Video games are a tricky medium to get into. While they’re an art form all to themselves, many story games are not “entry level”, making it hard to appreciate (or even play) them without having played other, or similar, games. We at Gamespresso understand that problem and want people to be able to appreciate story games as much as we do.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the best story games that even someone who’s never gamed before can play. While anyone could beat them, if you’re not a gamer, having a gamer on hand to watch you play wouldn’t hurt. So grab a console or open a fresh browser tab, maybe grab a friend, and see for yourself what narrative games can do.
While certainly not the most upbeat game on the list, Loneliness is the shortest, easiest, and arguably most powerful. To give context or explanation for this game would be a disservice, since the game does both in its sub-5 minute playtime, and it’s completely free to play online here. That said, in Loneliness, you’re a solitary flying square. You see other squares, flying in different patterns. What do you do next?
After completing the game, you should watch this analysis of how its mechanics communicate an idea. If you’re open to the idea of games being more than play, this is the quickest way to see for yourself, especially since the controls are just arrow keys. Games are internalized, where most media is externalized; in film you, watch others experience things, but in games, you experience them yourself. And Loneliness says a lot about its players without ever addressing them directly.
Only slightly longer and more “difficult” than Loneliness, Passage is as good a stepping-stone as any. If you know literally anything about games, you will probably see some cliches used in Passage, but their use in the game’s “maze” speaks to a larger allegory about life and what “achievement” really means in a full lifetime. One hint: There’s an optional gameplay mechanic directly to your right as you start the game, and at least seeing it, to decide if you want to try it, is highly recommended.
Like Loneliness, Passage is just movement, plus one interaction button. It is available for free online here, or in a $0.99 iPhone app. Its playtime is technically indefinite, but it can be beat in about 5 minutes. And while the game does speak for itself, it benefits from reading the creator’s explanation, here, after its completion. The explanation also just happens to be an incredible piece of writing about video games on its own.
Every Day The Same Dream
Every Day The Same Dream is, again, free online here, and again its only controls are movement and an interaction button. It’s a little further down the list because it’s a proper puzzle game. While you could blow through it in under 15 minutes with a walkthrough (here, if that’s how you game), it can take around an hour to puzzle out for yourself. That said, these are less puzzles than “life experiences.” You start out as a businessman, and on your first day you’ll probably end up in an office. To get through your second day, you have to do something, anything, differently, or time doesn’t pass. And you discover this process via an old, strange woman, because metaphors.
It’s a fascinating and slightly macabre look at the idea of “the little things” and how they help us live. The game’s soundtrack is a numb, industrial loop that, surprisingly, doesn’t get old, and its use of color is intentionally limited. You find that the more extreme actions you can take are less interesting than, say, when you bond with the cow. And the final ending, while simple, can be harrowing if you let yourself open up to what Every Day The Same Dream is trying to do. Interpreting the ending is left up to you.
This is the first “full” game on the list: It’s $15 when not on sale. Journey is one of the indie games that people talk about when defending indie games and/or defending games as art. There’s a reason why. As you navigate the world through moving, jumping, gliding, and …whistling, you slowly find more of the game’s lore, and find out the creators have snuck mechanics onto you that totally change the experience. Hint: Some things only occur when connected to the internet.
Journey’s a lot more about putting you through the paces of the archetypical hero’s journey (get it?) than trying to impart any particular message, but it’s a powerful and beautiful experience. You’re wordlessly blown through this beautiful world, and when story beats hit, they hit hard, even if your time with it gets broken into a couple sessions. Frankly, this wouldn’t play as well as a movie, and certainly not a book, but once again, we highly recommend being connected to the internet if you play, because its gaminess is what makes it work so exquisitely.
Thirty Flights of Loving
Your gaming education could not possibly be complete without playing a Blendo Games creation. Of this series, which includes absurdist caper Gravity Bone and hacker-platformer Quadrilateral Cowboy, Thirty Flights of Loving is the most accessible and grown-up. You’re involved in some sort of espionage and intricately entwined with your square-headed cohorts in ways never fully explained. And like all Blendo Games, it’s artistically consistent and absurd; you quickly jump from pushing a half-dead man on a luggage cart, to a wedding reception cyclone, to evil birds (a series staple).
A PC/Mac exclusive, it’s $5 and takes less than 15 minutes to get through, but it’s worth every second– even the “credits”. (And the playtime doubles if you check out the commentary mode.) Besides having one of the best title card drops in memory, it tells a complex and emotionally-intelligent story without a word. Brendon Chung, the auteur that comprises Blendo Games, has made nearly every conceivable genre of game, all universally linked, and his understanding of mechanics and how they change a player’s understanding of events is mature in a way many game-dev vets can’t compete with. That said, its absurdity borders on narrative-shattering at times– which may be intentional.
Another popular candidate for “indie games are art” conversations, Gone Home is also one of the first well-known and well-received “walking simulators.” Similar to Journey, it’s $20 when not on sale, but it is available on PC and console. The game plays with convention in some more humanistic ways. You come home from being abroad in the 90s, and the house is empty; you walk in, and instead of being greeted by your parents or sister, you’re greeted by a sobbing voicemail. It’s thunderstorming. It’s dark inside. You find a corkboard with strings tying a conspiracy theory together. You know what to expect– especially from a creator who worked on the Bioshock series.
And yet, Gone Home subverts these expectations in character-defining ways. Digging through everyone’s belongings, you unearth the secret and shared lives of your family and the house itself. Your younger sister is growing into a woman; your mother is struggling with her place in the world; your father is trying to sort a past both historical and deeply personal. You essentially play observer, but it’s your personal journey of discovery that really makes the game. You might need more than one sitting; if you want to see literally everything, it’s going to take a couple hours; but if you have 90s nostalgia or just want to see an honest and loving depiction of nuclear family, give Gone Home a look.
The Stanley Parable
This is lower on the list not because it’s more difficult, but because you need to have experienced some “conventional” storytelling techniques to really understand what this game is trying to do. It’s PC/Mac/Linux exclusive for $15, and depending on your definition of “complete,” it takes 5 minutes or 7+ hours to get through. (Mostly because one ending that most players don’t bother with takes 4 hours to get.) See, the game has some 19-odd possible endings. Several are obvious; some are unbelievably counter-intuitive. And that’s the point.
The game is about the tenuous relationship between player, player-character, and designer. Each ending is a look at how intent and practice diverge, and the fact that the game has 19 endings speaks to its almost punk flouting of convention, even while steeped in it. It uses fantastic humor to get past your defenses, especially when humor gives way to glimpses of the abyss. The game is just movement and jumping; a couple endings require actual gameplay, but most require simply being found. And if you like this one, you should absolutely check out the creator’s follow-up, The Beginner’s Guide. It’s a seemingly innocent look into the mind of the designer that unravels into… maybe just give it a look.
Last because it’s the easiest to literally get lost in, Firewatch is also far and away the most maturely realized game on the list. $20 when not on sale, available on PS4, PC, Mac, and Linux, and coming to Xbox One later this month, Firewatch is interested in the complex relationships between the lonely people who choose to seclude themselves as “firewatchers” in national parks, and how private relationships develop between those who only know each other by voice. In many ways, it’s analogous to gamers and “internet denizens” who communicate primarily through online chat. The creators are well-versed on the topic; Campo Santo includes the creative minds behind The Walking Dead Season 1, and comprise most of the Idle Thumbs podcast.
You have to get around by in-game map and compass, so if this sounds interesting to you, be aware you will occasionally get lost in the 1989 Wyoming Shoshone wilderness, which, for all intents and purposes, is to scale. The story is worth it and as painfully beautiful as staring at the game’s sunset. With one of the most compelling character- and game-intros in memory, and some of the most realistic and well-voiced dialogue in small games, Firewatch stands out. A couple moments pop, such as the few times other non-plant living entities cross paths with yours, but the most memorable moments are the small ones– carefully choosing your words while watching a wildfire light up the night sky, or naming a turtle (if you find it). There’s much more going on than meets the eye, but it’s all rooted in raw, flawed, hopeful humanity.
And that’s it!
If any gamer/non-gamer duos want some story games to tackle, you can find our article on the subject here. Once it’s written, you can find our article recommending which story games for gamers to show non-gamers here. Let us know if any of these games affect you as much as they affected us!