I hate the term noob.
For those unfamiliar, noob is a derogatory term that refers to a new player, especially those who are unskilled. For me, this term personifies elitist gamer culture. The kind of culture that resists changes and pushes out new or unfamiliar voices in favor of the vapid power fantasies that are pillars of the industry. There should be no shame in being new at something. Similarly, there should be no shame in games that appeal to the unskilled player. Because a game is not rooted in skill does not mean that it is invalid or broken, it simply means it is different. In that spirit, here are some games that require little skill in gaming, but are remarkable and powerful experiences. These are games that push the medium forward and that question established norms. Some of them are masterpieces of design, thought, and execution. Others are interesting experiments. Whatever the case, if you are interested in games as a storytelling medium or as an experience, but do not know where to start, these are games for you.
1. Gone Home
This one contains Riot Grrrls, strong swears, sexy times(not explicit, only in text), and teenage shenanigans. It is available on Windows, Mac, Linux, PS4, and Xbox One.
What a simple thing of incredible beauty. In the 1990s, Katie returns home from a study abroad to find her parent’s house completely empty. A note from her sister telling Katie not to try and find her is the only means of explanation. Katie resolves to explore the house until she finds answers. The game itself consists of exploring the space, listening to diary entries, and piecing together the narrative. This is a structure that is uniquely suited to video games. Giving the player control of the pace gives the story a pulsing immediacy. It allows the player to discover and find things that draw out a narrative step by step. Each space brings to mind places we have all encountered in our lives. This simplicity makes Gone Home evocative and real. It feels universal. Too many games explore special people. The player is a god-like hero with a lot of power. In Gone Home, people are people. They are broken, struggling, and beautiful. The game lets live with a few ordinary people for a few hours. In so doing, it makes something that is both present and abiding.
This one contains strong swears, intense themes concerning mental illness, and a drawing of a naked man. It is available on Windows, Mac, Linux, and PS4.
Firewatch is of a similar breed to Gone Home’s exploration. It also consists of walking and exploring, but in a national park. The player has taken a summer job to watch for fires. This job is an escape from the troubles of his normal life. Thus, Firewatch ends up being a meditation on escapism, on the influence our pasts can have on us, and how we choose to react and exist with that influence. The beautiful, painterly national park serves as a emotional landscape for the examination of those themes. For the most part, it works. The scenery manages to feel more real and wondrous than most hyper realistic games. The writing is sharp, but human. The story dodges the conventional to ask interesting questions of the player. As an examination of normal, flawed people and the things that drive them, it soars.
3. Fallen London
This one contains crime, politics, violence, drugs, and sex. Not explicit. Only in text. It is a browser based game that also has an app on iOS.
This is a role-playing game. For those unfamiliar, a role playing game, or an RPG, is a game in which the players create and/or take on a character in another universe. The most influential of the early RPGs is Dungeons and Dragons which essentially allowed players to play archetypes from Lord of the Rings in adventures of their own imagining. Fallen London is great because it reduces the often overly complex RPG to its basics and fills up the void with remarkably sharp and engaging world-building.
Due to mysterious and supernatural circumstances, Victorian London has sunk below the surface of the earth. Since being cut off, London has become a very strange place. Devils, octopus people and once dead men all walk the streets of London together. Tensions brew between hell and the church, the police and revolutionaries, and everything in between. The game places you, as a new citizen, in this city and asks you to find your way. There are four broad paths available: you can make your living as a socialite and an artist, as a detective and philosopher, as a sneak and a thief, or as a brute. However, any companion or level of these different paths is available. My player description classifies me as “a captivating and observant individual of mysterious and indistinct gender” while other examples could be “an alluring and sly lady” or a “a persuasive and shadowy gentleman.” The game itself considers of being offered opportunities and choices and deciding how to act, based on your various skills. The result is true role playing. Many current RPGs are diluted and ultimately focus on various ways of killing. Fallen London allows for flexibility. Expression is at its heart and therefore the game is both empowering and thought-provoking.
4. 80 Days
This one contains kissing, mild violence, and adventuring. It is available on Windows, Mac, and mobile devices.
I’ve said my piece about 80 Days here. Play it. It is great (even my mom likes it.)
5. The Walking Dead
This one contains strong swears, intense gory violence, heartbreak, and zombies. It is available on Windows, Mac, mobile devices, Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, and PS3.
The Walking Dead is not a horror game, although it has plenty of horror. This is not a game about zombies or scares or thrills, but about the beauty and terrible evil that lies at the heart of humanity. You are a monster as well as a hero, but the game finds no shame in that. It weaves all of the terrible decisions, heroic acts, evil intentions, and broken dreams into a story about humanity’s goodness. A story about how every life is worth it. The premise of the story is as familiar as any given zombie story. However, the game understands that great zombie stories are really about the victims and how they interact with each other. Great zombie stories are about how danger and dramatic change can both tear our humanity apart and put it together again. The Walking Dead surprised and shocked the gaming world when it first appeared. It revitalized a dying genre. It did all that by going small. It did it by making the story human. In video games, that is a rare and magical thing.