While most people don’t say this anymore, thank goodness, there was a time (basically the 2000s, the oughts, the lost years) when people would say “I don’t watch TV.” They’d actually say that with their face, and then a few minutes later talk about how much they loved X-Files or something. Usually I’d let it go, but sometimes I couldn’t help myself: “I thought you said you don’t watch TV.” And they would say, I mean again they’d actually say it, say it with their face, “Oh, yeah but I watch X-Files on my computer and stuff.”
And as much as that makes me contemplate cutting off all my hair and joining the Dharma Initiative to get away from the dumb, really it’s a sorta easy mistake to make: we use the word television weirdly. It means not only the actual television set, and not only the old-paradigm concept of watching television on a network with commercials like a filthy casual, but also the serialized stories that you can remove from the other two definitions of the word and still ingest. The X-Files fan above isn’t the insecure pseudo-intellectual from high school trying to elevate himself, so I should probably just take my judgmental heiny to a mirror and do some self-reflecting about how ticked off I get about things like this. When people say they don’t watch television, they don’t mean they don’t watch television, it’s just that they don’t watch television. Right?
The same thing happens with games, only it’s sorta worse, because in the 70s and 80s we decided games were for kids. But the people who will say they “never play games” in that scoffy way (like the high school dude) will play chess or poker or cribbage. And just in the way that watching X-Files is watching TV even if you’re not watching it on TV, playing cribbage is gaming even if you aren’t doing it on a computer. Seriously, everybody games.
So, if you think you don’t like video games, here’s a list of non-traditional kinds you might enjoy anyway. We’re defining non-traditional as just the games you think of when you think “video games”: platformers, shooters, RPGs, etc.
1. Real Games Made Digital
Okay, so everybody knows that if you play Solitaire with real cards these days, you’re either camping with people you don’t like or there’s something wrong with you. But if you like chess, or cribbage, or any card or board game that exists (even like, Sorry! or something) there are computerized versions of them to try. You can play by yourself against a computer, or play with total strangers to get your socializing on while being in a totally controlled environment. Sometimes they will even come with features you couldn’t enjoy with an analogue, physical version. The old-school example of this is Battle Chess, where the pieces will come alive and actually fight each other while not betraying the mechanics of reg’lar ol’ chess. But you can also get a game like Battleship that will not only have nifty graphics (they won’t be 3D like at your kitchen table, but they’ll look 3D), but you can also vary things up a little with new ways to play (like in this example, salvo mode, which allows you to play Battleship but “fire at will,” just to make things a little more exciting). Plus, you don’t have to worry about losing pieces.
This entry is purposefully a little weaksauce, but it can be a good gateway drug. If you can play one of these games on a computer, you can’t say you don’t like video games anymore. Now that we’re back in agreement, the list continues.
2. Rhythm Games
For all that you have to have a console and equipment to play these, rhythm games are extraordinarily non-traditional. They have the same basic structure as a video game: there’s a learning and an enjoyment curve, there’s a point system and your own high score to try to beat, there are things to unlock and a path to victory. But man, all that aside, it’s sometimes hard to believe The Legend of Zelda and Rock Band are considered sorta the same thing.
There are other rhythm games, and depending on your wont all are fun, but we’ll just concentrate on Rock Band since the fourth incarnation is about the be released and I’m more excited than an analogy about being very excited. You can play this alone or with friends, but its basic premise either way is to pretend to be rock gods. You have this cute little guitar or bass or these ridiculous looking drums or a microphone and you just go to town. There’s a huge collection of songs, so you can find something you love and thrash on it pretty hard.
It’s neither competitive against other players or even against the AI, so it’s a no-pressure game. In fact, there’s even a no-fail option, so that you can’t mess up so bad you lose the song, which is handy while drunk but also just when you want to goof around with your friends and have some fun. It’s a game that lets you play on difficulty modes from easy to expert. On easy, it’s really hard to do that poorly, and on expert even though the guitar only has five buttons and a strum pedal, it takes an insane amount of skill. (Writer adjusts fictional tie: I happen to play on expert myself.) But the great thing is, the game doesn’t make you feel bad for playing on easy, it encourages you if anything, because hey, who doesn’t want to take it easy? A lot of people seem to think video games are just this esoteric repetitive struggle against a machine, with really hard gaps to jump or enemies to fight over and over. Rock Band and games like it are about pretending to be competent at playing iconic music, and it’s hard to get more stress-free than that.
Oh, and the drums are not only a fairly accurate trainer for real drums, they provide a good workout (oddly enough, even the guitar burns some calories if you get into it). And other games like Dance Dance Revolution (using your feet on a pad to dance like the game tells you) is not only fun but a legit workout. Yeah, that’s right, snobs, video games can make you healthy.
3. Easy Peasy Party Games
Related to rhythm games in that they are really meant to be played with your friends all in a room, party games are silly, no pressure fun. The Wii really changed the landscape of gaming (thanks in part to the late great Satoru Iwata), making a priority of easy-to-learn, intuitive games for the whole family. And while “fun for the whole family” is one of those terms that might normally trigger flashbacks of wars you weren’t in, when it comes to a game like Warioware: Smooth Moves it actually is fun. Smooth Moves is an exercise in distilled insanity. It’s essentially just a ton of little minigames that make no earthly sense. The gameplay itself is very simple, incorporating motion control and requiring you to keep the controller balanced, or to flip it like you’re making stir fry, or making running motions. That sort of thing. But between challenges like having to shoot a Godzilla knock off, or trap a weird guy with a black hole, or using a hand fan to blow a robot off a cliff, or shave a man’s mustache or pick his nose in a three second window, you pretty much just end up laughing with your friends about what utter idiots you all look like. Literally anyone over the age of four can play the game, and there’s not really anything in the way of “losing” in a traditional video game sense, as the challenges last for mere seconds and failing out can be just as funny as succeeding, and in the middle of having to disco dance with cats the game will interrupt its madness to give calm, Zen explanations for how using the Wii controller is akin to living life well. (“Hold the Form Baton vertically, thumb resting lightly on the button. Through this stance, you channel the quiet dignity of a circus clown in the midst of a thunderstorm.”)
Party games don’t have to make you feel like you’re on drugs, either: there’s also sports games where you can use motion control to bowl or play tennis or whatever. Even for people who dislike sports, figuring out how to swing in a way that bounces the ball back to your opponent comes easily, and you need absolutely no video game skills to play them. Even my grandmother, who is so baffled by the concept of video games she couldn’t figure out how to get past the start menu, was happily tennising away after a few seconds, and gave me a run for my money, lemme tell you.
4. No-Action Storytelling Games
Anyone who says games can’t be art should be Nickelodeon-slimed (case closed!), and most art at its core is telling some kind of story. Even Mario Bros. on some level is a story, even if there’s not much meat to it: you’re a Mexican-looking, English-speaking Italian plumber created by Japanese people trying to save a European princess from reptiles. But recently independant games appeal more directly to our love of story. These sorts of games have no combat, no puzzle solving, no jumping over lava pits or having to reach anything resembling a high score.
The Novelist is a very simple game that takes place in a vacation home. You are a ghost that haunts the grounds, but don’t worry, this doesn’t just put you in the driver’s seat of a horror game. You are a friendly ghost that helps steer the lives of the living (like Casper if he’d gotten a psychology degree before biting the dust!). A writer and his family arrive at the home, and through various chapters, you float around the house learning about their lives both in the individual and nuclear-unit sense, and at the end of each chapter you can make decisions that will change their behavior toward one another and modify their life choices. That’s it, that’s the game. There’s no boss fight at the end, you just get to see how the family ends up (divorced, more in love, a messed up or non-messed up kid, etc.). It provides a nifty sense of satisfaction, and you can play more than once to see how the other choices will ultimately play out.
Gone Home is more restrained on the impact you have on the game, making this much closer to a pure storytelling experience. You arrive at the family home after being away at university. Your parents are gone for the weekend, and you were going to spend time with your sister, but she is gone. Your job is to find out why. The house is massive, interesting and full of secrets, but again, that’s it, you just experience it. (WARNING: Massive spoilers, skip this paragraph if you’re interested in playing the game.) At first while playing this, I thought it was one of those new horror games, but it turns out just to be the mood to keep things interesting: as you find secret passages that run throughout the house, you gather clues about sister dearest, and it turns out she’s gone because she’s in love, and she is conflicted about her feelings, her identity, and what people will think about her. In a well-conceived narrative, she ultimately chases her loved one (who has also suffered because of their connection, I won’t spoil the reasons behind all this, but it’s worth playing the once).
These games are almost movies, where you get to interact with the story in terms of how fast you progress and what you look at, but there’s not much skill to be tested, so you don’t have to worry about the pass/fail nature of most video games. Anybody who is not a big lover of games but enjoys a good story should check stuff like this out.
5. Augmented Reality Games
We’ve all been walking down the road by ourselves and for fun made up a story in our heads about where we are going and who we are. Sure, you might not play pretend as often as when you were a kid, but if you never do even for a few seconds there’s probably something wrong with you. Who doesn’t love to imagine there’s more going on in the world than meets the eye? With AR games, you get validation while doing it. AR games allow you to see an overlay of the real world with the help of your phone or some other such device. Ingress helps you play pretend by inventing a new particle that CERN discovered when colliding science together, called the XM. It can control human thought, and is apparently leaking into our world by you know, whatever, science magic. It’s a geo-location based game that you play with everyone else that is also playing that game. You’re one one side of this war or another, and you go investigate real-world locations and find these sciency magic portals and claim them for your side. You have a map of your surrounding area (in the real world), you have items to help you in your journey, and all you have to do is get to certain areas and claim things as your own. I mean, there’s way more to it than that, but it’s all you need to get started: when you want to play all you have to be able to do is walk and hold your phone up to see things in this augmented world.
There are dozens of great games have this kind of play, and they can be great fun. You don’t even have to think of them like video games at all — just imagine you’re a kid playing outside with your friends, back when you could see dragons that your parents didn’t believe in, but you knew were there. Only now you’ve got your smartphone in your hand backing you up. Take that, Mom.
6. Mobile-based Interactive Fiction
If you don’t want to get quite that involved (fraidy cat), you can try Lifeline, which stands as a really good example separate from augmented reality games of how our really powerful handheld devices can provide wholly new experiences in gaming. Lifeline is a text-based game about choices. It’s interactive fiction the same way The Novelist or Gone Home is, so in a way you could call it cheating by splitting these categories, but what makes Lifeline worth talking about on its own is the way you play. You play, well, yourself, who is for whatever reason receiving transmissions from a doomed space exploration astronaut. He has crash-landed on a moon, and you’re the only person getting his transmissions. He’s all alone, and it’s up to you to help him figure out how to survive. It’s is a real time game, meaning that the character you control experiences things at the same ratio that you do (so if your protagonist is working on something, or taking a nap, you’ve gotta wait for him to finish before progressing further in the game). When you begin the game, Taylor the astronaut asks for your help after explaining his predicament. The first decision you make for him requires about an hour to accomplish, during which Taylor goes radio silent. So you don’t have to play the game straight through for hours on end; it takes him an hour to search the wreckage of the crashed ship or get to a new location, meaning you get an hour of your life before you get to play again. It takes a few days to play through once, and is no more complicated than texting your friend. In imaginationland, you get to go through your day as normal, worried about your new friend and hoping he’s alright, waiting to see if the help you’ve given him improves his situation or make it worse.
This is the kind of game that even non-gamers can play easily. There’re no graphics, no hand-eye coordination required, just choices. I hope this is the first of many games like it.
7. Abstract Games
Bohm is a game about creating a tree. That’s it. There’s a floating bit of earth or planet or whatever and you have control over a tree’s life. It’s slow, it’s Zen, it doesn’t really have clear goals and an obvious distaste for explanation. You grow your tree, create branches and creating shapes. There’s no victory, it’s a pure exercise is aesthetics.
Cylne is a surreal exploration game, basically a collection of visual poems. It’s got an existential attitude and doesn’t conform to any genre standards. You don’t know what’s happening in the game, why you’re solving puzzles or why you should care, and yet you sorta do. Because it’s pretty, and because it gives you a disorienting view into how absurd the world is. There’s no narrative, nothing to hold onto, just an experience.
Fract is a “musical exploration game” where you end up in some forgotten reality that is built on sound. You fix long-abandoned technology by solving puzzles and bring music back to the world. You add the rest yourself, your imagination having no choice but to be sparked by the landscape, and you’re never really given an explanation for anything. You just do. When you complete a puzzle you don’t get a “You did it!” message, but you’re rewarded with melody. It’s extremely satisfying.
There are many more games like these, but what they have in common is that they lack story, meaning, or the drive of most video games. They are for everyone, from hardcore gamers to the filthiest of casuals. If you haven’t liked video games so far because they seem so intense, so demanding of your time and skill, you should try one of these.
8. Weirdly Specific Slice-of-Life Simulators
So nobody really liked Paperboy because it sucked, but the concept of an entire game revolving around a simple, mundane bit of real life can be compelling if done correctly, and in recent years that bullseye has been struck. Cart Life, for example, is about controlling either a bagel seller, a guy running a newspaper stand, or a coffee barista, and you interact with customers and maintain your prices, equipment and stock. And the great part is, it’s not horrible. The characters are delightful and expressive and the mechanics are great, and you really do have to make tough decisions.
And if you don’t want something so close to home, try Papers, Please, though prepare to be depressed. You are an immigration inspector at the border checkpoint of Arstotzka in 1982, a substitute for the USSR. You inspect documents of arrivals, and your job is to keep terrorists, criminals, smugglers and the like out of the country. The only thing is, you never know for sure. On top of that you have your own life, and not nearly enough money to live it. So you can take bribes, both to let bad people through and keep good people out, and if you don’t manage your affairs correctly it’s either the gulag for you (for doing a bad job) or starvation for your family (for not taking enough in the way of bribes and things like it). It’s part sleuthing (are they really a terrorist? Will people die if you let them in?) and part best-of-bad-options decision making (can I pay rent? Feed my kid? Should I take the money and let this person in, they seem okay…). It’s basically a simulated desk job, but it also says something artistic about the nature of bureaucracy. Yes, I’m advocating a game where you play a bureaucrat. I know, right?
9. Classic Types of Games with a Non-Traditional Spin
Lately games have been emerging built on the bones of older, more traditional types of games, but are so original they feel like something wholly different, and can appeal to the non-gamer types out there. Limbo, for example, is essentially just a platformer (the kind of game where you have to run around and jump across things and avoid obstacles in a 2D environment), but everything about its aesthetics transcend the genre. Everything is black-on-black, like you’re living in a Lovecraftian cardboard-cutout diorama world. The boy you control can “die,” but in this game it just means you go a few feet back and try again. It’s a puzzle game, where you have to figure out how to navigate safely through the world, but there are no lives to lose, no punishment for not succeeding, just the reward of seeing more of this creepy landscape as you progress. With it’s simple controls (walk forward, walk back, jump, climb, that’s really about it), it’s a game that anybody can get into.
Never Alone is technically a platformer, too, I guess, but I’ve never heard of a platformer where you play an Iñupiat girl named Nuna and her friend Fox (who is a fox) through a neverending blizzard. It’s a stunningly beautiful game (made in collaboration with the Iñupiat people, which is just nifty), incredibly atmospheric and drawn from a traditional Alaskan story. You guide the two characters (or two friends can control one each, if you like) across the blizzard-swept tundra, and there are some enemies and ice floes you have to jump across and caves you have to swim in like a platformer, but this game is so much more. With this much richnesses and poignancy, any non-gamer can easily get swept up in it.
No, this isn’t a joke. Twitter is a video game without any real graphics. You play with everyone else on Twitter, and the object of the game is to gain “points” (favorites and retweets) by saying funny or interesting things. Imgur and Reddit work the same way, really. Social media, in effect, are video games we have all decided to take seriously. For real, sure Farmville on Facebook is a game, but Facebook is the real game.
That is to say, everybody games. If you’ve ever been a social media user, you’re a gamer. And video games can be high art, great entertainment and tell stories that you can’t get in any other medium. So you owe it to yourself to get out of your comfort zone and try some of these different types of games. Soon you’ll be playing Fallout and Mass Effect, because once games don’t seem so daunting to you (and this list is a great way to acclimate to gaming) there’s a rich and deep series of worlds out there for you to explore.