Hand-Holding Exploration

Back some twenty-five years ago, I began to form what would later turn out to be my first memories around video gaming. Aged around four or five, I was a very lucky boy, able to play my very own Nintendo Entertainment System or, under the gaze of my parents, a variety of games on our Tandy 1000 which, by today’s standards, passes for little more than a giant paperweight. This PC as it was then, would allow me to play games such as Boulder Dash and DuckTales: The Quest For Gold. Despite having access to the sort of gaming library that most children could only dream of in the late eighties, one of my favourite things to do was watch my dad play his more ‘complicated’ games that I couldn’t tackle because I would have no idea how to play them. He wasn’t patronising me (although that would become commonplace in later years) because those games were really, really difficult.

My father’s favourite genre was flight simulation, and by Christ, some of those looked tough. It wasn’t so much the plethora of keyboard controls you had to remember, but flight paths you had to follow, which had to be plotted and recorded on maps that came with the game. These weren’t PDF documents and there was no ‘internet’, as such, to look up copies. You had one physical copy of the map to use and if you lost it or damaged it you were pretty fucked. There was even a velcro attachment you could (and my father did) stick to the side of the PC monitor, so that a little arm could clutch your map so you could easily follow your flight path. Proper genius eighties stuff there.

This sort of assistance became commonplace in plenty of games and, if not within the games themselves, then in the gaming magazines that flew off the shelves with the latest cheats, hints, tips and maps inside, offering help to stumped gamers. Back in the early days of mainstream gaming you either put some serious grey matter behind solving the problem at hand or you sat there confused until someone gave you the answer. You could always ring the expensive help lines in order to have the solution told to you over the phone, but this was never really an option for a child or teenager, fearful of the parents’ wrath at calling a premium rate number for assistance with something as trivial as a videogame.

With the advent of the internet and the popularity of gaming growing to the point of it largely becoming a mainstream hobby, FAQs and guides, both written and videoed, became increasingly popular. Not only did this make getting help much, much easier but it also meant that games got easier. A common gripe of experienced gamers is that the challenge has largely been sucked out of their hobby to make the market more accessible to the mindless nuts and bolts that line the coffers for the big companies.

But do we, and by ‘we’ I am referring to more experienced gamers, want games to be harder? Personally, no, because I have a backlog of games to play so long that it stretches back to DuckTales: The Quest For Gold. (You can now download it for free and it’s jolly good fun. I just need to find a few hours to play it). I don’t want games to get harder or trickier. I just want less hand holding, less about being wrapped in cotton wool, and more being shoved out into the cold and told to get the fuck on with it – let me explain what I mean.

Let’s take Dead Space, which is generally regarded as a very good game (unless you ask around GamingLives HQ – they hate that shit). One of the most common ways to identify the series is its focus on cutting off the limbs of your enemies. This is, by and large, how you go about killing things effectively. Now, recently I watched a video created by Mark Brown, editor of Pocket Gamer, who talked about the invisible tutorials in Half-Life 2. It’s a clever little piece that focuses on how Valve teaches players to do things without spelling it out to them. He cites Dead Space as an example of the complete opposite where, no less than five times in the opening ten-fifteen minutes of the game, the player is told how to kill the enemy via bloody messages on the wall, audio logs, and in-game popups. Dead Space is a perfect example for what I’m getting at because what if they had never ever told the player how to kill enemies?

Think about it: if we did away with literally all the tutorials in that game, would the players be smart enough to work out how to kill the opposition? Of course they would – not all the necromorphs in that game are carbon copies of each other. They come in different shapes, sizes and varieties, and gamers rely on a history of knowledge, as opposed to pop-ups, every time a new one appears – shooting glowing weakspots, dodging charging enemies, detonating explosive attachments – all these things come from a history of playing videogames. Furthermore, many of the weapons are designed with this cutting motion in mind, so there are plenty of nods and cues to follow.

The whole reason for the hand-holding and the constant reminders of ‘HOW OUR GAME MUST BE PLAYED’ by the developers is because publishers need the titles to sell well. If the game is explaining  how it’s meant to be played, the chance for maximum enjoyment is increased and if someone enjoys something, there is a greater chance they’ll continue that experience. Basically put, if they’re told how to like it, they can’t hate it (in theory). If someone doesn’t have years of experience to fall back on, they won’t know that a glowing thing needs shooting or that red barrels mean explosions – that’s how it is suggested anyway. However, I’m willing to bet that a large number of newcomers would recognise that one red barrel sticking out from four grey ones may be red for a reason.

This all being said, I don’t think we need to immediately ditch the hand-holding element of gaming that has arisen in recent years. I just think that the hand-holding needs to end sooner, and when it does I want the game to be like a parent pushing a sixteen year old child out the door, telling them that they’ve been given a suitable amount of training and it’s time to make the world their own, to forge their own stories, create their own path. So, by all means, give me an intricate breakdown of how the entire world works. I want to know the controls, I want to know the opening hints and tips. If it’s a game like Dead Space, tell me one of the main concepts of killing enemies. If it’s Far Cry 2, remind me that I’ll need medicine every six hours to fight off malaria. If I’m playing Tomb Raider let me know that the climbing pick has multiple uses. I don’t want to miss out chunks of the game just because I didn’t watch a tutorial. After that though, I want to be let off the leash.

In those opening years watching my father play flight simulators, he also spent a number of hours playing Doom, Duke Nukem and, later on, Half-Life. Those games either had no tutorial or a very basic one. You weren’t told how the world worked or what you needed to do in order to survive – you just had to get on with it and learn. Now there is certainly an argument to be had that those games were far more simplistic and closed off in nature; kill this thing that moves, use a red key on a red door and so on. Equally, though, there were still maps to learn, enemy patterns to recognise and general gameplay to understand. I want to have these experiences but I don’t want to be banging my head against a brick wall, wondering why the square peg can’t be inserted into the round hole.

So give me the training and then let me crack on – I want to have to make notes, I want to try and flex some muscle memory and, more than anything else, I want to experience exploration in its most truest form – “the action of exploring an unfamiliar area”. Can you imagine what Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R, Watch_Dogs, Grand Theft Auto IV and all those other games would be like if there was a brief tutorial and then you just had to explore and experience things. No mini-map, no objective system and nothing more than the open road ahead. Can you fathom what that would feel like, in Fallout 3 for example: “I’ve never left the vault, situated just outside the now irradiated ruins of one of the largest cities on earth and now I’ve got to not only leave but I’ve got to find one man.” What if you didn’t go straight to Megaton? What if you turned left instead of right? What if your home for the first twelve hours of the game was a small house you found two hours after wandering around, low on health, no ammo, no clue and you found this sanctuary in the middle of the desert. Inside lay a couple, wrapped in each others arms, two spent bullets and a gun by their side. That place would take on much more meaning than just being another pit-stop as you walk in the pre-defined line to the pre-set objective, using a mini-map which highlights your goal (and all the other possible goals) around you.

I want developers to be brave, I want them take the risk that although we might now know how to play their games, we will always know how to experience them.

Last five articles by Chris


One Comment

  1. Mark R Mark R says:

    You know, it’s funny… you talk about what if you didn’t head to Megaton… when I play open-world games, I rarely ever do what’s expected of me. When I first exited the sewers in Oblivion, I spent hours roaming the countryside stalking deer and killing wolves. I did a couple of side quests and it just snowballed to the point where Lorna, who started playing MUCH later than me, got to Kvatch long before I did.

    Same with Fallout 3. I came out of the vault, bleary-eyed, killed a couple of ants and feral dogs, wandered around for ages and came across caves and little shacks. I have no idea how long it was before I ended up in Megaton. I know that I was supposed to head there first, and I know that map markers exist for a reason, but I tend to just ignore them anyway and go my own way.

    It’s why I was so pissed off with Mass Effect when I played it. I’d been told it was basically Oblivion in space, and that it was an open-world game, so I went into it expecting to meander around at my own pace, do my own thing, go my own way, and explore every nook and cranny like I would anywhere else. Nope. Some woman kept on telling me to hurry up, and it killed the fun for me. I love to take my time.

    And what you’re saying about being told where to hit enemies and stuff like that. I don’t really remember ever paying attention to anything if they told me about it. Even now, after playing Borderlands 2 through a few times, Pete and I were playing the other night and between us we worked out the best weapons to use on each enemy type, and even which hit points to go for on subsets therein, so that we were using less ammo and spending less time shooting. There wasn’t any hint text or pop-up explaining what to do… we just, like you said, worked it out for ourselves. It’s all part of the game, isn’t it?

    It’s also why LA Noire was much better when you turned hints off. I spent the first few ‘desks’ thinking it was far too easy, then found the option to turn off the hints. As soon as I did that, and turned it to black and white mode, it was an infinitely better game. Handholding is only good if it’s the first ten minutes of a complicated RTS where every unit has multiple functions, otherwise you can generally work everything out in a few minutes.

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