I had an enlivening experience this week. I put a potential gamer and a good game together to create a match made in heaven. May their experience forever be bliss.
I’ve written before that the idea of getting non-gamers to enjoy video games involves getting past that whole “game” part. Whereas other forms of art involve more esoteric forms of challenges, video games embody an obvious one. Regardless, I don’t act defeated. Despite every person who laughs when I talk about my favorite thing to do, I always look for that single drop of curiosity – that twinkle in the eye. Maybe it requires an extra modicum of watchfulness that other gamers do not possess or are not willing to maintain, but you wouldn’t believe how many people find themselves suddenly interested.
On Sunday, I had some friends over, and one friend out of the blue mentioned that he’s been playing “Mario.” After some mild questioning, I managed to suss out that he meant Super Mario Galaxy. He expressed that he found it interesting, but it was just too tough. That is not particularly hard to fathom. Suddenly being tasked with controlling a being in a 3D environment while avoiding obstacles can be very overwhelming. Personally, I did not make the transition very smoothly. My experiences with Mario 64 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were downright hilarious. Regardless, I asked my friend if he liked the game, and he confirmed it but lamented that games, as an entity, seemed challenging.
I’m already disoriented.
My gears instantly began to work. I did not want to lose this one. So I got to interviewing him about his particular interests. I completely understood what he found challenging. Starting your gaming interest with Super Mario Galaxy or other games like it is like being given a jet and being asked to fly it. It’s intimidating (and could result in death). First, I explained to him what a platformer was. While this kind of explanation could bore someone wholly uninterested, I knew it would help him on his path to true video game enjoyment. I asked him if he liked the idea of playing more games like that, which he did. Then, to see where we could take this, I asked if he’d like something deeper with a story or more thinking involved, which he did. In my mind, this could lead to other good platformers, but it could also leads to traditional RPGs where the majority of the challenge is in thinking as opposed to execution.
What could I give him that would be a positive experience? I just recently finished Okami (for the fourth time) – the game is beautiful and wonderful and fun and…no, it’s too much. The first thing to consider is the buttons. One thing my friend said was, “There were just so many buttons to learn.” Let’s not forget that the vast majority of people who don’t game last remember playing the original Nintendo Entertainment System or even an Atari. In terms of in-game functionality, we’re talking one or two buttons and a directional pad or stick at most to beat a game. On the Playstation 3, for example, most games take full advantage of the Dualshock 3 pad, which involves two analog sticks and 16 individual buttons. Don’t even get me started on motion controls that are often shoehorned in. Alright, Okami‘s out. What’s next?
I don’t own a Wii, so I couldn’t give him a classic game to play from that bygone era. I’d have to turn to indie games! They focus a lot on platforming and very simplified experiences. My first thought was Outland. Again, this might have been because the game is so darn beautiful, but it had another element that I thought important – it starts simple and becomes progressively more challenging. Moreover, it involves a lot of puzzle solving. However, Outland also posed a problem. It gets challenging kind of quickly, and executing the solutions to puzzles involves quick reflexes and, you know, button mastery. No, that one won’t do. Why don’t I just give him Ikaruga and open the window so he can jump out? Ugh.
So I sat with him on the couch and looked through what I had downloaded already from PSN, and while scrolling, I hung for a few seconds on LIMBO, before moving further down the list just to see. But my friend asked, “Wait. What’s LIMBO?” It all clicked then, and I launched the game and gave him the controller. LIMBO is perfect because it does something many games don’t do. It actually teaches the player how to play modern games. So deceptively didactic, it works like a charm. It had the beauty of Okami and Outland (and a million other amazing games) and it had the progressively challenging gameplay that Outland features, but it lacks the immediacy with which one would feel inundated from a first-person shooter like BioShock or a wild adventure game like Bayonetta. LIMBO”s story is also more simple and approachable than an RPG, at least in terms of trying to hook someone in under an hour. I’d hate to make a friend sit through a promising 20-minute cut scene only to be overwhelmed and die during the first battle.
Not for the faint of heart.
I don’t know that all experiences with introducing a non-gamer to a game can turn out so fortuitously, but he was hooked from the first minute. The mood, the environment, the mystery about what is going on all lured him in, and the simple gameplay held his hands steadfast to the controller. What LIMBO does differently is that it starts with a boy lying in a field who does nothing. The game doesn’t tell you to do anything, and it’s clear that out of some frustration, you’ll become tempted to start tapping buttons. Tapping X opens his eyes. Tapping it again moves him a little. Soon, he is standing up. OK. Now what? This stick seems to move him, but I’ll fall down that ditch. One of these buttons has to do something to go over the ditch, right?
So it goes until you reach a point where you absolutely need to grab something and move it with you in order to proceed. Then, there’s a point where your solution is not further right; it’s actually back where you came from to the left. Sometimes, you’ll hear a sound you never heard before, and because you keep dying, you’re inclined to investigate it. Don’t get me wrong. In terms of quickly digesting the experience, LIMBO isn’t perfect. At one point my friend kept trying to float across a pool of water on a box that get dropping him, causing him to drown. Eventually, I asked him what the definition of insanity was. I tried to be absolutely subtle and as minimalistic as possible in my hints. As much as I believed he could figure most of it out on his own, I wanted him to feel nothing but progress on this journey that we were actually taking together.
Fitting first steps.
My friend doesn’t own a video game console to play LIMBO, but when I revealed that it’s available for Mac, he was excited all over again. That’s something else to keep in mind. Don’t introduce people to games they’ll only be able to play at your place, especially if you don’t see them that often. Make them want to go home and continue. Give them the tools they need to feed the passion themselves. Also, don’t be too dismayed if your friends don’t instantly change their lifestyles to meet yours. That will probably never happen. Although it sounds condescending, like a child, you must only encourage. Everything that happens from there will make you prouder.
The next day, I told my boss about my experience, and he called me “some sort of video game matchmaker.” I like that. It’s a role I constantly try to play, and I consider success maintaining someone’s interest while I talk. The moment I convince someone not to dismiss gaming is the moment that turning him or her onto games becomes possible. I will leave you with these tips from this and other different experiences.
- Focus on the person’s own interests. I’d love to show people the brilliance of Asura’s Wrath‘s over-the-top battles and L.A. Noire‘s facial mapping, but I have to remember that the setting, the gameplay, or both might be unappealing to someone who likes science fiction or puzzles in the newspaper.
- Use your knowledge of games to ask questions. You can’t shove a person into any game. Bring up gameplay concepts and genres to see what even tangentially catches his or her fancy.
- Have a diverse library of games, or know how to access one easily. Frankly, if all you play are first-person shooters or real-time strategy games, your collection could be alienating. Get to know games you aren’t playing to help this along.
- Think a suggestion through. This is related to the above tips, but it really pays to consider if someone who hasn’t touched a controller since 1983 can handle 3D movement and trigger assignments.
- Make the person play the game. You and I may love watching people play games, but you showing the game off is not the same experience. You’ll never find out if it’s the right or wrong match if you play it in front of your friend. Nobody’s watching your fingers.
- Don’t be afraid to try something else. I get it. The game you chose is amazing, but your friend has a glazed look over his eyes. Move on.
- Recommend something accessible. If your friend only has a Mac or a work laptop, the latest AAA blockbuster either won’t be available or won’t work. Don’t ignore the tons of games that are available and do function.
What about you, The Reader? Have you ever had an experience turning someone onto games for the first time? Do you remember someone getting you into them? Maybe you have some tips to share that I glossed over. Leave me some comments!
Gil is a video game enthusiast and professional meanderer. When he’s not giving people his unsolicited grammar corrections, he is out and about seeking exciting food and even more exciting single-player experiences. He’s got one of them Twitters (@gilmeansjoy) and a blog or something (fromthebacklog.blogspot.com).