Picture the scene. You’re on a flight across the Atlantic. Maybe you’re heading home for the holidays. Maybe you’re off on an exotic vacation.
For the past hour, you’ve been watching the airshow, as a little pixelated airplane snakes its way through New England and Canada, before heading over Iceland, and then south to continental Europe. There’s nothing on the video-on-demand screens that you want to watch. What you want more than anything is to play some video games, but there’s no way you could fit both a laptop and a mouse in your cramped economy seat’s tray table.
Few first-person shooters can be played without a mouse, at least not well. But you can still get your game on with just a trackpad and keyboard. Here are seven of my favorite games that meet that criteria, all of which you can purchase from Steam today.
Doom (The Original One)
It’s hard to believe in 2016, but when Doom (often stylized as DooM) first came out in 1993, it caused a major moral panic. Its blood-flecked ultraviolence and sinister occult imagery earned it the ire of social commentators, many of which described it as a “murder simulator”, and linked it to specific episodes of violence. In Germany, it was given an adults-only certification, which meant it could only be sold in adults-only stores, much like pornography is. This was only overturned in 2011, after 17 years.
Now, it almost seems quaint.
Its graphics, once considered to be cutting-edge, are now looked upon as blocky and pixelated. The imps and cacodemons, which once terrified me witless, now look like greasy pizza stains, rather than fearsome video game adversaries. Even its controls feel archaic. The original version of Doom lacked support for mouse control; this was introduced in Doom 3, and in fan-made remakes of the original, like ZDoom.
Despite that, it’s still very much worth playing. I’m not just talking about for reasons of nostalgia either, although no-doubt that’s a major draw for a lot of people. It’s a masterclass on how developers can introduce fear and suspense in their games, and contains some of the most iconic, best-designed levels ever made. And thanks to its primitive controls, you only need a keyboard to play it, provided you’re playing the official version of Doom.
One of the biggest advantages of turn-based strategy games is that you don’t need to have lightning-fast reflexes to excel on them. You can take as much time as you need, and plot each move with the determined precision of a chess grandmaster. It is for this reason why games in the Civilization series have become ideal companions for long flights, and cramped bus journeys.
I’m rather fond of Civilization 5, which takes Sid Meier’s tried-and-tested formula, and updates it with a new coat-of-paint, a vibrant multiplayer experience, and vastly improved game dynamics. Later updates, especially Brave New World, improve upon it even further, and include enhanced diplomacy, cultural, and military features. Civilization 5 also boasts an active and imaginative modding community.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Civilization: Beyond Earth. Reviewers and fans are divided on this one, and it has extremely mixed reviews on Steam. It was intended to be a spiritual successor to the earlier Alpha Centauri (itself worth playing. You can download it for PC and Mac on GOG), but many felt it fell short of this lofty goal, due to its relative lack of depth. Diplomacy was simplified to the point of absurdity, and it lacked an option for a cultural victory. It’s still worth a play though, and like all the other Civilization games, can be played without an external mouse.
The Walking Dead: Season One
Games about films and TV shows (much like films about games and TV shows) have a tendency to be disappointing affairs. They often are rushed out to capitalize on a temporary wave of public interest, and tend to be replete with bugs, boring gameplay, and a storyline that’s shallow and uninspired. The Walking Dead: Season One is not one of these games.
In fact, it’s perhaps the most faithful TV tie-in the gaming world has ever seen, encapsulating the essence of the source material over five ‘episodes.’ It’s all there. The unrelenting bleakness. The grim, post-apocalyptic world. The tough moral decisions. You will develop a fondness for specific characters, and then see them die unspeakably horrific deaths. This game will raise your hopes, and immediately dash them in a senseless moment of gore-drenched savagery.
This is a Walking Dead game, alright.
Like most of the Telltale stable of episodic role-playing games, the emphasis is on puzzles and story, not on combat. What little combat there is, isn’t all that frantic. That’s probably because zombies are slow. As a result, you can quite easily play this with just a trackpad.
Tomb Raider 1, 2 and 3
In 2014, I wrote a piece about games from the 1990’s that play nicely on a modern Mac. One of the items on my list was Tomb Raider 2, which I described as being like “the Antiques Roadshow meets Ted Nugent on an African safari”. That was pretty apt. The only mistake I made was limiting that simile to just the second installment in the Tomb Raider series.
The first three games in the series are almost identical in terms of gameplay, with the only differences being the locations visited, and the weapons touted by Croft. Scarcely anything else is different.
Lara still speaks with an accent that sounds like she was plucked straight from the home counties. She’s still able to perform improbable feats of acrobatics. It’s still hilarious to walk her to a cliff’s ledge and make her pirouette into the ground, like a suicidal acrobat. The puzzles will wrinkle your brain, and combat is unrelentingly thrilling. There isn’t that much emphasis on story or narrative, but that’s okay because it’s still an entertaining romp.
Like many games released in the 1990’s, Tomb Raider eschews mouse controls entirely. You traverse the world by using the directional keys (not WASD. That came later), and the orientation of the camera is controlled by where Lara is facing, and what surrounds her in the environment.
Life Is Strange
It may seem like hyperbole, but Life is Strange is perhaps one of the most uniquely perfect games I’ve ever played. No, you’re right, that does sound like hyperbole, but hear me out. Few games are this delicately crafted and profoundly cinematic. Few games leave me yearning for “just one more level” quite like Life is Strange did.
The main protagonist of the game is Max Caulfield; an awkward, unabashedly-nerdy adolescent who conforms to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope so hard, the film version of her could be played by Zoey Deschanel or Zoe Kazan. The game is based in the affluent nowhere-town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, where Max attends Blackwell Academy – an elite boarding school.
Her, along with her estranged former-best friend Chloe Price, have to solve the mystery of a missing girl, as well as save the town from an impending destruction.
But there’s a catch. For reasons that aren’t explained in the game, Max finds herself bestowed with the ability to reverse time. These powers become essential to solving puzzles, and traversing the shark-infested waters of high school social life.
There’s a reason why Life is Strange earned near-universal positive acclaim from critics, won dozens of awards, and was nominated for dozens more. There’s just this wonderful attention to detail that you don’t really see in that many video games. The environment and the script are so realistic, my New Jersey native fiancé whispered, “This was just like high school,” when she played it for the first time. The soundtrack is an indie-tinged masterpiece which boasts big names like Australian duo Angus and Julia Stone, Alt-J, and Jose Gonzales, who wrote much of the soundtrack for the recent Walter Mitty film.
Life is Strange released in episodic format (something that’s more and more common, these days). Like much of the Telltale stable, it is playable without an external mouse You can easily get by with just a trackpad, as movement is done with the keyboard, and the cursor is really only used for selecting actions and dialog options.
The 90s was the undisputed golden age of point-and-click games, and saw dozens of iconic titles released, the popularity (if not notoriety) of which lives on to this day.
There was the Monkey Island series, which were about the misadventures of the hopelessly inept aspirant pirate, Guybrush Threepwood. Sam and Max told the zany tale of two anthropomorphized animal cops-for-hire. Then there was Leisure Suit Larry. The less said about this, the better.
Written by the legendary Tim Schafer and published by LucasArts in 1998, Grim Fandango was perhaps the most unique of the bunch. The game itself was a charming take on Latin culture, with much of the inspiration for the aesthetic coming from the Day of the Dead carnivals that are celebrated in much of Mexico.
The game puts you in the shoes of Manuel Calavera (itself a rather clever pun. Calavera is Spanish for ‘skull’), who acts as a travel-agent to the dead. Your job is to guide the recently-departed from a limbo-like plane of existence to the “Ninth Plane of Existence”. The story takes a sinister twist when Calavera realizes his employers had been stealing the most expedient tickets, leaving his customers to wander the dangerous world alone. Your job, as the hero, is to rescue one such customer, before she comes into harm.
Although the game was critically acclaimed, it suffered from a number of bugs that rendered it almost unplayable on modern computers. Thankfully, this piece of gaming history was saved by Tim Schafer’s new company, Double Fine, and was remastered and re-released in 2014. I’ve played both on a laptop, and managed fine with just a trackpad.
Because I’m such a huge fan, let’s finish on another Tim Schafer game. No, really. I insist.
Broken Age starts off as two parallel stories, with no apparent connection. You can either start off by playing as Vella Tartine, a young girl chosen to be sacrificed to Mog Chothra; a monster whose bloodlust could only be satisfied by annual human sacrifices. The other character is Shay Volta, who is voiced by Elijah ‘Frodo’ Wood, and lives in a state of perpetual arrested development, under the thumb of two paternalistic AI computer programs.
This game represents Tim Schafer’s return to the genre that made his name. The wait was worth the wait. Not only is the story well-written and well-acted, but the world is visually breathtaking. Not in a hyper-realistic sense, but in a delicate and artful way. The worlds look as though they were constructed by hand with string, glue, and construction paper. It’s just so incredibly charming.
Much like Grim Fandango, you won’t need an external mouse to play Broken Age. Your trackpad will manage just fine.
Do you have a favorite video game to play when traveling? Are there any games you love that can be played without an external mouse? I want to hear about it. Leave me a comment below, and we’ll chat.