Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Video Games Aren't Letting Us Learn Anymore

Do you remember your early days of playing video games? That feeling when it was your first time playing a new game and you were fully engaged with what was being presented to you. After each set of dialog or cut scene you were off to continue your adventure and you knew exactly who you were in that world. Your objective was clear whether it be save the royal heir, kill the evil wizard or push the large block out of the way. Well now those days are but a fond memory and that game is solidified as one of your most beloved games of all time. You love that game so much that every so often you revisit it in hopes to relive at least a little of the pleasure and wonder you once experienced as a kid. One day, however, you decide to show a friend. Sounds great, sharing each other's experiences is what many live for and you want to do the same. With controller in hand, your friend begins what you know to be one of the greatest adventures of their life! There's a problem though... The intro concludes and your friend says those fateful words, "So, what am I doing?"

Now that I'm in my twenties, seeing the contrast between the games of my youth and games being released today is very simple. Players are confused without the developer handing them step by step instructions through a text pop-up. If there wasn't an NPC saying "That big rock is in the way, go push it!" they would be lost even though in the first level they were met with a room with an obstacle in front of the only door out and they knew to push it. This expectation has been trained into players over years and years of text blocks and forced tutorials.

That’s not to say there is one straight forward answer for all games. It's true that when you're creating a completely new world for a person to live in, the rules of that world need to be clear. If you take our world, lets just call this "real life" we get a really great tutorial on how to not be dead as we grow up. This tutorial is based mostly on cause and effect. Rub a stick on another stick you get sweaty and maybe some fire. Rub a stick on your arm and you get a scratch. The task of creating a tutorial this effective within a fictional world is very challenging, but it needs to be done for the player to know what will get them a scratch and what will get them some fire.

Now many developers are ignoring this fundamental aspect of creating a fictional world. Even when one game does try to teach the player, some people forgot how to learn from them. Because people are being lead around instead of drawing their own conclusions, it's affecting the way a person follows plot and uses that information to get from one area to the next. An example of this might be a cut scene where the protagonist was talking about going to his friends house down the street and seeing if he has heard anything about the mysterious disappearances. The mission would simply be walk down the block to talk to his friend but in this day & age without a pop-up saying to go to the green thing on the map, the player might wander around for ages until they stumble upon their friend at his house with a green exclamation mark over his head by coincidence.

Look back at many games and you just might find a tutorial that used similar devices. With most current platforms, developers are throwing intelligent design to the wayside and instead, relying heavily on wordy tutorials to explain their own games and insulting the minds of the players at the same time. The successful tutorials are the ones that aren't noticed by the player because they take the rules of the world and apply them in an order where the player can naturally develop their knowledge as they go. In short a good tutorial is on one that lets you learn.

I'm not just talking about older games like the title implies, Watashi Wa... is a game jam game by 7DFPS and is one great example of this type of learning. By playing this game, you will notice this natural sense of learning and progression used as its main gameplay mechanic. Nothing in this game requires language in order for the player to progress, everything is portrayed and explained through action and reaction. Another example, to prove I'm not completely jaded about contemporary games, is the Souls games (Demon's Souls and Dark Souls). These games plop the player right into the game with no explanation on how to actually function within this new world. Instead, the developers use a carefully planned out tutorial area and pull the player through it. At the start of the area, the player is introduced to the most basic actions and from there they build on that knowledge as they progress. If a new player were placed at any point along the path after the starting point, they would fail, having missed the foundational knowledge from the early stage. From that point on, the player has all the necessary knowledge to take on seemingly insurmountable challenges.

The designers of both those games had to put in a lot of effort to make sure that the player never feels like they started in over their head. The discoveries need to feel natural and build on each other until the player has all they need to progress in this fictional world without frustration. That is where many games fail. They don't put in that extra effort to introduce the player to their world. Many times, you can define a good or bad game based on this essential step. The relevance to today's games and where most of my frustration comes from is how lazy it comes across as. This type of progression has been around for decades and for a developer to ignore it these days is a shame. A pop-up or a character in-game telling you exactly what to do is a common and clear sign of a failure on the developer's part to communicate the objective to the player. Somewhere along the line the developer didn't give the player the right information to take a cognitive step in the right direction.

Games cheating the player out of a well developed introduction and tutorial cheapens the game and insults the players potential to be a functioning problem solver and enjoy the game. Claiming games to be learning tools might soon become a false statement after all if things don't change on a large scale. The developers that work hard to deliver a fully realized game world and want the player to enjoy existing in them need to build tutorials around their systems and build those systems properly into their game's objectives. One of the fundamental guidelines for storytelling in all media applies here as well and that is to "show, don't tell."

1 comment: