The Best Games To Watch (While Someone Else Plays Them)

Some games are meant to be watched by your friends or loved ones while you play. Others, even good games, fail to entertain onlookers.

Last week, I talked about games that are great for spectators with Michael McIntyre, the level design director for next month's new Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. I hoped he'd know about this kind of thing. The game his title is a successor to, 2003's Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, was the first and just about only game that my wife, who rarely plays console games, sat by my side and watched me play through. For personal reasons, I was curious how well the new game might accomplish the same thing.

The new Prince of Persia wasn't consciously designed to offer the same kind of spectating. McIntyre said it wasn't an aspect of the game that was tested. But he said it was something that he was mindful of. He pointed to some of the visual details in the periphery of the new Prince of Persia game — battles being fought in the background — as examples of how his team has tried to integrate gameplay with plot, offering a rich enough experience that even a bystander could enjoy.

Last year, I noticed that Assassin's Creed II and Uncharted 2 also drew my wife's attention and have heard from others who have said their significant others have been caught up watching one or both of those games. Sony' Uncharted 2 TV commercial was actually about this very phenomenon. It showed a girlfriend who brought a popcorn bowl over to the couch to watch her boyfriend play Naughty Dog's game.

McIntyre told me that he thinks horror games are well-positioned for this kind of bystander-pleasing spectator mode. He recalled Silent Hill games being good at drawing in the non-players at his side. He believes they pulled this off because they gave onlookers a familiar reference point. "Part of it was that it was like watching a horror movie for them," he said. "But it was slightly changed because they were with the person controlling what happened."

He noted that, as much as he liked Batman: Arkham Asylum, that he observed onlookers of that game losing interest while another person played. "It was not a game people liked to watch," he said, referring to what he witnessed among his peers who tried out the acclaimed Batman game as a group. "They would say, 'When is something going to happen?'" Only when they actually played it did they really enjoy themselves.

McIntyre thinks that stealth games just may have a tough time drawing in onlookers. Movies with a lot of spying and sneaking don't proceed as slowly as stealth games do, he said. Expectations for one are not matched by the pace of the other.

I've yet to meet a game designer who can tell me that they have deeply studied the appeal of their game on those who sit next to a person who has a controller in their hand. I increasingly do hear, however, from those who say that the ability for their game to please onlookers is becoming a happy discovery during the play-testing of the games they are making. It could be due to the improvements in graphics we've all seen recently, or it could be a certain magic of storytelling mixed with interactivity. It's hard to say, because it is still a merely anecdotal phenomenon, one that, dating back to my wife's enjoyment of watching Sands of Time, is clearly not brand new.

Which games have you discovered that are good to watch?