The Rise of the Non-Playable Video Game

Remember huddling in front of the TV with your friends until the wee hours of the morning, each of you frantically tapping away on the controller clutched in your hands, your eyes darting back and forth across the screen, searching for your next target through the sights of your silenced D5K and taking names with your AR33 assault rifle?

Video games just don't get any better than that, right?

Well, maybe. Today, more and more kids -- and not a few adults -- are forsaking traditional shoot-'em-up games in favor of digital experiences in which player involvement is limited to deciding what characters say and (sometimes) being able to move them. What these new games lack in fast-paced, twitchy-finger gameplay, they make up for in richness of design and depth of storytelling. Games like The Wolf Among Us, Game of Thrones, and the critically acclaimed The Walking Dead are part of this new wave of point-and-click interactive graphic adventures that combine intricate storylines with innovative graphics and, not uncommonly, evocative, immersive soundtracks. So holster that trigger finger, because this well-established niche is on the verge of becoming mainstream among gamers.

Dialogue-rich point-and-click games, pioneered by such erstwhile industry giants as Sierra and LucasArts, have been around forever (which, in the gaming world, means since the early 1980s). This latest renaissance, however, has been spearheaded by Telltale Games, an independent game publisher based in northern California that already has its fingerprints on well-established titles such as Minecraft and Borderlands, having already produced its own spinoff of each. Fans of these games relate to them like televisions shows, and even their release dates reflect this episodic model. Telltale, for instance, releases new episodes about every two months.

Though grouped under the big umbrella of interactive drama, each game has its own unique flavor. The Wolf Among Us is a classic neo-noir murder mystery with a fantasy setting. The Walking Dead, full of loss and constant struggle and sorrow, evokes not only the TV series it's based on, but also Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Game of Thrones, a geopolitical struggle for power, manages to conjure the same sense of grandeur and magic that characterizes the show. Life is Strange, a similar game produced by Square Enix, has a psychological thriller theme and puts you in the role of a teenage girl who has the ability to rewind time. The voice acting that helps carry players through these games is of a quality usually associated with triple-A titles with budgets that rival Hollywood blockbusters.

At the other end of the spectrum are games such as the infamous Hatoful Boyfriend, a dating simulation with sentient pigeons as characters. Published by PigeonNation, this visual novel employs minimally interactive gameplay and includes multiple endings. You play as a high-school sophomore girl, the only human in the entire story, as she each attempts to forge relationships with different species of birds. The game has achieved a cult following in the United States, with gaming review sites remarking on the story's surprising depth.

All of these interactive graphic adventures reward -- indeed, require -- patient exploration, careful observation, and dogged determination. That faint glint in the grass may turn out to be a coin with which you buy a bridle to tame the unicorn that will carry you to the hallowed land of your just reward. These are thoughtful journeys of discovery, not frenetic rampages like so many shooter and action games. Playing these inventive, gorgeously rendered games feels like a license to slow down and smell the digital roses --not a bad way to spend an evening.

While video games in general are becoming more mainstream, the once obscure subgenre of interactive graphic adventures has blossomed into an extremely important-- and extremely lucrative -- part of the industry. The Walking Dead alone has sold over 8.5 million episodes. Comparatively, Batman: Arkham City, a more traditional action-adventure game and the most critically acclaimed game in the well-known Arkham series, sold only 6 million copies. Figures like these indicate that the future of video games will certainly include these kinds of story-driven, limited-gameplay titles -- and not a moment too soon. In our frenetic, fast-paced world, the last thing we need is more games in which we run around shooting, stomping or slapping things. Compared to many other types of digital entertainment, interactive graphic adventures are havens of digital zen, beckoning us into magnificent worlds that are ours to discover.