There are great many games in which the primary activity is to battle men or monsters. That will never change, and there is no reason that it should change: escapism and tales of heroism have been fulfilling, healthy and culturally productive uses of the human imagination since the dawn of this species. However, when the wider world looks at the gaming world, very often it sees only these games. It believes that games are only about killing, and that this makes all games – and the people who play them – dangerous and ugly. That perception is an inaccurate one, and increasingly so. Often it is said that games could do more, but the truth is that they do do more.
There are games that are literary, games that are socially-conscious, games that are political, games that explore the human condition, games that investigate love and loss, games about family, games about history, games about culture, games about art. Games about humanity. Games for humanity.
So many people do not play games, or revile games because they think they are supposed to, or because they believe that games are only one thing. These are the games, both paid and free, to show to those people.
This is very important: to praise the games below is not to criticise anything else, or to argue that games should only be like these things. Games should be about as many different things as possible. These games are not the enemy to other games. These are not the ‘best’ games. These games are in this list purely because they just might be a way into games for people who otherwise would actively resist even trying to play games. For that reason these are, in the majority, games which don’t require significant familiarity with games in order to play them. Games which do require that familiarity have been excluded.
This is not intended to be a definitive list, and further suggestions are welcome. A second and final list of games will follow shortly.
A few common controls to know if you don’t play games:
The W, A, S, D buttons on your keyboard often correlate to moving your character Up, Left, Down and Right respectively. In some cases, you will do this with one hand while moving the mouse to adjust your ‘camera’ with the other. WASD movement is essentially controlling your character’s legs, while the mouse/’camera’ is your character’s head. Performing separate actions with each hand can seem daunting at first, but rapidly becomes easy with a small amount of practice.
The E, F or Spacebar keys are commonly used to interact with items or people in a game.
The Left and Right mouse buttons will often have different effects.
The Escape button will often take you to a menu from where you can change game settings, save or load progress or exit it. Escape often also acts as a pause key.
The most commonly-cited example of Why Games Matter, to the point that Charlie Brooker even tried to get Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow to play it, but that doesn’t for one minute mean it shouldn’t be a go-to game when attempting to demonstrate that this medium is a powerful way of exploring socio-political and even literary concepts.
Papers, Please is a game in which you play as an immigration officer working on the border gate of an oppressive nation. It asks you fulfill your bureaucratic duty – specifically, checking that citizens’ paperwork has been filled in correctly and truthfully – even when presented with acute and escalating human suffering. It reveals the terrible dilemma of how to be philanthropic when the safety and health of you and those you love is on the line. It shines a light on the pernicious ways in which a regime can have complete control over a people who know full well they’re being mistreated. It will always be relevant to the world in which we live. If only it wasn’t.
A game about politics, for people who care about politics. While Democracy 3 can be turned to the pursuit of utopia, this is not so much a fantasy government game as it is a tool to experiment with policy, and the repercussions thereof. Relatively simple to control – you spend most of your time clicking clearly-labelled menu options – but requiring a decent grasp of political ideologies to master, perhaps Democracy 3’s key lesson is power means compromise. Making grand promises to the electorate and to your traditional supporters is one thing, but keeping the ship afloat is another thing entirely. In an age of increasingly cartoonish and untrustworthy politics, Democracy 3 goes some way to explaining why our politicians so rarely do what they say they’ll do. A fascinating and enlightening simulation.
In an ideal world, many more games would enable the player to see from a perspective different from their own. ‘Giant, many-tentacled sea monster’ is perhaps taking that to an extreme, but at the same time The Majesty Of Colours can go where other mediums fear to tread. With you as the creature exploring the human world and experimenting with its own, potentially devastating abilities, you can adopt and shape its mindset, not simply be told what it is. Be gentle or be lethal to what appears around you (once again, a simple act of clicking), then see how you feel about your actions. You’re a god being presented with beauty, but it may be that you choose to destroy rather than admire that beauty.
Lionised and lambasted to extremes, Gone Home is often cited because of its narrator’s sexuality, or because its story is uncovered more through the act of simple exploration than it is traditional game interactions such as puzzle-solving. I think to focus on either is to miss the point of what it did so well. Gone Home is about the generation gulf between a parent and their teenage child, and about the forming of one’s identity in a culture that even today errs towards homogeneity. It is also about the creation of a mood, an atmosphere, a tone with images and sounds – borrowing from art and cinema, but establishing ways in which a game world, and that key concept that the player is in it rather than simply observing it, can accentuate that. This is a game which a non-gamer need only walk around, and thus not rapidly need to learn confusing new skills, in order to be given a clear and concise sense of what it is games can do that no other medium can.
Art and history, covering the CIA and MI6-orchestrated downfall of Iran’s first democratically-elected Prime Minister. Superficially a beyond-gentle game about controlling Mohammed Mossadegh’s cat, in fact this calmly and with great visual creativity relates the collusion between western powers and the oil industry – perhaps one of the most disastrous foreign policy mistakes of the last century, given the far-reaching and ongoing consequences. Game as documentary, and more powerful because the player is participant rather than mere observer.
This action-free ghost story (of a sort) belongs to a very new genre which has informally become known as ‘walking simulators’ – the next two games can also be given that label. These games are interested in atmosphere and imagery more than they are in ‘traditional’ gaming interactions, and usually involve no controls other than movement. Simply, their goal is to enable the player to visit a place which does not exist. Some tell tales, some are surrealistic, some strive purely for beauty, but all break down the idea that games are about skill or reflex, action or high scores, as well as confounding the presumption that the only way for games to evolve is to ape cinema. These sorts of games are seen by a vocal subset of players as a pressing threat to the continued existence of first-person shooters et al, but do of course co-exist comfortably in the way the movie industry can support both Michael Bay and Terence Malick.
Dear Esther specifically is set on an abandoned Hebridean island, and allows limited exploration through a series of beautiful and sometimes startling environments, as a narrator shares fragments of his tragic past. It is left to the player to interpret what they hear.
This walking simulator eschews any attempt at photo-realism in favour of an impressionistic art style, all swathes of colour and loose shapes, creating a pastel-hued paradise that could not exist beyond a screen. Simply move through it, in whichever direction you choose, seeing what light and sound changes occur as you approach or leave its plants and structures. Proteus plays with the essence of why humans respond to wildlife and trees, to sunsets and to solitude, rather than striving for an inevitably unconvincing simulacrum of what we already have. It’s a retreat, somewhere special to take your senses to without exertion or expense.
If Proteus is about the essence of the uninhabited world, then Bernband is about the essence of the inhabited world. Nominally a walking simulator set in an alien city, really it’s conjuring the feeling of being in any strange city – the scale and noise and disorientation, the destabilisation and faint menace of familiar sights – architecture, life – in a new and confusing context. Walk through its streets and feel like an alien yourself. It also has giant flappy hands, but that’s another story.
A game about life, love and loss, told wordlessly. Extremely lo-fi, perhaps to a fault, but this is about the power of the moving image when that moving image can be controlled. No gaming experience whatsoever is required here – just move in a direction of your choice and see what happens, then see how you feel about it.
Of everything on this list, this one might just be the most difficult for a non-gamer to get to grips with. The two titular brothers are controlled via the same gamepad, and puzzles flow from that – how to make each hand manoeuvre a different character? -which frankly creates some head-scratching even for seasoned gamers. Still, give it a shot, perhaps with more experienced help on hand, because this is another wordless game that tells an affecting bittersweet tale through sheer force of visual expression. Given how many games concern the combative, this is a rare example of a relatively mainstream title exploring familial bonds and co-operation.
Perhaps an overly-obvious choice as this series of people simulators has achieved so much crossover success and attendant mainstream coverage already, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating or ambitious a prospect. The goal is loose – take care, or otherwise of a suburban individual or a family, pursuing betterment, romance and creature comforts as you see fit. The doll’s house surface belies that The Sims is an extremely game-y game, all about adjusting meters and acquiring better items, not just about picking wallpaper or luring the neighbours into bed (though that too is essentially a ‘mission’, albeit a player-driven one rather than one mandated by the game). For all its societal theming, for all the lack of violence or bombast, The Sims is built upon the same hooks that keep people playing a World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. The Sims can teach us why humans enjoy games, and that it’s removed the traditional young male-focused surface in favour of personal soap opera allows it to have more universal appeal. Of the many Sims games, 3 is broadly considered to be most accomplished.
An unhurried road trip which is perhaps the strongest declaration of recent years that games can be as literate as any other medium. Kentucky Route Zero is easy to play – just click a dialogue option or a destination and see what happens – but rather more difficult to explain. It’s steeped in influences from stage, screen and page but uses them to weave something singular rather than a mess of homages. This is a ghostly otherworld of Americana in which every line and every one of its backdrops drips with allusion and undertone, but it resists direct statement. It prefers to leave that to the player – you choose what your characters say not to solve puzzles or prompt particular reactions, but because you’re making them act in the way you want them to act. Are they kind or are they impatient? Are they running from a murky past or just seeing where the road takes them? Do they regret, or do they yearn? It’s up to you. Kentucky Route Zero is theatre, with you as both director and star.
Text adventures are a particularly fertile ground for exploring beyond games’ traditional stomping grounds. Whether that’s because words are inherently more powerful than a rendered image or because the games industry simply won’t fund titles which explore the human condition beyond simple tales of heroism is a matter for debate. In any case, Conversations With My Mother is a short, simple and effective text game about a parent’s attempts to come to terms with a trans child, based on developer Merrit Kopas’ own experiences with her mother. Very much about the (often unintended) power of language.
Be it the physical game or a digital adaption, Chess is as essential as it ever was to understanding videogames. Hard rules, counter-intuitive movement which in time becomes received and inarguable wisdom, abstract representation of real-life characters and concepts which leads to them taking on greater association and meaning, acute competition, mastery, the mind’s ability to plan and visualise a strategy, and to treat a scenario which has no existence beyond the confines of its tiny board or screen as, briefly, more important than anything else. Chess, or at least the part of the human mind which has responded so well to chess for centuries, is the reason why so many of today’s videogames exist at all.
More games to come in the second and final part of this article, a little later this week.
Please note: this series of articles, and the resultant comments threads, are intended purely to discuss which games should be shown to people with a disinterest in or negative view of games. It does not exist to fuel arguments about what is or is not a game, or to raise controversies surrounding the people who developed any of these titles. Comments will be heavily moderated with this in mind, and if necessary closed entirely.