Casual Game Changers: Innovative, Mobile Games You Should Try This Month

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feature image via Shutterstock.

Okay, so everyone’s heard that half of gamers are female statistic, right? In 2014, it made a great hullabaloo. From the Guardian:

Now, there will be many who respond to this shift in the marketplace with the objection “but those aren’t proper games”. Mobile games, free-to-play games, social games – all games which, strangely enough, appeal to women in droves – are considered somehow lesser by many in the “traditional” gaming world….

In the past few years, the very notion of what a game is has broadened to include a variety of experiences that are accessible to a wider audience than the typical blockbuster console title, and that can only be a good thing for an industry which has struggled to position itself in mainstream culture. While hardcore gamers and the industry at large argue about whether these games are “proper” or not, everyone else is playing them.

Which begs a broader question: are more women playing mobile games because women are more interested in mobile games? Or is it because they have been told, over and over again, that “proper” games are not for them? That, more broadly, videogames are not for them?

To Gamezone:

My mother plays Candy Crush. She also bought a Wii when it was all the rage. Heck, I’ve never seen her even turn on the Wii — I don’t even think she knows how to. She was one of those people who just went out and bought one because it was talked about on the morning news. By the ESA’s vague statistic, she is “a gamer” — a part of that 48%. But will she be going out and buying the next Call of Duty? No.

The problem is, the ESA isn’t clear in its research. They say the results are gathered from “more than 2,200 nationally representative households,” but they don’t give enough specifics in their findings. 48% of gamers may be female, but if the majority of that are middle-aged moms playing mobile games like Candy Crush and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood (and there’s nothing wrong with that — even I enjoy a good red-carpet adventure ), then can we really be upset when a developer chooses to still cater towards a male audience?

Now obviously, there’s a major difference in coverage between The Guardian and Gamezone (y’all know me—y’all know that last one gave me a minor rage stroke. Just a minor one, though). But the overarching attitude is there — casual, mobile games aren’t seen as proper games (because they’re heavily associated with women? Who knows, I’m not a researcher, but hey, that’s a possibility!). And that’s SUCH a damn shame, for a number of reasons: because our smartphones are more powerful than the computers that first launched humans into space and those machines shouldn’t be taken lightly; because massive parts of the world carrying gaming engines around in their pockets all the time has normalized gaming and brought a once-stigmatized hobby into a mainstream craze, and that can only be good for more intense hobbyists; because there are some amazing casual mobile games really changing the landscape of what interactive storytelling, narrative and gameplay can look like. And the cool part is that two of those games have sequels out right now! Here are a few casual game changers for ya to play this month, and all of them cost less than five dollars and are, by their very nature, inclusive of you as player.


Lifeline

I was turned on to Lifeline by 3 Minute Games when I interviewed Caroline Sinders in August of last year. Basically, the conceit is that a lost and terrified astronaut named Taylor has gotten his/her/their communicator to work with your phone (I’m going to use masculine pronouns throughout, now, because I imagined Taylor up as a resembling a scruffy dude in my MFA program). He is asking you to help him get through a really harrowing experience wherein he is stranded on a faraway planet all by himself. The entire game is made up of only text, and you tell him what to do in order to get through his ordeal.

Where this game really succeeds is the use of the technology you are actually holding in your hand — it uses what appear to be text messages, and you are actually using a phone to communicate with Taylor. That’s something we are already used to doing — we use our phones to text every day — and it functions much the same as Borges weaving in real names and historical facts into his speculative fiction: it increases the realness factor and lets us believe and more heavily invest in things and people that are obviously invented.

It also succeeds in using what is, essentially, a first person narrator and direct address. This first person narrator speaks directly to you, and as a result the real-life you becomes a character in the story with a stake in the outcome. This serves a few purposes — first and foremost, it’s an interesting storytelling mechanic (can you tell I’m obsessed by narrative structure and reader response in video games?) that increases the effectiveness of what is, essentially, a Choose Your Own Adventure short story. It also means that the usual limiting decisions when creating an avatar to represent yourself in a video game are gone. You are simply you. Extremely inclusive. I also love that they leave Taylor’s identity up to you while still being extremely specific with the character’s personality. It’s precisely that specificity that allows the player to create a whole person in their mind that’s so different from what another player may have come up with; I’m a big fan of specificity leading to universality.

Anyhow, Lifeline 2 came out in September and, while I don’t think it succeeds in the same way as Lifeline because it doesn’t make the same use of your actual real technology that Lifeline does, I still think it’s worth a play-through. The character is specifically female and she deals in magic, this time. Just before Christmas, Lifeline: Silent Night was released (I know I’m late on this one, sorry) and if you don’t mind references to Christmas, it’s succeeds just as much and in the same ways as Lifeline classic. It even brings back Taylor and continues his story, so definitely play Lifeline first!

Grab Lifeline for iOS and Android (99 cents). Grab Lifeline 2: Bloodline for iOS and Android ($2.99). And last (but certainly not least) grab Lifeline: Silent Night for both iOS and Android ($2.99).


The Room

The Room series also uses a form of direct address — you must solve puzzles in order to follow a mysterious friend of yours into an increasingly bent reality. On the way, you find letters from that friend that urge you on and that provide hints into this almost Lovecraftian world you’re exploring. But The Room isn’t all text like Lifeline is — in fact, it’s very little text. But you, yourself, are put into the game in another aesthetic fashion — your fingers brush the screen in a fairly physically accurate way to pull levers, push buttons, turn things upside down. No hands appear on the screen, so the implication isn’t that you’re controlling an avatar. The implication is that your real-world hands have an effect on the in-game reality. It’s the graphics equivalent to direct address; the person in the game is you. Plus the art is GORGEOUS. This is a title I can’t wait to see in Virtual Reality.

I’ve played The Room and The Room 2 a few times through because the puzzles are complex enough to forget. I’ve just downloaded The Room 3 (which came out in November), and judging by the trailer I am in for a spectacular experience.

Pick up The Room on iOS and Android (99 cents), The Room 2 on iOS and Android ($1.99) and The Room 3 on iOS ($4.99, Android launch is scheduled for January 11th!). AND DON’T PLAY AT NIGHT. (But then again I got scared playing Gone Home at night, so. Maybe you can play at night.)

Which games do you think are casual game changers? Do you agree, disagree? Let’s discuss!


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A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 543 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. I used to be a farily hardcore gamer, I mean, I always tried to have the latest console and have at least a few games I bought when they were released but I was normally the person that waited until a game was on the greatest hits list and I got it for around $20. I would buy gaming magazines and try to be up on the latest information.

    Now, I guess, I am more of a “casual gamer”. I don’t have time to sit through a 52+ hours of gameplay. I do have time though for smaller games that are easy for me to pick up and play. For larger games it is hard to only be able to pick up an hour or two infrequently because I forget the entire story line and wait, what happened here and why am I trying to do this again?

    I was really into Papa’s Pizzeria on my phone because it was just fun and had a little bit of a storyline, kinda. You got to chose a character and make pizzas. I could leave it for a few weeks and go back and know, make pizzas correctly = profit, you will gain levels. It was just easy and a thing I could do while waiting for my flight to leave for work trips or when I was in a hotel in a place I didn’t know for work.

    I am very out of the loop with games but am really excited for the games you mentioned. I’m still searching for games I can play between my constantly busy life. I am still a gamer but I don’t have time for the large stories. I still though get the same feeling playing games as I did when I first picked up the NES controller when I was six, this is magic.

    • So I downloaded Papa’s Pizzeria…it’s already taken over my life. I’ve learned that I suck at cutting.

  2. Thanks a for these Ali ! I’ve played The Room 1 and. 2. And they’re fantastic !!! I’m considering purchasing the third one as well

    I put lifeline in my wish list to remember buying it :p

    I’ve got a couple others that appear to be terrific that I haven’t bought yet : Prune and Monument Valley. Have you had the chance to try them ? Are they worth the purchase / time ?

    • I’ll recommend them both. ^_^ Monument Valley is quite a latterday classic, with a bit of a back story, but mostly, just plenty of brain tickling.

      Prune is rather simpler, much as the trailer suggests, but it does indeed become rather more challenging in the later levels, though the settings do become somewhat darker as it progresses, from the early exuberance, into the industrial age. I wouldn’t quite holler about Prune in the same way, but again, when it’s so modestly priced, it’s easily justified.

    • krinipi

      I really enjoyed Monument Valley, and I’m not much of a gamer. Too short, but worth it.

    • Monument Valley is definitely worth it – it’s challenging but also soothing and beautiful, almost meditative.

    • Yeah, I loved Monument Valley too, and I’m mostly a match-three or runner sort of mobile gamer. (No real video games for me, even though I have a Wii, because I’d always rather be knitting & watching a film.) And for folks on Android, I think you can still get it and the extra levels for free in the Amazon Underground (which replaced their free app of the day program).

    • Kay

      The Room Three is definitely worth it. One thing I really like is that it has 5 (?) possible endings, and allows you to go back so you can get all of them. It also has many more rooms and puzzles than The Room Two.

      As for Monument Valley, I’d suggest waiting until it goes on sale. It’s good – really good – but very short and doesn’t have a ton of replay value.

    • Kay

      I haven’t played it yet, but I’m really interested in “A Blind Legend.” It’s designed to be accessible to – and in some ways, replicate the experience of – visually impaired gamers. It doesn’t have any graphics at all, instead using binaural sound to guide you through the story. I’d definitely call it a game changer!

  3. Oh man, these games look so cool. I’m absolutely going to try them.

  4. Oh, The Room! Oh, they’re beautifully crafted. I admit, I did have to seek refuge with a cheat sheet a couple times with TR3, but.. really, does it matter? I had a great time, and enjoyed the atmosphere they’d crafted. Definitely recommended. ^_^

    Of a very different kind, I’d also like to point out “Agent A: A Puzzle In Disguise” as another point & click adventure, this time with quite overt old school Bond stylings, but with a much more feminist flair. (iOS only, I believe)

    http://agentagame.com

    And then there’s the sometimes rather baffling (in the good way) puzzler, Maestria, apparently the work of one person, and their first production too! The basic premise is that in each level, you need to replicate the order of the bells ringing – which, as time goes on, may include tweaks that include toggling your “wave”‘s ability to ring the bells, or immediately reflect it. It’s one of those puzzlers that’s fundamentally quite straightforward, but which may stump you outright nonetheless. Beautiful graphics, too – even if you’re (somehow!) not that taken by the game, it’s lovely to watch and listen to.

    http://www.maestria-game.com

  5. Thanks for these recommendations, I can’t wait to check them out!

    Also, on the topic of casual/mobile games not being seen as real games, that attitude is so funny to me because mobile games were predicted to make more money than (‘real’, ‘hardcore’) console games in 2015.

    Obviously we don’t have confirmation of that (yet) but if that is the case then maybe developers on consoles need to do a better job of appealing to women because clearly only appealing to men (or largely ignoring female gamers anyway) isn’t working out for them?

  6. Monuments Valley is like walking through a dream that is sometimes a nightmare and it’s so profoundly beautiful. Not gonna lie I legit cried multiple times while playing!

  7. Nicole

    Growing up I was pretty into video games, but I never considered myself a ‘hardcore’ gamer because of the type of games I liked. I was never into Halo, Call of Duty, GTA kind of stuff but would waste endless hours with Animal Crossing, The Sims and Mario Kart. Also any RPG on N64. Visiting with my childhood best friend over Christmas we even reminisced on who was better at what puzzles in Gizmos & Gadgets and who built better roller coasters in Roller Coaster Tycoon. Super Smash Brothers was such a huge part of my college experience to the point that when we have drunken college group reunions we ‘have to play’ and still choose the same characters. But I still would never consider myself a ‘hardcore’ gamer. To me those are the people up with World of Warcraft for 45 hours straight (which power to them, I wish I had that kind of gaming stamina) and who attend huge gaming competitions. I guess everyone’s definition of a gamer in general could be wildly different. But the truth of the matter is that the video game industry has been grossing more than the film industry for years now, so I don’t think they are going to change their marketing campaign any time soon. Either way, I’m stoked you put up some recommendations. Lifeline looks amazing. Really who wouldn’t want to feel like they are in the control room at NASA. Has anyone played Dark Echo at all? I’ve had it on my phone forever and just haven’t taken the leap.

  8. Rie

    I was never a “hardcore” gamer because I loved platforms and action-adventure (read, mostly Zelda) games. Tiny games and mobile games suit me cause I can pick up and put down–while I love a good long adventure, I also love completing a game in one setting. (These days, that’s a lot of Twine, but I also loved Pom Gets Wifi)

  9. Awesome! Thanks for this!

    Recently rediscovered Puzzle Juice, which is by the same creators of Threes. It’s a wonderful and sort of bewildering combination of Tetris and Boggle.

    Interestingly, I handed the game to my brother who struggled a lot with the Boggle portion of it. It’s just an anecdote but I wondered if the emphasis on quickly finding words gave a me a little bit of a gender-advantage in that particular game.

  10. Kay

    I haven’t played it yet, but I’m really interested in “A Blind Legend.” It’s designed to be accessible to – and in some ways, replicate the experience of – visually impaired gamers. It doesn’t have any graphics at all, instead using binaural sound to guide you through the story. I’d definitely call it a game changer!

  11. Hey @Ali and everyone FYI Lifeline is the free app of the week on the Apple Store ! Have fun playing :)

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