I like hack and slash as much as the next girl, but sometimes you want a little more; something that takes real thought and empathy. Luckily, there are tons of options. Today’s games increasingly feature complex, nuanced storytelling that addresses topics like free will, gender politics, and self-expression. There are games aimed to teach useful life skills, like problem solving and time management. Some games can even force you to take a long, hard look at your morals and how they apply in a real-world situation.
Here are a few games that are more think and feel than hack and slash; they’re all a ton of fun, but you might learn something new from them, too!
1. Gone Home
Gone Home is an atmospheric, detective-style game that follows Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old who returns home from a year abroad to find her family’s house mysteriously empty. Kaitlin then wanders through the house, searching for clues to explain her parents’ and sister’s disappearance. Warning, some spoilers below!
The game’s central narrative is actually about Kaitlin’s younger sister, Sam. Sam’s story unfolds as the player finds (and reads) her journal entries, which reveal that she was involved in a romantic relationship with a girl named Lonnie. The journal documents the progression of their relationship, as well as the challenges Sam faced in coming out to her parents, understanding her own emotions, and generally surviving adolescence.
NPR’s Steve Mullis called Gone Home “one of the most deeply intimate and emotionally honest gaming experiences I’ve had in my more than 25 years of playing video games.”
Monument Valley is an interactive puzzle game that throws you into a mystical world of MC Escher-style visuals. Each puzzle is a piece of conceptual art, featuring impossible architecture, mazes, optical illusions, and geometric mind-benders. As “Princess Ida,” you navigate puzzles and search for exits. Ida encounters moving platforms, mysterious staircases, crows, and other obstacles along the way, and each level holds a different central mechanic to figure out.
Monument Valley teaches puzzle-solving skills and spatial reasoning, which would be reason enough to check it out, but its beautiful design should definitely be considered art all on its own.
3. Sims 3
Sims 3 is a real-life simulation game where you create your own virtual worlds. The games are open-ended, leaving it up to you to build characters, homes, and communities, and keep them functioning smoothly. Like actual humans, the customizable Sims go to work, have fun, create goals, form friendships, get married, buy houses, have children, do chores, shop, eat, sleep, get sick, and even die. You have to work to keep your Sims happy, healthy, and productive. You’ll even encounter challenges along the way that you can complete to earn more money or social credit.
As you’re playing the game, it’s important to manage your time and set goals. You’ll walk away from the game with a better understanding of how even the small things, like not letting your Sims character go on a date, has consequences and a larger impact.
Papers, Please takes place in the fictional, communist state of Arstotzka, which has just ended a war with its neighbor Kolechia and reclaimed the border town of Grestin. You take on the role of an immigration inspector, tasked with controlling the flow of people entering Grestin from Kolechia. Hiding amidst the hordes of people are smugglers, spies, and terrorists. You have to inspect the travelers’ documents to determine whether they are in order. Using limited information and resources, you have to decide who is allowed to enter Arstotzka, who gets turned away, and who gets arrested. As if that weren’t enough to make you second-guess your judgments, there are also financial incentives, bribes and penalties, not to mention escalating political crises in the region.
Every action you take intimately affects another person’s life and causes you to carefully consider moral questions. You learn about how your assumptions have moral repercussions. It may be stressful, but it’s also very rewarding.
Kara Loo is a California girl who loves Dynasty Warriors, garden roses, and baking cupcakes. When she isn’t writing for Pixelberry’s hit game High School Story, she also runs a fictional fantasy high school in the world of School for Adventurers with her co-author Jennifer Young.