Words: 2007 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes
One problem I’ve been mulling over for a very long time is the following question: “what game would you recommend to a person who has never played a video game before, and that you want to potentially get into video games?”
Everyone will have different answers, and I’m not really certain what my own answer to this question would be. But I wanted to investigate this question precisely because there is a lot of complexity lurking beneath it. It’s a question that also ties into similar problems. Let’s say there was somebody who liked only a particular video game, or only played mobile games…what game would you suggest to them to try to broaden their horizons?
The problem exists across plenty of other media. You could just as easily imagine “what’s a good book to recommend for someone who doesn’t care for reading?” And the complications of answering those questions are going to be fairly similar no matter what medium you’re dealing with.
It also speaks to broader issues of recommending or suggesting games to other people. I think we tend to understand that we like certain games without understanding why we like those games, and so two games might appeal to us without appealing to someone else. By which I mean that if I like both Games A and B, and I observe that you like Game A, I might then recommend Game B to you. But in making this recommendation, Games A and B may end up being radically different, to the point that when you try Game B you not only dislike it, but wonder why I’d even recommend it to you in the first place. Because I see my enjoyment of Games A and B as proof that there must be some core similarity between them.
And I see that line of thinking as a central problem to the whole discussion: we’re trying to use what we like to help determine what someone else should like. It’s a difficult mindset to get out of, because by our very construction we exist in our own heads.
So I wanted to use this essay not as an opportunity to say “here are the games that a person should play if they’re new to gaming,” but instead to step back and examine that topic from a more abstract point of view.
The “One Size Fits All” Problem
It’s useful if we begin with a thesis: the question that we’re trying to answer is flawed from the beginning.
In asking “what game would you recommend to a person who hasn’t played a game before?”, we are flattening the “person” in the equation. We are assuming that every person who has never played a game is interchangeable with every other person, and thus there is a single game – or some set of games – that will help “hook” them into gaming.
But this premise doesn’t actually hold up to scrutiny.
Just at its most basic level, people enjoy games for different reasons. Some people enjoy the feeling of interacting with games. Some people enjoy narratives, either just being told a story generally or exploring the choices that a game can provide. Some people like competition. Some people prefer cooperation. Some people enjoy overcoming challenges, and some people would prefer a much smoother ride toward their goal.
So in posing this question, we are assuming that there is either a game that can appeal to all of these people simultaneously, or else that any person who is not currently a gamer will just immediately cling to the “good” facets of whatever game is handed to them.
In framing the problem in this way, we can see how the question becomes somewhat ludicrous. Not in the idea that we might try searching for games to help introduce new players, but in the idea that we are searching for the game to accomplish this task.
Instead, let’s break the problem up into smaller parts.
What are we trying to accomplish when we want to introduce someone to video games?
Well, the first thing is we need to get them acquainted with a variety of processes about playing a game. There is the basic understanding of how the controls of the game works (“pressing this button causes your character to perform this action”), being able to memorize the controls in such a way that you don’t need to stare at the controller to find the button you want to push, being able to memorize the buttons so that you know which buttons are associated with which actions, being able to read situations so that you know how to react, and understanding the unique properties of a game so that you can react to its challenges.
There’s a lot going on. People who have a lot of experience playing games can easily take all of these things for granted, because we have accumulated knowledge over years, maybe even decades. And so we need to step back and think about a game that does a good job of introducing these concepts to players and teaching them how to play, slowly adding layers of complexity that make intuitive sense. All games teach their players how to play the game, but some games do a better job of this than others, and we want to think about that teaching – not just in terms of explicit tutorialization, but in terms of implicit teaching as well.
Next, we’re trying to get the person “hooked.” We’re trying to identify a game that the person won’t just play, but enjoy. Because our purpose is not simply to have the person play and finish this game, but to then go out and play more games afterwards, specifically of their own volition.
And here is where the “everybody enjoys different things” issue comes in. Because if we hand a person a game that is good because it’s challenging, and the person doesn’t really care for the rush of overcoming challenges…then they’re not going to enjoy the game. Perhaps at some point the person’s tastes may change, and they will learn to enjoy challenges, and thus this game will become relevant. But throwing the person into the proverbial deep end is more likely to discourage them from continuing with video games.
So all of this means that we need to have a fairly good read on our individual person’s wants. Are they someone who really enjoys a good story? Then you should start them on a game that has a strong narrative, preferably one that is shorter and doesn’t have a lot of downtime between story beats. Are they someone who is curious about making choices and shaping their story? Then hand them a game that gives them a lot of opportunities to make decisions that alter the flow of the narrative. Are they someone who likes solving problems? Then hand them some puzzle games.
We want to think about the question as one that requires games to be tailored to the person we have in mind. We specifically shouldn’t be addressing this problem in the abstract, because any answer we give will fail once we take it into particular situations. A good introductory game for one person will not prove to be a good introductory game for another person.
The last thing that is useful to consider is time. Why is that relevant for introducing a new player to video games? Well think about the initial two factors: learning to play games and getting hooked. Both of these elements involve playing multiple games. Learning to play one game only gives you information on how to play that game. It is by playing multiple games, especially those which have different control schemes, that we get a better handle for the basic hand-eye coordination that most games demand of us.
Similarly, playing other games means that we have the time to actually play them. If our hypothetical new player is spending a hundred hours on a single game, then by the end they’re going to feel a little anxious about starting something completely new, especially if it might be another massive time sink. Unless perhaps that person has enough free time that they can get through such a massive game in something like a week. So you want shorter games that give the new player a better sense of what they like and don’t like. If they didn’t enjoy their experience with a game, they don’t have to feel like a massive amount of their time was wasted, and they can feel a bit more comfortable trying something new because they know that if they don’t like it, that won’t be a massive waste of time. And if they do like the various games you throw at them, you’ll be able to leave them wanting to play more – which, you know, is them being “hooked.” Let them work up on their own to bigger games.
So in looking at these aspects, a crucial thing we want to think about is communication. It’s important to have a good read on the person you’re introducing to games, which means trying to talk them through the process. The more a person can feel involved in their own introduction, the more agency you give them, the more invested they can feel as they’re playing. So rather than simply saying “play this,” talk them through some options. “You tend to like strong stories, so here are some possibilities. Game A has you doing X, Game B has you doing Y, and Game C has you doing Z. Which of those sounds the most interesting to you?”
And as that person is playing, ask them how they’re feeling about it. What do they like? What do they not like? What are they struggling with? Key to these questions is not making them feel forced to come up with answers, but just sitting back and listening. The point of this process is to allow you to accumulate information, so that you can get an even better read on the person’s preferences. Do they enjoy the gameplay and want something more complex? Do they like the story but feel it’s too trope-y? Do they dislike how many different systems they have to remember? The more you know about what they’re thinking and feeling, the better you can recommend games to them that they’re likely to enjoy.
And we also need to keep in mind that just because we like a game does not mean that the game is good, or that someone else will enjoy it. So while it makes sense to recommend games you enjoyed, you also want to try to cast a wider net – what are games that you might not have liked, but which other people enjoyed? This process is especially important if those games are more similar to what your new player liked than the stuff that you enjoy.
Making recommendations to another person is tough. And falling back on “I liked this, so I think you might like it too” is a common response. There’s no basis for blaming anyone for resorting to this thinking.
But it’s important to keep in mind that we’re talking about very distinct processes. There are several games I think are great, to the point that I think everyone who enjoys video games should try them. I’d put in this category Dark Souls, Undertale, and Pathologic 2. I would not demand that a person finish them, nor that a person like them. But I would encourage people to at least give them a shot.
But would I recommend these games to a new player? Not really, with the possible exception of Undertale. A game like Dark Souls might be great, but it would be a horrible introduction to video games.
So stepping back and thinking about the question “what game would you recommend to a person who hasn’t played a game before?” in terms of “what goal(s) are we trying to accomplish?” can help us see the former question more clearly.