For the past few years, my mother has been coming into her own as a gamer. At first, it was just Wii Sports (which I suspect she maybe played just to have something to do with her son) and Wii Fit Plus (which she actually did enjoy, as she became something of an unstoppable force in the snowball fight minigame). My completion of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was delayed by several weeks because every time I booted it up, she heard the game’s familiar starting tones and asked if she could go fishing for a while. Craving a deeper experience, she switched to Fishing Master and, well, mastered it. We completed Super Smash Bros. Brawl‘s Subspace Emissary together in 2009, and since then, she’s been playing Bejeweled (admittedly casual), Plants vs. Zombies (sort of straddling the line between casual and “hardcore”), and Animal Crossing: Wild World (definitely “hardcore”). I’m proud of her for actually surpassing my skill level at these last three games (for Animal Crossing, she’s far ahead of me in her mortgage payments), and most of that was with a minimum of help from me. Bejeweled she actually found all on her own, as she was experimenting with the minigames in Plants vs. Zombies one day and came across the “Beghouled” riff, and then mused out loud that she wished there was an actual standalone “Beghouled” game. I nudged her in the right direction, but the initial discovery of match-three glory was all her own.
Of course, Animal Crossing and Plants vs. Zombies aren’t “hardcore” games in the traditional sense. I call them “hardcore” because I feel they present deeper player experiences than minigames like Bejeweled, and I think they require greater levels of skill and core gameplay design to really “get” everything out of the game. So how, then, do I get non-gamers like my mother interested in games that are ostensibly targeted toward hardcore twentysomething gamers like myself? The answer, I think, is to give them an experience as close to other forms of media that they’re more familiar with, like film and literature.
Because I secretly already had every game I wanted, I challenged my sisters to find me a new game for Christmas that they would enjoy watching me play (our traditional roles: I play, they watch and absorb the story). I gave them no criteria whatsoever and they came back with Alan fucking Wake, of all things. I have no idea how they chose this game, but when we were all home for Christmas break we played the crap out of it, and we got pretty engrossed in the story. My mother came up to check on her children, and to her surprise, she got hooked on the story too. Soon she was spinning conspiracy theories about Alan’s misfortune along with the rest of us, and when she discovered that we had a play session without her, she demanded to know the story details she had missed. “It’s just like a TV series,” she told me when I asked her why she liked it. Of course, that was Remedy Entertainment’s whole point; to make a game that both closely emulated a thriller serial and wickedly mocked it.
My mom said she still likes playing her all-ages Animal Crossing and Bejeweled games, but she confessed that she really enjoys watching me play Alan Wake because it has a mature storyline that wouldn’t feel out of place in a movie. It’s an odd type of media-crossover-appeal, I suppose. Of course, she won’t play it herself, and I wouldn’t expect her to; Alan Wake requires a near-instinctive familiarity with gameplay standards common in the hardcore games of today but which likely feel alien to anyone who’s never played Uncharted or Gears of War, and it relies heavily on acutely timed button presses for the near-essential dodging mechanic. Alan Wake has a combat system built on panic, and she likes being able to take her time to decide where to go (ala Animal Crossing) and to have a safety net built up in case something does go wrong (Plants vs. Zombies).
So now that I know she likes the stories of hardcore games, if not the gameplay, it has really opened up the types of games we can play together. I recently bought Telltale’s The Walking Dead since she’s a fan of the TV series, and the intention is that since the sisters are away again (thus unfortunately preventing us from making any progress in Alan Wake), we can play this new episodic series together. It really is the perfect game for her: she has a soft spot for zombies, she already understands the lore (better than I do, actually; I missed all of season two and half of season one), it’s broken up into easily digestible episodes (and further subdivided into smaller chapters), it’s a cinematic game that’s almost entirely story-focused, and it’s won an ass-ton of awards. Should be a blast.