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), "interactive stories", "story exploration games" and "first-person experiences", among other labels. Detractors of the genre sometimes dismissively referred 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, 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 genrenote .
The core element that sets them apart from other adventure games and other "traditional" video games is that they are focussed 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.
The genre originated with the 1999 adventure game Shenmue, though it would be a decade before it became popular. The genre is most popular on PC (particularly on Steam, a popular service for indie games of all kinds), but examples of the genre for the seventh and eighth generations of consoles are not uncommon.
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:
- Anatomy, a lo-fi walk through a house. Of course, each time you play, the house becomes more hostile.
- 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 in 1997, with its lack of gameplay challenges and heavy focus on story, might arguably be one of the earliest examples of the genre. Gameplay consists of walking around in a city, talking to other characters (played by puppets) and interacting with different objects in the world. Differs somewhat from later environmental narrative games by the fact that the player character plays an important part in the story.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, set on an abandoned spaceship.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Shenmue, released in 1999, is the Ur-Example of the genre. But it released a decade before the genre became popular.
- 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.
- Submerged takes place in a submerged city where the goal is to find supplies to survive another day, with days only passing when supplies are found so there's no hurry. A little bit of puzzling comes from finding the route to the top of buildings where the supplies are located, but it's an almost linear route, so not hard to figure out. Not even the secret locations for pieces of background information are that far out of the way.
- 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 it's easy to guess what happened to the kid
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.