My List of the Best Video Game Gateway Drugs (No Expensive Equipment Required!)

Note: there are no birds, angry or otherwise, on this list.
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Lesley Kinzel
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Note: there are no birds, angry or otherwise, on this list.

Following my posts last week from the Game Developers Conference, a few of you have mentioned being interested in video games but not knowing where to start.

Naturally, I have opinions on this. So I thought I’d put together a handy list of entry-level games that pretty much anyone can play. 

I’m keeping most of the games on this list to ones available on PC/Mac or iOS/Android, as the whole spending-hundreds-of-dollars-on-a-game-console thing can be a significant barrier to entry, I understand. All of these games can be played on a computer with standard equipment, or a phone you may already have in your pocket.

Games for PC/Mac

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Machinarium

Available on Steam for PC and Mac, $9.99

Machinarium is an adventure/puzzle game with minimal dialogue and a gorgeously distinctive art style; even aside from the gameplay, this game is wonderful to look at. You play as a tiny discarded robot trying to rescue your imperiled robot friend from the oppressive Black Cap Brotherhood.

It is a game of exploration and experiment; there are no time limits, and no high-pressure scenarios, so it can actually be pretty relaxing to play, if not for some of the trickier puzzles. Also, the soundtrack is outstanding.

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Stacking

Available on Steam for PC only (sorry Mac users!), $14.99

Stacking is a vaudeville-inspired adventure game set in a world of matrouska nesting dolls, with an unusual element: you begin as the tiny downtrodden Charlie Blackmore but can adopt different personas by jumping in and out of other dolls.

If you’re thinking, “Wow, this sounds twee as hell,” you’re not far off. This is a game with a heavy emphasis on quirk. However, it also has heart, and is the kind of game that even people who don’t like video games can get hooked on.

Portal

Available on Steam for PC and Mac, $9.99 

Whenever people are recommending entry-level video games, Portal shows up on every. single. list. So it’s kind of obvious to include here. But I’m doing it anyway, because there’s a reason it gets held up so often as a really great game: it’s because it’s a really great game. In Portal, you take on the character of a mostly-anonymous test subject being tormented by a progressively-more-menacing computer called GlaDOS. 

Okay, that sounds TERRIBLE, but Portal is a game with a very sharp sense of nihilist humor, and if you’re a fan of dry wit, you will probably love this game. Also, cake plays an important role. Who doesn’t love playing games about cake? Not you, certainly.

Portal also had a much longer, highly lauded sequel released last year, so if you enjoy this particular cake there is a second helping to be had. But do play the original first.

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Dear Esther

Available on Steam for PC only, $9.99

I could explain how Dear Esther began life as a mod of another game, but that would mean nothing to you, game newcomer. Suffice to say that Dear Esther is a game that defies the definition of the term, a beautifully rendered interactive storytelling experience likely to connect particularly with those of you who have fond memories of wandering aimlessly in environments like Myst or other mysterious and imaginary worlds.

Actually, even if you just dig books, this game will draw you in, as the central feature of this game is not puzzles or mechanics but the story -- and this desolate landscape -- itself. 

Games for iOS/Android

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World of Goo

Available for iOS and Android

World of Goo is a precious and addictive puzzle game in which you employ various forms of goo to build structures and carry the curious goo balls to a collection point. It’s available on multiple platforms -- including PC and Mac -- but like many of the games on this part of the list I feel that the touch screen controls are vastly superior to using a cursor the old-fashioned way. 

As with most of my favorite games, World of Goo is funny and quirky, but it can also be mind-bendingly challenging. It looks so unintimidating, which is part of its charm, and before you know it’s 2am and you had planned on sleeping four hours ago except you just needed to get through one more puzzle. Really. Clear your weekend. It’s that kind of game.

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Osmos

Available for iOS and Android

You are a single-celled organism, referred to as a mote. You are surrounded by other motes of varying size. Your task is to absorb smaller motes, by bumping up against them, thereby to make yourself bigger. Voila: it’s Osmos.

Osmos begins as a soothing and meditative process, but by incorporating some interesting physics, it builds up to a challenge. The only real mechanic is movement, and Osmos can be experienced as much as a piece of visual art as a proper game. This is another one with an outstanding soundtrack, so wear headphones for the full experience.

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Waking Mars

Available for iOS

In Waking Mars, you take on the role of an astronaut some 80 years in the future. In this world, some curious varieties of plant life have been discovered under the surface of Mars, and you must zip around the underground tunnels to investigate, and ultimately, to save both yourself and maybe even the whole planet.

Waking Mars comes from the same minds that gave us Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, one of my all-time favorite iOS games (and one I continue to play through on a pretty regular basis). It has a depth of story that is unusual in iOS games, making it a real treasure. 

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Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

Available for iOS

I really struggled with whether to include this game on this list at all, but resolved that I couldn’t ignore it. Sword & Sworcery is the kind of game that people either absolutely adore or vehemently despise. Your primary task is to go adventuring and succeed through several challenges (“sessions”) and puzzles, which are sometimes straightforward and sometimes obstuse.

Nominally an adventure game, this strange endeavor combines the basics of traditional hack-n-slash mechanics with clever storytelling and a soundtrack to die for. For my part, I found this game super creepy but also irresistibly compelling. 

So that’s my list of games for the non-gamer; it is likely woefully incomplete but hey, I can only do so much. What games do you recommend to the novice gamer? Or if you’re a casual player yourself, what games have grabbed your attention the most in recent years? Let’s talk it out in comments.