Five Games You Don't Have to Play to Enjoy

If we accept that games are the combination of many different kinds of art, we have to acknowledge there are ways to appreciate them beyond just playing them.

When I hear folks go on about how a game is “meant” to be played, I think of this ancient Onion article from the 1990s. It describes a Bantu tribesman using the innards of a then-state-of-the-art IBM workstation to fashion tools and animal snares, bracketed by pullquotes from a fictitious, Western spokesperson, full of 90s buzzwords about “global networking solutions” and “creating a global village.”

“This is a good computer,” said Ndeti, carving up a just-captured gazelle with the computer’s flat, sharp internal processing device. “I am using every part of it. I will cook this gazelle on the keyboard.”

Even by Onion standards, it’s not especially deft or subtle. I wouldn’t go to bat for its depiction of African native peoples either. But my brain conjures up this imagery every time I watch a presenter wax eloquent on the amazing things consumers are going to do with their new product. I picture Xboxes and PS4s being pried open and stripped of their wiring and precious metals; mass-produced discs containing years of abstracted labor smashed into a thousand pieces. Designer intentions are all well and good, but once a device or piece of media is in a person’s hands, you can’t really dictate how they’ll use it. That goes as much for expansive, multimedia collaborations like videogames as much as it does IBM workstations.

And frankly, I like the idea of gutting a game, of drawing out from it only that which is most useful or meaningful to you. Maybe you like stories, but you don’t have 50 hours to deposit on an Atlus game. Maybe you enjoy a particular composer, but a lot of the games they’ve worked on are for consoles you don’t own. Maybe you’re not interested in a game at all, except damn, that’s a really cool character design.

So, take it. Draw out the part you like, and discard the rest.

I’m going to hazard publishers don’t care either way, or if they do, only insofar as they want to make sure you’re buying something. It’s now commonplace for Steam store pages to upsell you an official soundtrack bundled with the game. Hardbound game art books can usually be found alongside those for animation and film in bookshops. Polytron recently announced a limited 12” LP release for Disasterpeace’s Fez soundtrack, and it’s so gorgeous it could make anyone start to care about vinyl. Here are some more examples of what I mean.

Concept art from Dark Souls: Design Works Concept art from Dark Souls: Design Works.

Dark Souls

Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, is said to have once laid into a creature artist on his staff for submitting a sketch of a dragon covered in maggots. “This isn’t dignified,” he reportedly told the artist. “Don’t rely on the gross factor to portray an undead dragon. Can’t you instead try to convey the deep sorrow of a magnificent beast doomed to a slow and possibly endless descent into ruin?”

That is the essence of Dark Souls’s art direction, in my opinion. It courts a macabre, even grotesque aesthetic, but goes about it in a way that is austerely elegant, more Yoshitaka Amano’s Angel’s Egg than say, the splatterfest of Dragon Age.

So it’s a good thing Dark Souls has put out a fantastic art book (and soon, a second one) collecting its many designs, because it really is the sort of thing you want to be able to observe unhurried. You want to be able to soak up all its subtle watercolors and the brittleness of character lines, like the fragile segments of a dragonfly’s wings. Or study the interweaving patterns embellishing a character’s jacket. These images all tell stories, even if you’re not party to the specifics of the game’s lore. And it’s an awful lot easier to take the time to admire them if you’re not dying every ten seconds.

An example of Okami's sumi-e art style. An example of Okami's sumi-e art style.

Okami

Okami is a game I happened to miss in its original PlayStation 2 incarnation and I never quite managed to get into in its subsequent rereleases on other platforms. A large part of that is, honestly, the gestural control system: the experience isn’t too smooth for me using an analog stick, I never got a Move controller for the PS3, and we all know the Wii Remote’s capabilities are… not that great.

And it’s a shame, because look at that art. We’re coming up on Okami’s 10th anniversary this year, and still all too few games have managed to capture such a unique, painterly aesthetic. Its sumi-e brush stroke designs are as bold as they are delicate: even as static screenshots, they seem to lift off the page.

All game art books serve as a reminder of the immense talent and hours of labor put into a game, but Okami Official Complete Works really drives that idea home. Rough concept sketches are preserved with all their messy, errant lines. Individual paper fibers show through its painted tableaus. Even the cover is designed to resemble an ancient, hand-bound book. It’s not the same as bringing these paintings to life yourself with a controller, but it’s a pretty good substitute.

Surely a GRIM GRIMOIRE of some kind from NieR. Grimoire Noir (left) and Grimoire Weiss (right) from NieR.

NieR

Every time I hear some amazing choral piece come up on my iTunes, I ask myself “what is this from?” And the answer is always: NieR. Every time, it’s NieR.

NieR is a game with fans, certainly, even if the whole Gestalt vs Replicant thing was needlessly confusing, and journalists’ attempts to discuss its genderqueer character Kaine were occasionally pretty damn gross. I still intend to play it one of these days, but until then, I have Keiichi Okabe and company’s phenomenal compositions, which are so notable they have their own separate Wikipedia page.

Much of the soundtrack is performed with piano and guitar, threaded through with vocals by Emi Evans, who also penned most of the lyrics. In some of the higher energy pieces like “Cold Steel Coffin” (a personal favorite), Evans is joined by a haunting choir, evoking the interior of some immense cathedral or perhaps the end of the world. It really captures what reviewer Jayson Napolitano called the soundtrack’s “otherworldly” quality.

Just listening to NieR’s soundtrack deprives you of a lot of context you would have gained by playing the game, but given that the compositions were not always used in ways Okabe and his team intended, it’s fair to say each piece also stands alone to an extent. For those who find Japanese RPGs a resistant genre to get into, NieR’s soundtrack is sort of like experiencing the game in abstracted, platonic perfection.

Journey thatgamecompany's Journey.

Journey

Journey, the third title from Santa Monica-based studio thatgamecompany, is undeniably a pretty short gameplay experience, one which wasn’t designed with endless ‘replayability’ in mind. Even mastering all its little secrets to unlock the coveted white cloak doesn’t take very much time, all told. Still, its aesthetic stays with you well beyond the scope of playing it, not just with its enduring and evocative soundtrack by Austin Wintory, but also with its crisp, bold yet minimalist art style.

Journey is arguably so distinctive that referring to it has become a sort of visual shorthand for “high production indie game.” For some, that can be more off-putting than it is welcoming, but you still have to acknowledge that it’s pretty to look at. While hardbound editions of its art book seem to be between printings, you can still browse a lot of it online. The soundtrack is readily available as well, and you can even buy sheet music. If that’s not enough, there’s also the thriving fan community producing fanart, cute handicrafts and fashionable jewelry.

Catherine (maybe) from SOMA.

SOMA

This one is peculiar in that technically, I’m still encouraging you to play it, or at least watch someone else play it. With the new mod to turn all enemies in the game non-hostile, this is a lot more doable than before, but if you spook easily in horror games, there’s always a video walkthrough.

SOMA’s greatest asset is its story. Not, in all cases, its writing, mind you – there are some real wallbangers in the exchanges between protagonist Simon Jarrett and his companion Catherine – but the overall mood and how its concepts play out across set pieces and puzzles are by far some of the most compelling I’ve ever come across. Without spoiling too much, SOMA tackles ideas concerning the persistence of identity beyond the body, the dignity we afford life, and the almost-certain extinction of humanity.

In other hands, this story might have turned out as pure retrograde schlock. Instead, SOMA is one of the harder science fiction videogames around (which, granted, is a pretty low bar, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t note the attempt). It’s at least worth a watch, even if you aren’t much for the genre.

There are many more I could list like this selection above, but I think this is a pretty good sampling to start with. So how about you, reader? What games do you enjoy that you haven’t played?

Kris Ligman is the News Editor of ZAM.com. You can follow them on Twitter @KrisLigman.