The Beginner’s Guide: A Journey Through Genres

One day I’ll write a Desert Island Discs about the games I’d keep with me until the end of days, given a choice of ten. It’ll no doubt be a Desert Island Digital Downloads given the absence of physical media in my life. I live with the ghosts of entertainment.

Rather than compiling the list of games I’d take to the Vault with me though, today I’m aiming to put together a collection, one from each genre, that I’d use to introduce those genres to a PC gaming newcomer, or a lapsed gamer. A friend inspired this particular bundle of joy, someone who grew up with an Amiga but developed other interests and hasn’t touched a game for more than a few minutes at a time, either console or PC, for over fifteen years. A recent illness has left him unable to engage in his usual outdoor hobbies and games have filled the gap.

This is a person who thought of Cannon Fodder as the greatest marvel of digital gaming until recently, someone who has no preconceived notions as to which games he might enjoy. That’s why I’ve picked what I consider to be the best introductions to each of five genres. Games that don’t require the player to bring knowledge of their particular genre to the fray, and that (preferably) demonstrate the best of modern tech and design. And, yes, as that latter point suggests, I’ve chosen games released in recent years because sometimes, pointing someone toward the past can be immediately off-putting, either suggesting that nothing worthwhile has happened since or that they need to respect and learn from history in order to appreciate what is being released in this decade.

Without further ado, here’s what I picked:

FPS: Wolfenstein – The New Order

The New Order is perfect for my needs. There’s continuity – my buddy played a whole heap of Wolfenstein 3D back in the day – and the game itself is fantastically entertaining. More than that though, it’s a superb introduction to many of the modern trends in FPS games. There’s the optional stealth kills that make The New Order more than just a shooter, the gloriously dramatic setpieces (including the ruined bridge level that reminds me of my favourite Half Life 2 area), and the presence of characters and cutscenes that sit alongside the action but never overwhelm it and rarely overstay their welcome.

I rarely make the time to play the latest big budget shooter but The New Order not only feels like a decent tour of modern FPS conventions, it’s also a game that looks to the past but holds great promise for the future. I can’t wait to see what MachineGames do next.

Puzzle: Portal & Portal 2

The first game sets the scene, introducing one of the most brilliant concepts I can remember seeing in a game and telling a simple but effective story in the background as the puzzles jump from chamber to chamber. Portal 2 is the main course though. While solutions are more prescribed – or at least seemed that way when I first played – the pacing suited me perfectly. I always wanted to see more of the story and never felt as if I was being kept from it for too long by the puzzles. A puzzle would interrupt the story for just long enough to trigger a happy response in my brain when I managed to move on, and the entire game is a masterclass in narrative design, embedding characters and voices within the player’s experience so that they accompany rather than demanding attention from afar.

Strategy: Civilization V

As with Wolfenstein, there’s continuity here. I remember comparing notes about our first games of Civ 1 many years ago. Firaxis’ latest entry in the series isn’t my favorite (Civ IV, still) but the user interface is one of the smartest pieces of design I can remember seeing in a strategy game. I bet my old mum could pick up Civ V and have moderate success if she spent half an hour with it and she still thinks it costs me 50p every time I send an email.

With its two meaty expansions, fleshing out every portion of the game, Civ V is an excellent, attractive turn-based strategy package. It might not be open to as many actual long-term strategic approaches as some of its predecessors and peers, but there’s so much pleasure in that first playthrough and it’s the perfect gateway into Endless Legend and the rest. Of course, I’d love to throw everyone straight into Crusader Kings II but, for many, that’s the pathway to frustration and an enduring hatred of the entire genre. It seems incredible to refer to a game that covers six thousand years of human history and culture as a baby step – but in strategy terms, Civ V fulfills that function perfectly.

RPG: Legend of Grimrock II

We’re skipping the first in the series this time around, not because the original Legend of Grimrock isn’t a decent game but because the sequel is superior in every way, and requires no knowledge of its predecessor. It’d be easy to dismiss Almost Human’s grid-based first-person dungeon crawler as an exercise in nostalgia and while that’s certainly part of the appeal, it’s far from the whole story. Grimrock is Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master as I remember them rather than as they actually are, but it’s also a pure expression of the kind of party-based adventuring that we enjoyed as kids. The story is loose enough to allow for lots of creative input from the player(s) and while it’s an authored experience – nothing procedural here – the journey always felt like it belonged to me.

More RPGs: The Witcher 3 and Divinity: Original Sin

I’m cheating but it’d be pigheaded in the extreme not to include two of my favourite games of recent years. Divinity will be played in the form of its Enhanced Edition and it’ll be our cooperative game of choice. The Witcher 3 has to be on the list because it’s just that good and bollocks to anyone who reckons you need to play the first two – I managed a couple of hours on each, and The Wild Hunt is one of my favourite games of all time.

Games Like Cannon Fodder: Hotline Miami and Broforce

Cannon Fodder is the last game we enjoyed together, my pal and I, back when we were at school and had almost all of life ahead of us. I’ve never tired of killing tiny men on my screen, but I wonder if my two Cannon Fodder proxies will appeal. Broforce almost certainly will but I wonder if Hotline Miami leans too heavily on its small loops of killing and dying. I love it and I’m one of the few who adores the sequel as well, but I’m not sure it’ll appeal. The soundtrack is excellent though and considering how much we loved that daft War’s Never Been So Much Fun tune, it seems fitting.

If you have suggestions of your own, drop them below.

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45 Comments

  1. daphne says:

    An excellent list. Even my frown upon seeing Civ V (as opposed to IV) was brief and slight, given how well you justified it.

    While the picks are all well-considered, an entire category is missing: “Something Weird.” I’d fall victim to the availability heuristic and nominate Undertale, but surely there are more fitting choices. Frog Fractions? Papers, Please? Limbo? The Binding of Isaac? VVVVVV?

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      Yeah, all theses suggestions show your friend how far games have come, but they’re all recognisable to an Amiga gamer.
      How about some games that show how far the medium as a whole has come along?

      (Also, thinking about this, and that Dizzy post make me realise how much of our modern gaming is just a re-tread with better graphics of what we used to play on the Amiga)

      • PopeRatzo says:

        If a person hasn’t played games since the 90’s, why would you want to give them something that looks like the 90’s? Blow their minds. Give them something they haven’t seen before.

  2. neoncat says:

    hack-n-slash / beat-em-up: Bastion + Dust
    point-and-click: Kentucky Route Zero + Machinarium
    puzzle: Hexcells
    2d-scroller: Trine
    platforming: Grow Home

    • jgf1123 says:

      I love abstract puzzles (I’m in the middle of a packet of 3 puzzles I received this morning from the GMPuzzles Patreon), but I disagree about Hexcells. While not an unpleasant way to kill time, Hexcells was just a way to kill time. Put on an audiobook and grind through a board of mostly trivial moves with the rare deduction that required a bit of thought. It wasn’t boring, but neither was it all that interesting or challenging.

    • RaunakS says:

      Oh wow, Machinarium looks absurdly beautiful. I’m going to go buy it now.

    • EighthNote says:

      Grow Home is my favorite.

  3. PopeRatzo says:

    Burnout Paradise.

    That is all.

    I guess, if you need guns and killing, Far Cry 3 or 4.

    Oh, and Fallout: New Vegas.

  4. fuggles says:

    I miss my Amiga. They remade superfrog in you know?

    Naturally dawn of war, but also double dragon neon and super time force ultra

    • Kefren says:

      Just install an emulator and ROM, and you can play them all again on your PC. I have a Kempston-type USB joystick I use for them.

  5. OmNomNom says:

    What is a lapsed gamer?

  6. Andrew says:

    Not as a “example of a [blank] genre”, but good condensed experience of what games can do today: “Brothers”. First, it can teach you how to use a gamepad. Second, good story without words. Third, “right in the feels”.

    Similar, but with words and less complicated in controls department — “Gone Home”.

    Dropping someone new(ish) right into “Civ” or “Witcher” is… manslaughtery.

  7. FrumiousBandersnatch says:

    Awww, from the title i expected something about Wredens thinkpiece.

  8. Suits says:

    Also a very good strategy game for newcomers is XCOM:enemy unkown, one of the few recent ones aside from Civ V I could only ever get into

  9. JakeOfRavenclaw says:

    I have never, ever felt so out of step with the critical consensus as I did with Wolfenstein: The New Order. Played about four hours of it and just could not stand the thought of doing any more. I think it was mostly the aggressively ugly, relentlessly dull environments, although the encounter design was pretty bland too. And you have to manually hoover up every single piece of armor and ammo off of the floor (seriously, even Doom let you automatically pick this stuff up), and the stealth isn’t developed enough to actually be interesting, and it expects you to care about characters who you’ve met two minutes previously (what the fuck was up with the suicide bomber guy? Was I supposed to have any kind of investment in his fate?) It was just so, so boring. Sorry for the rant, but I dropped $20 on it the other day, and after all the glowing reviews I’d seen the actual experience was tremendously disappointing (especially since I’m someone who loved HL2, Bioshock, Metro, Bulletstorm, etc).

    Anyway. Broforce is a wonderful game, and I do hope it’s finding a wide audience. It’s the only early access title I’ve ever purchased, and it’s been a real pleasure diving back in every time new characters are released. Would definitely recommend it.

  10. Urthman says:

    Spelunky.

  11. lepercake says:

    I feel liker Stalker SoC belongs here. Something about its gritty eastern European take on what a shooter with role-playing elements could (nay, should) be just gets me every time. It handles stealth amazingly well for its time, and with gun mods and missions it’s basically what I want every shooter ever to be. I also like seeing a group and bandits ravaged by invisible hell beasts as I sneakily make my way through all their chests (some of which don’t spawn loot before you’ve read some dead bastards pda, but you can’t have everything, can you.)

    Complete mod derp.

    • Premium User Badge

      Qazinsky says:

      “…but you can’t have everything, can you.”

      Well, I sure couldn’t, when I played an earlier version and the game bugged out and all containers were always empty.

    • James T says:

      If you want everything, play Call of Pripyat. The perfected STALKER, I don’t know why it doesn’t get more praise.

  12. mikespoff says:

    I feel like there should be a third-person adventure game here, since it’s really a substantial genre on its own. Shadow of Mordor is the one I’ve had most fun with recently, but ACIV: Black Flag would be the best alternative.

    And I’m delighted to see Civ V here: I understand that people have a lot of sentimental attachment to earlier entries in the series, but V is a perfect entry point. I’t s gorgeous, and the hex tiles are a great improvement. And with the extensions (and mods) it has all the features you could ask for.

    I haven’t played Legend of Grimrock, but I might go for Skyrim as my entry point to RPGs. Again, it’s very pretty, and allows for enormous freedom of action and true “role playing”. And unlike Witcher 3, it doesn’t require a beast of a computer to run.

  13. w0bbl3r says:

    Some more games for your friend to consider:

    Batman arkham asylum (no word on arkham knight please, asylum is the best one anyway).
    Metro 2033/Last light. On easy mode to start though if he is kind of a “noob” as such.
    Call of duty 1. The first one. No others. Bloody HELL no others. The first is a masterpiece of singleplayer FPS gaming in almost every way.
    Kerbal space program. For obvious reasons
    Lego star wars complete saga. If he is a star wars fan anyway. If not maybe start with the lego batman games instead.
    I could go on pretty much forever, but that would be insane.
    These are some of my favourite games, either of recent years (kerbal), or of all time (metro 2033).
    If these games, or at least one or two of them, don’t keep a “new” gamer happy, then that person is just never going to be interested in gaming.
    Some people aren’t, incredibly

  14. Pazguato says:

    Great article to proselytizing people! Congratulations.

  15. Michael Fogg says:

    World of Goo, Spelunky, DX Human Rev

  16. Frank says:

    Those are all really hardcore. I’d go with:

    Adventure — Life is Strange
    Tactics — XCOM
    Arcade FPS — Microdoctor
    MP FPS — Left 4 Dead series
    Action/strategy — Survivalist

    Simple to understand and fast to get into.

  17. Richard_from_Winnipeg says:

    I echo many sentiments already mentioned: the games should look better than retro but also should be playable on a older rig, the games should be accessible but also showcase many of the different nuances and difficulties of modern gaming, and I think the games should be landmarks in there genres.

    I personally tend to not play the latest releases as it’s cheaper and I’m also able to glean what people still talk about years later.

    My picks:

    Strategy: Warcraft III – The game has a gentle learning curve, it basically started tower defence games and it started MOBA’s, it has character development much more robust than Mechcommander (which I love), the graphics are a bit dated but it will run on basically anything now a days, it’s cheap, and it also introduces WoW and it has Blizzard polish. Sure, the storyline is a bit predictable and the cutscenes just do not match the games graphics at all but it’s really a game that I think everyone has played and appreciated playing.

    Platforming: Mark of the Ninja. This game has so many modern features but introduces them all gradually and it has a wonderful art style and theme. There are sight cues and sound cues within the stealth system and tight fighting and context sensitive actions available in the combat and skill trees and collectibles. It’s Arkham Asylum lite. For people that haven’t done a lot of modern 3d gaming I think the triple axis control, either via mouse and keyboard or controller joysticks takes some getting used to. This skips all that. If they player likes the stealth, then they can be pointed to stealth games. If they like the action/collecting they can be pointed to other hack n slash games like torchlight, Bastion, or Castle Crashers. If they like the platforming then they can be pointed to other platforming games like Ori or whatever else might suit them.

    I think I could go on and on with this topic as many could so I’ll simply hold those two out with some other honourable mentions that aren’t quite as well rounded but still and very accessible, cheap, and entertaining. The Worms games are hilarious (and best on PC), Braid is ingenious, Katawa Shoujo is touching (if it suits the individual)(and free), Sid Meier’s Pirates just because it’s awesome, and Freespace 2 as the capital ships really are truly incredible to fly around. (And World of Goo and a lot of what many other’s have suggested)

    I would not recommend D:OS as the first major quest to me was very frustrating. I felt like there were all these different minor threads that left me hanging about what I should be doing. Baldur’s Gate sucked me in, D:OS was a slog; even though the games systems are great I felt lost for what to do in the game and it was not an enjoyable feeling.

    • Premium User Badge

      Qazinsky says:

      You have to remember that D:OS is played coop in this case, so quest confusion can either be avoided or a source for schadenfreude, depending on what kind of teamplayer Adam is.

  18. adwodon says:

    To be honest I’d include Starcraft 2 in there, especially since the latest expansion is just about to come out. Obviously I wouldn’t recommend the multiplayer to anyone new unless they really wanted a challenge but the singleplayer is still the best strategy gaming out there if you enjoyed stuff like Command & Conquer back in the day.

    Same goes for Cities Skylines and even The Sims 4 if you liked those sorts of games too. The Sims 4 in particular is great if you only played the original Sims or just like the idea, its easy to pick up with a lot of depth (my gf has 120+hrs on it). The only people I see who hate on it are either people who’ve played too much of the previous ones and feel like they’re getting a bum deal in terms of content, or people who are just outright hostile to the concept or anything that isn’t hardcore.

    Top picks for FPS and RPGs, can’t fault those, although I’d also include an action adventure catagory, I guess The Witcher can kind of fill in that role but overlooking The Last of Us would be a bit of a shame, even though its a bit older I’d also throw in Arkham Asylum in that category as I think its a strong contender for best game of last generation and if you have to step back, you should go for something like that.

  19. Cinek says:

    “Puzzle: Portal & Portal 2” – really bad examples, IMHO. Portals are a very unique games, unlike almost anything else amongst puzzle games.

    “Strategy: Civilization V” – Civilization is a 4X game, not a typical strategy.

    Agreed about the rest.

  20. SuicideKing says:

    Mandatory game from the past:
    FreeSpace 2 + Source Code Project mods – because there hasn’t been another like it.

    FPS:
    Borderlands 2, Arma 3, Receiver, Halo, Insurgency

    Turn Based:
    XCOM, Xenonauts, Door Kickers

    RTS:
    Wargame – AirLand Battle or Red Dragon

    Open World:
    Sleeping Dogs

    Stealth:
    Mark of the Ninja

    Others:
    Hitman Blood Money

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    pertusaria says:

    Platformer: Rayman Oranges / Shovel Knight; I also agree with whoever said Grow Home

    Point-and-click: Botanicula / Windosill (although that’s more of a puzzle game)… maybe Knock, Knock? (I also like the Blackwell games, but they might be a bit low-fi for your purposes here)

    Thing that should be experienced: Papers, Please

    I think it’s important not to overload someone new or sorta-new with choices, so I like the idea of trying 2-3 genres to start with, seeing what sticks and having a follow-up ready in that genre but also adding in one other genre if the time seems right.

    Hope you and your friend have fun, and he gets better soon!

  22. cpt_freakout says:

    @SuicideKing Xenonauts is amazing but I do think it requires a high familiarity with gaming interfaces to even make sense of the first few screens.

    I know that the ‘survival’ genre is not well defined and whatever, but I’d also include Minecraft in the list. It’s fairly easy to get into, and might need just a minimal introduction on your behalf. You can then move to Terraria for the multiplayer, which I think is way more fun. Funnily enough, a couple years ago I gifted Terraria to my non-gamer girlfriend and once I explained the basics she became very interested in it and while we never got very far it was thoroughly enjoyable.

  23. Superted says:

    If your friend is anything like me he will put a snail in your eye when he finds out you kept him from Dirt Rally.
    Racing recognisable and simple to pick up but still shows the advancements made since the amiga days.
    So Dirt Rally and Grid Autosport, Project Cars or Asetto Corsa depending on where on the sim——arcade scale he is.

    As a sidenote Dirt Rally is my first early access game and also the most singleplayer fun I have had in many years. Great powersliding terrifying fun!

  24. DrollRemark says:

    I read an interesting point in an article the other day that a lot of people wrongly identify Portal as a good game for newcomers – they think of its legth, relative simplicity, and puzzle-solving sections as perfect for someone who might not be able to handle anything too demanding.

    But that kind of forgets that the second half of Portal turns into a very reflex-based platformer, requiring a lot of quick control skills. Exactly the kind of thing that someone who hasn’t played games before (or in a long time) will be lacking in. Those of us who aren’t lapsed, and who’ve played many FPS games over the years, don’t notice this part of the challenge in Portal, just because it’s so ingrained in us.

    • SuicideKing says:

      I made my then 14-year old sister play Portal. Then watched her get utterly confused by the concept of moving the mouse and keyboard together.

    • cliffbeall says:

      I thought my daughter would like Portal but she had motion sickness-like reaction to it. Not sure how common that is.

  25. Premium User Badge

    Benratha says:

    Maybe as a Portal alternative, would The Talos Principle be a start?
    Also in the ‘weird but wonderful’ category, you might want to consider The Stanley Parable?
    Otherwise the pause-to-reflect nature of XCOM (especially as there were older versions) or Invisible Inc could be good for a person who is re-starting PC gaming. Pretty much any of the turn-based games might be a good opener, until the whole mouse/ keyboard coordination is re-learned.
    And I know they are a bit long in the tooth, but KOTOR I & II?

  26. roz1281 says:

    I’d have to recommend Spelunky and Binding of Isaac, ‘rogue-likes’ for lack of a better term seem to be gaining popularity in modern times, and represent familiar classic game play with modern replay value and insane value for the money.

  27. ffordesoon says:

    I’m surprised no neo-adventure games (the post-TWD Telltale series, Life is Strange, a few others) are on here. Yes, they’re limited in terms of interaction, but that makes them very easy to play for newcomers and lapsed gamers. More importantly, their stories can hook you in the same way a good TV show can hook you, which is attractive to someone who’s grown accustomed to passive media over the years. The ability to influence the story’s outcome, by contrast, capably shows off the unique potential of interactive media. Finally, they’re already episodic, which allows your friend to consume a satisfying chunk of narrative in a sitting or two, just like a television drama or a film. That’s very seductive.

    Someone else suggested Skyrim rather than Witcher 3 as a good entry point into modern RPGs. I think its rambling maximalism and relative lack of trap options would also serve as a solid counterpoint to the strict linearity of the neo-adventure games.

    Talking of a “beginner’s guide,” someone already suggested The Stanley Parable, but I actually think The Beginner’s Guide is a better game to start with. While both games have a skill barrier so low as to be nonexistent and an intriguing metafictive component, much of TSP’s entertainment value is based on an intimate understanding of the fascination with choice-based narratives in games culture, and that’s a bit insular thematically. It’s also meant to be replayed multiple times in different ways, which your friend might not be able to grasp. TBG would be much easier for a non-gamer to understand, because it’s a story about the relationship between two creative people told through the medium of games rather than an arch autocritical satire of games.

    So those are some alternate choices for you.

  28. HERP DERP NANOMACHINES says:

    Roguelike – Brogue, which is minimalist, or Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup, which is deep and elegant.

    Arcade – each game in the Bit Trip Series is a modern classic that starts easy but becomes wonderfully difficult, despite the relatively simple rules.

    Puzzle – Scribblenauts is always interesting, Super Hexagon is a psychoactive experience that programs you to be better at dodging geometry.

  29. rmsgrey says:

    Puzzle platformer: Braid – the basic mechanics are instantly familiar to anyone who played platformers in the early 90s, but the game also shows what can be achieved with even low-end modern hardware. Just getting through the levels is not too difficult, collecting all the puzzle pieces is a little harder, and finding all the stars is a job for gamefaqs, giving it a decent difficulty curve.
    Adventure: Life Is Strange – this is one I’d be a bit more cautious about recommending – where it’s hard to see how Braid could be improved, LIS has obvious flaws, and it’s easy to understand how someone could find the flaws outweighing the game’s strengths. For the right person, it’s a great experience.
    Sandbox: Terraria – I’ve never got into Minecraft, and haven’t kept up on its new features, but with Terraria, I played a lot before 1.1 came out and roughly doubled the “length” of the game, and I’ve played a lot since 1.3. For me, Terraria hits that sweet spot between total freedom and always being herded in a particular direction – there is always a “next challenge” you can work towards, but you can also largely ignore the challenges and just play around building things – the game will throw blood moons and, if your life gets high enough, boss fights at you, but you can always just wait them out. Defeating the Wall of Flesh to trigger hardmode is entirely optional, though if you do, you’re committed to dealing with some harder enemies, and the infectious biomes.

  30. Catburd says:

    I enjoy Wolfenstein: The New Order. I’ve actually got it minimized in the background right now. In a time where FPs is mostly just yearly re-releases of Calladooty and Friends, it was very nice to see something so different.

    However, it had a very low bar to pass.
    If I’m going to look at what’s good about W:TNO, I’d say it’s great on nostalgia but doesn’t dwell on it like some other modern instances of old series are wont to do.
    It’s a pretty game, technically. Imagery is well imagined and well rendered. But it’s not as pretty to look at as some of the others out there.

    I feel like I’d almost go for S.T.A.L.K E.R.: Call of Pripyat instead for the multitude of ways you can play and the different things you can do, because this allows the not-necessarily-a-gamer approach situations from a relatively open-ended mindset Though the same could be said of the brilliant-but-ancient Deus Ex, which I still play through every few months. While TNO has charisma, and a sort of dry sense of humor, COP has replayability and a very distinct sort of bizarre charm to it. Although along those lines one could argue the better choice would be either of the most recent Fallout games and respective DLC’s.

    I like Portal very much, but The Talos Principle would be an equally good choice, as others have suggested. I think personally I would go for Talos because of the variety of types of puzzles and, again, the open-endedness of the design. It’s a bit brainy too, which is always stimulating.

    Antichamber is nice because it’s nonlinear, though perhaps to a fault.

    While I am immensely fond of SOMA, it has absolutely zero replayability, and I feel like it might be possible to save space on what is admittedly a very good Theseus paradox teaching tool, with something that might accomplish more tasks. Something like Surgeon Simulator, which is absolutely hysterical when you play it drunk and with a friend.

    For RPGs, I’d first look at the Mass Effect trilogy. I’m not sure that’s where I’d settle, because again, the same place could easily be filled with something like Deus Ex or even System Shock 2. Or the first Bioshock.

    Why has nobody bothered to mention Dwarf Fortress? The player-inserted narrative is even better than the game itself. Though I suppose it’s an excruciatingly complicated game to play…