Games for Non-Gamers: Exploration Games

It’s the nature of the world that you only really hear about the blockbusters. The big, flashy things that strike it big. That’s practically a redundant statement. My internal critic is currently remarking “Yes, genius, most of the populace only hears about the popular games, no duh, Sherlock, that’s what popular means.” But this means that people tend to judge entire fields of media by the few blockbusters that they know of. And that leads to people missing out on a lot, especially, I would argue, in the field of video games, which despite years of evolution and popularity, remains an utter unknown to many.

In my own community especially, video games almost as a whole are viewed with suspicion. While everyone would admit that there are perfectly innocent games like Mario and Animal Crossing, it’s commonly accepted within such circles that the vast majority of games are high-fidelity shoot-em-ups with lots of sex and violence. Perhaps some have less and some have more, but in essence they’re all the same, and all, on some level morally dubious or dangerous.

I’m at best gaming-adjacent, in terms of how well I’m plugged into the world. But still, I have to view this as something of a tragedy. Because while, yes, the “sex-and-violence shoot-em-up” genre of games is still alive and well, they’re not nearly as much of a majority as they used to be, due to the explosion of indie video games and others playing with more experimental formulas on gaming. There are many games today that involve no combat at all–plenty of beautiful, innocent games, full of sweetness and light, or at least contemplation, which so many people are unaware of because they don’t make the news.

So I thought I’d make a list. A list of some of the most perfectly innocent and enjoyable games out there, quiet, whimsical games. Child-appropriate, I might say, though some are more challenging in their gameplay than all children may be comfortable with. A lot of these are going to be names that many of my more gamer friends are quite familiar with, but to those who have kept the medium at a wary arm’s length, I hope this list may be helpful. At least for this list, I’m going to focus on games where combat is non-existent. I think there are plenty of good ways of implementing combat into games, but at least here, I want to focus on entirely nonviolent games.

(I had a list of many games, but decided it was too long and cut it up. It may be debatable whether all of these are “exploration” games in the true sense, but it seemed a useful heading to group them under.)

Journey

Journey is a game that is practically a genre now. It belongs to a simple and affecting game style of simply exploring a beautiful, massive world, often without any words or dialogue, just allowing yourself to drink in the beautiful vistas and muse at the possible history of the world you find yourself wandering through. These games are probably the easiest for the content-wary parent to approve, as they’re literally just worlds to explore and puzzles to solve.

Journey pioneered this genre, and still is unique in the way it brings in other players (sort of) to help you, but its simple, beautiful art style meshes well with the minimalist environments and haunting soundtrack. The puzzles are simple, the stylistic graphics hold up well even after so many years, and the overall journey is beautiful and highly satisfactory. There’s some vague spiritualism with the character being guided by the ghosts of his ancestors to the top of a mountain, but this is all done through images–there’s no dialogue whatsoever in the entire game. Which, in a way, makes it all the more effective. It’s not about the story, it’s just about the journey.

Others

Rather than giving a separate entry to each one, I’m just going to quick run through some similar games that follow this same formula.

Abzu, an underwater version of this genre, does offer a frightening shark and some strange sort of underwater alien mothership, but after the first shock, they’re little more than new puzzles, well worth the magical underwater worlds and schools of fish.

Proteus is almost certainly the simplest in this vein, a game that just plops you down on a pixellated island and lets you explore it through the various seasons. It’s not hugely detailed and the gameplay may be a bit obscure, but then, there’s not much you’re required to actually do.

Not every game in this genre is equally light-hearted. Rime is a game I deeply enjoyed, but its blob-men might make parts of the game too creepy for younger children, and certainly the game itself, however charming it looks at first, explores themes that might be a little over most kids heads.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I almost put this into the last category, as it has a lot of the same traits–you’re wandering around strange world and solving puzzles. But Brothers stands out for a number of reasons, and deserves its own entry. First, you are not alone–there are two brothers, an older and a younger one, making the journey to the tree of life to find water to save their dying father. Secondly, there is a clear narrative, even if nothing is actually spoken, just indicated in meaningless grunts. And the environments are not “beautiful” so much as detailed. It’s got it’s own art style, and there are some visually striking levels / moments

It’s also a more dangerous world than the “Journey” style games tend to be. Wolves, trolls, and strange spirits that turn people into snow inhabit the world, and caution is needed. There’s a long sequence where the two brothers must navigate a battlefield of dead giants, which, while far from gory, is certainly not particularly childlike. It’s darker, too–a sidepath can take the brothers to a man attempting to commit suicide, who they can choose to stop or not.

There’s a lot left unexplained in Brothers, and not all of its moments are happy. But the heart is the relationship between the older and younger brother. It’s not a co-op game; a single player controls both characters, which is why the game recommends the use of a controller (though you don’t need one). There’s no combat, no dialogue, and simple as the game is, it’s very emotionally effecting.

Plus, there’s that last twist.

FAR: Lost Sails and FAR: Changing Tides

These two games I just discovered recently. They’re not really exploration games, since you’re essentially on a straight path that you can’t deviate from. But they’re very similar to the Journey games in that they’re completely dialogue-free, with just you going past massive ruins of some great collapsed society. Not very pretty societies, it must be admitted–indeed, in both cases, it seems as if the societies were fleeing from something and died unable to escape in time. But there’s something majestic in the size and ambition of what you see, and something tragic about the ruins. There’s one particular moment where you discover the frozen body of a woman holding a picture of a child. It’s not particularly graphic, but the simple image leaves an impression.

These games are probably better classified as resource management, as you burn fuel to power your engines or lift sails to keep your car/ship going. They could also be considered puzzle games, as you’re frequently stopped by gates and barriers that you need to find ways through. They’re certainly not challenging or long–I completed each in a few days–but they are enjoyable, and have a quiet beauty to them.

Toem

Talked about this game. “Instagram: The Video Game,” essentially, where you wander around forests and cities and mountains, taking pictures of important stuff and applying filters and basically doing all the stuff a lot of teens do. It’s sort of a coming-of-age story, where the main character is on a quest to take a picture of the legendary Toem, which is almost a maturation ritual in her family. The joy is from the many characters you meet along the way and the little stories you intersect with.

A Short Hike

Very similar to Toem in its plot, but more open-ended. You’re a youngish person (well, young-ish bird person) climbing to the top of a mountain on an island, meeting various people and doing little tasks. Again, the characters are part of the fun, but also what’s satisfying are the skills you develop and the tasks you accomplish. Getting to the top of the mountain isn’t some sort of hugely transcendent experience as it supposedly is in Toem, but it’s very emotionally satisfying.

Myst, Riven, Obduction

Cyan Studios is explicitly christian, and while their games are not so explicitly christian, they’re still clean, straightforward, and beautiful. There’s possibly a suggestion of God in the saintly Atrus who creates fantastic worlds, but it’s a stretch–his sons, definitely, are no Christ figures. You can pick up any of their games and find yourself in a beautiful, bizarre world full of puzzles you have to navigate. (I should say: I’ve never played Myst IV and V, maybe they’re horrifically violent, I don’t know). I’ve always loved the image of a book with a moving picture that takes you to another realm.

Although there was that part in Myst where my brothers and I found the head in the box. It’s easy to miss but it is there.

Obduction is also a beautiful game, less surreal but more alien, if that makes sense, with intricate puzzles that are challenging without being frustrating. The worlds are more imaginative–definitely with a greater sense of size–and the mechanics more understandable. It’s definitely more up-to-date than Myst, which while it has been remastered, still feels a bit dated.

Also Obduction has no heads-in-boxes. So there’s that.

Uru

Also by Cyan, and also in the same world as the Myst books, Uru is a failed multiplayer game currently kept alive via fan donations. The game is available for free here, so of course that’s tempting, and the fan community is quite helpful and friendly, from my experience. The premise is essentially the same–you teleport into various worlds, though here your goal is to find the five handprints that will allow you to enter a mysterious cave where you get some magic… pillars?

It’s unquestionably weirder than Myst and Riven. The graphics also don’t hold up as well, as it strives for a third-person 3D world the player can freely navigate, and incorporates some animals with… mixed results. But it delves a lot more into the deeper mythology of the Myst series, getting into the ancient D’ni civilization that originally developed the books–and the dark secret of the slaves they kept to maintain their luxurious empire. It’s possibly a bit more new-age-y than the others, with a vaguely messianic figure in Yeesha, an oft-referenced but rarely-glimpsed figure, but that’s easy to ignore.

Fez

A whimsical, expansive, mind-bending game that’s endless fun to play, especially since successive playthroughs open up new ways of playing the same worlds.

Your hero, Gomez, gains a magical fez that allows him to rotate the 2-D world he inhabits. It’s not a consistent world, though, and the geography changes as you rotate it. Each turn provides you with a new take on the zone, to help you explore and find the yellow blocks you need to recreate the MegaCube.

The game has many puzzles, most of which you don’t even have to solve, some of which even the internet isn’t even sure of the logic behind. But it’s not necessary to understand all of them. The basic premise is simple and enjoyable enough, and provides hours of fun.

Machinarium, Samorost, Lumino City

Point and Click Adventure games are nothing new, and they’re simple for kids to pick up. I haven’t played a great many of them–and some of those I have, haven’t been interesting enough to keep me going. Others, like the Sam ‘n Max series of games, are very deliberately offensive, using the childlike gameplay for deliberate contrast with their crude humor. I would, though, encourage parents to look into games like the Freddie Fish series, the Nancy Drew series of mystery video games (my sister loves them) and the Spy Fox series. They’re all quite clever and innocent.

However, these particular three are less well-known, but still worthwhile.

Samorost is very whimsical, if a bit bizarre, and Machinarium a fun story about a robot from the country who visits the big robot city, only to be arrested and thrown into a cell. (Incidentally, Primordia, another game about a robot in the country visiting a big dystopian robot city, is far superior to all of these, but unfortunately quite a bit darker than would suit this list)

Lumino City is the cutest of the three, with a little girl searching for her father throughout a whimsical city, full of characters like a husband trying to remember a guitar tune he courted his wife with, or a ship of sailors trying to cheer up their “landsick” captain by pretending they’re actually at sea. It’s aesthetic resembles one of those kid’s books where the scenery is made of common household objects, like forks and spools of thread.

There’s not a lot of replay value on the games, but they’re worth going through least once.


There’s lots more. And I encourage people who can think of more family-friendly games, “exploration” or otherwise, to post them in the comments. I’m hoping to at least do one more of these posts, highlighting other non-offensive / child-friendly games in other genres. But these at least demonstrate the point that there’s a lot more variety in the gaming world than outsiders might suppose.


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