New Gamers, Here Are 5 Story-Driven Video Games You Can’t Lose!

Most of my earliest memories of video games don’t actually involve me playing them. I have two older brothers and Nintendo only had two controllers, so you can probably guess how that worked out for me. I didn’t really mind, though; I was happy to watch them play for hours, and eventually, I got to play, too. Over the years, I made my way through loads of games on NES, Sega (even Sega CD, that elusive minx), and N64, but I stopped playing right around the time Halo and Call of Duty became popular. I’m not sure if it was because I heard an overload of “girls can’t be good at video games” bullshit or the fact that I am actually awful at first-person shooters. Either way, I lost interest.

Fast forward: I am thirty years old and I am not a Gamer. Gamer feels like a title you need to earn, and I, like many other women, have an annoyingly persistent case of imposter syndrome. Plus, the world of gaming is an intimidating scene to break into. Luckily for me, I have all sorts of gamer friends who are not assholes, and they’ve encouraged me to get back into it.

As I’ve tentatively dipped my toes back in that water (I’ve been using Steam to play on my computer, and I’m thinking about getting a PS4), story-driven games have been exactly what I need to gain confidence and get excited about gaming again. They are super engaging, obviously, because they’re all about the story and the characters. And, even better, they’re pretty much impossible to lose (in the traditional sense)!

Here are four story-driven games I’ve enjoyed playing recently.

Mild spoilers below!

Gone Home

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Nostalgia Exhibits A & B

This is an absolutely perfect starter game: the controls are simple, and it only takes a couple of hours to play through. You can read a much longer (and spoiler-ier) review here, but the basic plot of Gone Home is that you’re 21-year-old Kaitlin Greenbriar and, after a year of gallivanting around Europe, you’ve returned to your family’s recently inherited, creepy-ass mansion. Unfortunately, there is nothing to greet you but a cryptic and unsettling note from your younger sister, Sam.

The point of the game is to figure out where the hell your family is by searching for clues around the house, while hoping you don’t get axe-murdered and/or possessed by a ghost. Everything is spooky as fuck. Floorboards creak and lights flicker as you make your way through long, Shining-esque hallways. I have to confess, I started this game while I was home alone, but I got too scared and had to wait for my wife to get home to finish playing. So, you know, exercise caution.

The game takes place in the mid-90s, so it’s full of really great, nostalgic details. (Riot grrrl music! ‘Zines! Lots of X-Files references!)

Everything about the game just works, but, for me, Sam’s story is the standout here. It’s real and raw and not at all what I expected when I started playing. I was lucky enough to play this without being spoiled ahead of time, so I don’t want to give anything away for fellow new gamers. Just trust me: play it.

Firewatch

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10/10 would play again just to wander around and take pictures.

So, Firewatch is the only game on this list that features a man as the main character (because misandry, obviously), but despite that it’s actually pretty great! You play as Henry, a middle-aged guy trying to escape the shitty reality of his life by working as a US Forest Service fire lookout one summer in Wyoming. Henry pretty much just wants to be alone and get drunk (relatable), but his boss, Delilah, keeps bothering him on the radio while strange things happen in the woods. The mystery is intriguing enough, but Firewatch really excels at portraying Henry’s quiet desperation and helplessness. He’s sort of an asshole (and he’s voiced by Rich Sommer, who played Harry Crane on “Mad Men,” which honestly probably made me think he was an even bigger asshole), but I still empathized with his situation.

Firewatch is a stunning game, full of rich colors and sweeping landscapes, so even if you think Henry is acting like a total ding dong there’s always something beautiful to see. The soundtrack is just about as strong as the visuals: it really heightens the suspense, and it truly is the rug that ties the room together, man. The gameplay is a little more difficult than Gone Home, especially because responding to Delilah on the radio is time-sensitive, and it’s easy to get turned around in the woods (or, at least, it was for me). Also, I somehow got stuck on a rock ledge and had to restart an entire day to get free, so I am clearly very good at video games. The ending is kind of a letdown, but the game is so damn pretty and the journey was compelling enough that I didn’t really care.

We Know the Devil

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Ouch, my heart.

We Know the Devil is — not to put too fine a point on it — fucking fascinating. It is a totally different style than any of the other games on the list; the visuals consist of barely animated sketch-style illustrations over moody lo-fi photography, and the dialogue is written on screen instead of spoken. It’s basically a choose-your-own adventure graphic novella – and it’s awesome and queer. Also, the gameplay is super easy. For the most part, you just click anywhere on the screen to advance the text, but there are seven decisions to make throughout the game (and even then, it’s still a simple point and click interface).

In We Know the Devil, you don’t play as any one character. Instead, you follow the story of Jupiter, Neptune, and Venus, three friends trying to survive a summer spent at a religious camp. The make it to the last week of camp, but, as part of a vaguely-defined ritual, they are assigned to stay overnight in a cabin and wait for the devil to maybe appear. Or maybe the devil is already there. Over the course of the night, you decide which two friends to pair up and which will be left on their own. These decisions influence the character’s relationships with each other and the devil, and are the catalyst for how the game ends (there are four endings).

The details of the story are really nebulous, so it’s easy to recognize yourself in aspects of each character and assign specific, personal meaning to ambiguous bits of dialogue. Honestly, the first time I played through, I didn’t enjoy it that much. I think in large part that was because I had no idea what to expect and I rushed through. On subsequent playthroughs, however, I’ve savoured the story and the gorgeous language, and grown to really love it. There are certain moments in this game, moments that expose unnameable feelings I haven’t even thought of since high school, that are completely perfect. Also, for the record, the true ending is my favorite ending and I want to protect Venus at all costs.

Oxenfree

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I promise I did not purposefully try to pick all creepy and/or scary games for this list, but somehow I did exactly that. In Oxenfree, you play as Alex, a high school senior with very cool blue hair and a brand new step-brother named Jonas. Even though Alex has literally just met Jonas that very day, she brings him to an overnight party on an abandoned island. (So aggressive!) Also attending the party: Alex’s best friend Ren (who is a bit of a Nice Guy™), mean girl Clarissa (who used to date Alex’s dead biological brother), and Clarissa’s best friend Nona. The teens accidentally open some kind of haunted portal thing and get separated, and it’s up to Alex to find all her friends and get them safely off the island.

In terms of gameplay, the Internet tells me that Oxenfree is 2.5D perspective, which basically means you see the characters from the side (like Mario), but there’s some depth occasionally. My only gripe with this layout is that the game feels way too zoomed out most of the time. You interact with other characters by selecting speech bubbles that appear over Alex’s head, and I really liked the variations provided. There is almost always more than one way to answer yes or no. Like Firewatch, there’s a time-sensitive element here, so if you aren’t quick enough at deciding/clicking, Alex won’t say anything.

This game is very creepy and it has quite a few jump scares. Again, I recommend a daytime playthrough (but I’m also kind of a wuss). There’s a subplot that basically takes you on a scavenger hunt to find a dead old lady’s letters, but I was straight-up panicking about ghosts and finding my friends so I looked for zero letters. At the end of the game, there’s sort of “where are they now” epilogue, and I enjoyed seeing what percentage of other players ended up making the same choices as me. I’m not sure if hooking up romantically with your step-bro is a possibility, but I did everything in my power to avoid that. I also tried to charm both ladies to no avail, so I don’t know if that’s a thing or not. So far, my main takeaway from gaming is: this would be better with queer women.

Life is Strange

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Welp, this game emotionally devastated me, and I’m still not okay about it! Go read Dufrau’s list of reasons to play, listen to the soundtrack on spotify, and join me in the depths of my melancholy nostalgia. You should play it now, before the recently announced movie makes its way into the world!

So, that’s what I’ve been playing lately, how about you? I would love recommendations on what I should play and/or write about next.

Jenna is a designer and writer who lives in Boston with her wife, Stephanie, and their two cats, Flapjack and Ellie. She is very passionate about fictional queer women, interspecies friendships, and food. She's still hanging onto a semi-impressive DVD collection. Just in case, you know? You can find Jenna on twitter, instagram, or check out her design website.

Jenna has written 34 articles for us.

47 Comments

  1. Great recommendations!

    One that I’ve played lately: The Room 2 (from Steam). It’s more of a puzzle game. You can play it without playing The Room (also on Steam!), but the story does make a little more sense if you play the first (sort of), and you know the mechanics right from the start that way.

    One RPG I can recommend (on Steam, Playstation, and XBox) is Child of Light. You play as Aurora, a girl adventuring in the land of Lemuria. The music and artwork (sort of a water-color) are both gorgeous: https://youtu.be/KsB1ydR8NFk

    • I made it a point to only play every episode of The Room in the dark because of the creepy sounds! I loved all of them so much I could hardly put it down. There were many nights I fell asleep on my phone trying to finish just one more puzzle!

    • I really need to pick up “The Room”, been recommended by so many.

      Child of Light is an excellent recommendation. I’m doing my 5th playthrough right now!

    • Yes and yes! The Room games are all incredible. The Room 3 (both 2 and 3 are available on iOS) is probably my favourite though, because there are 7 different endings, some of which you can only get after finishing the game once.

      As for Child of Light, it’s simply… gorgeous. The visuals are actually inspired by Cirque du Soleil, and Coeur de Pirate composed the soundtrack. Gameplay isn’t its strong suit, but the story is interesting and you’ll easily find yourself sucked in. Well worth it.

  2. Thanks for the recs! I just started getting back into gaming (I mean, Pokemon on my 3DS counts, but its kind of the same story over and over) and have played a bit of Life is Strange and am obsessed with Stardew Valley, so this list is helpful!
    Do you know if these games are compatible with controllers on your PC or if they only work with your keyboard? I know Life is Strange works w/a controller.

  3. WAIT. LIFE IS STRANGE IS GOING TO BE A MOVIE?! My entire day/life is now made. THANK YOU for this information!!

    Also since playing Life is Strange I’ve been in a bit of a mourning period myself. Thank goodness for this post because now I have plenty more worlds and creepy situations to get lost in.

    I also totally relate to your style of playing video games. I was straight up laughing at this: “Also, I somehow got stuck on a rock ledge and had to restart an entire day to get free, so I am clearly very good at video games.”

    Do you have a good reco moving forward on what to play after the masterpiece that is LiS? I feel like everything else will disappoint me. I’m ricocheting between Gone Home, Oxenfree, and We Know the Devil.

    • I have a lot of Feelings about LiS being made into a movie! I mean, at the end of the day, I’ll probably/definitely see it, but I have concerns.

      Okay so are you looking for something specifically queer? Because if so- go with either WKTD or Gone Home. Gone Home gameplay is realllly similar to LiS, but it’s much shorter/less robust. WKTD is so so so short – like less than an hour to play through. BUT I think it gets better the more you play it, so there’s that. I hope that was semi-helpful!

  4. Whaaaat I can play all of these on Steam on my Mac THANK YOU!!!

    I started with Gone Home, and I wasn’t as wild about it as everyone else is–the game that hooked me (which I am currently playing for the, um, third time since spring) is Knights of the Old Republic. It’s a story-heavy Star Wars RPG. You get a lightsaber. LIGHTSABER. There’s no explicit romance, but the dialogue options for the implied romance are unchanged regardless of which gender you play. This led to a lot of me texting my best friend things like, “Bastila is talking about how much she enjoys the intimate bond we share, DO THEY KNOW HOW GAY THIS IS?”

  5. Ugh, I play games all the time and I still feel the “I play games, but am I a *Gamer*?” thing. I don’t even know what undefined set of criteria I feel like I need to hit.

    If you like story based stuff, Twine games are the shit! It’s basically a tool for making text-based games, and people have made a lot of interesting stuff with it. For beautiful, strange, and non-linear stuff, Porpentine’s games are great (howling dogs is a good one). It’s also pretty easy to make your own story games if you’re so inclined!

    http://twinery.org/
    http://ifdb.tads.org/search?searchfor=author%3APorpentine

  6. There’s some sort of skewing of “gamer” as a group that makes people think they don’t belong that I reject. The man who gets up at 3 AM to tend to his Farmville crops is a gamer. The child trying to catch all the Pokémon is a gamer. The young woman speed-running OG Mario is a gamer. It doesn’t need to mean a specific subset of bros playing COD competitively (though I’ve recently met a ton of really decent guys online).

    I love this article. I’m always looking for gaming recommendations. I would suggest “Last of Us” on the PS4 as a game with a super strong story, and simple mechanics. It takes a certain amount of finesse, so I’m not saying it’s without challenge, but it was thoroughly enjoyable. I would also suggest “The Flame in the Flood” as an excellent game about a young girl and a dog trying to survive an apocalyptic flood. You will die so many times! I drowned. I got dysentery. I starved. I died of dehydration and sepsis. I got mauled by wolves. Again: deceptively simple mechanics, atmospheric, and wholly absorbing.

    I grew up on console platformers and RPGs in a gaming family, so I really identify with the “watching” aspect of gaming as a social event, because I was the oldest of 7 kids, and at most we could play 3 at a time, back in the day (yay, Secret of Mana). I was away at college when Goldeneye (often cited as people’s entrée into the world of FPS games) hit the N64 and people were obsessed. My little sisters had to show me how to play FPS when I’d visit (though we usually played Timesplitters 2 on the Game Cube).

    If you want FPS games that are single-player (i.e. not multi-player, online, competitive or co-op), so that you can get a hang of the mechanics without a team depending on you, play the “Bioshock” series. The first game is still one of my all-time favorites. You will not regret it. Atmosphere. Story. Moral choices. You’re a dude throughout (it’s not Mass Effect or Fallout where you can choose your gender), though (warning?). Another: Fallout 3. Great mechanics, atmosphere, etc. Another on my all-time favorites (FO4 is out now, and is *awesome* but 3 is a little bit more linear and easier for newbies to get their arms around the concept). If you want more shooter/irreverent with less story but more loot, go “Borderlands”. You can be a kick-ass woman in it. Any of them are great, but “Borderlands 2” is the best so far. Mom and I wiled away so many hours co-op’ing that with another brother.

    I’m here to say that here in my 3rd decade I recently ventured into the world of online FPS gaming with Destiny at my mother’s behest. She and I play online together (it’s our weekly mother-daughter bonding; I don’t call her, we just get online together and shoot aliens). Go, gamers!

    • Oooh yeah, I’ve heard really good things about “Last of Us” – I wanted to make sure I had enough time so as not to rush through it. Same with Bioshock/Fallout/Borderlands. I have a lot of catching up to do… thank you!

  7. I’ve been playing video games since the Atari 2600, and I hate the idea that “gamer” is a title one has to earn. It’s an elitist reaction to having been looked down on by society for playing games. All that nonsense about “Does video game violence incite violence in real life?” (short answer: No.) that became a political bandwagon (which Hillary jumped onto with Joe Lieberman at one point), having been told multiple times we’re wasting our lives playing games, and the derision piled onto D&D and gamers playing other tabletop games (huge fan of the classic World of Darkness games from the 90’s, myself). So the “circle the wagons” reaction is somewhat understandable, if inherently wrong, and causes the casual/core fallacy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pL4AzGBAsU a good video by good people, and I recommend the rest of the series; their Extra History series is neat, too).

    A friend of mine also has a hypothesis about members of that whole Gamergate sickness eating away at the gaming community. She thinks that a lot of male gamers, who don’t fit the hegemonic masculinity in our society, have used gaming and geek spaces (which they always saw as overwhelmingly, if not entirely, male-dominated) as an alternative masculinity, and so they feel threatened by the inclusion of women into geek spaces. The truth? Women have been a part of geek spaces and gaming the whole time. I first met the girl who I had a crush on through high school over a little game called Magic: The Gathering (we were formally introduced by a mutual friend in our freshman year [1995… and now I feel old… great…], but knew of each other… no, we never dated).

    So are you a gamer? Well, do you play video games, collectible card games, and/or tabletop roleplaying games? If so, then welcome! You’re a gamer! 😀

    We need to clean the community up a bit (okay… a LOT), but whether they realize it or not the (sadly) very verbal people trying to keep you out are (and always have been) a minority in the community.

    Gone Home is the only one on the list that I’ve played so far (although I mean to get around to Life is Strange at some point), and it is spooky. The moment I discovered that my character could crouch I assumed the worst and crouch-walked through the rest of the game. xD

    • I think part of my hesitation to call myself a “gamer” is very internal and my own anxiety stuff, and part of it is societal – thank you for sharing your perspective and welcoming me to the community 🙂

      It’s funny you bring up the crouch thing in Gone Home – I accidentally crouched and could NOT figure out how to get out of it for several rooms. Don’t worry, I eventually stood up.

  8. I would like to wax poetic for a noment about Bioware. I haven’t played through their older stuff, but I loved the mass effect and Dragon Age series. You can play as a lady in both (honestly the better choice, Shepard-as-lady has the best voice actor) and you can romance ladies.

    There are problems with the series, of course (female bodied alien race who pretty much all spend part of their lives as eye candy for the rest of the universe, i’m side eyeing you) but i loved it. My Shepard was a paragon pretty exclusively, who romanced Liara and i stuck with that decision for the series.

    I practically live in my n7 hoodie, i’ve worn it nearly every day for over a year and a half. It’s one of the few articles of clothing that make me happy to wear.

    Possibly this is because Shep being a big doofus around Liara was the first romance story i had ever become invested in? And maybe because it was nbd in the game world helped me feel that it could be the same in the real world?

    I don’t really like shooters, but i love rpgs with hours of story, so i played the heck out of all three games. If you do play, i recommend the Shadow Broker DLC for the second, and the Citadel DLC for the third! Also grabbing the extra characters is fun.

    #TeamMako, and i will fight for the honour of that vehicle. My Shepard loved the Mako, and was the best driver.

    Dragon Age 2 is my favourite of that series so far, but i’m probably only a third of the way into Inquisition. I just loved Hawke (and Isabella). I liked seeing how your actions affected an area you (as a player) were invested in. It’s too bad they didn’t put da2 out before da:o, it probably would have been received better that way. The stakes didn’t feel bigger in da2 than origins.

    For shorter games, Journey is nice.

    Back to a longer one… Paper Mario: the thousand year door. It has turn based combat that was everything i wanted in paper mario 64, and a good story line with some fun characters.

    I also adore the art style! My whatsapp tone is one of the badges from paper mario 64, an alternative hammer sound. One day i’ll meet someone else who recognises the sound and it will be the basis of a true and lasting friendship. (It’s the one that sounds like ‘Ooouhn’)

    I also love Minecraft, especially if you get to play with friends. I haven’t been on a server that was open, so i never experienced any griefing, which is good because that would super upset me.

    I still want to build some sort of under the sea farm, complete with livestock. I should maybe think about joining a server again…

    OH AND HATOFUL BOYFRIEND. Just buy it and play it. Get the full version. It is everything you could want in a pigeon dating sim. AND MORE.

  9. I was totally expecting you to mention it because I think it was some kind of break out star last year, but have you played Her Story?

    It’s a super engaging story driven game where you feel like a detective. It’s also really fun to play with a friend.

    It’s simple with nostalgia aesthetics, and you’ll be obsessed with it for days afterward because once you’ve seen all you can, you can jump into the reading othen players theories and thoughts.

    • Her Story is on my list! I had also read that it was fun to play with someone, but my wife was busy before I wrote this piece so we didn’t get to it. It definitely looks super intriguing!

  10. I think you should totally play A Little Lily Princess!

    It is a lovely visual novel type game based on the story A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. There is very little gameplay involved, but the characters and story are pretty wonderful. It is also absolutely bursting with lady-romance.

    Just be aware that it starts off very slowly and gently, and it might take a few hours for you to really get into the story. But it is very worth it!

  11. I just started gaming again and this is exactly the article I needed! I’m slowly working through Life is Strange (I really love it so far) and I got Gone Home in the latest steam sale– I can’t wait to get into it, especially after reading what you wrote about it. I love creepy mysteries!

    I feel a bit weird giving recommendations cause I don’t play games that much, but I’m gonna do it anyway: I played Portal 2 as a beginner, it’s a puzzle game with a really compelling sci-fi story, and it isn’t really time-sensitive/urgent so you can take all the time you want with the puzzles.

    birdland.camp is a really simple (and really gay) text-based game about a teenage girl at a summer camp where strange things keep happening (also it’s free!). It feels more like a short story than a game, though.

    Autostraddle already wrote about Undertale, and I second the recommendation. It does have a time-sensitive battle system though, which makes it a bit more difficult than the others.

  12. For anyone wanting a relatively easy and relaxing game, I can definitely recommend Transistor. The soundtrack is the best I’ve ever heard. I have heard good things about Kathy Rain as well, have not played it yet, the art style doesn’t really work for me. Currently I want to finish my XCOM: Enemy Unknown playthrough so I can move on to XCOM 2, which is supposed to be even better. I tried Munin as well, very interesting game but the puzzels get a bit too frustrating for me.

  13. If you like storytelling games where it’s about making decisions Tell Tell Games are brilliant and you can play them on a tablet. I like open world games, and in both Skyrim and Fallout you can pick the gender of your character and hit on people of either gender. Only the female vampire in Skyrim doesn’t want to marry me 🙁

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