Games for Non-Gamers: Story-focused

I wouldn’t say games are all about the story for me–one of my most played games, StarDew Valley, has no real central plot, and many of the VR games I’ve played have no plot at all, but are simply rhythm games. I wrote recently about the secret behind the story to Death Stranding, and yet frankly speaking the story was very much not what kept me playing the game–I had long stretches where I was just making simple deliveries and deliberately ignoring the main plot.

Nonetheless, I am an English teacher, so I do find the storytelling potential of games to be fascinating. And I do find that a lot of games have extremely compelling and thought-provoking narratives, which often (though not always) is reflected in their gameplay. These games are certainly not the only examples (I mean, I just posted a long blog post about the folklore roots of Kojima’s Death Stranding) but they are probably the more niche, acceptable stories.

To The Moon and Finding Paradise (and A Bird Story)

It feels a bit of a misnomer to call these games. I suppose you could call them exploration games, but even then, your path and actions are extremely linear. It’s very much “click to advance the story” style of gameplay.

Regardless, I found both of the games to be hugely effecting (as well as the third, Imposter Factory, but that opens with a series of “murders” that may not work for this list) The series revolves around a business that goes into a person’s memories to go back and change some crucial point in their life so that they die believing they achieved their dreams. (The first game is about helping a dying man believe he became an astronaut and went to the moon). You play the scientists living through his memories and seeing the course of his entire life, and when he became unhappy, and how to fix that.

Maybe that’s what makes the games so emotional for me–they’re about the regrets of a lived life, about dying unhappy with unfinished dreams. Maybe the writing is just really good. Or maybe it’s the soundtrack, all of which is composed by the game developer. I do know a friend of mine played them and found it too boring to get beyond the half-way mark.

But they’re simple, they’re clean, and (I think) they’re fun.

Subsurface Circular and Quarantine Circular

Too complex (and likely too boring) for most kids, both of these games are entirely choice-based narratives that are limited to a single location, and people / robots who come and go to talk. They’re both faintly philosophical, and both about particularly “futurist” style disasters–an AI revolution, or a “superbug” resistant to all medications (with a side dosing, in the later game, of some “Alien Great Filter” thought). Not a whole lot of replay value, and mostly about pondering a specific question, but quietly interesting.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (Series)

Okay, so technically these are games that revolve around murder, so some parents may object to their kids playing. But mostly the murders are implied; you only see them for like five seconds and things are more suggested than shown. Sometimes, but not often, you see the dead body afterwards. They’re basically the sort of murders you’d see in a 1990’s cartoon series.

Phoenix Wright is a legendary series of games, and for good reason. The soundtrack is banging, the characters are hilarious, and the over-the-top reactions of the witnesses you get to cross-examine and catch in lies are so much fun to watch. There’s nothing that beats the thrill of seeing the smug look finally get wiped off the face of Edgeworth /Francizka / Manfred / Godot. You wouldn’t think a game that’s essentially entirely about debate and dialogue would be so engaging, but it totally is.

To Be or Not to Be

Possibly not everyone’s cup of tea. My students could never see the appeal of this “choose your own ending” take on Hamlet, even if one of the endings has you be a ghost soldier fighting battles alongside ghost Franklin D Roosevelt. It is entirely reading and making choices, so the gameplay is not so arresting, but it’s amusing, a frivolous but lighthearted way to engage with Shakespeare (all the language is modernized), and has a lot of possible endings if a person wants to get into that.

The game does feature some commentary on Shakespearean attitudes toward women, with the discussion between Ophelia and Laertes touching on the idea of “damaged goods,” so again parents’ thoughts toward these

The Talos Principle

A lot about this game can be understood when you know that throughout the game, you are following the orders of a giant computer system called Elohim.

Yeah, it’s not subtle.

There’s nothing theological about the gameplay, anyway. It’s a pretty straightforward puzzle “room” game, where your robot protagonist navigates ruins populated with electronic gadgetry and robotic enemies. Force-fields, lasers, catapults, and buttons are all part of intricate zones meant to challenge critical thinking and spatial relationship. The main trick, so far as the puzzles go, is the opportunity to use time-travel as a way of duplicating yourself and getting into new areas.

The beauty of this game, though, is in the framing (as I’ve said of multiple games, like Solitaire Conspiracy and Death Stranding) The “puzzle rooms” are more like “puzzle ruins,” grandiose remains of Greek temples, Egyptian tombs, and English castles. Beautiful, untouchable landscapes loom in the distance. Text files contain philosophical musings on the nature of humanity, as well as a story of the extinction of the human race via an uncurable pandemic. Your “creator,” Elohim, constantly warns you against climbing the tower at the center of the hub world, naturally compelling you toward climbing it. (I seriously wondered whether I should follow the game’s obvious temptation toward the tower, before deciding that the text files indicated that my true creators were the humans, who had wanted me to climb the tower) There’s not, I would say, a lot of replay value, but playing through it once is a genuine experience.


I imagine some people will be irritated about the game’s portrayal of the afterlife, but as it turns out, that’s not even really the premise of the game. And this is a beautiful game with a lot of sorrow baked into the gameplay, that’s super-effective at kicking you in the feels, as I wrote in my review of it before. You can read more about it there.

Basic Premise: You’re a little girl with a big hat, who for some reason is the new Charon, responsible for escorting souls (which take the form of friendly cartoonish animals for some reason) to the real afterlife aboard your giant houseboat, cooking them food and helping them fulfill their unfinished dreams. Definitely falls into the “bizarrely quirky” category of game, but it’s amazing.

Last Word

I don’t hear about this game a lot, which is a pity because it’s a cute game with an original mechanic based around arguing. Not, like, actually arguing–the mechanic is more about correctly matching the right attack with what you anticipate from your opponent. But there’s an interesting story going on, too, about an entire society built along the lines of being able to get “the last word” in an argument, where doing so enables you to command a person to do whatever you wish, along with a magical “word” that can always defeat such an argument.

It maybe doesn’t sound terribly interesting, but there’s a lot of replay value here, with multiple endings and multiple secrets to uncover. The main character is a polite but plucky underdog who it’s easy to root for. There’s absolutely no violence, and quite a bit of strategy involved. It’s a good game.

So there you are. I almost included on this list some games like Chicory (A cute game, but it has some disturbing-looking bosses), Stanley Parable (quirky and wonderfully meta, but also with one ending that has you going crazy and another one where you commit suicide), Burly Men at Sea (innocent with endless replay value, but not very interesting), and Octodad, (Hilarious and inventive, but with a possibly intense sequence with a giant shark. There’s also, obviously, probably endless games with very good stories that I’m missing out on. I definitely know there are games for Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol, but I don’t know what they’re like and anyway they seemed like ones people would know anyway.

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