Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole ponders how, in games, ignorance can be bliss
An interesting feature of games is that, given any particular example, you can construct a metagame around it, and that metagame might even be more fun than playing the game as the designers intended. Sometimes this takes the simple form of setting oneself ridiculous challenges – beating a level of GoldenEye using only karate chops, say – or sometimes it involves a more sophisticated decision to play with style rather than purely for victory. You can invent a drinking metagame around pretty much any aspect of another game. Or you can make a game out of trying to figure out how to play the game at all.
That’s the spirit in which my regular co-op partner and I recently spent a highly amusing hour playing NBA 2K16. I say playing, but we had made a pact not to look up what any of the controls were, and besides neither of us understands the rules of basketball. So we just dove straight in, picking teams at random, and began to play the metagame of ‘Who can figure out how to play this game first?’, randomly button- and stick-mashing to see what would happen. I can smugly report that it was I who first started scoring baskets, and my friend’s increasingly incredulous fury at not even being able to figure out what the shoot button was – “But I’ve tried every fucking button!” – became a deep and satisfying source of hilarity. Naturally, we both accidentally called unskippable timeouts all the time by pressing the wrong button, during which time my friend theorised creatively that maybe his controller was broken or I had previously sneaked a look at the control scheme. Eventually, with as much patronising patience as I could muster, I explained how I was pwning his skinny ass, but by then it was too late for his team to mount a comeback. And once we had figured out how to play the game (sort of), our own metagame came to a natural end.
It was silly, but it’s also closely related to how many of the best videogames work. The beauty and mystery of games such as
The Witness or Journey derive initially from the fact that part of the game is learning how to play it – learning what it even is. Having put away our basketball, my friend and I loaded our saved game of Hyper Light
Drifter, which is of course a glorious triumph of abstract art direction and colourism, and a rock-hard but fair and satisfying homage to 16bit RPGs. But it’s also a game that doesn’t tell you how to play it; which has no text at all, only evocative imagery and iconography. As a concession to accessibility, Hyper Light Drifter does have a menu screen showing the controller mapping, but even that is not much help in the early parts of the game, as one is gradually learning its unspoken vocabulary of cause and effect. Each such game thus contains its own metagame of “What is this, and how do I play it?”
It stands to reason that a great game should be one that works in this way, where the player at the beginning doesn’t know what she can or should do, and creates and replaces hypotheses about the world by interacting with the environment. This induces a childlike sense of exploration and learning – it is, after all, how actual children learn the physical rules of this universe, both by just watching and feeling what happens around them, and by playing with toys specifically designed to entice the user to learn what each button or knob does.
It seems perverse, then, that this beautiful and mysterious way of inducting a player into the videogame world graces, almost exclusively, only the arthouse indie titles. With the big-budget blockbuster games, by contrast, it is all swollen tutorial levels, text prompts, and constant handholding throughout. The player therefore never really gets to discover anything for herself. Sure, you might discover a ‘secret’ area by creeping up a back passage, but the grander sense of discovery is that of discovering what is possible, when no one has yet told you. Such “Aha!” moments may survive in the ringfenced mechanic of the boss fight, where you have to discover the correct timing and target of your attacks, but they are vanishingly rare otherwise. Terrified lest any customer spend more than a few seconds in confusion or puzzlement, the triple-A developers relentlessly infodump on the player, explaining everything at least three times – but in doing so they steal from us one of the greatest potential pleasures of the artform.
A great game should be one where the player at the beginning doesn’t know what she can or should do