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 twoHere are some starting points from my end.
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."
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?