A non-gamer's guide to escapism through story-driven video games

Something odd in the woods: A still from Firewatch, developed by video game studio Campo Santo. Picture: Campo Santo
Something odd in the woods: A still from Firewatch, developed by video game studio Campo Santo. Picture: Campo Santo

I never really played video games until last year. As a millennial, sure, I played some Mario Kart or Guitar Hero with friends growing up. But I didn't play gamey games, goal-driven games. So it was a surprise to most people who know me that I picked up video games as a lockdown past time. But really it's just another way for me to explore what I love most: storytelling.

With some spare indoors time on my hands I picked up the Nintendo Switch. I knew I didn't have great video game skills such as joystick/eye coordination. It's what has frustrated me in the past with video games. The simulation game Animal Crossing: New Horizons which I'd played in the first lockdown was fine for me - there were no complex movements. But I grew bored of Animal Crossing because there was little to no plot to it. So I decided I needed games that were more story, less obstacle course.

Equus Oils from Kentucky Route Zero. Picture: Cardboard Computer

Equus Oils from Kentucky Route Zero. Picture: Cardboard Computer

I got my game-designer brother to recommend a progression of games that would ease me in, make me comfortable with the controls and orienting myself, spatial awareness and gameplay, while getting me excited about the storytelling potential of games. If you're interested in exploring original stories in a new format, this is a great place to start.

Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition

This game is like a book of poetry. It's a magical realist game complemented by a spooky soundscape - calming and affecting all at once. As an audio producer, I really appreciated that rich atmosphere. As a Colombian I loved all the references to the father of magical realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The loose objective of the game is to deliver a package via a mysterious magical shortcut. Along the way you make friends and explore a place overwhelmed by debt and dead industry. The game is in five parts with intermission stories between each. In terms of game play you mainly read dialogue and choose responses, walk around, and follow directions. It's as easy as scrolling through your phone. You walk through this abstract yet familiar world, spotting glimpses of magic and the bizarre. You interact with people and make connections, but you're never really going anywhere. It's haunting, psychedelic and beautiful.

Firewatch: your only human connection is over walkie-talkie. Picture: Campo Santo

Firewatch: your only human connection is over walkie-talkie. Picture: Campo Santo

Firewatch

This game is a walk in the park. It's a point of view game where you are a lookout hired by a national park in the US to watch for fires. You hike around in the woods chatting to Delilah, the mysterious voice on your walkie-talkie. But something odd is happening in the woods, and it's up to you to get to the bottom of it. This game had me using both joysticks, one to move and one to look. It took me a while to get used to it and there were times I had to stop playing due to mild motion sickness. But soon I was hooked.

Watch the Firewatch trailer

Quickly I became able to navigate a "hand-held" map and compass and orient myself around the park. I learnt routes by heart and got a feel for the virtual world. The mystery at the heart of the game was more of a story than an objective so it propelled me, but I wasn't bound by it. I could wander off course and take my time enjoying the scenery before I got back to the main plot. The character you play, Henry, is isolated. His only link to the outside world is Delilah, a disembodied voice who seems all knowing. It was a fitting game during the peak isolation of lockdown. At times, running through that virtual national park gave me the same sense of peace as a real bush walk.

What Remains of Edith Finch. Picture: Jeff Legaspi (AP Interactive)

What Remains of Edith Finch. Picture: Jeff Legaspi (AP Interactive)

What Remains of Edith Finch

This game was a haunting climb up a family tree. In this first-person game you explore an old house, your family home, unlocking boarded up rooms, crawling through secret passages and unravelling the secrets of the family curse. I loved the way the dialogue revealed itself - you'd walk up a path, or into a new room and the words would appear hanging in the scene like text in a picture book. There's no dialogue tree selection, you just get fed bits of the story as you explore the labyrinthic gothic house. You're the last of the Finch line and you're learning what happened to your relatives. Each discovery is a mini-game, a dream within a dream.

Watch the trailer for what Remains of Edith Finch

You flash back to the story of your family member's death and, in unique abstract ways, you experience their end of days. I had to put the game down after one of the mini-games made me motion sick. Each is so different in style, art and tone that they taught me various game mechanics. My favourite was one where one joystick controlled the real world -- chopping heads off fish in the factory -- while the other controlled a journey through the character's imagination. This game was good for me because the technical mini-games were spaced out through the storybook-style walkthrough, giving me rest between action.

Play on

All these games are only a few hours and only cost as much as a beer or two, or a new book. You can pick them up and put them down or play straight through. I play on Nintendo Switch, but most games are available for PC and other consoles. I've gotten much better at using the controls, and am learning some video game rules that might seem intuitive to regular players.

Each game within a game has unique game mechanics and style. Picture: Jeff Legaspi (AP Interactive)

Each game within a game has unique game mechanics and style. Picture: Jeff Legaspi (AP Interactive)

Video games have become an escape for me. Much like a book or a film, but in a way where I feel I have agency, and that I'm part of something - feelings that I've been craving. I'm in it for the stories, but there are benefits to playing video games: they encourage imagination and problem-solving skills, and relieve stress. Importantly, they are fun! When my self-care starts to feel like work, it's time to play.

The best part has been discovering stories that only work in this interactive format. My what's-next list is growing, including the cyberpunk game Red Strings Club, the silent horror of Inside (the first I play that I can fail at!), supernatural mystery Oxenfree, and sci fi role-playing game Disco Elysium.

This story Another lockdown discovery: story-driven video games first appeared on Newcastle Herald.