Communicating the passion, the beauty; the romance of games to non-gamers is a task that can oftentimes seem impossible. How do you explain the draw of sneaking down a corridor, slowly losing your sanity, in Amnesia? What’s so appealing about repeatedly dying and becoming frustrated with Dark Souls? Why bother to learn new and confusing button configurations to play Uncharted, when you could just pop Indiana Jones into the DVD player? How do you explain to someone why it’s fun to massacre wave upon wave of seemingly helpless bad guys?
Over the Christmas period, I tried again to get my mother into gaming; to convert her to my favourite hobby. I’ve tried before, and I’ve always failed miserably. The difference was that, this time, I was armed with Journey. It’s short, simple to play and beautiful. I was pessimistic, expecting at most an uninterested shrug after twenty minutes of aimless wandering. To my surprise, my mother took to it immediately, finishing the game three times in two days.
This highlights what I’ve long suspected about gaming: the difficulty in evangelising it has largely been down to significant shortcomings in the variety of games, and more specifically the entry level games. Entry level, or “gateway”, games are by definition very easy to play; often quite simple in concept and are well executed. Journey isn’t a magical cure-all to this problem, but the combined force of Journey and Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead are a fantastic start.
Simplicity of play is doubly important because those dipping their toes into gaming will not only be learning new button mappings, but also controller layouts and how to properly use things like analogue sticks. As a long time gamer, even I struggled the first time someone put a Wii-mote in my hand (to pre-empt cries of “noob”: I will out-waggle anyone on Wii Sports Tennis). Conversations I’ve had with the various people in my life indicate that getting used to new controls is not a problem that only I suffer from.
There is, of course, an entire genre that fits the bill of skill-based accessibility: point and click adventures.
Point and click adventures have been around for a long time, and they highlight perhaps better than any other genre the second major barrier to someone just getting into games: the conceptual barrier; sometimes referred to as gaming logic. Over the course of their existence, puzzles in games have developed their own unique style of logic, and this brand of logic can be opaque to new gamers. An experienced gamer will know the signs, will know how to search a level to begin to decode the puzzle being communicated, and will know whether or not they can push the games’ mechanics far enough to make a particular solution viable. Much of this is based on prior experience with similar games, and is not often explicitly communicated.
Game logic extends far beyond puzzles, however. Even something as simple as path-finding can be troublesome to a new gamer. My mother required fairly regular directions during her first play-through of Journey, and, on subsequent games, continually struggled with navigating her way through a particular area towards the end of Journey. If simply orientation and puzzle solving are difficult to get the hang of, it’s no wonder that new gamers struggle with optimisation in more stats-focussed RPGs and in competitive RTS games. Some genres are definitely less newbie friendly than others (here’s looking at you, FPS).
The conceptual barrier of games goes far deeper than just game logic. We’re only just beginning to see games mature and diversify the topics they discuss to include more difficult, more nuanced, themes. Beginning in a significant way with the original Bioshock, Irrational Games managed to mix a rich art style with a fantastic conceptual setting which lent itself well to the introduction of more meaningful philosophical questions. Bioshock places an emphasis on, amongst other things, the philosophy of science and epistemology; Bioshock asks what results when science, and indeed all aspects of human endeavour, go too far and break free from the restraint of ethics and morality.
Pair this with the aforementioned Journey, and we have two games that deal with the idea of discovery and exploration, but in fundamentally different ways. Bioshock asks the question from a very human perspective, whereas Journey is happy to let the player ponder without a baseline. Bioshock directs the conversation by asking difficult questions, whereas Journey is the question. Bioshock and Journey aren’t necessarily the first games to attempt this, but they are certainly amongst the more successful examples.
Bioshock and Journey have begun to break down the conceptual barrier, the perception, that games are ultimately shallow and thoughtless experiences. Looking at the wider array of games, there are other examples, too: Binary Domain presents questions on post humanism and L.A. Noire tells a story which is predictable, but is still much deeper than the average Rambo-esque rampage, and manages to deal with very sensitive themes along the way; Shadow of the Colossus makes you acutely aware that your heroism is an almost purely selfish endeavour and this poses a problem about the importance of perspective.