Game Zero

It was Staff Development Day at work today. Instead of being developed, however, I spent most of the day pondering a question posed by TV presenter Charlie Brooker through his twitter feed last night.

Okay, let’s think of a videogame to convince Mark Kermode (who I like). Something along the lines of Fatal Frame / The Path / Dead Space?

Brooker was referring to film critic Mark Kermode. For his Gameswipe show he’d used a clip of Kermode on Newsnight Review claiming that he hated videogames. Kermode responded with this video claiming that he wasn’t against videogames, he just had no interest in playing them because he didn’t understand the conventions that mark out a gaming classic:


Here’s my question to you: If you had one chance to convince a non-gamer, not Kermode specifically, that games were a worthwhile medium what game would you sit them in front of and have them play?

As I said, I’ve already spent a large portion of today thinking about this. I instantly dismissed most of the ideas that popped into my head, considered others more carefully before dismissing them before coming up with one solid idea that I think might be workable. Here’s a highlights package of my thought process:

Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy)

Most adventure games and RPGs, the storytelling genres, were instantly dismissed due to their reliance on knowing the conventions of the two genres. Take adventure games: why do I have to combine the inflatable rubber ducky with the fishing line and the clamp? How would my character even know to pick up the fishing line? This isn’t normal, logical behaviour unless you know that’s how adventure games work. The same esoteric conventions hound RPGs. Why don’t people get pissed off when I break into their houses and steal all their shit? Why, when my character has been billed as the world’s saviour, am I being asked to stop and help a bartender sort out his rat infestation? Why can all NPCs be convinced to bend to my will in one sentence just because I have stats in charisma?

Fahrenheit’s set up was slightly different. The control system for questioning characters was a simple gesture based affair, their were no bizarre logic gaps to work out and the story was interesting and well told… For the first half of the game. Anything after your character discovered his superpowers was, unfortunately, pretty much bullshit. Combine that with annoying quick-time events and a terrible stealth section and non-gamers will be left floundering. Even my friend Adam, a man who owns more games than anyone else I know, never passed the mental asylum section in which you must navigate to safety in the dark (which also means he thinks the game is great, because he never had to deal with the sudden shitty downturn.) Hopefully next year’s Heavy Rain will have fixed most of these problems, but until then this game just doesn’t fit the bill.

Silent Hill 2

I was admittedly thinking of Kermode, a noted horror fan, in particular with this one. Silent Hill’s big advantage is that the character you control is also no hero, regularly missing targets that aren’t directly in front of him. The control system is also relatively simple which when coupled with the games slow pace should make it fairly easy for a non-gamer to get to grips with. These factors also combine with the brilliant story to create a real atmosphere of tension throughout the entire game…

Except the story, while admittedly great, doesn’t really present the best that gaming has to offer. It’s not the story itself that’s the problem but the delivery: cutscenes. I’m not against cutscenes per se, but if you’ve only got one shot at persuading someone to take up gaming you’re doing them a disservice by showing them one that presents its narrative through a method that could easily be done better through film or TV.


By the sounds of things this was the most popular suggestion. Certainly it combats the problem I had with Silent Hill, as the entire narrative arc is told through gameplay and interactions. Here, though, we’re taking the leap of faith that a non-gamer would actually be able to play it. I’m not suggesting they wouldn’t be able to grasp the portal mechanic, as its slowly introduced through the first few levels. My question is whether the control system itself would prove too taxing. If you’ve ever watched a parent try to get to grips with almost any game you probably marvelled at their inability to perform even the most basic of moves.

There’s a good reason for this: they treat the controller as a third party to be negotiated with as opposed to a direct conduit to the on-screen action. It’s the same reason I become entirely shit at a game when an on-screen command pops up telling me to press the R1 button. Usually I’m completely unaware of the existence of the controller or the keyboard. Muscle memory has kicked in and I know that the run button makes running happen, so when I need to run I can run because my fingers have learned what that run button is. When I’m given a command to press a specific button for no good Goddamned reason I’m instantly brought out of the game and my brain has to re-remember that a controller exists at all and that I need to locate someplace on it, usually without any context. Fucking quick-time events.

People who’ve never played a game don’t have that automatic response to commands. It makes even relatively simple tasks feats of complex endurance. Portal not only has a brain-bending puzzle mechanic, but asks you to implement it in increasingly dexterous ways. Not only that, it has danger; you can die… You can die frequently from water, falls and those bastard turrets. It doesn’t seem too unlikely that for many non-gamers such a set-up would ultimately lead to frustration and displeasure at the whole thing.

Today I Die

Let’s recap: The game needs to be free of the conventions that would only make sense to those familiar with the genre, must present its story in a way unique to gaming, be simple to control and free from such frustrations as failure. May I suggest Today I Die, the flash webgame from Daniel Benmergui. The game is played by manipulating, through simple mose clicks and drags, the environment to discover new words through which the opening sentence is subtly changed from its original, dark mantra towards a rather touching conclusion. This 5 minute webgame is my choice for the perfect non-gamer’s introduction to the medium.

What’s yours?


1 Response to “Game Zero”

  1. 1 Izzi
    21/11/2009 at 13:07

    wow, its really interesting to see your thinking on this. i actually disagree though.
    You’re right that controls are a big thing, but all games have them and i think portal’s controls are really simple. Its got the two portals and run/ jump, all the rest is logical thinking. Theres no menus, inventories, timers, weapon types etc. It probably is more difficult on console though, its much easier to aim on a pc i think.
    Actually i think the important things portal has that today i die lacks is clear directive and feedback. I actually got stuck on it because i didn’t realise i was supposed to be holding down the mouse button longer. Non gamers will be impatient if they don’t know if theyre doing it right so if feedback is slow that can put them off.
    Also, i wanted to say that, the first game i really sat down to play through by myself was final fantasy 8. I didn’t have any issues at all. It did amuse me that i could go in people’s houses and take their stuff/ use their save points without asking, but no more weird than stockpiling magic to link to my stats to adjust them or summoning a spirit living in my brain. I think when you’re in a fantasy you just get quite open to accepting things.
    So i would actually go with portal, for the reasons above, and also being a puzzle type its kinda non violent and non dialogue so it’s pretty accessible to anyone, anytime of day.

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