The midwinter celebrations are almost upon us. With little agricultural work left to do and our larders full from last season’s harvest, it’s a time for observance of the solstice tree, for gift exchange, feasting and gingerbread construction projects.
As we all prepare to make the arduous journeys back to our home villages to pay our respects to our parents and elders, video games are often thought of as an escape: a way to avoid the watchful gaze of our relatives and escape dangerous conversations about life choices. But it doesn’t have to be this way!
Whenever I’m confronted with the inevitable bemusement with the fact that I’m being paid to play video games, I try to have a few games handy that I can use to show people just how different things are from whenever it was they say they last touched a controller (the three main waves being Tetris, Super Mario and Mario Kart 64). After all, the holiday audience is a captive one: what else is there to do?
The thing is, there are a whole lot of games that any number of people would have a great time with, but very few actually know that they exist. You can start easy—talk a bit about Candy Crush, or Angry Birds, or one of those other phone games that no American human could possibly avoid having at least some fun with. Those are video games too, remember, and they go to illustrate just how broad the industry has become. Maybe they’ve even tried their hands at Plants vs. Zombies, or their kids play Minecraft.
Use this as a segue to all those weird and wonderful games out there that don’t revolve around killing orcs or terrorists. As much as you respect the Nemesis system in Shadow of Mordor, nobody who doesn’t already know about is likely to care. To most people, an “indie game” is still a novel concept: my poet sister-in-law perked up when I told her that people are making games with names like “The Unfinished Swan.”
It’s all about finding the right title. As a rule of thumb, AAA games just won’t fly. Not only are they hard to play, they’re unwieldy, typically designed around an hour to two hour play session. And you can’t just play the first 15 minutes of “The Last of Us” for someone and say: “wasn’t that amazing?” Because even if they agree, they can’t really relate: video games are all about actually playing it, yourself, and you want games people can actually engage with.
The key to a good game like this is that it should be surprising and engaging—the kind of thing that’s difficult to look away from. You want to avoid dual-analog controls whenever possible, you want the game to have a striking visual style, and you want something that kicks off right from the beginning. If the story or the gameplay doesn’t actually take shape for even ten minutes, you’ve likely already lost whoever you’re evangelizing to. Persona 4 is cool, but your dad is never going to suffer through the 3 hour long intro. Even a game like Journey is too quiet and slow to really capture anyone who isn’t already on board for the experience. It needs to be quirky enough to challenge people’s preconceptions of “video games” but not so unapproachable as to be off-putting.
Most of all, though, you should be proud of your hobby. When your grandparents ask you what you’ve been reading, tell them you’ve been playing “Dragon Age: Inquisition.” If your family isn’t made of closed-minded jerks, you can offer them a new lens on a world that many of them had written off years ago, and a way of catching up on the strangest commercial art form around. Most people are willing to give things a shot, you just need to figure out the right things to show them.
Naturally, the most important part of choosing which game to show people is knowing which game they might like, but below is a list of some of my favorite games for people that don’t play.
Octodad: This brilliant Kafkaesque nightmare is not only an engrossing commentary on estrangement, but hilarious fun as well. The controls are purposefully obtuse, so it’s just as disorienting whether you’re a professional Call of Duty player or an average Joe. The philosophically inclined will be amused by the way Octodad tackles its subject matter with its own peculiar, clumsy grace, and everyone else can enjoy watching a cephalopod desperately try to retrieve a cereal box in a grocery store.
Thomas Was Alone: The controls are simple enough for anyone to learn, and the early levels are all easy enough. But the real treat here is the way the narrative starts out strong and weird, and then unfolds with perfect pacing from there. Thomas Was Alone is funny, charming, and very difficult to put down.
The Unfinished Swan: Dual-Analog controls are usually a deal-breaker, but the lack of enemies or any kind of time pressure means that people can just play with it at their own speed. If you show this to someone, though, try to skip through the story intro before you do. This one is all about the first moment of disorientation, when the screen is completely white and you have no idea what’s going on. A few paintballs unveil a strange, evolving world that you feel drawn into little by little. There’s a sense of discovery that’s wholly unique to video games, especially if you resist the urge to tell people how to play.
Monument Valley: The game oozes style from the moment you turn it on, and the curiously meditative sound design is unlike anything your audience has likely seen. The MC Esheresque world is full of aha moments and physics that unfold at a beguiling pace, making Monument Valley useful for showing off the peculiar aesthetic of the modern indie game. The narrative can be a little embarrassing, though.
The Room (or better yet, The Room Two): Like Thomas Was Alone, The Room is just hard to put down. The intense physicality of the clockwork world means that anyone can control it, and the pervasive sense of atmosphere has a way of sucking you in for hours at a time. This also makes an ideal co-op game, because even though only one person can play, everyone else can shout puzzle solutions at them and just generally berate them.
Mario Kart: Is still great.
David Thier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Republic, IGN.com, Wired and more. Follow him on Twitter.