Last time I mentioned that I’d written and published a small Bitsy game about Bigfoots, and in my desperate need to show off and receive validation I sent it to a couple of non-game-playing friends to see whether they’d like it. Some of them did, and one suggested that I should write a column recommending a few more narratively-focused games that might be suitable for folk who don’t play videogames often, or even at all.
Here that column is. I’ve tried to pick out games that make few to no assumptions about the player’s prior knowledge of game conventions and mechanics – accessible things that a complete beginner could pick up and understand immediately through play. (That’s not to say that these games are only for beginners, or that they’re “easy” games, nor to imply any value judgment on a person’s ability to complete difficult games. These games are some of my personal favourites, so take any gatekeeping elsewhere.)
Thomas Was Alone
2D platform games were a foundational part of the development of games as an artform, and it’s tempting to recommend that someone completely new to games begin with the game that essentially defined the genre, but honestly? Super Mario Bros isn’t all that interesting any more. It deserves full credit for being genuinely brilliant and pioneering game design techniques that remain influential even in 2019, but the games it inspired have inevitably overtaken it and done new, more interesting things with the mechanics, and SMB now has more value as a historical piece. Also, it’s quite hard.
Thomas Was Alone was the first independent release by Mike Bithell, most recently in the news for the beautifully voice-acted John Wick Hex. It’s a 2D platformer that first boils the genre down to absolute basics, and from there constructs something completely new. Your starting character, the eponymous Thomas, is just a coloured rectangle which can jump, or move left and right. Thomas is given character and motive by playful narration, but as a physical entity he’s almost a placeholder.
Thomas soon begins to build on itself by introducing new player characters that the player can switch between on the fly – rectangles of different sizes, with different names, personalities and ways to interact with the world and with each other. Individually, they’re all very simple variations – one block is large and slow, but can float on water, carrying others atop itself. Another can act as a springboard for other blocks, but has low manoeuvrability by itself. The challenge and puzzles arise from learning to utilise the blocks in tandem, combining their abilities to help them all reach goals they couldn’t on their own.
Thomas is a great game for inexperienced players. The levels are bite-size, the challenge and complexity builds at a steady, manageable curve, and the comic narrator draws you through the main story by giving each block a real personality. Fun, believable relationships are established between each block through both explicit narration and puzzle design, brilliantly tying story and gameplay together.
Fortunately, that complexity is all hidden away in the widely branching story, and the actual gameplay is immediately graspable. 80 Days is essentially a graphical text adventure – a digital Choose Your Own Adventure, but free of the restrictions of print. You are cast as Passepartout, the valet of Phileas Fogg, at the outset of Jules Verne’s classic Around The World In Eighty Days. The haughty Fogg makes his famous wager and then largely leaves you to handle the execution of the thing; and using a large world map you make your way from city to city, discovering routes between each by exploring them, conversing with travel companions, and buying train or shipping timetables.
Just as a premise, circumnavigating the globe in eighty days a great idea for a game, but the real fun is in the writing. 80 Days has a hugely divergent and well-written narrative, and a wide variety of potential routes between cities. Each city can be explored, containing a short chapter detailing Passepartout’s travels on the street, and within these you get to define his responses, allowing you to imprint him with a personality of your choice – he can be as reserved and skeptical as his aloof master, or filled with excitement and wonder at each new marvel he discovers. Travel, too, rewards the player with new narrative, whether it be short conversations with other passengers, or larger stories on longer journeys – depending on your route, there are murders to solve, obstacles to be navigated, and leviathans to find. There’s far too much to see in one journey – I’m on about my eighth, and still have much more to discover.
80 Days is a game for sure, but it’s also a book – an interactive novella you can read in a sitting or two. What’s really wonderful about it is that once you’re done, you can read it again – either straight away, or months later – and it’ll be completely different.
The Walking Dead – Season One
If I was smarter, I’d have had the idea for this article five years ago, when a non-gaming housemate of mine asked me off-handedly if I could find her a game that she’d enjoy – the rest of our student house was mostly mid-twenties male PlayStation addicts, and she wanted in on the action, but wasn’t really interested in Destiny, FIFA or Arkham City, which were the living-room mainstays at the time (if you’re reading this, Alice, I’m so sorry). After a little while I decided that Telltale’s The Walking Dead might be a good choice, so I picked it up on PS4, and a couple of afternoons later we sat down in front of it as a group and gave her the controller. Eight hours later, she was starting on Episode 4 when we decided we should all probably go to bed. We spent the next three days blitzing through the first two seasons, and got nothing else done that weekend.
The Walking Dead isn’t just a good beginner’s game (although it is definitely that), it’s a fantastic spectator game. Whereas 80 Days tells a story through a wide-open, branching world, The Walking Dead tells a more linear tale, varying the characters and their reactions to your decisions, but ultimately leading you down one route to a narratively climactic ending. It plays out like a miniseries, telling a cinematic story but allowing you to make key decisions throughout each episode, often with unintended consequences, or demanding ethical compromise. What this meant, at least for us, was that while Alice made the decisions, we were all involved in the discussions, investing in the characters and debating morality. The game’s more urgent, timed decisions were extra tense as we waited to see who Alice would save and who she’d leave to their fate, knowing that there was no prescribed choice, that we weren’t just going to see what the writers wanted us to see, that there was a much more real element of jeopardy. Even having played the game before, it was interesting to see someone make different choices with different justifications.
The game is almost perfectly suited for beginners – there is no shooting (apart from one slightly out-of-place section in late Season One), and most of the gameplay is in decision and dialogue. However, the game is sprinkled with quick-time events, in which the player is required to quickly react and press a button in response to an on-screen prompt, and for a person unfamiliar with the PS4 controller they did become an obstacle. There was only one occasion where Alice actually had to hand the controller to someone else to get past a particularly tricky section, but there were more than a couple of pointless deaths before we got there. But despite that minor blemish, I’d definitely recommend The Walking Dead to new players – and I’d recommend inviting friends round, too.