6 Video Games That Feel Like Reading a Novel
These atmospheric stories let you control the action, the dialogue, and sometimes the plot
Video games aren’t just about shooting zombies or jumping on mushrooms. A lot of them are downright literary—as in, the game revolves around reading text or making dialogue choices, and also, the mood and ambiance stay with you after you finish playing in the same way as a haunting novel. Plus, games offer opportunities for immersive storytelling that books can’t achieve (at least not yet). You want to talk about being drawn into the story? Try reading a story where you control the dialogue, change the outcome, or solve puzzles to move the plot forward. We’ve collected six atmospheric games for book lovers.
Playing Device 6 doesn’t just feel like reading a story—reading a story is the actual game mechanic. You begin by reading about a woman named Anna waking up in a mysterious castle, but the text itself quickly becomes the setting: a sentence that describes Anna walking down a hallway may move straight across the screen, then make a sharp left while describing Anna turning a corner. You might have to turn your device around multiple times to follow the text as Anna makes her way through the castle, or figure out how to open a locked door in order to read the next chapter. Puzzles and plot are embedded in the text and illustrations in a way that truly makes the story come to life.
The spare visuals of this story-driven adventure game contribute to its air of surreality and light menace. You start out playing as a trucker named Conway who’s searching for the eponymous highway, a road seemingly outside of time and space. As Conway travels (including down a mine shaft, on the back of a bird, and yes, along Kentucky Route Zero) and meets new people, the player occasionally inhabits his traveling companions, learning more about their histories and the strange alternate Kentucky where they live. The atmospheric narrative feels a little like reading Flannery O’Connor by way of Welcome to Night Vale with a heaping dose of David Lynch.
You’re a cat named Mae whose best friend is an alligator named Bea, but don’t let the cute talking animals fool you: Night in the Woods takes on some heavy topics, including mental illness, the troubled American economy, and oh yes, mysterious chthonic cults. There are no puzzles to solve, but your choices affect Mae’s experiences and relationships with her old friends as she returns to her hometown and struggles with the ways it’s changed. You know how books that are ostensibly geared towards young adults are often the ones with the darkest themes, including casually bizarre magical realism? That’s what it feels like to pilot a cartoon cat through heart-to-hearts about her nervous breakdown and the town’s string of kidnappings.
How much more disorienting would it be to read a story about time loops if you were actually experiencing them? In the beautifully illustrated Oxenfree, you explore a haunted island, make dialogue choices that affect your relationships with other characters, and yes, experience time travel, loops, and even a spot of possession. Exploration gives you knowledge you can use in your showdowns with the island’s resident spooks, which determine the outcome of the game, including who lives and who (if anyone) gets erased from existence. It’s like reading a supernatural mystery, but with stakes that feel higher because you’re guiding the action.
The setup—your viewpoint character arrives at her parents’ house to find the place unexpectedly dark and deserted—feels like it’s setting up a jump scare around every corner. Instead, as you navigate your childhood home you also make your way through a multimedia, intertextual story, told in notes and diary entries and mix tapes. The first-person perspective feels like Doom or other shooter games, but the actual gameplay experience is more like an archival research project: you’re piecing together a story, and it turns out to be as emotional as any novel.
In this beautifully illustrated mystery game, your viewpoint character is a fire lookout who’s isolated from the world, in contact only with your supervisor Delilah over radio. When strange things start to happen, seemingly connected to an old unsolved disappearance, that walkie talkie and your relationship with Delilah—which the player can affect through dialogue choices—may be the only things keeping you tethered to reality. Like an (eerie) epistolary novel, the game centers on how two people talk to each other, even as the plot erupts around them.