I recently found myself at an impasse with a videogame I was playing over the holidays. The game was tremendously fun until I reached the last level. I was sitting in bed next to my pregnant wife, who was sleeping, and hammering on my Playstation Vita’s buttons over and over and over again. I was facing a boss battle that I just couldn’t seem to beat. Eventually, it just didn’t seem worth it. I turned off my Vita and consoled myself with the thought that my wife wouldn’t have made it through the first level.
When we finished compiling our list of Ten 2013 Games that Jesus Loves, I was struck by how much videogames have changed in the last few years. Our favorite games defy most of the stereotypes we often associate with videogames. Only one of the ten games involves shooting of any kind. The majority can be played to completion in three hours or less. In fact, most of the games on our list could be played by most anyone as they do not require tremendous skill, game experience, or dexterity.
There is now a healthy space in the world of videogames for those who don’t have time to be sucked into a 40 hour game. There is now a place for those who find violence in games distasteful or creatively impoverished. There is a place for those who would prefer to play with others.
2013 is the year of accessibility, the year that games shook off their elitist roots and offered up a wealth of experiences that can be experienced by almost anyone.
Gone Home, Proteus, The Stanley Parable, Kentucky Route Zero, and Cart Life represent some of the most interesting experiences 2013 has to offer. None of them contain traditional fail states. The first three are incredibly forgiving and require only a basic familiarity with first person movement.
Still, before we praise these games for their accessibility, we should consider some of the most basic barriers to entry to the average game.
I recently played The Unfinished Swan with my wife. Ten minutes in she was calling the game “magical.” But 30 minutes in she was handing the controller over to me in frustration. There was nothing in the game trying to kill her or scare her or even tell her she wasn’t good at it. It was simply difficult for her to control. Basic first person movements with dual thumbsticks do not come naturally to her.
As we strive to show the world around us the potential of videogames as a medium, we need to recognize that not everyone knows that escape is almost always pauses PC games and that some people don’t have a clue if they would prefer their vertical axis inverted. There are still basic barriers to entry that keep many people away. Perhaps games will never be as accessible as books, movies, or music.
There are, however, games that are exceptional in their simplicity and accessibility. Papers, Please requires only basic mouse competency to enjoy and still provides players with an engaging and challenging play experience. Simple controls allow its difficult moral questions to be experienced by more people. Divekick gives players a suprisingly deep fighting game experience that is played with only two buttons and as a result, introduces people who don’t play fighting games to the core of what makes them appealing: reading your opponent’s actions and counteracting them accordingly.
Perhaps the best example from 2013 is Spaceteam, a game about communication and teamwork.I have played Spaceteam with people of all ages and experience and found it equally compelling and entertaining each time. Perhaps the biggest barrier to entry is making sure your mobile device has its bluetooth turned on or is connected to the same local area network as your friends. Otherwise, Spaceteam’s only technical requirement is being able to speak to people and push buttons.
Despite its simplicity, Spaceteam is surprisingly deep, providing players with memorable and productive play. It challenges players to learn to listen and to make themselves heard. Anyone can play Spaceteam, but it is only those groups who learn to communicate more efficiently who will improve. This is why the game has been used in corporate environments as a team buildling activity. Spaceteam shows that developers have barely begun to explore the potential to create compelling experiences that anyone can benefit from.
I could have pushed through and finished that game I was struggling to beat. It wasn’t unfairly difficult. I knew exactly why I couldn’t beat the boss I was struggling against, I just didn’t want to invest the concentration and time that finishing it would have required.
I think that is very reason many people refuse to pick up videogames. They have a sense of what needs to be done and they determine that it’s not worth it. Even games like Proteus and The Stanley Parable which only require basic movement, have no fail states, and provide players with worthwhile play experiences will never be enjoyed by many because they require the player to be competent at first person control.
Games like Spaceteam are challenging that status quo. If videogames hope to establish themselves as an enduring a widely enjoyed art form, they’ll need more games to follow suit.