Wednesday, 27 July 2011

What Games Would You Recommend a Non-Gamer?

I was contacted recently by a professional writer from outside the industry who was interested in exploring interactive narrative for the first time. She asked for my professional opinion on a few games I could recommend as a good starting point. Rather than actually, you know, do that, I thought I'd open up the discussion because it's an interesting one.

What games would actually hold up on a narrative level to someone who isn't so accustomed to the sort of suspension of disbelief that's unique to games? We're all very used to ignoring things like repeated lines, dodgy voice, inexpressive animation, objective exposition and finding interesting features in space marine stories; but compared to film these features must appear very stilted and amateur (with which I don't have a problem).

So a game to recommend would have to deliver a story which ideally minimises these issues, and gameplay which is comprehensible to someone not already fluent in WASD and stick-to-cover. Most importantly it would have to demonstrate our relative unique strengths (ie interaction).

My temptation, of course, is to approach this with a kind of gaming cannon - Elite, Thief, Planescape etc - but of course the antiquity of these games would deter many modern gamers, let alone an outsider.

Here's Talaya's request in her own words:
"I wondered, if you had a minute, if you could suggest two
or three (or even four) games to introduce the world of gaming to a
non-gamer -- (new games, old games, anything.)  It'd be great to have
a starting point from a professional game writer."
Here are some starting points from my end.

Braid - Explore your past experiences and relationships a-chronologically. Braid's a platformer that draws on Mario's ubiquity but marries that formula with inventive time manipulation gameplay mechanics that reflect on the somewhat obscure, but certainly ambitiously poetic narrative.

Echo Bazaar - Enter a twisted, alternate version of Victorian London. This is a web MMORPG (a game based around character progression in a persistent online world) which doesn't particularly innovate on a mechanical level, but which does employ engaging, inventive fantasy writing as an absolutely central selling point in its world design.

Dinner Date or Dear Esther - Strange bedfellows, I know. Both are short narrative experiences in which the player's actions simply shape his experience of the same broadly linear narrative. Dinner Date is dialogue heavy and sees your character sink into his own psychoses as he awaits the girl who's never coming round. Dear Esther sees you exploring a deserted island where the environment is the greatest dramatic force in play.

Portal 1 - Explore a largely abandoned research facility run by a psychotic robot lady. Yep, this one's a mainstream game. This is the most polished, most complete and most traditional offering here. It's a character study and dark comedy before anything else; but it's also one of the best and most accessible puzzle games ever made. It's also, however, the most game-y game here: you'll need to learn some basic gamer skills like 3D aiming and quick reactions to get a handle on it. Incidentally, Portal 2 is probably more accessible and more polished, but for my money Portal 1's minimal / isolationist narrative is far more interesting.

Heavy Rain - Heavy Rain is very much a made for TV movie, a cliche murder mystery. What it lacks in dramatic quality, though, it makes up for in accessibility, polish and interactive narrative involvement. I almost didn't list it because much of it is somewhat embarrassing: the write-by-numbers structure and the (arguable) misogyny. However, as an accessible experience that puts interactive drama at its centre there are few alternatives that seem more likely to engage a non-gamer.

Everyday The Same Dream - A simply presented 2D adventure expressing a common theme: the monotony and meaninglessness of life. This game uses all the tools at its disposal expertly: its simple score, monotone graphics, faceless avatars and intelligent use of colour all work towards the game's central trick: the use of video game objectives and the requirement they be unlearnt in order to reach the end. It's a simple example of how a familiar theme can be expressed in an entirely new way to provide engagement with the material impossible in any other medium.

But this post isn't about what I think. What would you recommend Talaya or anyone else looking to get involved with our medium?


  1. Your thoughts here.

    Incidentally, I'd LOVE to recommend Dwarf Fortress (the game featured in the header image). It demonstrates much of what our industry alone can offer, and forgoes all the issues that surround more traditional games and their often negative comparisons with other dramatic mediums. It is, however, just about the least accessible game ever made.

  2. I came here to say Portal, Heavy Rain and Braid. I see you were one step ahead of me.

    The other that immediately springs to mind is Ico. It's almost the lack of any kind of real narrative, story and character development that makes it so gripping and compelling, the game doesn't have these things but you feel them, you're creating a bond and a tension and feelings in your own head that don't really exist. If you've played it you'll know exactly what I mean.

  3. My girlfriend's not really a gamer, and I find it tricky identifying games she'll like. One thing I've found is that the less buttons there are, the more she'll enjoy it. I think that's why Portal works so well as the de-facto non-gamers' game, because it's a stress-free, no-death environment with simple, understandable controls that doesn't require you to press anything in a hurry.

    So for that reason: Loco Roco works well, since it's just tilting. Likewise, Lumines/ Tetris are instantly understandable.

    Plants vs Zombies is a good one, it's just clicking. As is Limbo, since that's structurally geared towards death and retrying as being as deliberately non-annoying as possible.

  4. No.
    No No No No No No No. For the love of God, remove Heavy Rain. Or if I'm trying to be slightly impartial, leave it there, but add Silent Hill Shattered Memories in its place/in addition.

    Actually on second thought, remove Heavy Rain. The first thing that's likely to put off non-gamers is the uncanny valley.

    P.S. Portal 1: good choice. Haven't played enough of the others to comment. Would've added Monkey Island 3, just for the non-killingness of it all, and the fact it's better in the looks department compared to the older two; thus a good start.

  5. Gotta back up DrDark's comments here. Heavy Rain is very interesting for people who are already invested in gaming narrative, as an interesting look at a game trying (and often failing) to experiment with interactive storytelling. If you're looking for an example of 'here's a game that can tell a good story with a changing outcome' then SH: Shattered Memories is a massively more accessible, suitable example.

  6. Extra Credits did a video about this a few weeks ago:

    It's more about the how than the what, but there are some good thoughts in there.

    In general, it's probably best to tailor suggested toward the person. Introducing gaming to someone that loves Homestar Runner? Well, this should be obvious:

    Telltale's stuff in general seems a good starting point, since it's largely conversational, doesn't really have failure conditions and don't rely too heavily on understanding established gameplay conventions.

    Uncharted 2 on the easiest difficulty setting might be alright too, depending on how novice the entrant is. It's familiar in an action/adventure movie sense, but avoids the loathsome writing/VO that so many action games have. And the other suggestions (Braid, Limbo, Portal) are all real solid too.

  7. Hi Tom and all,

    Thanks for the generous suggestions. I’m the non-gamer writer. I just wrote a long explanation of where I’m coming from, but it has somehow sort of disappeared from my screen, so here’s the slightly more succinct version. (If the old version somehow magically appears up too, sorry about that.)

    I write plays, screenplays, fiction, and have just done my first opera libretto (see: I do some teaching as well. I think a lot about writing, and I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and form, the different forms storytelling (and writing) can take, what that means, what tools different mediums use to construct their worlds.

    What I’m interested in, as a writer, is building worlds. It seems like interactive fiction – games particularly – is a place where worlds are being built, so I’m fascinated by that, and I’d like to explore it. I’ve spent the last few weeks just reading about games, types of games, etc. and it’s really a new universe for me. I’ve also read that it can be hard for writers from other mediums to write interactive fiction, because you have to take it on its own terms and create within that, and I think that’s interesting as well.

    Anyhow, I’m in rural southern Chile for a few weeks, far away from games and consoles – so all I’ve been able to do is read up a bit. But I’ve just found a kind of house of games in the nearest town, and so now I’m going to go play.

    Thanks again for your suggestions, comments, patience – for this (less than rank) amateur!


  8. Hi Tom and all,

    Really interesting topic, and before reading the answers (and your suggestions) I already had a couple of games that sprung into mind. But first, a couple of words about a few games that have been suggested so far:

    - Braid: Yes, I consider it one of the best games I've played the last few years and its narrative is certainly very weird/original/etc., but I really think that this game appeals to more seasoned players mostly. The levels become difficult even early on, and will discourage people (I've seen that happening before my very eyes, people thinking that they nailed a level, only to find out that they need to do it all over again because they neglected something... oops!).

    - Portal 1: Hmmm, this game isn't as difficult as Braid (at least imho!), but I don't know if I'd wanted to suggest a 3D FPS game to someone that never touched games before.
    (besides, perhaps recommending masterpieces to unsuspected people might set the quality bar too high, and when they discover that most games are mediocre in comparison, they might get a bit disenchanted ;))

    - Every day the same dream: Hmmm, I dunno if I'd wanted to suggest an art game to someone that's only beginning to get involved with gaming. It can easily make the player wonder what's happening there!

    Anyway, to get to my suggestions:

    Prince of Persia (the original one, not the sequels): Sparse text and plot advancement (a few cut scenes here and there once a level finshes), but the player gets instant gratification just marvelling at the animated sprites and swordfights.

    Another world (AKA Out of this world): Almost no text on this one too, but I think that the narrative progresses as you pass each screen (i.e. you feel that the game conveys messages the same time you're playing). Wonderful game.

    The Secret of Monkey Island 1 and 2: Here the theme is dialogue and puzzle solving. No action happening, so the player can take as much time as he/she wants to go through the game. Captivating backgrounds and very witty dialogue, coupled with nice puzzles.

    Machinarium: Again an adventure game like the Monkey Island series. but this one again has no dialogue. Nevertheless the story progression is brilliant.

    Star Guard ( A free platform game that uses the blank space for narrative, i.e. as you advance through the levels, the unused blocks are filled with the background story. The player can totally omit this, but it makes up for a much richer gaming experience.

    A friend also urged me to recommend The Longest Journey. To quote him, "best narrative ever". :)

  9. I'd be inclined to back Limbo because without using a single word (bar HOTEL, if memory serves) it manages to forge one of the most engaging, morosely poetic game worlds of recent memory.

    And obviously Resident Evil too.

  10. I have decided recently that Portal 1 has (relatively major) issue of requiring a certain amount of spatial navigation skills (more so than other FPS) that can only be learned from spending some previous time navigating 3d worlds. While it is manageable, and its obviously built to be so, its not quite worth the plot that starts 2/3s of the way into the game.

    Personally I've started to believe a large part of Portal's importance came through the time of release. Playing it again (before Portal 2) my relationship with it has changed significantly. The narrative just doesn't have proper pacing, though the writing is often impressive.

    (It is still one of my favorite games of all time. But I've gained understanding of *why* I like and don't like it; and the narrative is NOT a reason I like it...)

    Also Heavy Rain odd choice.

    Most of the best narrative moments I've encountered have been in small indie games, these often are able to take a specific moment and present them well... To a certain extent many of the best narrative "moments" have been in games that otherwise have poorly executed's a difficult problem. (Bioshock is what I'm thinking of there...)

    What about stuff like Prince of Persia? That's a more straight forward narrative, I suppose...

    (My problem with Valve's narratives is often the more interesting bits involve exploration; which not all new gamers (or gamers in general) are going to immediately pick up on...)

    I'm not sure I have a clear direction with this comment anymore, so...

  11. It's amazing how few games there are out there that are really polished experiences and don't have the random game-y elements that outsiders could be forgiven for just not wanting to put up with.

    Both Portal games immediately sprung to mind when I saw the question. I agree with Braid, though it is quite hard and you need to solve literally every puzzle to get to the ending which is important to witness. The other big indie game of 2008 might be worth a mention: World of Goo. Depends how narrative heavy you want but it certainly creates a great charming world and says a lot without words. I've seen Flower mentioned before as being a good game for those new to games, though maybe that's more in terms of controls than anything else - I get the sense there's a narrative in there from what I've heard.

    Maybe worth mentioning the most indie stripped down 'narrative' of all: Rod Humble's 'The Marriage' which at least useful as a touchstone how interactive experiences can be used. Actually, now I've said that it occurs to me that 'Passage' would be the better (free) short, indie game to mention. I think that's probably perfect for someone in Talaya's position and for demonstrating that branch of interactive storytelling.

  12. Returned with slight direction:

    Gravity Bone
    Rest to Reset
    Small Worlds

  13. The Sims. Any version, really, just as a crash course in dynamic storytelling and world building with autonomous systems.

    Creating space for player narrative, provoking it and responding to it in interesting ways are, I think, big parts of writing for an interactive medium. If you can't have Dwarf Fortress than The Sims is probably the next best thing :)

  14. I guess it depends on what kind of writing you're looking for.

    As an introduction to the many types and tropes I'd suggest:

    Baldur's Gate (Probably II, Planescape:Torment is atypical) - The kind of quest-giving NPC talking posts that still dominate RPGs. Somewhat hampered by clunkiness these days (walking is sloooooow. XP awards are super stingy).

    Mercenary: Escape from Targ: Simple, sparse open world that does a lot with a little text (Can you avoid annoying the Palyar Commander's Brother in Law, or does it become a sport?) Sequel Damocles is probably better, but you'd need this for context.

    System Shock II: Messing with your heeeaaaad unreliable guide. Lots of audio logs.

    Deus Ex/II: Many tableaux stories not explicitly told, but there to be uncovered. And, yes, Invisible War does this as well. Depends how much you're put off by template templar tosh.

    Psychonauts: How quickly we forget. An absolute gem of dialogue.

    Half-Life: Lovely corridor-shooter that first pulled off adding a meaningful plot, allowed a range of character projection onto Gordon Freeman. Save points rather widely spaced for today's tastes, but I would love to play this for the first time again. The sequel is an excellent example of more is less.

    Fallout 3/New Vegas: Immersive, consistent world building with moral challenges.

    Alter Ego: Complete life simulation in a very compact and accessible form. Meaningful decisions and deliberately sparse description allow real depth to flourish in you head.

    The Ur-Quan Masters/Starflight/Traveller: These early SFCRPGS really manage epic, galaxy spanning stories that few attempt these days. Ur-Quan Masters is probably most accessible, and has great character and dialogue trees. Combat may be off-puttingly hard to actually win though. Starflight manages a great denoument, but you've seriously got to put in the hours to get there. It seriously lessens the impact if you don't.

    Worlds of Ultima: Martian Dreams. Similar, fun uncovering of epic story but with Psychonaut-esque journeys into the subconscious of your favourite Victorian celebs.

    To be honest, I'd personally avoid Braid; You need to be too deeply immersed in games culture to 'get' it.

    Also, as an exercise, I'd suggest playing Minecraft and trying to figure out how you'd add narrative without spoiling it.

  15. Tch, and I forgot GTA 3/Vice City. Visit the series before the internal tension between silly, knockabout world and 'edgy' main character arc get too ridiculous.

  16. I don't think games like Half-Life, Psychonauts and the Grand Theft Auto series are good choices for a non-gamer - the game mechanics and controls are too complex, in my opinion. I think it's better to start slow and build from there :)

    I'm not saying non-gamers are incompetent in that sense, just that playing those kind of video games requires a type of mindset and skills that most non-gamers probably are not used to. Video games are different beasts to most other forms of activities.

    A few suggestions:

    - I'll second Tom's suggestion on Everyday The Same Dream.
    - Today is the day I Die. A very short, free browser game. Maybe more like interactive poetry than a game.
    - Haven't played it myself, but The Path might be worth trying.
    - For a second "tier" of gaming experience (a bit more "complex"), The Longest Journey and the sequel Dreamfall. Both have their pros and cons: TLJ probably has the best story, but some of the puzzles use "cartoon logic" opposed to real world logic. The interactive parts of Dreamfall are a bit more accessible, the story is still good but, in my opinion, not as good as the one in TLJ. Talaya, if you get stuck, there are some good guides at

  17. Sorry, the correct title is Today I Die.

  18. Woo! Hello everybody, I'd missed you. Marketing lesson #217: if you're after comments, pose your header as a question ;-)

    I absolutely agree with the less buttons approach (or the Wii-rule as I call it in my head and nowhere else). What's lovely is that these days many fo the most interesting games do actualyl simplfy their controls in this way. Still, I've even seen games like Everyday the Same Dream completely stump an outsider in ways I couldn't have imagined.

    I'm not even slightly familiar with Silent Hill: Shattered Memories; no worries, it's in the post as we speak. It actually sounds worryingly similar to a successful pitch I just made.

    I'll defend Heavy Rain on the basis that while it has many flaws (including uncanny valley) none of them, to my mind, outweighs the accessibility and dramatic emphasis of the experience.

    I love a lot of the suggestions here (World of Goo and Small Worlds particularly strike a chord as being simple expressions of very fleshed out worlds, and The Sims is a clear front runner), but I'd definately argue that Another World is particularly punishing for a newcomer, and that other adventures (particularly the Longest Journeys) really don't begin to show off *interactive* narrative at its full potential.

    I've maintained for some time that games - while having a massive learning curve for those not brought up on them - also have one of the most loveliest communities of any industry. Thanks so much for demonstrating that claim to Talaya so thoroughly :-)

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. Yes, I realise that my suggestions were a bit on the complex side.

    I think I was more suggesting games that were an excellent introduction to narrative-in-games, rather than introductions to games as games. Qua, indeed.

    Alter Ego's worth a look for the most ham-fisted of newbies, though. It's a little gem.

    I'd be afraid to recommend many modern Indie/art games, because they're just too po-faced.

  21. TJ:
    "(...)and that other adventures (particularly the Longest Journeys) really don't begin to show off *interactive* narrative at its full potential."

    Well, I guess it depends on how you define "interactive narrative", but that's probably a discussion for some other time :)

    That said, both games have solid interactivity but are not the prime examples of the media in that light, as already, sort of, touched upon.

    The main reason I personally mentioned them is because, from my experience, very few games success at what we're discussing here: 1) Are easy to play, 2) have interesting interactive narrative, 3) have a world that supports the narrative and interactivity in a natural way. A lot of games have 2 out of 3, but not all 3. And I think the TLJ's probably have 2,5 out of 3 :)

  22. Where's my edit button when I'm too tired to write? :)
    Success = succeed.

  23. Hey all,

    Thank you! Very exciting and very helpful and very thought provoking. Great help for me to follow how you are thinking about these games/what works/doesn't work for you - awesome stuff! I hope I have as much fun playing as reading the discussion! Talaya

  24. You're after "narratively interesting" in particular, right? I think that's an entirely different question from "games to introduce the world of gaming to a non-gamer".

    I'll vote another no to Braid. Too hard, meant for people already bum-deep in the subculture, and doesn't integrate narrative very well, in any case.

    Another World is fine, I think. One or two buttons (don't recall whether jump is dedicated) and you have to learn most of it from scratch whether you've been playing games for ten years or never touched one. Obviously useless if your audience is impatient with repeating sequences until they get them right, though.

    I also think you're mistaken about Torment. The interface was never great, and AD&D can put off even hardened nerds who aren't familiar with it, but the combat's easy and infrequent and I think a "non-gamer" would be less likely to have trouble with it looking old, not more.

    Digital's another fairly obvious choice, I would think, even though I'm not keen on it.

    Kyratzes' You Shall Know The Truth has some quite good examples of atmospheric tricks that are somewhat uniquely gamey, depending on user interaction really to work. Has the advantage over most of these of being free and very short. Sledgehammer-subtlety political, which could offend, but it at least doesn't slap you about the face with any conclusions.

    Blade Runner does some neat things that require it to be a video game - the narrative's reactive and semi-randomized. A couple of ham-fisted action sequences are the only obstacles I remember, only one of which you aren't allowed to fail.

    Looking at the comments, for "world building" (which I'd usually consider distinct from narrative, but I'm already rambling too much) Dragon Age leaps to mind. I THINK that's pretty accessible if you put it on easy, though I'm not sure I'd recommend the time investment. So many PC games that do setting really well would be hopelessly inaccessible. I mean, System Shock!? Sure, it's fantastic if you're the sort to bludgeon your way through the interface to the good bits, but most people can't play it, "gamers" or not. SS2 isn't much better in that respect.

  25. I'd also go for something like Dragon Age. One of my friends is not really a gamer and this is the one Xbox title that she picked up and loved. Of course, being a fantasy fan helps.

    I think it's important that whatever is recommended has depth, an expansive story, character customisation and is modern (Sure, Another World is an important game but it was frustrating in its day and perhaps moreso now). Controls can be complex as long as they're not heavily dependent on dexterity. Better to have something that offers an easy way in and reveals further levels of complexity as someone starts playing it more seriously.

    I'd love to recommend Mirror's Edge for its visual and tactile beauty, its story and interesting protagonist... but the controls can be a barrier. I'd certainly give it a go, though.

    Adventures and visual novels...? Certainly The Longest Journey and perhaps some Telltale stuff.
    Interesting that Digital was mentioned. I wouldn't recommend that, but I would tentatively suggest 'don't take it personally, babe...'

  26. I've considered this question a lot over the years and my list looks pretty damn similar to yours Tom.

    Portal (girlfriend finished it)

    Braid (girlfriend played with me)

    Heavy Rain (girlfriend finished it)

    Ico (because Another World is way too punishing for a newcomer) OR Shadow of the Colossus (my mum refused to let me play this without her watching)

    I might be inclined to include Planescape as well despite its crustiness. It's just head and shoulders above so much and is very steadily paced.

    The Dream Machine is a relatively new entry because its puzzles and dialogue are so down to earth and accessible but the premise and story are really compelling as well. It also looks gorgeous.

    Everyday The Same Dream wasn't on my list but now you've mentioned it I think it fits the bill perfectly. Simple, succint and poignant. Although I'd say it was about how work estranges us from life, not the meaninglessness of it!

  27. On second thoughts, I'm not sure The Dream Machine, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus really stack up to the other games I mentioned. They're great newcomer games don't get me wrong, but they don't quite explore the relationship between interactivity and narrative so well.

  28. I instantly thought of Portal when I saw the question, either one.

    It gets rid of the 'All games are violent shooters' stereotype, the dialog is witty and compelling without repeated lines and more expression seems to be put in a voice coming from thin air than some games have in entire characters.

    Also, its my all time favorite game. Ever. In the world.

    P.S. Dwarf Fortress... oh dear. It looks absolutely brilliant, if you can bother spending hours learning it.

  29. The only problem with Portal was that I gave it to my Dad and it just made him feel ill from the disorientation.

    I also think World Of Goo is a good one, that goes on my all time favorites list as well, with a strangely compelling story and memorable experience, with a few life messages in (Notably about mankinds tendency to walk over those less fortunate than them.) and a nice ending.

    As for hl2s suggestion, its yet another all time favorite but its not something Id reccomend fora non-gamer, what with the head crabs and so on.

  30. Are we sure she meant video games, I mean, there are other types of games that include interactive storytelling. Unless I'm missing something, which may be the case, all I see is a list of video games and nothing more.

  31. Interesting that Braid and Silent Hill Shattered Memories are subversive video games made FOR gamers yet are mentioned as games for non-gamers. Sure, I would recommend them to non-gamers, but both are very much embedded in their respective semiotic domains and as such are comments on their mediums/traditions - Braid being a postmodern work and commentary embedded in a larger context of video game literacy/design theory/critique, and Shattered Memories being a game whose powerful story stems from it being embedded in the Silent Hill franchise and the expectations/baggage that come with it*.

    Portal too was claimed to be subversive due to its non-shootesque First Person nature, something which would strike a gamer as more different/potentially jarring than a non-gamer, but I think that's more in theory than practice.


  32. Also, I've played Silent Hill, Portal 1/2, Braid, Limbo, Today I Die, Life Flashes By and Psychonauts with non-gamers, which worked quite fine. Journey would work too, as would many other indie games. Telltale games are good, but I wouldn't want to play them WITH someone else (gamer or non-gamer), since the dialogue has a timer. First Person Games I've had trouble with, seeing how they are quite disorientating for the person not playing (even for me, and I'm used to First Person Games!), except for Portal.

    I would like to try Beyond Good & Evil, Grim Fandango, and Dear Esther or Gone Home with non-gamers. But perhaps I wouldn't recommend all of them just like that for non-gamers. Also Super Mario games are usually enjoyed by most people. :)