Is there a name for games like these, with minimal interaction and no branches in the story?
I've seen the term "interactive fiction" around but I'm not sure if it fits.
Such games have long been established in Japan where they are commonly referred to as Visual Novels.
First-Person Exploration Game.
Where most first-person games wind up being shooting-based (hence an entire genre for those games), these games largely follow the same interaction style of those games, but cut away the 'shooting' aspect in favor of exploration and interaction with the environment.
Now you could say that First-Person-Shooters can also have a wide degree of exploration, and you'd be correct. In these games however, the primary action is in exploring the game, rather than shooting things in the game, so Exploration becomes the defining part of identifying the genre.
The Stanley Parable is defined as a First-Person Exploration game, and it's a very good name for such a game (which bears similar gameplay style to the three games you've listed).
According to wikipedia :
Those games are quite rare but First Person Interactive Story describe the first two quite well.
First of all, a word of warning. Everyone out there uses different genre taxonomies, so there can be no "right" answers to questions such as this one. Some of the bigger taxonomies out there are found on Wikipedia and MobyGames, but both of them are highly inconsistent and self-contradicting. Please also note that loads of actually existing subgenres have never been named anywhere.
While all that is true, it's still interesting to explore in what ways the mechanics differ between these games and where they fall into the existing gaming ecosystem. So I hope the following assessment will still be valuable for you.
The first question one has to answer is whether these specific games are adventure games or not. Now, following Ernest Adams in Fundamentals of Game Design Wikipedia defines adventure games as follows:
An adventure game is a video game in which the player assumes the role of protagonist in an interactive story driven by exploration and puzzle-solving.
So, the requirements are a story to progress through (while the term interactive is used, this does not mean it actually can branch!), and that you progress through this story by exploring the game world and solving puzzles in it.
Wikipedia also lists specific components of adventure games:
- Problem or puzzle solving
- Player assumes a role
- Collection or manipulation of objects
Now, what's really interesting here is that it seems as if puzzles are a must-have component of adventure games. However, defining it like this results in lots of problems. For one, there is no main genre which encompasses narrative games without combat and without puzzles, so if games without puzzles are not adventures, we are in need of new main genre (Interactive Story?). Also, imagine a game like Secret of Monkey Island, but strip it of all puzzles. You just progress through the same story with the same point and click interface. Is that really a different main genre (e.g., a difference as big as between shooter, RPG, adventure and fighting games)? I'd argue not, and recently have been similar arguments in the community (e.g. see http://www.adventuregamers.com/articles/view/24000/). You'd also have to come up with an artificial barrier between both main genres. Where do you draw the line between interactive fiction and text adventures then, if only the latter is an Adventure?
The bottom line for me thus is that puzzles might not really be a necessary part of adventure games.
Anyways, on to your examples. IMHO they fall into different subgenres:
Gone Home tells a story, has light puzzle elements and object manipulation and uses a first-person perspective with direct avatar control. As such it is clearly part of the adventure genre. Other than having only light puzzle/object elements, it isn't all that different from other direct-control first-person adventures. I call these First-Person Adventure, although that term has sometimes been used for the Myst type of adventures employing indirect point and click control (which I have another name for).
Dear Esther tells a story, has no puzzles, extremely light object manipulation and uses a first-person perspective with direct avatar control. Whether you still call this an adventure or not depends on the puzzle problem I explained earlier. If you think puzzles are mandatory, you obviously need a different subgenre for it. You could call it First-Person Story. If you don't think puzzles are needed for it be an adventure, you could still call it that and make it a different subgenre of adventures. Or, you place it in the First-Person Adventure subgenre like Gone Home, arguing that this is just at the extreme low end of puzzle-density of that subgenre.
To the Moon tells a story, has puzzles, has object manipulation and uses a third-person top down perspective with direct avatar control. It clearly fits within the Adventure genre but the change in perspective makes for a vastly different gameplay experience, warranting its own subgenre. I call it Direct Control Adventure. Actually, this is nothing new. Other examples of it would be Escape from Monkey Island and Grim Fandango.
i.e. They don't emphasise many of the most conventional videogame activities, such as shooting things, solving puzzles, powerups or defeating enemies. Instead, the one mechanic that they do prominently contain is that the player walks around from location to location.
If you had to summarise 'Dear Esther' as quickly as possible, 'A stroll around a Hebredean island." would be a pretty good start.
Hence, I've heard these referred to as 'walking games.'
There is no defined category or genre for these games yet. However, its safe to assume that To The Moon is a puzzle-adventure game. Dear Esther is getting the label "Virtual Installation", its more of a interactive picture, VERY light on gameplay or objectives. Gone Home is "like" Dear Esther, but presents more "gameplay elements", like a objective, mechanics other than walk around, a clear plot and in some respect a failure state, so its more of an adventure-puzzle game with more focus on story than gameplay.
These type of games are generally, tongue in cheek, labeled as walking simulators. Which is what I prefer to call them, while being completely serious and rather liking the genre. You could call them Dear Esther-likes. Their is most often quite a prominent strain of exploration, which they all share which can make calling them "Exploration" games or even Myst-likes work (though of course Myst-likes is already taken and commonly used to describe completely different mechanics)
There really is not an official genre title as of yet, but I can hazard a few good ideas which I have used in the past to describe them. "Interactive Story" would probably be the best title for them. I used "Interactive Poem" to describe the original Dear Esther once upon a time, which I think fits it better than "story" as it really does not have one in a traditional sense.