Are you someone who has ever said “video games just aren’t for me”? And are you also someone who considers themselves a writer? Then this post is made for you.
If you are a member of the Storytelling Society, you’ll know why I wholeheartedly believe anyone who says they are a storyteller needs to play video games, even if they don’t want to write them. As detailed in the Storytelling System, engaging with new mediums is essential to improving your abilities as a storyteller in general – not just as a writer of novels or plays or even poetry. However, video games come with a different perception than books, films and plays do because oftentimes video games bring something new to the table – combat, strategy and other problem-solving skills.
The more video games you play that involve these assets, the more you’ll understand how seamlessly they blend into a narrative and how they make the medium something completely separate from the other ones storytellers are used to. At first combat and other tactics can seem distracting, but they exist just as much as an immersive factor as anything else in a story would. However, just because these assets can enrich and deepen a game, doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.
Just like with books, movies and plays, everyone has their favorite genre. For that reason, the people who say that video games “aren’t for them,” likely have only encountered one version of video gaming that really doesn’t appeal to them – the game with battle and strategy and everything in between. The idea of committing hours to a story filled with activities they aren’t interested in is understandably unappealing and for that reason the initial rejection of the video game medium makes sense.
Which is why I’ve cultivated a list of video games with little to no combat, perfect for anyone wary of the video gaming medium who just want to experience storytelling in a new way.
Each game listed below is regarded for one of two things – it’s storytelling capabilities or its ability to play with the video gaming medium. Though a few games may involve combat or puzzle-solving, these aspects are minuscule when compared to larger triple-A games and should not deter you from giving these indie games a shot.
Besides a strong emphasis on story, the great thing about the video games listed below is that all of them are available on your computer – meaning no fiddling with a controller – and all but one are even available for Mac! Additionally, most of these games have short run times – under five hours – so new gamers will not feel overwhelmed by the prospect of a 200+ hour game. Plus all of these indie games can be found on Steam where they can go on sale for as little as $5 during key times of the year like Christmas and their mid-summer sale.
Finally, though there are many indie games out there with more regard or higher ratings and reviews, I have omitted anything that might have RPG elements so that even the most video game-averse storyteller might not be intimidated by these options and can instead see how video games provide a new approach to storytelling unlike any other.
With nothing but a walkie talkie connected to a woman named Delilah and your ability to explore, Firewatch follows Henry, a fire watchmen in Wyoming escaping his past. On the first day of the job, after investigating illegal fireworks at the behest of Delilah, mysteries begin to unfold and strange things begin to occur. At about four hours of playtime, this game will keep players in suspense and on edge, making those measly few hours fly by and make them yearn for more. For storytellers, this game is a great way to study characters and to understand the first person perspective unlike any other, as you are forced to be in Henry’s shoes, wondering if Delilah can be trusted yet trusting her all the same.
That Dragon, Cancer
An autobiographical game, That Dragon, Cancer is based on the experience of the creators, Ryan and Amy Green, whose twelve-month old son was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After four years of living and loving their son before he succumbed to the disease , the couple decided to make a point-and-click video game designed to help other people experience the ups and downs of their time with their son. That Dragon, Cancer is undoubtedly an indication of storytelling to come, hinting a future genre of video gaming that exists to help other people understand perspectives and experiences that are different from their own. That Dragon, Cancer will teach storytellers new ways to describe and visualize experiences, making the seemingly simple gestures of life like pushing a child on a swing become sensory tools in storytelling.
With it’s charming graphics and choice-based dialogue, Oxenfree starts out as a classic high school story. Alex, the protagonist, and her two friends, have been invited to a party on an abandoned island and couldn’t be more excited. But when they get to the island, things become creepy. Equipped with a radio that can help her speak to the supernatural and uncover new mysteries, Alex is forced to confront the situation and partake in the unfolding story. However, unlike other games where you are forced to stay still when you’re talking with other characters, Oxenfree lets you explore the world, often responding from other rooms as you investigate new areas. This creates a more seamless form of storytelling, making the player feel like they really are in the world. With multiple endings, storytellers can learn more about the complex world of branching dialogue and how they can play with possibilities in their own stories.
Discussed in brief in my post about how all types of video gaming can help your storytelling, Gone Home is worth mentioning again because of how great it is for people who say they don’t enjoy video games. At about two hours in length, Gone Home is an interactive story that promises zero combat, zero puzzles and zero surprises. All the game entails is one character exploring her home after a long trip away, combing through each room to uncover the family drama that happened while she was gone. As a result, this game is great for teaching storytellers about how to approach spaces and rooms in a new way, taking objects and giving each of them their own stories.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
After paranormal investigator Paul Prosper receives a fan letter from Ethan Carter, he becomes inspired and decides to visit the town the teenager is from. However, upon arriving to the new town, Paul realizes things are not quite what they seem and that their is a violent history to be uncovered. Much like with Oxenfree, the player can tap into the paranormal awakening a new world layered under the first one, uncovering clues and hidden histories. Though this game is not available for Mac players, console owners and PC players alike can indulge in the mystical story of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter that plays with perspective and demonstrates to storytellers how they can layer a world with mystery and backstory. Set in an open world, new gamers will get to experience the sensation of being able to freely walk about and explore to their heart’s content without being overwhelmed by an enormous map of possibilities.
Life is Strange
Much like the Telltale games I raved about in my post about how video games can help storytelling, Life is Strange is an episodic video game, making it feel more like an interactive TV show and less like the typical video games that come to mind. Toying with the mechanics of a choice-based game, Life is Strange follows Maxine, a girl who discovers she has the ability to rewind time and change her decisions, much like fellow video gamers often wish they could do. Though meta in it’s ability to undo choices, Life is Strange manages to deal with both the woes of being a high school student and the more frightening big picture of a town being wiped out. With its episodic structure and intense focus on experiencing all the different choices, this game is perfect for the storyteller looking to really examine all the different possibilities without having to replay through the entire game.
Papo & Yo
Inspired by Pixar’s ability to tell deep stories with the simplicity of animation, the creators of Papa & Yo tell a story of a Brazilian boy named Quico trying to escape the abuse of his alcoholic father. In his attempt to flee the abuse, he is transported to a fantastical world where he encounters the Monster, his new best friend. From there he can transport and change the favela’s buildings and layout of this fantastical world to solve puzzles in the game that progress the story. Much like That Dragon, Cancer, Papa & Yo is based on the creator’s own experience with his father, demonstrating a strong sense of authorship that is emerging in the gaming sphere in addition to the growing awareness of minorities’ representation in indie games. Budding storytellers will learn about mechanics like puzzles in gaming, furthering their knowledge about how interactive aspects exist as part of the story, not as a distraction.
The Stanley Parable
With over fifteen different endings, The Stanley Parable can run as short as two minutes to as long as thirty minutes. Told via first-person perspective, The Stanley Parable has a looming narrator describing the life of Stanley, the office employee you play as, who upon leaving his office desk discovers the entire building empty. As the game progresses, the narrator will begin to tell Stanley to start making certain choices which the player can choose to ignore or follow. For every choice Stanley chooses to ignore, the narrator will grow more and more frustrated at having to change and correct his previous narration. Funny and quick, The Stanley Parable provides a new way for characters to think about narration and exploration alike.
Primarily a puzzle game, in Papers, Please the player works as an immigration officer in the fictional country of Arstotzka. For every person you process and allow into the country you make more money which you can then take home and divide between food, rent, and other amenities. However, as the game progresses and relations with Arstotzka’s neighboring country diminishes, more rules begin to apply and you, as the immigration officer, are forced to turn more and more people away. Decisions you make about who you make exceptions for and who you reject can completely alter the games ending, making Papers, Please both an entertaining game but also thought provoking and dark. Much like with Papa & Yo, this game will make storytellers grasp just how much puzzle-solving and other mechanics of gaming can become so inherent to a story’s experience, unlike any other other medium.
A work of art in itself and a demonstration of the more literary aspects of video gaming, Limbo is a dark and eerie story about a brother wandering through Limbo to find his sister. With a minimalistic story focused on experience alone, Limbo may polarize fellow storytellers looking for an action-packed story, but for the right player this game offers the introspection and ambiguity they need. Built with the expectations that the player would fail, Limbo is meant to be replayed, teaching storytellers new to the medium about the problem-solving skills video game storytelling provides. For that reason, repeating the game over and over until the true end of the story is reached exists as a rewarding experience and not one to be begrudgingly worked though like new players might imagine.
“Where do I play these games?”
As mentioned, all of these games can be purchased on Steam for both Mac and PC, except for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter which is not available for Mac users, though if you or a friend have a PS4 you may experience the story on that console. Some of the games can even be played on an iPhone or iPad, though Steam is completely free to download and use and can be transferred to different computers. Furthermore, Steam also has an enormous archive of indie games, making it great for new players looking for artistic and story-centered games that won’t bust the bank or take up too much space on your computer.
So with all that to take in, go give one of these indie stories a shot! Your money will help further the careers of more indie gamers – an industry that always needs all the support it can get – in addition to getting to experience storytelling in an entirely new form that will inspire all other facets of your writing.
Do any of these games appeal to you? Tell me which one you’re going to play! And of course, there are so many games I have left out, so be sure to comment below your favorite indie game you’d recommend to non-gamers!