A niche genre. Games that are best enjoyed with a notepad often involve some mystery, or require drawing strange symbols or shapes that can’t be quickly or easily replicated on your PC. They might involve hurried arithmetic, amateurish maps, doodled floorplans, scatter-brained lists. In these cases it transpires that the giant machine whirring three inches from your nose just won’t cut it. Sometimes you gotta use a pencil. Here are the 9 best games to play with a notepad.
There is a joyful way to summon nostalgia and there is a cynical way. Cynical is McDonalds resurrecting some cursed Happy Meal toys you vaguely remember and advertising them with a multigenerational inspo-ad that flashes back to the 90s, when Gran was still alive. Tunic does it the nice way. It offers you a world in which not all rules or abilities are immediately explained, and then drip-feeds you the pages of a SNES-like game manual. If you’re like me, your note-taking instinct will kick in. You will scrawl theories and ideas, the names of items you need, the places you must go next. Maybe even try to translate a few of the game’s mysterious hieroglyphs. You think this is unnecessary? Try leaving Tunic unplayed for a week and coming back to it. Even the profound sense of being lost is period accurate.
It’s fitting that a murder mystery built on an aging police search engine sees you gurn at the old computer interface and grab a pen and paper to note things down the old fashioned way. As you sift through suspicious interview clips of a nervous woman, you take on the role of detective, jotting down key words to enter into the dusty British police database, circling the names of unseen characters, drawing lines between them like red threads. “Window,” you write, trying to understand basic facts. “Palindrome?” you scratch down, confused and curious in equal measure. “Hair,” you scribble, with a terrifying realisation, underlining it twice. “HAIR,” you write again at the top of the page. “IT’S ALL ABOUT HAIR.” You push yourself back into your swivel seat. oh my god. You pick up the pen one final time. “HAIR STORY.”
Having a “to do” list for a video game is not the sign of being a huge dweeb. It is the honest admission of a person who fundamentally understands what video games are and what they have always been: brightly colored chores. Wikis and the holy sacrifices made by guides writers will offer you an alternative to austere book-keeping in Stardew Valley (you don’t need to remember Pam’s favorite gift if the internet has pre-remembered it for you). All the same, there is something satisfying about discovering and recording these things for yourself. Humans love to catalog things. It’s why Argos exists. Keeping your own tasks and thoughts arranged in a messy pile of lists is just part of being a good farmer.
Crusader Kings 3
I keep a “to do” list in Crusader Kings 3 as well. “Don’t die,” it says. “Evaporate the English into nothing,” it says. “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” wow. Calm down, me.
To children of a certain age (35) it is a rosy memory to use a notepad to record the whereabouts of certain objects in a game, or jot down SN34KY PA55W0RD5 that would unlock later levels. Fez hacks into that memory with retro visuals and then adds an extra layer. Look, here are some strange symbols. And some more, but these ones look… different? Oh ho, look at your little eyes glimmer. I think someone wants a Bic and an A4 sheet stolen from the printer paper tray.
Any Zachtronics game
What is logic? How do clocks work? Why do computers beep? These are ancient mysteries, and have never been resolved. Yet to play a Zachtronics game is to inhabit the soul of a hardened machinist determined to understand this kind of question. You mostly muddle through the wire-plugging and instruction-programming without the use of extensive notes. But every so often a puzzle comes up that requires a plan. A bubble diagram biro’d onto a napkin. A flow chart scratched onto the back of some nearby cardboard. Zachlikes don’t make you sit down with a notepad from the first moment. They ease you into the logic of their mechanisms. But there is usually a puzzle when you simply can’t clearly picture the blurry device that lies in the fog of your brain, so you scramble for writing utensils and the nearest scrap of paper, desperate to draw boxes and lines and words and numbers in an effort to conjure the solution, like a struggling alchemist.
Another case of not knowing what the hell you’re doing and thoroughly noting every area you’ve been to and every boss you’ve defeated. no? you don’t do that? Okay, I admit it, I have the memory of a teabag membrane.
You could play through this archeological adventure without thinking too deeply about the strange language that keeps cropping up. Just click options and stroll on through. But you’d be missing out on some fine word nerdery. Slowly amassing a small dictionary of otherworldly terms gives everything in this game more meaning, and it simulates that fuzzy point of language learning at which you start to think in bizarre, stunted transliterations. The bunch of squiggles that means “river” comes out as something like “wet-thing-moves-high”. And that river doesn’t “flow” but it “do-move-water”. To fear is to “death-know” and to love is to “life-hold”. At least, these are the definitions in my dictionary, which was 18 pages long by the end of the game. Turns out being able to understand an alien lingo by the end of an adventure game makes for fun homework.
“Try playing Elden Ring with a journal and a pen,” said someone on the internet one time. “You fool, you troglodyte,” replied some other person who only happened to be passing by that corner of the internet and, to be honest, didn’t care that much. “Stop journal shaming that person,” said a third bystander, possibly as a weak joke, possibly in full seriousness, it remains difficult to ascertain. “Here’s my journal,” said yet another voiceless avatar of chaos, attaching a photo of an expertly illustrated guache depiction of Starscourge Radahn, annotated with elfin calligraphy. “Just doodling,” they added, to the silent ticker tape of one million likes. “You wouldn’t need a journal if the quest design was clearer,” said a person with UI/UX in their bio. “Get good at drawing watercolor knights, loser,” said someone in response, but in a manner that was unclear as to which person this was directed. “Here’s my journal,” someone else offered, sarcastically attaching a link to Fextralife’s Elden Ring wiki guides. “Touch grass,” said someone who on closer inspection has shouted things on the internet 10 times per day for the last five years. All the above persons are alt accounts of mine, and I wish to set the record straight. Anyone who hears the names Ranni, Rennala, Radagan, Radahn and Rykard, and can remember who is who without requiring notes, should be working at NASA and not spending their time gathering 99 Rowa Fruits, whatever they are.
One Off The List from… the best plot twists in games
Last time we stumbled upon a terrible secret and revealed the 9 best plot twists in PC games. But one of these was no surprise. It’s…Spec Ops: The Line. Because I say so.
That’s all for now, list goblins. Remember if you want to strike something from the list above, make your case in the comments. And while you’re about it, tell us what unexpected games you like to play with a notepad by your side. ta ta!