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Game Overview: Editorial: Instruction Manuals and In-Game Tutorials
Jun 8th, 2008 by Dan

“It used to be, if you found a key in a Zelda game and you didn’t know what a key did, you were either mentally handicapped or you reached for the instruction manual. I suppose, eventually, someone in Nintendo’s R&D did a big Powerpoint presentation, with the cooperation of a local psychiatrist, proving — quite logically — that people absent-minded enough to forget what a key does have probably also lost both the box and instruction manual of the game they’re playing. As an employee in a videogame company’s marketing division myself, I could put up a convincing presentation to explain that we should probably just explain once what a key does, and then leave it up to these instruction-manual misplacers to either remember that, or figure it out anew. If anyone attacked my views and said that we can’t shut out the morons and the idiots just because most people — not to mention most gamers — aren’t either, I would jump up onto the boardroom table and scream, what the fuck do you do if the person loses the fucking cartridge, huh? What the fuck do you do then! Would you give out a free game and console to a shaky kid who showed up at a game shop and said that first he lost the manual, then the box, then he forgot what keys did, then he lost his lunch money, then he lost the game cartridge, and then his DS? There’s a certain line, separating the place where enough is enough and the place where enough is more than enough, and incessant “You got a key!” messages, as a habit, is at least a couple steps into “more than enough” country.”

-Tim Rogers in his review of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

The time: Thanksgiving 2007
The place: My parent’s house out in Florida
The game: Super Mario Galaxy

I may have some of the details wrong, of course, but I distinctly remember the conversation. Shortly after receiving a new game and liberating it from its plastic prison, I immediately popped that sucker into my Wii and started playing the game, eager to see if this was as good as all the critics claimed. Eric saw this and then he asked me a question. “You’re not gonna read the instruction manual first like we always used to?”

I don’t remember if I told him my reasoning or not at that point, but it all boils down to the fact that, after the opening cutscenes have ended, the game explicitly tells me that I can jump by pushing the “A” button. Why should I bother trying to pick up and read the manual to a game when I’m gonna have to learn how to play the game in the opening zone anyway?

Video games weren’t always in such dire straits when it came to hand-holding (I addressed a similar topic, difficulty, not too long ago here). Blame it on the limitations of the medium, but the video games of the past had neither the time nor the desire to try and clue you into the mechanics of the game. Take Tim Rogers’ example of the key in Zelda. Graphics had evolved far enough from the Atari days that we could recognize that Link was picking up keys. They had also evolved enough that a door blocking our path had a keyhole in it, something that most people have the schema in place to understand requires a key to open. There was a counter in the bottom left of the screen and when you used a key on a door, the door permanently opened and the counter performed a little n– (although this may have predated C++…).

As games approach “photo-realism” you can be damn sure that keys look a hell of a lot more like keys. Zelda games are also not shy about the locks they put on their doors: behemoth masses of chains linked to a lock whose size is approximately 1/2 the height of Link himself. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t even need the game to tell you that you’ve picked up a key. Whenever you walk over one for the first time or you get one from a chest, you’re always treated to a scene where Link holds it high over his head. An explanation may be necessary to understand just what a bombchu or hookshot is, but a key? It’s trivial.

Back to game-starting tutorials: it’s not a mystery as to why they have superseded the instruction manual. You think gamers bitch enough about having to read in-game text? Imagine forcing them to :gasp: read a booklet to understand how to move around the map. I can also see the compelling argument that, as a kinetic medium, gameplay is best learned kinetically. It’s one thing to read that to aim in first-person in Metal Gear Solid 3 all I have to do is hold R1 to enter first-person mode, hold L1 (I think) to pull out your weapon in aim mode, and then push Square to fire, all while using L2 and R2 separately to lean left or right, respectively, or both simultaneously to move your first-person view up. It’s another thing entirely to do this properly in the game (I should know…I got my ass handed to me by Olga Gurlukovich the first time I fought her in MGS2). If you think about it, teaching you how to do it while the game is running is brilliant. You not only are learning how to play the game so you don’t throw down the controller and quit in frustration, you’re also getting some practice in.

So, as soon as they could start to fit them in the game, the (oftentimes mandatory) in-game tutorial was born. This was a real bummer for me for two entirely selfish reasons:

1. If I knew how to play a game already (I read the manual, for Christ’s sake, I know how to jump!) I was stuck playing something that counted as a level for the designers that was mega boring and unskippable. Final Fantasy games as early as FF VII mercifully allowed you to skip their materia tutorials and whatnot, but their modern day equivalents like FF X have fully scripted, unskippable tutorial battles! Ten games in and only now do they feel the need to teach me how I should be battling. Really?

2. I loved reading instruction manuals. I can still still remember the (asinine) story of Donkey Kong Country as told by its instruction manual. The epic tale featured a frightened Diddy Kong guarding a treasure trove of bananas before he is beaten up and stuffed in a barrel. That’s all without mentioning the hilarious asides that Cranky Kong tossed into the margins of the manual as he complained about the complexity of modern day games compared to games of his day.

The problem is that I’m in the majority for #1 and the minority for #2. I know too much about games and love stuff like Final Fantasy too much for them to care about annoying me with tutorial battles. They just don’t want to scare away that tiny market fragment that’s never played a Final Fantasy game. As for the second problem, well I like to read and that’s kind of rare in the video game audience. For every one of my friends who loves an epic storyline that you have to read or listen to, I can think of two or three other friends who shudder at the thought cutscenes in general (“Why am I not killing stuff yet?”). Even friends of mine who love reading in their spare time make the distinction that they don’t love to read when they’re playing a video game. Just try and get one of them to have to read an instruction manual before they understand what’s going on in a game and you’ll find yourself minus one game sale.

We mustn’t forget that the instruction manual quality has also been dropping, since no one reads them any more. Why spend extra bucks on a good writer for something that most people aren’t gonna even take out of the game case? Heck, many of them aren’t even in color anymore to cut costs.

I recognize that I’m a part of a dying breed of gamers who used to enjoy instruction manuals. Tim Rogers (boy I bet you’re sick of hearing that name in this blog by now?) is just about the only non-family member I know who loves them too, as evidenced by his spending a whopping three paragraphs and 561 words reminiscing (although some commentors would say droning on) about how much he loves and misses them in his review of Blue Dragon and that’s just the intro; I’m pretty sure he talks about them more in that review. Still, I can’t let go of them and I hope they one day return to their former glory.

Unfortunately, with the advent of digital distribution, I’m pretty sure we can kiss the instruction manual goodbye. When your game doesn’t even have to be physically put into a box, you can be damn sure that most won’t even bother with a .pdf to explain game mechanics when they can just do it in-game. Here’s to hoping that in-game tutorials stop sucking some day soon. Whether they’re just too damn long like GTA IV (5-10 hours in and STILL doing tutorial missions) or too damn boring like Super Mario Galaxy (“Press A to jump!”), they can still use some major tweaking.

Embedded Reporter/Game Overview: Daniel Floyd on Sex in Videogames + Editorial
Jun 2nd, 2008 by Dan

Deep from the trenches, it’s time for your Monday video feature: Embedded Reporter.

Here’s a pretty interesting lecture about sex in videogames. Enjoy!

It’s sad that we have to deal with the gratuitously stupid brand of sexual immaturity that game developers just love to throw our way, but I don’t see it all disappearing, even with the supposed maturing of the medium. Think about it for a second, did you see, for example, Transformers? It’s never quite as blatant as Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, but remember that scene with Megan Fox where they’re working on Shia LaBeouf’s car? While you didn’t hear me complaining at all in the theater the night I saw that movie, I always know when I’m being pandered to and I find it mildly insulting.

The real problem with video game maturity levels is that video games have yet to be accepted as mainstream media. A good number of people I know consider them to be children’s toys and think that the day that I stop playing video games will be the day that I “grow up.” It’s no wonder then that a video game that is no more or less exploiting sex to sell copies (I’m not talking about DOA Xtreme here) than any episode of Grey’s Anatomy (how about that Super Bowl episode?) should be looked upon with greater scorn than the exact same thing, or worse, taking place on network television.

It’s just plain frustrating to me to have to deal with sexual immaturity when playing video games. Take a game like Dead or Alive 4. Dead or Alive pioneered breast physics, that’s no secret, so you can probably guess what is most highlighted about Dead or Alive 4. Hidden deep beneath the bouncing DD cups does live a fighting game that I actually enjoy playing for once. It’s not quite as technical as Tekken, doesn’t use weapons like Soulcalibur, and is faster paced than just about every other true fighter I’ve ever played. I love the fluid combos and the reversal system, and I’ll even go out and say that I do actually like the character designs too. So what’s the big deal? Well the immaturity is a bit on the embarrassing side. I think just about everyone I know who I’ve corralled into playing DoA 4 with me recalls the game the same way “The one with the big, bouncy boobs” and anyone who is just watching the game only sees the bouncing boobs and the panty shots and just doesn’t get how well the game controls and plays. It’s still fun, don’t get me wrong, it just (and maybe this is the American-raised Puritan in me) makes me feel stupid to own and play in front of people.

Daniel Floyd highlights the sexual maturity of Mass Effect and its relationship-based consensual sex being an example of the right way to go to bring sex to games. I mostly agree with that and a quick look at the game tells you that he’s mostly right. The female characters, aside from being “anatomically perfect,” are all dressed in no more a revealing fashion than anyone else is. Full-body armor is the norm. There’s no cleavage and no blatant sexuality (kind of…I mean, the armor’s cut to fit a woman, but the male armor is cut to fit a man…I’d put it in the “barely qualifies as blatant sexuality” category. I guess the “lesbian” sex with the asexual, but female in appearance, alien race does kind of qualify though…). Still though, the relationship system that everyone thinks is so amazing…it’s just not that hard to figure out. All you really have to do is be nice and flirt with whomever the game allows you to sleep with whenever the game allows you to further you dialog trees. That’s literally it. Complete goal A, get reward B. Heck, you even get achievement points for completing a romantic sidequest.

If you think about it, that’s how most non-scripted video game relationships work. In Final Fantasy VII, your date at the Golden Saucer was dependent on a point system generated through your responses to Tifa, Aeris, and Yuffie up to that point. Harvest Moon games have you “earn” your wife by giving her gifts and talking to her daily. Surely it must be that easy in real life, you just talk to someone and give them stuff and over the course of a year you’ll be able to give them a blue feather and marry them, right?

Yet while I complain about this, it becomes clear that relationships in movies and TV shows aren’t really that much more complicated than in Mass Effect, you just don’t get to choose your responses in a TV show. In Mass Effect, you either choose the “nice” options or the snappy/witty “flirting” options to go down the romance path. A TV show will typically have the characters do about the same thing. Exchange witty banter, maybe give or do something for the other person (a la Harvest Moon) or maybe even just save that person’s life (SPOILER ALERT: a la Mass Effect /SPOILER ALERT). So maybe video games are on the right path, it just feels cheaper, to me, when a relationship is boiled down to a counter variable and a conditional statement (if love >= cockblock) romanticsidequest = true;

In that sense, I think I can conceivably only be satisfied by the (well-)scripted love story rather than the life simulator. The ultimate life sim, The Sims, boils love down to just talking to a person and successful social interaction, culminating in WooHoo (cue Jason Lee: “You mean fucking?”) and, if you’re me, frustration afterwards as you try to maintain a high enough score to keep the “friendship” to get a promotion, but try to keep them away from your other conquests to increase your job performance.

It’s not the best example, but think of the tortured soul of Locke and his love of Rachel and Celes. It’s clear why he cares so much for Celes and why he tries so hard to protect her and once he’s able to let go of Rachel, we understand why him and Celes are together. It doesn’t feel cheap and it doesn’t feel like a cop-out to the story. It’s not like the movies where the main character gets the main girl at the end and then, all of a sudden, the supporting characters discover they too love each other and begin to kiss as well, having found love. It’s certainly eons beyond the James Bond brand of sexual immaturity, but I’d say most video games only aspire to that degree of maturity in their relationships (see Goldeneye (just kidding, I know that’s trivial, like saying x = x)).

So will Dan ever feel that any video game sexual relationship he was directly in charge of made any real degree of sense? I’d say that the game would have to do a damn good job of concealing the fact that I was filling up a counter variable. The problem is that if they concealed it too well and I randomly ended up with said reward at the end, it would feel cheap. Also not so fun: if you came on to a character and they totally burned you. Us nerds are fragile enough creatures who experience enough rejection on a day to day basis. To have a video game burn us…well it might shatter what’s left of our egos. In all seriousness, why wouldn’t that be a bad idea? It’d be a bit more realistic. If you threw in a couple of random number generators where some of your actions could have unintentional negative results, hell, you’d have just about the same degree of fickleness as a real woman…but I digress. In the end, we’ve still got a long ways to go for interactive relationships, but at least we’re fine on the pre-scripted variety.

Game Overview Editorial: Difficulty in Video Games
May 8th, 2008 by Dan

You’re playing through an RPG. You’ve gained five levels, found some sweet equipment drops, minimized the use of your precious items, and then it happens. You come up against a behemoth of a monster. Your party is decimated, your progress lost, your controller tossed through the screen.

Does this even begin to sound familiar to anyone? It’s like modern gaming, in an effort to bring in an even broader audience, has started to dumb down our video game experience. Think back to the last four, at the very least, Final Fantasy games (not counting XI). Aside from side quest bosses who are geared to be a challenge, how often did you even find yourself remotely challenged in these games? I honestly don’t think I worried much about save points in any of these games (aside from when I was hunting the harder mobs in XII) at all. There was none of that between-save-point stress and worry that a game with any difficulty might throw at me. I just go on through the game, breezing through the fights and find myself at the final boss, sometimes taking more than one try to kill him, but, more often than not, just breezing through him too.

It’s not just RPGs either. Think back to Mario Galaxy. The only challenge in that game came from the green stars where the developers were given free range to punish players into some of the toughest, most fun challenges possible. Even The Legend of Zelda isn’t safe. The last two console installments, The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, were among the easiest games I have ever played. Sure, their stories were epic and fun, but the bosses were jokes compared to past Zelda games. They dealt close to no heart damage, they had hyper-predictable patterns, and they were just plain not challenging. I don’t think that I’ve evolved much in skill as a gamer since about the sixth grade and I definitely remember more challenge in both Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past when I played them (late to the game, I know).

There is hope. Mistwalker’s latest RPG for the Xbox 360, Lost Odyssey, will actually make you hope that a save point is imminent. The enemies will brutalize you if you mess up. It seems odd that I’m actually hoping for a game to punish me for screwing up or not leveling up, but I just can’t take a game that doesn’t even challenge me in the slightest. I consume games mainly for story, this is true, but I don’t want the story-telling to come so easily that I might as well be watching a movie or reading a book. It can get frustrating when a game is difficult because it’s broken or the computer cheats :cough: Mario Kart Wii :cough:, but it’s also tremendously satisfying to spend an hour bashing your head against the wall trying to defeat a boss only to finally get it down and win with just a sliver of health left.

This is why I look forward to the day when I will be able to devote more time to Persona 3: FES. The short time I spent with the game already almost beat me in a random encounter and I’m sure that an actual boss will own me several times. I fully believe that a game should punish you for making a mistake and I already know from experience that Persona will wail on me for being an idiot.

There’s certainly a market for casual games and casual gamers out there, one only needs to look to the Wii to see that fact with obvious clarity, but surely it wouldn’t be too difficult for developers to go out and actually make a game tough for players. The inclusion of difficulty levels, even with the fact that it means more work, will satisfy me. Here’s hoping that we see harder games in the future.

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