Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Dumbing Down Games - A Discussion in Two Parts

 Part one, where it seems more than ever that game companies are saying "I wanna hold your hand" to gamers, whether they need it or not.

This is something that's been coming up a lot in discussions that I've been having with friends lately, and it's also something I think needs to be talked about which is part of why I made this here blog to begin with. There are a lot of times when people who have been playing video games for most of their lives -- myself included -- have gone "Were games always this easy?" The short answer to that question is no; the long answer to that question is no but for various reasons. Games these days do things like telling stories, preparing players for the inevitable multiplayer aspect, present worlds to tinker around with. All of those situations are something that the earliest games weren't really capable of doing to a large extent, so they made it for it with sweet, merciless difficulty.

These days we tend to cry bloody murder if we have to go all the way back to the start of a level if we die, and that's even assuming that we have infinite lives in the first place. Unless we walk into a situation where we knowingly sign up for it we tend to resent game options that were viewed in the past as necessary or even merciful. That's not to say that there aren't hard games these days, but even most of the hardest games are ones that can still be played by anyone: they are still accessible.

Accessiblity; that word brings me -- meanderingly, granted, but still -- to the actual point of today's posting: by making games accessible, it seems more and more often these days that game designers, developers, and companies as a whole think that ... well they seem to think that the player is a drooling moron.

If you'd like a recent example then look no further than this comic by Coelasquid, which lampoons the most recent Zelda title "Skyward Sword" or more specifically, the helper character Fi. Although I haven't played the game myself I have seen comments from a fair number of people that would seem to indicate that while the situations here are of course exaggerated for comedic effect, they aren't really that far off the mark. A comment that Coelasquid wrote also seems pertinent to share in terms of the thoughts on this (emphasis mine):

"I know I was defending Navi a couple weeks ago despite all the naysayers, but Fi is the worst executive decision in Skyward Sword ...

"It’s like someone at Nintendo was like “Man, what we really need is a character that makes this game feel like a 60 hour tutorial”."

Consider those last three words for a moment. Have you ever played a game that had a forced tutorial level? Was it fun? The answer is probably not, but at least it was short and taught you what you needed to know then had the courtesy to make itself scarce. To say that a character in a game basically makes the thing one long, horrific tutorial is perhaps one of the most damning things that I think anyone could say about any game these days; far beyond that it's good, bad, or even awful. Skyward Sword is, by all the indications that I've laid eyes upon, not awful. And yet when I hear a comment like "60 hour tutorial" I can't help but feel that even if it's exaggerated that anything that would lead a player to say such a thing is an indication of something being direly amiss.

I can understand the desire on the part of those that make and distribute the games to help the player along. After all, if you've spent months or sometimes even years of your life crafting something you probably don't want a person to give up out of frustration at not knowing what to do and not see what you think are the best parts. The thing is that these days when a designer or programmer thinks that something is going to cause the player to become frustrated they are often going too far and assuming that if the solution isn't splayed across the screen in big bright letters that the person is going to throw their controller into the air, proclaim the task "too hard" and rip the disc out of the machine or uninstall the program, never to play a single second of the game again.

This whole mentality though, robs the player of the effort and thus the reward of doing it themselves, and in the very worst instances can and does insult the player who even if they are new to gaming figures that it should be glaringly obvious that to get past the locked door you need a key that will be somewhere in the level, or that the only exit out of the room is the ladder you need to climb which is also the only climbable (or in some cases the only object capable of interaction) thing there is to see. The player can and often should be given some credit regarding these things, even in the earliest instances. For a great example of what I'm talking about watch this video (and if you have watched it before then watch it again because egoraptor has some good points). Yes I know it's twenty minutes long but trust me it's well worth it and also quite entertaining:

For the cliff's notes version, basically the first level of Mega Man X was a set up that allowed the game to showcase both the abilities of X, and to establish some basic rules such as dodging, shooting, enemy hitboxs, etc; this first level also establishes the driving theme of the game: gaining power and moving forward. This theme comes full circle when you defeat Vile, the enemy that you couldn't even damage the first time you clashed. Most importantly, all of this was done without hand holding and mollycoddling the player, or stopping the action every two seconds to explain a new concept or ability.

Contrast this to a lot of modern titles, even the best of which often seemingly go out of their way in order to convey information that should be obvious like that the analog sticks move the player and cause you to look around, or that this button shoots. These are things that players either know going in, or generally can glean from fooling around at the beginning of the game for literally no more than a minute or two. So this begs the question: why do this? Why go out of your way to explain things that shouldn't need to be explained, and generally treat the player like a drooling idiot?

That I will cover tomorrow, but here's a hint, egoraptor briefly touched upon it in his video as well, and I think that it's one of the main reasons why people do quit games these days. Another hint: it's not because we're stupid.


  1. You should have made mention of Modern Warfare 3 which was in my opinion ridiculously easy to play. I've found that having multiple difficulty levels is important to gameplay, as it allows each of us to play at their pace, be that novice or european extreme, and it's something that I don't see enough of anymore. It's easier for the video game industry to invest in art and assets and hone their multiplayer experience, as long as the campaign gets an equal treatment, one of those "not anymore" things.

  2. The stuff about Fi spot on. A couple of her "Rumors" were useful, but that's it. Everything else she says is obvious and unnecessary hand-holding. I get the game's supposed to be accessible to little kids, but there's a limit.

    The worst is that, in the few instances when I was actually stumped by a puzzle or needed advice on how to tackle a baddie, she had nothing new to say. Talk about defeating the purpose.


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