Wanna get into video games? Start here
A lot of folks don’t play games. And I totally get it: a whole lot of unpleasant people have fought tooth and nail to create a toxic, exclusive, culture and define that as what games are. But thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Every now and then, a friend or relative will reach out to me and ask “what’s a game I’d like?” or “I really enjoyed [game] — what else should I try?”
I love these conversations. I’ve spent a huge portion of my life playing as many different games as I can and trying to understand what makes a game more accessible, approachable, and valuable to different people. I think games are the best medium we have for generating empathy and understanding, and — okay, I’ll hop off my soapbox — they’re also super interesting and fun.
This is a list for anyone who has ever been curious about games but has no idea where to start. Each of these games is inspired and has something to say. Many of them feature rich narratives about interesting characters and themes from a wide range of storytellers. Almost all of them are non-violent (and I’ve indicated those that aren’t).
If you see anything you’d like added to the list, drop me a DM on Twitter or leave a comment! I’d like for this to be an evergreen resource.
A magical-realist masterpiece of yarn-spinning, Kentucky Route Zero starts out at a gas station in Kentucky and ends up…I’m not totally sure where. The final act hasn’t come out yet as of this writing, and besides, I wouldn’t want to spoil any of the fun.
Featuring beautiful, expressive art, dynamic storytelling, and phenomenal writing peppered with hints of Pynchon and Murakami, Kentucky Route Zero is absolutely unforgettable and a testament to what a little bit of player choice can do to bring an inspired narrative to life.
Recommended for: Fans of absurdist Americana; anyone who grew up around point-and-click adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (someday), Windows, Linux, macOS
Gosh, I can’t say enough good things about Gone Home. It’s brief (probably two or three hours, start to finish) but tells a resonant story about coming of age and falling in love in the 1990s. You’ll explore your family home (a creaky ol’ house in western Oregon) and listen to a lot of riot grrl music before all’s said and done. Plus, it was made right here in Portland! Neat.
Recommended for: Positive queer representation; strong atmosphere and clever environmental storytelling; a fully functioning refrigerator
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Macintosh operating systems, iOS
What a charming little game. As the Frog Detective, the second-best detective on the force, you’ll explore the mystery of the Haunted Island. Meet silly characters! Use your magnifying glass to zoom in on things! Participate in a dance contest! All this can be yours for just five bucks and an hour of your time.
Recommended for: Fans of charming and goofy writing; anyone who’s brand-new to exploration and puzzle-solving games
Available on: Microsoft Windows, macOS
I like, admire, and appreciate all the games on this list, but Night in the Woods is one of the few games that I straight-up love.
Despite its striking cartoon-animal aesthetic, Night in the Woods tells a very real and resonant story about, well, being a young person in the middle of the United States in the Trump era. Uncertainty, anxiety, and frustrations abound as a depressed former mining town tries to find its footing. Meanwhile, you play as Mae, a college dropout who’s struggling to find a path forward and the courage to confront what came before. It’s filled with sharp writing, rich characters, and a wonderfully flexible narrative that leaves plenty of room for player input.
If you’re still on the fence, I [wrote a lot more] about it on my other blog, Silicon Sasquatch, where we named it the second-best game of 2017. But here’s the important part:
“I really just want you to play this game: you, the casual game-player who normally avoids story-driven games; you, the person who barely touches any video games; you, the skeptic who’s convinced millennials would be fine if they just laid off the avocado toast and got real jobs. For my money, this game holds one of the most essential stories of our modern era, and it needs to be played.”
Recommended for: Millennials; anyone on the political left; disenchanted adults
Available on: Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android
People love Firewatch for the excellent performances of its main characters and its rich, stylized depiction of the forests of Wyoming. As with the previous games on this list, there’s no combat or risk of failure here — just an intimate narrative to unravel.
For me, honestly, Firewatch doesn’t fully stick the landing, but I admire the craft of the story that’s being told here and enjoyed my time with it.
Recommended for: Fans of Twin Peaks or Six Feet Under, maybe?
Available on: Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Fez is a nesting doll of a game. What begins as a simple, non-violent puzzle game about jumping on platforms and collecting cubes becomes something that tests the boundaries of space, time, and your brain. Fortunately, it ramps up gently, and you only have to go as deep as you’d like. But if you’re the kind of person who enjoys logic puzzles and spotting things that, perhaps, you never realized the significance of before, this game may change your life. It certainly changed the way I think about games.
Recommended for: Puzzle fans; those who enjoy mind-bending geometry and lateral thinking; anyone who enjoys a truly inspired chiptune soundtrack, courtesy of Disasterpeace (It Follows, Hyper Light Drifter, etc.)
Avoid it if: You’d rather not tackle the kind of challenges that warrant keeping a notebook handy
Available on: Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows, Linux, macOS, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, iOS
Farming, fishing, romance, and spelunking await in Stardew Valley, a quaint pastoral role-playing game from Eric Barone (yeah, one person made the vast majority of this game, somehow).
Recommended for: Anyone who’s ever been tempted to pack it up, walk out on their job, and move to the country
Avoid it if: You have a hard time avoiding that “just one more round” impulse. Stardew Valley is huge, and it’ll suck you in if you’re not careful.
Available on: Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation Vita, iOS, Android
The less you know about The Stanley Parable, the better. Just know that it’s an exploration-driven narrative game about agency, choice, and the human condition. Kind of. But it’s also filled to the brim with sharp, absurdist humor.
Recommended for: Anyone who appreciates the artful destruction of the fourth wall
Avoid it if: Tongue-in-cheek examinations of human autonomy ain’t your thing
Available on:Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux
Here’s why I love games. This is a game that’s billed as “An Insurance Adventure with Minimal Colour,” and that’s exactly what it is. You represent an insurance company, and you’re charged with assessing the damages incurred by the case of the Obra Dinn, a trade ship whose crew all died or disappeared.
I’ve never played a game like Return of the Obra Dinn. It’s a game of deduction, of observation, of careful consideration of the clues all around you. Though the settings and events range from the grim to the grotesque, there’s no risk to the player — you simply take your time and piece together the fates of the ship’s sixty crew members and passengers.
Obra Dinn is a hell of a game. I can’t recommend it enough.
Recommended for: Fans of logic and deduction; anyone for whom the idea of a CSI: 1800s England really resonates
Avoid it if: Again, the notebook clause; you’re gonna want to keep a notebook handy for this one, and if that sounds no fun, maybe steer clear
Available on: macOS, Microsoft Windows
In this game, you control a hole in the ground. Swallow something up and the hole gets bigger. And…well, let’s see where this goes.
I think this is a game about gentrification, and its soundtrack absolutely slaps. Highly recommended.
Recommended for: You like trash; you feel like trash; you like feeling like trash; you’ve ever spent time in Los Angeles County
Cost: $5 to $13
Available on: PlayStation 4, iOS, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, macOS, Xbox One
Minecraft is one of those games whose reputation precedes itself, but part of that reputation — that it’s for kids — really does it a disservice. There’s no question that it’s still a phenomenon among kids, but what the game excels at — imagining and building things, generating random adventures and environments to explore, interacting with friends — ought to appeal to people of any age.
Its creator is a real piece of work, but he’s long since been removed from the game in any meaningful way, so it’s a much easier game to recommend these days.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing Minecraft since the first alpha release in, jeez, 2010? I’ve built cities and hollowed out mountains with friends, grown tiny gardens into massive farms, and been blown up by my fair share of explosive green Creepers. I’m not sure when I’ll dip back in again, but I know it’s only a matter of time.
Recommended for: Anyone who loved playing with Lego bricks as a kid; amateur architects; folks who want to connect with kids over something besides Fortnite
Avoid it if: You need clear goals and structure to enjoy an activity
Cost: $7 and up
Available on: Pretty much everything
The mind-bending spatial puzzles of Portal served up with a healthy dose of sci-fi philosophizing. It’s a little tricky if you’re not familiar with moving a character around in a 3D space; if that sounds daunting, maybe give Portal or Portal 2 a shot before you dig into this one.
Recommended for: Logical/spatial folks; people who go hard for that Asimov stuff about AI and humans, or whatever
Avoid it if: Keyboard-and-mouse / dual-analog-stick movement is a point of frustration
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows, Linux, Macintosh operating systems, macOS
Mario goes on vacation, and we get to come along. Super Mario Odyssey is a joyous, endlessly clever romp through a series of brave new worlds. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the best 3D Mario game since Super Mario 64.
The whole deal with this one is that Mario’s cap is sentient and able to possess dozens of different enemies. So you’ve got that going for you. Which is nice.
Recommended for: Anyone who ever wondered what Super Mario’s nipples look like
Available on: Nintendo Switch
A good, old-fashioned point-and-click adventure game for the modern era, Broken Age is legendary designer Tim Schafer going back to his wheelhouse to tell a clever and endearing story about two very different people whose lives intersect in unexpected ways. Featuring some outstanding performances from Masasa Moyo and Elijah Wood, Broken Age brings strange worlds to life and guides you through a string of very well-constructed puzzles that’ll challenge your lateral-thinking abilities.
Recommended for: Anyone who’s ever played a point-and-click adventure game from LucasArts, like Day of the Tentacle or The Secret of Monkey Island
Available on: Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, Android, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch