In ‘Call of the Sea’, players are cast as Norah Everhart, who tracks her missing husband to a Pacific island

The year is 1934. I’m walking through dense jungle on an island off the coast of Tahiti. Surrounding me is a symphony of bird calls, buzzing insects and gently lapping waves, yet there is also an unmistakable air of menace. In dark corners, enigmatic glyphs have been scratched into stone. Pointed stakes have been hammered into the earth to ward off intruders. Every nerve in my body, trained by decades of gaming, recognises the signs that an enemy is lurking around the corner, preparing to ambush me — but the anticipated battle never comes. In this game, there is no combat whatsoever. The heroine never raises her fists.

Call of the Sea, released last month and currently available on Xbox Game Pass, joins a small group of games in a relatively new genre known as “walking simulators”. These are titles that centre on storytelling, atmosphere and discovery, depositing players in an unknown location and asking them to unravel its secrets. They stand in stark contrast to combat-led mainstream titles. Today’s video game worlds are so rich and complex, they suggest, that it would be a shame only to see them down the barrel of a gun.

Walking simulators are often spliced with other genres, ranging from adventure to horror. Call of the Sea adds ingredients from puzzle games, incorporating environmental challenges of logic and observation reminiscent of Myst and The Witness; they are at first confounding but immensely satisfying when ultimately solved. This sedate gameplay allows players to focus on the game’s compelling story, which references Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft and Guillermo del Toro.

Players are cast as Norah Everhart, a woman suffering from a mysterious illness that causes dark blotches to creep up her arms. Her husband Harry has sailed to the Pacific to find a cure but never returned, so Norah rises from her sickbed and tracks him to a tropical island boasting bountiful natural flora and, of course, ancient secrets. As I wandered the island as Norah, jotting clues in my virtual notebook and manipulating runes to open stone doors, I was struck by how refreshing it felt to play a game as an ailing woman with no combat abilities. Norah doesn’t leap across canyons like a gazelle or sprint like an Olympian. She feels like an ordinary human.

‘Firewatch’ was a surprise commercial success

Most walking simulators are even more passive experiences than Call of the Sea, simply asking players to walk through linear virtual environments and watch a narrative unspool. The genre emerged around the 2012 release of experimental game Dear Esther, in which players tread a rugged coastal path listening to voice-overs. The name “walking simulator” was first intended as an insult — there was no combat, no challenge. How could this ponderous, lyrical experiment be called a “game”? Yet over the past decade, small teams of developers have identified the genre as a natural home for visual and narrative innovation. 

An early hit was Gone Home, in which a young woman returns to rural Oregon to find her family home deserted. Narrating a queer woman’s coming of age, the title set the precedent that walking sims could explore themes that mainstream games find too complex to broach, since their slow pacing and richly detailed environments create space for tone, character and nuance.

Later titles such as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and What Remains of Edith Finch thoughtfully explored themes of loss, while The Stanley Parable and Paratopic experimented with postmodern storytelling techniques. Some of the most beautiful titles take place in luminous natural landscapes, such as 2019’s sweet A Short Hike or the poignant Firewatch, which was a surprise commercial success.

One of the truly unique possibilities of video game storytelling is the ability for players to shape the course of a narrative. Walking simulators have yet to explore this avenue, preferring tightly authored stories for maximum thematic and emotional punch. You are there to hear the story, not to shape it. In this way, the genre is one step along the storytelling spectrum away from conventional games and towards novels and cinema.

Yet it’s hard to bemoan a lack of player agency when most of these games tell their stories with such elegance and concision. At a time when many games offer up to 100 hours of content, these are short titles that offer satisfying narrative experiences in just a few hours. In a media-saturated world, they respect your time. 

The focus on narrative and puzzles also makes walking sims particularly appealing for non-gamers. While my housemate usually expresses an extravagant indifference towards games, yesterday she caught sight of Call of the Sea and started asking me about its tropical location and balmy soundtrack. Within a matter of minutes she was hunched beside me, drawing arcane symbols on a piece of scrap paper, helping me crack the formula to open that final stone door.

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