Wednesday, 4 January 2012

On Games for Non-Gamers

As many of us realise every Christmas, parents can be very tough to buy presents for, especially the inconsiderate ones with few hobbies and no burning passion for those scented candles/boring chocolates/dodgy shaving sets that we've resorted to in previous years. It was at this familiar impass that my girlfriend and I found ourselves when trying to think up a Christmas present for her Dad.

Remembering a few conversations about computer upgrades and how at one point the family PC used to be used primarily for Quake sessions, as well as the occasions when we've walked in to find her Dad engrossed in a game of Spider Solitaire, I tentatively suggested "why not a game?" and was surprised not be laughed out of the room.

While she didn't end up buying him a game, the following are my thoughts – in the form of a slightly edited version of an email I sent her – on good (PC) games for those who have played few or no previous games, or perhaps only casual games, both specific to her Dad and in more general terms (note: these were literally the first few things that came into my head, so it's certainly not an exhaustive list and doesn't necessarily represent the absolute pinnacle of “introductory” games. It also ended up being a bit of a PopCap-fest, but that is because in my opinion they are genuine masters at bridging the casual/hardcore divide - and yes, obligatory shame about the EA buyout sentiment).

Plants vs. Zombies

PopCap, the guys who made be Bejeweled, are magic. Literally magic. They have this signature offbeat style with which they manage to make games that are genuinely funny, which is one of the things games are worst at. I love games, but they’re rarely funny. Games fail at funny and PopCap are this little island of laugh-out-loud humour in the middle of all the dross. To be doubly magic, they make games that I would play, with my cynicism and game-world-weariness born of years of gaming and vast reams of game related knowledge, but that I would also recommend to anyone: you, your Dad, your Mum, my Mum. It’s amazing, because no one else does this as consistently or perfectly. As I said, magic.

Plants vs Zombies is, for me, their funniest and most well rounded game. Part of the PopCap appeal is that playing their games make you feel clever and awesome for making progress, without that progress ever being particularly challenging or frustrating. I know, magic. PvZ is this magic to the nth degree. The only drawback with PvZ is that it’s perhaps their most gamer-y game (i.e. Made for me) rather than casual game (i.e. Made for your Dad), but it’s still not at all difficult to get into and comes with my wholehearted recommendation.

Also from PopCap, Bookworm Adventures

Bookworm Adventures is similarly wonderful and also easier to immediately grasp for a non-gamer. You’re a (book)worm and you trundle along beating up bad guys using a mutant form of scrabble. Did I mention PopCap are magic? One of the most sublime moments you can have in gaming, topping even the bit where the cards all fall out towards the screen at the end of Solitaire or the opening sequence of Half-Life, is creating a small nuclear explosion on a giant angry bird by suddenly finding the word UNATTRACTIVE amongst your set of letters. And none of that relies on having pro-gamer level reactions or a deep appreciation of some obscure rule set; if you’re good at scrabble, you’re good at this.

Also from PopCap, Peggle

Peggle is one I haven’t played beyond a demo, but a lot of good words have been written and spoken about it so it also deserves a mention too. It’s got the same silly PopCap humour and is perhaps the furthest development of the feel-awesome-while-doing-not-much PopCap ethic. As such, however, the cracks may start to show a bit, and you may start to realise you’re playing a weird, upside down and slightly arbitrary version of pinball. Still, quite a lot of fun.

There’s also Bejeweled (now in it’s third incarnation), but for me that’s one of their least interesting games, relying on a repeated, addictive mechanic that’s as ubiquitous as Tetris by now. It’s tried, tested, polished and fun, but not what I’d get.

Not from PopCap! World of Goo

World of Goo is a delight, a little morsel of pure wonder in game form. It’s funny too, but in a more low key way than PopCap’s blasts of primary colours and smiling paramilitary plants. The payoff from this less in your face approach is some charmingly wistful presentation. It’s big on the inventive use of (Newtonian) physics for its puzzles and is constantly bringing in fun new game mechanics to keep the player, casual or hardcore, amused. This means it can get moderately challenging, but even the non gamer should have little trouble playing to the end.

And Yet It Moves

And Yet It Moves is the “paper” one you’ve seen me playing. It’s a simple game, with an atmospheric and interesting aesthetic and little of the clutter or complication present in other (even PopCap) games that can bewilder non gamers. Despite its simplicity it uses the tools it has smartly to create a consistently engaging little chunk of game.


Braid is simply fantastic, although whether I’d fully recommend it for your Dad I’m not sure. It’s got this rich and perfect half sorrowful, half optimistic vibe running deeply through presentation and plot (if you can call it a plot - maybe better to describe it as a painting made of picture, words and interactions). But not only are the themes surface level, they’re also worked into the way you play the game. The synergy isn’t perfect, but Braid is a demonstration of what amazing things games are capable of as a medium, while being not-inaccessible to the non or casual gamer. You’ll note that I’ve said ‘not-inaccessible’ rather than accessible, however. This game is hard: not necessarily game-hard, in that I don’t think it’s necessary to be a hardcore gamer to be good at it, but because there are some very tricky puzzles that require a lot of thinking, the upshot of which is that you have to really want to play it. It isn’t a casual undertaking and from that perspective isn’t a great Christmas gift, but it is something utterly wonderful that I would put forward as an ambassador for the power and potential of the medium of video games (if I was ever pretentious enough to do such a thing).


Portal is again a brilliant ambassador from games to the general public, but again perhaps not a prime recommendation in this case. Firstly it will need Steam, and you said your Dad might be reluctant to sign up to anything (I believe all the rest on this list should come without the need to supply personal details to anyone, past payment). Secondly it’s the only one that really requires any computing power to run, so I’d have to check that your Dad’s PC could handle it. Finally, while not too hard in the grand scheme of things, it is the one game I’ve mentioned that is played from a first person perspective and requiring some reactions, so he’d have to remember those Quake skills. With all that said, it’s one of the best written games ever, and manages that feat with one talking character (and, amongst other things, your implied friendship to an inanimate cube). It’s clever, playing on psychology and science with great aplomb, and very funny. If all this was contained within a slightly easier to access package then I’d want to make the whole world play it.

The Humble Bundle

Finally, there’s the humble bundle, which is a bunch of great games wrapped up in a great idea: pay what you want and choose how to split the cash between the game devs, the people providing the bundle and a couple of charities. This is actually the eighth set of games (at the time of writing) under the humble banner, and as a gift for a non or casual gamer it isn’t brilliant. I’ve only played a few of them, but Gratuitous Space Battles aside, I believe they should all be just about approachable without being a gamer. However, none are really great introductions to the world of gaming-beyond-what-comes-free-with-Windows or to be be fully appreciated without prior game playing experience. Still, for the charity bit, this gets a mention.

And there you go. Like I said, far from exhaustive, but it was nice to rack my brains for good examples and then evaluate from somewhere other than my usual hardcore gamer stance.

Maybe next Christmas!


  1. I'm famous! I don't believe Portal was in the original email (or maybe it was and my version of a "skim read" is actually a "wilfully ignore large chunks of text read") else I think I would've bought it for my Dad. And then played it myself.

    1. It was, but I didn't give it as glowing a recommendation as I would now we've played Portal 2. And it does need Steam.

      There's always next Birthday/Xmas of course!