Where do Walking Simulators come from? I’m not sure I can pin point to the exact timeframe - there is almost no reason for them to be late in the game technically speaking. One could have made a walking simulator back in the 1990s even with limited 3D tech available back then. But somehow it feels like a relatively recent genre emerging in the mid 2000s, with games like Go Home, Dear Esther, and later on Firewatch, and probably a few others that I forgot about. The concept is fairly simple: the game is mostly about walking around and exploring an often very limited or linear environment, and trying to follow some kind of storyline or piecing back memories together.
The genre is defined by a 1st person viewpoint, and having very empty environments with almost no-one around. Turns out this is perfect for devs who want to save money on character animations and re-use static assets as often as possible. So it’s no surprise this is mostly an indie genre, barely touched by bigger dev houses. The whole point is to keep the player entertained and looking for more. Ideally you will need a good story as a backbone to keep the corpse alive as long as possible. How is it different with a Visual Novel, you might add? Well, Visual Novels tend to be very frugal in terms of graphics and animations, and instead focus on throwing huge walls of text at the player, with some sound effects now and then or full voice-over. Walking simulators are far from being so talkative, and instead focus on space and exploration to tell a story.
And here we come to The Invincible, a new representative of the Walking Simulator genre. I have played quite a few of them (not sure if playing is the right word since there’s barely any interaction required) and I can’t say I see much point to most of them. I did not find Firewatch to be very exciting (good setting, good starting point for the story, but the plot gets more and more tiring until you reach what I found to be a dissapointing end). I tend to get really bored walking very slowly in empty spaces just to unlock the next scene or something. The Invincible is clearly an attempt at doing something better, and it’s somewhat successful in that regard. One more thing, this game is based on a novel from the famous sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem so you know there’s going to be an actual story better written than in most games. The same author wrote Solaris, which is well known to the general public following its 2 movie adaptations. While I have not read the book of The Invincible, I have checked the plot upon completing the game, and rather than a straight retelling of the book’s script, the game builds upon it by telling a story that happens in parallel to the events of the book.
The Improved Bits
First, it makes more sense to send you into empty spaces in the Invincible - you are an astronaut visiting a lifeless planet, so there’s no reason for anything to move in there. The slow movements can be explained by your space suit, and the effort required to move in a different world. And the storyline is strong enough to keep you invested in what is to come.
You play the role of Yasna, a female biologist / astronaut who suddenly wakes up on an alien planet called Regis III, wondering how she got there. For some reason (which will be explained later), she suffered a loss of consciousness and her memory remains in a poor state with quite a few holes as she realizes what is happening. You are in touch with the mission chief in orbit, Novik (known as the Astrogator) and you will soon realize through a series of flashbacks that you were sent on this planet with a few other crew members to investigate it for potential lifeforms since it has large bodies of water and a breathable atmosphere with great amounts of oxygen.
As the story is the whole point of the game, I will keep spoilers to a minimum, but let me just say that you first start by looking for your fellow crew members and most of them ended up either dead or in debilitating state. So while you are not alone per se, your only contact with an intelligent life form is the radio line with the Astrogator in orbit, watching over your situation.
You have a bunch of tools with you to detect movements, to scan your environment, and also a kind of scope to see far away things. You will mostly use them in the beginning in specific situations and less and less as you progress in the game. Faithful to the genre, there is virtually no thinking involved in The Invincible.
This is a walking simulator with a very linear plot, giving you hints now and then in case it’s not entirely clear what to do next. In effect you almost never get stuck (unless the game has a bug and does not trigger a scripted event, which happened once in my case). You do have some degree of freedom during the discussions with the Astrogator: you can choose one of several ways to response to his questions or comments, but this has almost no effect on the events of the game. The constant chatting with the Astrogator does help feeling less alone and certainly brings a lot more life in a desolated world.
It’s a 6-7 hours story from start to end. The plot is good. It will keep you going, while there are certainly a few dull parts (covering long distances while nothing is happening), and some plot holes now and then. One cool thing is that they have some comic-book like strips telling you what you were doing last when you reload the game, before you continue on your adventure. It reminds me very much of what Metal Gear Solid 1 did at the time, to ensure that players who left the game aside for a week or so could still manage to return to it without wondering what happened the last time they played.
There are quite a few surprises down the road, discoveries and unexpected turn of events. One of the biggest allure of the game is its environments. The landscapes look great and vary from one place to the next, both in colors and structures. The sky is spectacular as well as you see the sun of that systems as well as its numerous moons, while it’s highly unrealistic. Under no circumstances should you see planets or moons that big in one planet’s atmosphere. This is more of an artistic view than a plausible one.
More on the topic of art, the rocket ships and apparatus used is heavily inspired by post-war design (50-60s) which reminds me a little of Fallout or older sci-fi movies. No bad taste here though, and everything looks great at fit with their respective styles.
The story gives you some late-game branching based on a few decisions you make in the very last chapter. Some of the endings are quite abrupt and leave you longing for more as the end credits roll in. There are a few “good” endings as well, and I checked them all out. They are all longer but somewhat open-ended and half-baked, making you wonder “so… what REALLY happens in the end?”. I would have really liked to see a full conclusion as another chapter at the end. I feel this is an issue with many stories in general. The good ones have good starting points and whatever comes out of it is engaging for a while, but finding stories that truly turn into satisfying endings is very rare.
The Invincible is still probably one of the better games in the genre. You can see that a lot of work went into making it, and this is probably one of the first Walking Simulator that does not feel cheap in any way. The voice acting, the bits of music (some themes are reminiscent of Blade Runner) and the overall production is of a very good level. I don’t feel like I wasted my time, while I anticipated a stronger ending. I don’t know if it has yet convinced me that the genre has really something to bring on the table yet (vs full blown RPGs, for example), but The Invincible almost gets there.
The problem, of course, is that the genre has almost no replayability. Once you have done the game once, and seen the different endings, there is no point playing it again, because all of it relies on the unknown story. Once that aspect is known, the gameplay itself brings no added value. But it does not have to be this way. Walking Simulators could learn from the best visual novels and introduce new alternative pathways after the story is completed once, to add a point in starting a new run again. We are not there yet.
What about movies? After all, people usually love rewatching the movies they have seen before, even though the element of surprise is gone. Good point. I guess the main difference comes from the time investment. A movie is at most 3 hours, and is tightly put together, driven by the pace of the editing. A Walking Simulator, in contrast, emphasizes long phases where nothing much happens as you move from one place to another and explore the place. I know, it’s part of the experience, but I’d feel it would be a waste of time to do all over again just to enjoy specific bits of the story.
Steam Deck and Performance Gaps
One last comment. The Invincible is marked as being a Steam Deck Verified game. The status is a little dubious. First, there are no graphics options, which is a big let down - there is nothing much you can tweak to improve the framewate. Which is a problem on the Steam Deck since the framerate in the 30s FPS in the best case and in the 10-20s in the worst. There were also a few times where the framerate turned to single digits in very specific areas (and could be reproduced when restarting the game at the same point). I am not sure what is causing them, but’s not shader compilation related. When it happens, you just need to keep goingthru the place causing such large dips and things will go back to normal a minute later or so once you reach a different area.
I completed the game from start to end on the device - it worked well enough to be enjoyable, but even ignoring the slideshow moments mentioned earlier, the performance was sub-par to say the least. I’d rather call it Playable than Verified. I wonder if Valve will keep calling titles Verified if they run at 20 FPS in the future. I expect Verified titles to mimick a console experience, and something that struggles to keep 30 FPS at all times is not worthy of such a classification.
The studio behind the game is apparently working on native clients for Mac and Linux at some point, if I am not mistaken. If such clients ever materialize, we may see some better framerates on the Steam Deck with a native Vulkan renderer, for example. But simply adding actual graphics settings would get you 90% there anyway, so there should be an intermediate solution that works just as well in the meantime, as long as the devs listen to feedback. I’m hopeful, since the game has received positive reviews, it’s likely to remain a target for further development.
All screenshots in this article were taken from the Steam Deck as I progressed through the game. And we were provided a Steam Key by the publisher to produce the review of this game.