
Metacritic Score: 81%
If you are looking for a horror-inspired walking simulator that doesn’t fully cross over into survival horror territory, then this is a great option.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter sees you play as Paul Prospero, a paranormal detective who has been summoned by a letter from the missing Ethan Carter, and your job is to uncover the events of the past to find out where Ethan is.
If you have played The Medium, then you will see a lot of similarities here, as in my opinion, The Medium ripped this game off, and it wasn’t subtle. The story of this one, while a little grandiose, is a compelling one, and the setting is a truly bone-chilling one that is a joy to trudge around as you unravel the supernatural mysteries within.
#7 – Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
Developer: The Chinese Room
Metacritic Score: 78%
Next up, we have another offering from The Chinese Room, and this time the story unfolds in a quaint Shropshire village. The premise is simple, as the title suggests, Everybody has indeed gone to the rapture, and it’s your job to try and find out a logical explanation as to why all the inhabitants of this village have up and vanished.
Exploration will then reveal a much grander plot, a plague that is sweeping through the town like wildfire, and amongst all of this, you will encounter side stories and little squabbles that can only be found in small-town life.
It’s a beautifully presented game that offers a meticulously detailed setting that is seldom seen in video games, and seeing as I’m a UK resident myself, the architecture, countryside, and other fine details of this sleepy village really hit different.
If I’m being super critical, this game is a slow-paced game, even for a walking simulator, to the point where they had to add a walk faster toggle just before launch. However, if you can allow this slow burn the time to ignite, you’ll get to witness one of the finest games within the genre.
#8 – Oxenfree
Developer: Night School Studio
Metacritic Score: 81%
Now, this one is perhaps a little out there, as it’s not a traditional 3rd-person walking simulator, and there is also direct dialogue and choices to be made. However, due to the omission of any other complex mechanics and an emphasis on walking around and exploring, I included this spooky tale.
Oxenfree sees you travel to a deserted island in search of supernatural connections, only to find that these supernatural rumors were true and they have managed to open up a rift to a supernatural plane of existence. So your job is to keep your friends safe, find the rest of these rifts and discover the secrets hidden on this old military base.
The game is like a pocket adventure lifted straight out of the minds of the Stranger Things writing team, while offering gameplay that marries walking sim mechanics with storytelling techniques not unlike The Quarry or Until Dawn.
Despite its cute visuals, this game is actually pretty creepy and unsettling, so if you aren’t a horror fan, this might be too much for you. However, if you are a sucker for a good scare and even better writing, then Oxenfree is a must-play. Especially since a sequel isn’t too far away.
#9 – Journey
Developer: That Game Company
Metacritic Score: 92%
Again, this isn’t your traditional 3rd person walking simulator, but unlike the entry above, that is a little bit of a stretch; Journey fits the bill perfectly. This game sees you take control of The Traveller, and your goal is about as straightforward as it gets. You see a mountain in the distance, and you have to reach the summit. Easier said than done, I know.
The journey will see you solve simple puzzles, and collect artifacts to grow your scarf, which in turn will allow you to glide farther and platform to hard-to-reach areas. You will race through sandy declines, explore the dark depths where terrifying monsters lurk, and you will endure the harsh elements as you climb to the peak of the mountain.
However, this game is not about the destination; it is about the journey along the way, and the poignant moments of joy, sorrow, fear, relief, and calm that you encounter along the way. Journey over a decade on is still one of the best examples of a game that showcases that video games can be art, and if you haven’t already played it, you need to set a few hours aside to do this!
#10 – The Unfinished Swan
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Metacritic Score: 83%
Another one from Giant Sparrow, and while this one isn’t perhaps as refined and ambitious as Edith Finch, it’s still a compelling and unique adventure.
This game focuses on a world that is essentially a blank canvas, but you have the power to shootpaint and mark the canvas, showing you the hidden surroundings of this kingdom and revealing a rich world for you to explore.
This game offers a story that deals with loss and grief in a beautiful way through the story of a young boy that must deal with the loss of his mother by choosing one of her many unfinished paintings to keep. Then through inhabiting this land of unfinished works, you begin to understand the mother and son relationship, and the tragic events that are being retold in the form of these paintings. It’s a truly magnificent concept and one you should experience first-hand.
#11 – Ether One
Developer: White Paper Games
Metacritic Score: 82%
Ether One is a game that many walking sim fans are aware of, but one that hasn’t received the same acclaim as a few standout names on this list. This is a game that focuses on the damage caused by Dementia, and in this game, you play as a researcher who aims to inhabit the memories of a dementia patient and restore them.
It’s another walking sim that serves up emotional highs and lows, and also raises awareness for a devastating illness that, outside of the world of video games and fictional science, has no surefire cure.
The game has excellent puzzle design throughout, and a captivatingly chilling setting, and while the story can be a little cryptic and convoluted, I believe that this is by design to tie in with the demetia-inspired theme. Overall, it’s one that is a hidden gem of sorts within the walking sim catalog and one you should take the time to explore.
#12 – Proteus
Developer: Ed Key & David Kalaga
Metacritic Score: 80%
Proteus is a strange one, as this game was never intended to be a walking sim, and was actually planned as an open-world RPG adventure, akin to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.
However, due to the extreme workload required from the initial plan, Key and Kalanga would pivot to create a non-violent, passive walking simulator, being one of the first games to take this approach. However, Proteus is a unique experience even amongst games of its kind on this list, because in Proteus, there is no goal, no narrative, and no progression beyond the passage of time.
You merely exist in this pixel art island, experience the changing of the seasons, maybe encounter an animal or two, or snap a screenshot.
Or perhaps you just sit up on a tall mound of grass and let the serene soundtrack wash over you like a cool wave on a summer’s day. I can truly say that there is nothing quite like it, and while I can’t recommend it as a ‘game.’ It is an experience that all gamers should seek out.
#13 – Sea of Solitude
Developer: Jo-Mel Games
Metacritic Score: 72%
Yet again, we have a game that isn’t quite a walking sim, but due to its simplicity, it’s accessible platforming, and the fact that it doesn’t really on action-adventure tropes to keep things moving, Sea of Solitude can just about justify its spot on the list.
Much like Hellblade and Celeste, Sea of Solitude is a game that deals with the topic of depression in a poignant and effective way, and tells a coherent and relatable story of how one must overcome their demons, not by vanquishing them, but by learning to live with them.
Then the game doubles down on this excellent narrative approach with a sublime fantasy setting and excellent supporting characters. Now, to be a little critical, this is one of the weaker ‘games’ on this list as the mechanics run out of steam pretty quick, and the gameplay is very limited. However, for the story alone, this is worth a bash.
#14 – Before Your Eyes
Developer: GoodbyeWorld Games
Metacritic Score: 77%
You may notice a theme of me crowbarring games that just slightly don’t line up with the walking sim blueprint, and Before Your Eyes is another non-walking-sim that, for all intents and purposes, might as well be. The premise of this game is that the player witnesses a compelling narrative through the protagonist’s point of view.
Think of it like Peep Show, but instead of Mark and Jez’s antics, you have a story that reveals what awaits you in the afterlife.
The gimmick here is that players literally control the game through the use of a webcam and their actual eyes, as you must blink to work through these flashbacks and reveal who you were before you died. This is a staggeringly ambitious title that tells an emotional tale of death, loss, and grief, all through some truly unique gameplay and storytelling methods.
It might be a little too gimmicky for some, and yes, you don’t walk around and explore, but if you like walking sims, I promise you, this is right up your street.
#15 – The Beginner’s Guide
Developer: Davey Wreden
Metacritic Score: 76%
So, without spoiling the rest of the list for you, The Stanley Parable doesn’t feature. In my eyes, it’s a joke that became a mod, that became something that penetrated the zeitgeist for its 4th wall-breaking humor, but it’s not a good walking simulator.
It lacks substance. So instead, I decided to include Davy Wreden’s other project, The Beginner’s Guide. This is a cryptic walking sim with an abundance of short tableau-esque scenes that reveal more and more about our subject’s life, and your only goal is to witness these, try to make sense of them, and try to understand just who this person really is.
The game still has that 4th wall breaking metafiction present in The Stanley Parable, and a narrator overseeing the action too.
Yet with a more tangible story, more varied gameplay, and best of all, every single player can get something different out of this game as the outcome is so open for interpretation. This may be a little too ‘meta’ for some, but if you like games that take this approach, this is a great option.
#16 – Eastshade
Developer: Eastshade Studios
Metacritic Score: 78%
We move on to Eastshade, a game where the player takes on the role of a painter, and your job is to find picturesque vistas, and bring them to life with an easel and a canvas.
This is the general premise which is quite similar to games like Toem and Leaving Lyndlow, and your reason for exploring this vast and beautiful land.
However, as you are tasked with heading off to landmarks and hidden coves, you begin to unravel the ancient secrets of Eastshade, and in a game where your only task was to paint, a poignant narrative springs up from nowhere that will make you fall in love with this vibrant kingdom even more than upon first visiting.
The game also has interesting scavenging and item crafting mechanics, and some engaging characters to meet as well. There is a lot to love about Eastshade, and it’s another hidden gem of sorts, so it’s about time you unearthed it and gave it a polish.
#17 – The Witness
Developer: Thekla Inc
Metacritic Score: 87%
We move on to The Witness, which is, for all intents and purposes, a puzzle game at its core. However, the way this game presents these puzzles is in a format that will be very familiar to walking sim fans.
In this game, the player awakes on a strange island, and your only hope of uncovering where you are, who you are, and what you are doing there is hidden behind secret areas which are only accessible by getting your cerebral juices going and solving some puzzles.
Though this is the core of the game, there is actually a riveting story to be told here, a picturesque environment to explore, and a familiar sense of calm and quiet that walking sim fans will be all too familiar with. What I will say is that if you don’t like puzzles, stay away from this one, as it can get really tricky as the game progresses, but if you like a cerebral workout, The Witness is one of the best puzzle games ever produced.
#18 – Adios
Metacritic Score: 78%
If you are looking for a walking sim with a very unique premise, there are few that can compete with Adios, a game where you try to escape from the stranglehold of the Mafia, and the events of the game show what could be your final hours if the mafia hitman, who doubles as you friend, can’t convince you to reconsider turning your back on the mob.
The game has you spend time with this man, doing routine farmyard chores as your conversations reveal aspects of your life, the Mafia’s dealings, and ultimately all build up to that fateful decision, will you stay, or will you go? It’s a beautifully woven narrative experience, told through the medium of mundane chores.
It’s relaxing, yet you’ll be doing mental gymnastics to try and wrap your head around which decision is best for your character. But just remember, no one leaves the mob, nobody.
#19 – Outer Wilds
Developer: Mobius Games
Metacritic Score: 93%
My penultimate entry is Outer Wilds, a game that has you explore a pocket galaxy and try to uncover the mysteries of this mini solar system and stop the 22-minute time loop that you find yourself trapped in.
Now, as far as walking simulators go, this one is a little more mechanic heavy than others, as you can pilot space ships and platform around planets. However, despite the more grandiose themes and format, all the components of a walking sim are plain to see.
This game is one of my personal favorites, not only because of the folksy soundtrack, which I featured in my recent Best Indie Game Soundtracks list, but because of the sheer scale of this project, the story told through environmental clues, and the ultimate puzzle that is, how do you break the time loop.
It’s one of those games that you wish you could wipe from your memory and witness fresh once again. So if you happen to be someone only encountering this game for the first time, I am green with envy, my friend.
Interesting Read: Complete guide to getting you started in Outer Wilds.
#20 – I Am Dead
Developer: Hollow Ponds
Metacritic Score: 79%
Then to wrap things up, we have I Am Dead, a game where you play as a now-deceased museum curator, who must post-humously try to piece together the mysteries of his former home island and try to warn those still in the land of the living of the impending disaster that is soon to befall Shermerton.
Using ethereal abilities like reading thoughts and seeing through objects, the players will work through this ‘hidden object’ inspired game, and uncover clues that will help you save the island.
As far as gameplay goes, the game is a little repetitive and lacks variety. However, it really only serves as a vehicle for the story, which is one that touches on themes of death, loss, and grief, and does so in a compelling and regularly touching way. This game does have some issues regarding the marriage between narrative aspects and puzzle-solving gameplay, but overall, it’s another one that is well worth checking out.
Then to wrap things up, we have the games that didn’t meet the aggregate score needed, were just a little outside the parameters I laid down at the start, or games that I simply don’t see the appeal of from a personal perspective. However, you might get a kick out of these games, so check them out:
- The Stanley Parable
- Hazel Sky
- The Witness
- Death Stranding
- Lost Ember
Question: What is a Walking Sim?
Answer: Simply put, a walking sim is a game that sees the player encounter an in-game world as an observer, or a character with realistic abilities, and has you wander around, uncover secrets and narrative plot points, and you might get to solve a puzzle here and there too.
It’s a term that not all lovers of these games are comfortable with, as it seems like a snide jab at the genre, but for me, it simply describes these games for what they are, simple, slow-paced adventures.
Question: Are Walking Sims Popular?
Answer: Yes, absolutely. Much like how Roguelike is the breakout genre of the moment that everyone is fawning over, Walking Sims was that back in the early and mid-2010s. There is a quite limited library of walking sims to choose from, and that is purely down to how much work goes into these games.
However, there are a lot of examples on this list alone that have won countless awards. So, in short, yes, there is a lot of love for the walking sim genre.
Question: What is Most Important in a Walking Sim?
Answer: Narrative, plain and simple. Puzzles, interactive game mechanics, and gimmicks can help titles stand out from the pack. However, without a great storyline, and a killer setting that helps tie it all together, the game simply cannot exist in a walking sim format and hope to be successful.
It’s Good to Get Out There
As you can see from the abundance of incredible walking simulators out there, this is far from a gimmicky genre. This is a small group of games that capture the imagination, create rich worlds with tonnes of lore, mystery, and intrigue, and quite frankly, the only reason there aren’t tonnes more of these games is that they are so hard to do well.
Just imagine Activision or Ubisoft having to make a game without melee weapons and guns to lean on as a crutch; it would be a disaster. Of all the games on offer here, if you twisted my arm, I would recommend Gone Home, Journey, and Outer Wilds as the best of the bunch. We hope that this list has shown you a new, interesting, and relaxing genre of gaming that you can explore, and as always, thank you for reading Indie Game Culture.