Video Game Stories For Non-Gamers

First, I’d like to thank Alyssa for having me here this week. Hello! Secondly, I’d also like to thank her for providing the inspiration for my first post here.

Recently, our host expressed interest in being able to experience the best of the epic stories gaming has to offer, without needing the fast-action reflexes so many modern games call for. As someone who didn’t actually learn how to make a character walk with a console controller until late 2008 (and who still tends to steer into walls), I deeply sympathize.

There’s a better way to experience what games have to offer than bad film adaptations, though, so I promised Alyssa a list of appropriately epic stories that wouldn’t take hair-trigger action, a broad knowledge of ammo types, or 40 hours of “game over” screens. She asked me to guest post not long after, so I thought the first pass at a list would be a great way to start.

April Ryan exploring in The Longest JourneyLuckily, not all games require a controller at all. A whole era of point-and-click adventure games existed, and continues to exist. Ask any fan of the genre which is the best, and The Longest Journey shows up near the top of the list. Not only does it have a sprawling, worlds-saving story to catch the player’s attention, but features one of the best female protagonists in gaming and supports her with a surprisingly diverse (ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, physical ability, socioeconomic class) narrative world. The puzzles are mostly intuitive and make sense; for the ones that don’t, well, there’s Google. (The sequel, Dreamfall, is not as good but stands up pretty well as another deep story featuring a convincingly-written leading lady.)

Other entries in the adventure game genre include the Gabriel Knight series, the Syberia games, the Broken Sword series, and the Myst games.  Not all have aged equally well, but some (Syberia) are still fascinating to explore, and others (Gabriel Knight) are amazingly fun to play with a friend and give the MST3K treatment. And while the Monkey Island games don’t have particularly epic, sweeping, or deep stories attached, they’re also my favorites of all time and so of course come highly recommended.

BastionIn more recent games, there’s summer 2011’s Bastion, a colorful indie game with a killer soundtrack and a surprisingly deep message. While the first hour or two take some patience to learn, the penalties for failure are minimal and the game encourages, rather than discourages, continued effort.  It’s worth sticking with until after the Prosper Bluff area, at the very least. The controls are easy to learn and the systems are simple to master.

And for all that our hostess has admirably been trying to play Portal, I would commit the gamer blasphemy and recommend starting with Portal 2 instead. The first game, while absolutely a flag-bearing member of whatever canon gaming has, features a number of shoot-while-moving puzzles that can be difficult to time correctly (and that can have… other effects… on those of us prone to motion sickness). Portal 2 eliminated nearly all of those in favor of solutions that can be thought through and lined up in the player’s own time.  There are exceptions, but they come much later in the game at a point where the controls are almost second nature.

All of these are available on PC and many on Mac; if such a thing as a Nintendo DS can be acquired or borrowed, however, the entirety of Twitter (or at least a dozen people anyway) required me to suggest Chrono Trigger. As an older, Japanese-style RPG, it’s entirely menu based and so not reflex-dependent at all. The highest praise I can heap upon it is that usually I hate games of that style but I played the hell out of Chrono Trigger for months in 2009 and am itching to do so again.

The other games that kept coming up from friends and followers were BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises, but myself having struggled beyond belief with the vehicle sections in ME, I think those are best saved for an “advanced beginner” course.

Naturally, other suggestions are welcome! Those of you who enjoy games, what would you suggest for someone who wants to meet the epic stories and dramatic themes, but on a slower, gentler curve?