As a lifelong gamer whose closest friends rarely venture beyond Minesweeper, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering how to convert the people in my life to worship at the alter of the PS3. There’s no point trying to get non-gamers to play Call of Duty, or FIFA, or World of Warcraft, because if they would like those games, they’d already be playing them. Rather, I’ve found the best way to introduce gaming virgins to the dirty, dirty world of joysticks and WASD keys is through games that are a little off the beaten path, ones that challenge the boundaries of what a game is and can be. Find the category below that best applies to your target convert, set them up with the suggested gateway game, and with any luck, they’ll be taking Mountain Dew Code Red through an IV in no time.
The One Who Has Literally Never Played A Video Game Before, Ever: The Walking Dead
(Telltale Games, 2012)
The Walking Dead is based loosely on the TV show of the same name, taking place in the same fictional zombie-ridden universe where dead people start walking and are called “walkers” (I hope nobody sprained anything coming up with the title there). It’s a point-and-click adventure game with a graphic-novel-esque art style, and it’s basically a choose-your-own-adventure novel if choose-your-own-adventure novels weren’t total BS. The choices you make will dramatically affect the game you end up playing, and those choices are increasingly heart-wrenching and soul-destroying. The point-and-click aspect is perfect for the new gamer who would otherwise struggle with figuring out a controller or navigating maps or any number of those issues that novice gamers seem to have. It’s also a great example for non-gamers to realize how emotionally invested in a game it’s possible to get; maybe they’ll remember that before they judge you for rage-quitting your next League of Legends match, MOM.
The Goth One: Dear Esther
Dear Esther is an indie art game with a focus on gorgeous graphics, otherworldly atmosphere, and a haunting story that will make you want to curl up under the covers and eat cookie dough for the rest of your life. It’s only a game in the technical sense of the word, as all you can do is explore the island you mysteriously woke up on and can’t actually interact with anything in a meaningful way. As you explore, the game is narrated by voice-over snippets of letters to a woman named Esther from her husband, and it gradually becomes clear that she has died and the narrator has been driven crazy by grief. It is beautiful, eerie, and deeply, deeply depressing. Your goth will love it.
(Anecdote: last year, my then-boyfriend heard about this great new indie game called Dear Esther where the story had something to do with a man’s love letters to his wife, and so with that knowledge and nothing else, he bought it for me for Valentine’s Day. I played through it the next day, completely bewildered and increasingly convinced that I was going to turn around to see him standing there, breathing heavily and holding a chloroform-soaked dish towel.)
The New-Age Hippie One: Flower
Like Dear Esther, Flower is more experience than game, although that experience is the total polar opposite of Dear Esther. Flower is a third person…breeze game, I guess. You play as a flower petal floating on the breeze, and you progress through levels without dangers, or bosses, or conspicuous red barrels, just collecting more flower petals as you go and triggering gorgeous chain reactions as you float past certain elements. The art is stunning, the music is ethereal, and after playing it, you’re likely to become that weird guy smiling at strangers and offering free hugs on the bus.
The Political One: Sid Meier’s Civilization V
Sid Meier’s Civilization V is a turn-based strategy game that’s the epitome of “one more turn syndrome.” You play as the leader of a society tasked with expanding and flourishing over the centuries, taking into account pretty much every factor that would actually affect a growing society. Essentially, the board game Risk is to Civ V as Lego is to Minecraft – it takes a fairly simple real-life starting point and adds the infinite complexity that the computing power of a PC allows, to turn it into the absolute zenith of what Risk could have been. With five unique ways to win and a standard game lasting 500 turns, I dare you to stop playing before you hit the 14-hour mark. Plus, it’s educational – I bet your high school history class never taught you that Gandhi wiped out the Native Americans before nuking the Persian-German alliance.
The One Who Watches Too Many Movies: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
(Naughty Dog, 2009)
I believe that the one unifying truth of humanity is that at some point we have all, each and every one of us, wished that we were Indiana Jones. Uncharted 2 allows us to fulfill that wish, or at least pretend to. The game follows Nathan Drake, a witty, sarcastic treasure hunter with a knack for being in the wrong place at the right time, as he tracks down the lost Cintimani Stone, a relic with unknown supernatural powers (awesome) by following the centuries-old footsteps of Marco Polo (awesome) while trying to stay one step ahead of Serbian war criminal and fellow treasure seeker Zoran Lazarevic (awesome). The game seamlessly intersperses cinematic cut scenes with engaging gameplay, which, when combined with a clever story line and strong, relatable characters, leaves you feeling like you’re starring in your favorite action-adventure movie, all from the comfort of your Cheeto-dust-coated armchair.
The Musical One: Sound Shapes
(Queasy Games, 2011)
I can think of no better way to describe the game for your musician friends than this: movies have Fantasia, and video games have Sound Shapes. Fantasia holds a soft spot in the hearts of most musicians as the first time music’s full potential was tapped for the silver screen, using moving images to tell the story of some of the greatest music ever written. Sub out “dancing hippos” and “Stravinsky” for “a blob with eyes” and “Beck”, and you’ve got Sound Shapes. It’s a fairly simple arcade-style game, but each level is designed with its accompanying musician in mind, which include Beck, Deadmau5, and Jim Guthrie, all of whom wrote original music for the game. As you progress through each level, you collect orbs that each add a layer to the music, so you can have your soundtrack be as rich or as sparse as you want. The enemies, obstacles, and decorations all move in time with the music, and it creates such an immersive experience that you’ll end up moving backward through levels just to keep the song from ending. When I first played this game, I was so overwhelmed with its ingenuity and sheer perfection that I punched the friend who introduced me to it, hard, because I didn’t know how else to express that or any other emotion.
The One Who Thinks Games Are Bad and Destructive and Tearing At The Fabric Of Society: Journey (Thatgamecompany, 2012)
When I finished playing Journey, I was tempted to light my PS3 on fire and set it out to sea, because no game could ever come close to that experience. I didn’t do that, because then I wouldn’t be able to play Journey again.
Journey is visually absolutely breathtaking, with one of the best soundtracks of any game ever made and some of the smoothest, most satisfying gameplay on Earth. That’s not why it’s on this list. Journey is remarkable, deserves a place on any top ten list now and forever, because of the multiplayer. I, like many gamers, reflexively cringe at the word “multiplayer” because I associate it inextricably with being called a “f** n00b whore” and endless offers of dick pics. Not only is Journey the only game I’ve ever played where its multiplayer is a draw rather than a drawback; I turn to Journey when I want to regain my faith in humanity.
In the game, you play a faceless, sexless robe-creature who moves through various landscapes toward a distant mountain goal. There are no words, spoken or written, in the entire game, and there are only three controls: move, jump, and sing. In multiplayer, you are sent out with another faceless, sexless robe player, and your only way to interact with them is to press the “sing” button, which will let you emit a single note in harmony with the background music.
There is no way for your partner to hinder your process, nor is there any significant way for them to help you, so you end up just moving through a gorgeous dream-world together, occasionally singing to each other to indicate the correct path, or to coordinate a timed jump, or just to let them know you’re thinking about them. By the end of the game, I was so emotionally connected to my anonymous teammate that it felt like a deep, personal loss when the game ended.
There is no other experience on Earth like Journey, one that can so deeply connect two people who might not have anything in common, or any other way to communicate. Someday, somehow, I will sit down with every politician who’s railed against video games as violent and anti-social, and I will play Journey with them. You will know that day because soldiers will lay down their weapons and forest creatures will erupt into song and maybe, just for a moment, the world will be beautiful.
So suck on that, Jack Thompson.