The late 2000s and early 2010s saw the emergence of a new sub-genre in adventure games, the so-called "environmental narrative game" genre (or ENG for short). Realizing that adventure games in the past had tended to emphasize storytelling and art direction over gameplay, developers in this genre followed that principle to its Logical Extreme and removed virtually all gameplay and interactivity from their games in order to focus the player's attention on the story, visuals and experience. Games in the genre have also variously been referred to as "interactive fiction games" (not to be confused with text adventures or Visual Novels), "interactive stories", "story exploration games" and "first-person experiences", among other labels. Detractors of the genre sometimes dismissively refer to these games as "walking simulators", although that term has since come to be used as a neutral descriptor of the genre by many critics, developers and fans. note
So what exactly is an environmental narrative game? At its root, it's a 3D graphical adventure game which places an unusually heavy emphasis on narrative and exploring a physical space, while de-emphasizing conventional game mechanics and challenges. Often the only interactivity afforded to player in these games is the ability to walk around and explore the game's world (hence the aforementioned term "walking simulator"), occasionally interacting with objects to advance the plot, with the story pieced together via audio logs, cutscenes and found documents.note Expect also for the game to be very much about the physical space in which it takes place: Scenery Porn (often in a Beautiful Void, devoid of onscreen characters besides the player character) is commonplace. In this, the genre is similar to and often influenced by the Immersive Sim genre.note
The core element that sets them apart from other adventure games and other "traditional" video games is that they are focused on delivering content to the player (typically narrative content, although not exclusively), and for this reason gameplay challenges tend to be trivial or absent altogether. For comparison, a traditional adventure game might feature a complex, elaborate Moon Logic Puzzle which the player must solve in order to advance the plot; in an environmental narrative game, the only "puzzle" impeding the player's progress might be "find the front door to the house".
These games are typically viewed from a first-person perspective (although occasional exceptions exist), and typically tend to be classified as art games. Games in this genre sit at one extreme of the Story-to-Gameplay Ratio chart. Due to their limited game mechanics and typically short playtimes, they are a prominent example of Minimalism in game design (many of them could even be compared to bottle episodes), a major reason they are popular among small indie developers with limited budgets and staff. Indeed, examples of the genre developed by major studios with big budgets are the exception, rather than the rule.
This genre has attracted a polarized reaction from the gaming press and from players, often to the point of Critical Dissonance. Several critics have praised the genre as an experimental new direction in game narrative and interactive storytelling, while others dispute whether examples of the genre can even be considered video games at all, and criticise them for their lack of interactivity and challenge, their minimalist presentations and their generally short runtimes.
One last thing: As the name and description suggest, these games tend be to heavily story-focused, so be wary of spoilers if you visit the work pages of any of these games.
Examples of environmental narrative games:
- 96, an Adventure Game about a guy on an island that experienced a Zombie Apocalypse, caring for a zombie Chained to a Bed in a cabin.
- ABZÛ, a diving simulator where the player character explores and interacts with several different aquatic environments.
- Anatomy, a lo-fi walk through a house. Of course, each time you play, the house becomes more hostile.
- Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale is largely about walking the protagonist Sohta around his new hometown and talking to various people to advance the narrative, or occasionally examining a background object. It's broken up by "Monster Cards", a Card Battle Game, but winning those is just a means to continue talking to other characters.
- The Beginner's Guide, made by the creator of The Stanley Parable, involves a narrator guiding the player through a series of short games made by his friend "Coda".
- Beyond Eyes is about a blind girl in search of her kitty. There are no enemies, nor any puzzles more complex than "bring object A to point B". Unusually, it is third-person rather than first-person. It is perhaps one of the definite examples of the phrase "walking simulator" as nearly the entire gameplay consists of slow, cautious walking.
- Blackout, made by Deadline Games in 1997, with its lack of gameplay challenges and heavy focus on story, might arguably be one of the earliest examples of the genre. The story has you play a Amnesiac Hero, who tries to figure out why a headless body appeared in his apartment before disappearing just as mysteriously again. Gameplay has you walking around in a atmosphere-heavy City Noir, visiting different locations, such as the protagonist's therapist's office, the local church, the bars in downtown, or the brothel by the docks, and talking to other characters (played by puppets), and trying to piece together both the mysteries surrounding the headless body and the protagonist's identity. Differs somewhat from later environmental narrative games by the fact that the player character does indeed play an important part in the story.
- Bound, a 2016 Playstation 4 game where you play a dancer in a highly abstract environment with light platforming elements, which is all a metaphor for the real-world's pregnant woman's childhood memories.
- Calendula is an odd example in that only about half the game is this. The In-Universe game of Calendula is a first-person walking sim where you only have the option to walk forward, and pressing any other button does nothing. The first-person segments are short and only require you to walk forward for about a minute. The main gameplay is actually in the main menu itself, which is riddled with Ominous Visual Glitches that must be fixed so you can find passwords to access the files of the game.
- Call of the Sea is a narrative-focused adventure game inspired by H. P. Lovecraft with the players progressing through the game by solving puzzles.
- Several titles by The Chinese Room:
- Dear Esther is probably the Trope Codifier for the genre: no interactivity besides the ability to walk around, copious Scenery Porn in a Beautiful Void devoid of life, and a literate, semi-random story told via audio narration and dense symbolism.
- Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is considered a Spiritual Successor to Dear Esther, and features a similar presentation and approach. The gameplay consists of wandering around an abandoned village, occasionally interacting with objects in order to listen to audio logs and view cutscenes.
- Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is a borderline example. The first game in the series Amnesia: The Dark Descent (developed by Frictional Games) was a stealth-based Survival Horror game in which the player had to sneak past monsters and solve puzzles to progress. The sequel strips out most of the enemies and puzzles, bringing it closer in spirit to this trope than to Survival Horror.
Zero Punctuation: There's no inventory and carrying a physics object from one room to the next is about as complicated as puzzles get... A significant portion of the way through the game, I ran into a pig-man in their little network of passages, trotting along a fixed path then turning around and trotting back, requiring me to pick the right moment to stealth past. "Blimey!", I thought, "I think I just found the first bit of fucking gameplay in this game!"... And for all that dingy tunnels and noisy plumbing can do to build the atmosphere, I went away with a distinct awareness of how infrequently I was ever in actual danger.
- Corpse of Discovery tells the story of a stranded Astronaut as he explores a strangely changing planet.
- Indie game Curtain belongs in the genre, using heavily contrasting 8-bit style pixel art, and written text instead of spoken dialogue.
- Deliver Us the Moon has a few puzzles and one-off sequences like having to land your spacecraft, but its core is about wandering around (even if sometimes while floating in zero-gravity) while looking at the notes and/or listening to the holograms.
- Déraciné is a VR game set at a countryside boarding house, and even though it was developed by FromSoftware (of Dark Souls fame), there are only a few light puzzles in it.
- Devotion is a Psychological Horror Game about a man recollecting about the events that lead to the current whereabouts of his apparently missing daughter.
- Draugen keeps the core of wandering around an abandoned Norwegian village in the 1920s and reading notes, and doesn't add more than light puzzles, but it also features a companion who is regularly talked to through a Dialogue Tree, along with the passage of time over several days.
- Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist, a short experiment in the genre which was released for free, developed by a studio founded by one of the creators of The Stanley Parable.
- Fibrillation consists of several surrealistic landscapes the player can explore and walk through. Its gameplay has been compared to Dear Esther.
- Evan's Remains is a somber thriller about a girl named Dysis looking for someone named "Evan", and then meeting someone named Clover; from there, more sub-plots begin to be thrown in and things get very expository.
- Firewatch is more of a hiking simulator, and expands the genre's formula slightly with an open world approach to your walking.
- Several titles by Fullbright:
- Gone Home is one of the most popular examples of the genre. The game consists of walking around a house and piecing together what happened to the player character's family via audio logs and found documents, occasionally solving trivial puzzles.
- Tacoma has a similar presentation to Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and Gone Home, set on an abandoned space station.
- Gray Dawn is a Psychological Horror game with religious themes, where the protagonist is never truly threatened at any point, and there's no gameplay besides wandering around the (alternately lush and haunted) environments and light puzzles whenever rituals are involved.
- Homesick (2015) is a short mystery game where the protagonist wakes up in an abandoned building and spends most of their time walking, with only a couple extremely simple puzzle elements in it.
- The Invisible Hours describes itself as not a game, and not a movie. It is a Virtual Reality experience in which you move freely through the set of an unfolding Historical Fiction drama, invisible and intangible. You can interact with the environment in a few limited ways, but you cannot affect the narrative or the characters of the story.
- Jazzpunk has been described as an example of the genre, although it also features some joke mini-games.
- Layers of Fear (and its sequel Layers of Fear 2) takes this approach to the Survival Horror genre.
- Lost Ember follows a wolf as she is guided by a spirit trying to recover its memories of a ruined civilization. She can possess various animals and use their abilities to traverse the landscape.
- LSD: Dream Emulator could be seen as a very early example of the genre: there's little real gameplay, and all the player does is wander around a surreal, semi-randomized environment inspired by the developer's own dreams (and nightmares).
- Moirai was an extremely short, free game, where the player does nothing but walk around and engage in a couple of short conversations before it's over, and the twist, fourth-wall breaking ending sits in.
- The Norwood Suite is set in a rundown hotel; the gameplay mostly involves people asking you to bring them things, found by wandering the halls of the hotel and opening drawers, for which they will give you access to a piece of costuming.
- The Painscreek Killings is set in a small town whose population moved away after a series of unsolved murders and other deaths. The player, a journalist, has to try to piece together what really happened by finding old letters, journals, keys, secret rooms, and suchlike. Puzzle aspects and lack of player guidance are emphasised — the developers' stated aim was to go "beyond" walking simulators by making players connect all the dots themselves, rather than have the story revealed for them automatically just by walking around.
- The Park, a spinoff of The Secret World, adopts this approach to tell the story of a single mother, Lorraine, searching for her son Callum in an amusement park after operating hours. Said amusement park is the Atlantic Island Amusement Park, so if you've played The Secret World, it's easy to guess what happened to the kid.
- The Path could be considered an early example of the genre. It places a heavy emphasis on exploration and narrative (a retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood"), with little in the way of puzzles or challenges.
- Proteus is a rare example of a game in the genre which doesn't emphasize narrative. It is essentially a video game installation piece, in which a player walks around a procedurally generated pixel-art island.
- Quadrilateral Cowboy is a Spiritual Successor to Thirty Flights of Loving, featuring environmental storytelling outside of its puzzle segments.
- Self-Checkout Unlimited takes place inside an abandoned mall with a vaporwave aesthetic. There are a few simple puzzles, but otherwise you're exploring a series of surreal stores and environments on a psychological/philosophical Journey to the Center of the Mind.
- Serena takes place entirely inside a small cabin, and the protagonist's nostalgic examination of its contents reveals his past experiences there - increasingly dark ones - as he reminisces about his wife.
- Scanner Sombre, from the creators of Uplink and Darwinia, which is based around exploring a pitch-black cave. Differs from many examples of the genre in that exploration is a central mechanic and navigating one's way through the cave is not a trivial task, but otherwise fits the genre to a T.
- Soma is a stealth-based Survival Horror game, in which the player cannot fight and must sneak past dangerous enemies to progress. Two years after release, the developers patched in an alternate difficulty setting called "Safe Mode", which prevents enemies from attacking the player character, and which brings the game very close in spirit to this trope.
- Spirit of the North takes place in a landscape inspired by Iceland amid the ruins of a lost civilization destroyed by a plague. Its narrative and mechanics are conveyed entirely without words, as the player character is a fox.
- The Stanley Parable essentially consists of walking around an office environment, occasionally jumping or pressing buttons to advance the plot, with no real challenges to speak of. Unusually for the genre, the game features elaborate Story Branching in response to the player's decisions, as the game is a Deconstruction Game of various interactive fiction tropes and video game narrative. It is also one of the only examples of the genre that is popular even among typical detractors of it. Zero Punctuation described it as a Genre Deconstruction of environmental narrative games.
- The Station has the protagonist search a luxurious research station that orbits an alien world and read through its numerous logs in order to discover the reason why its communications went offline and the fate of its three crewmembers.
- The Suicide of Rachel Foster has the player character explore a hotel while trying to shed light of the mystery of her family's past. The story is a Psychological Thriller, and the gameplay is similar to that of Firewatch: the player explores an open world area while talking to someone over a radio.
- Sunset (2015) has the Player Character clean and maintain the apartment suite home of Gabriel Ortega in 1972 amidst a US-backed coup in the fictional Latin American country of Anchuria. As you clean, you can also go through your employer's personal files and learn what sort of person he is.
- Thirty Flights of Loving is similar to many games in the genre in terms of its limited mechanics and story focus. Unlike many examples, however, it employs non-linear storytelling and eschews spoken dialogue, in addition to a highly stylized visual aesthetic.
- The Town of Light is set in an abandoned asylum in Italy where the player relives the horrible history of the main character by exploring and interacting with the environment.
- Tsugu No Hi, at least the main games, are interactive horror stories about someone's daily routine being twisted by apparitions. They are made in a "go left or the narration can't continue" manner, the player has no other controls.
- Umurangi Generation has graffiti and posters here and there, but allows players to wander around and gradually realize the depths of the crisis.
- The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is very similar to Dear Esther: walking around in first person with copious Scenery Porn, with the main focus being the linear story. The game also features several puzzles more akin to a traditional adventure game.
- Virginia, to the point that its creators were happy to use the term "walking simulator" to describe it. It takes a pseudo-cinematic approach to the genre, with frequent scene breaks and a lush orchestral score.
- Welcome To Boon Hill is a 2D top-down game that is simply about wandering around a real-life Boon Hill Cemetery in Eastern California and reading the epitaphs on all the tombstones there.
- What Comes After is a short 2D side-scrolling adventure, taking place in the train cars of an Afterlife Express as the still-living protagonist is given a chance to reevaluate her outlook on life.
- What Remains of Edith Finch is described as a first-person narrative adventure game, although it contains several mechanically involved sequences such as the Cannery level.
- When The Darkness Comes involves the player wandering through odd, ever-changing environments. The creators themselves called it a "Walking Simulator".
- Where the Water Tastes Like Wine tasks you with traversing the Depression-era United States and gathering the stories and experiences of its people, spreading them around the country to sow the seeds of its myths, legends and history. In essence, the game is a narrative about the environment.
- Yume Nikki is a freeware game about exploring the symbolic world of a girl's dreams. There is no real gameplay other than unlocking new areas (the few enemies will quickly overwhelm the player; the trick is to avoid them). It came out in 2004, making it an early example, and started in Japan an entire genre of games in the same style.