It seems that modern AAA games seem hell-bent on holding my hand through every scenario. Why can’t I just learn on my own?
Recently I’ve noticed a sharp decline in the level of enjoyment I get from AAA games. I used to be all about games like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, but for some reason my interest in these juggernaut franchises has declined rapidly to the point where I couldn’t care less about their most recent iterations. After debating internally for a while, I’ve decided the reason I’m having trouble getting on board is because I feel like I’m being treated like someone who isn’t intelligent. In other words, I feel like they’re holding my hand.
The concept of hand-holding
Let me lay down a hypothetical for you. Say you have the newest most awesome FPS in the world in your hands, and all you want to do is sit down and play the game. You boot up your PS4, pop in the disc, and sit down on your couch with the controller in your hand while palpable anticipation fills the air. After hitting “new game” and selecting your difficulty, you’re greeted by the opening cutscene and a tutorial mission.
Alright, fine, I buy it so far. I’m right there with you, Battle Duty: Modern Quarters 3: Premium Elite. In this mission you start out walking around some area where hostility might be involved, but before you can walk around the game says “use the left stick to move”. No shit? Really? Then it tells you how to aim, and that the A button makes you jump. It also tells you that you can reload your gun when you’re out of bullets. Hold on speedy, that’s a lot of information. I’m gonna need you to dial it back because I still don’t understand how walking works.
This is a perfect example of hand holding.
Why it’s bad design
It’s bad because I’m not an idiot, and when I play games that treat me like an idiot I feel like an idiot even though I know I’m not. Call of Duty is a perfect example of this pitfall. Every time I load up single player in these games I’m greeted with the same tutorial I played last time.
I get that they have to open it up for new players as you don’t want to have them get frustrated at the beginning of the game, but is the best way to communicate the controls to the player really by saying “Alright Sam, you see that stick that controls movement in every game? You use that to move. You can move it front and back to move forward and backward, and left and right to move laterally. There you go slugger, you’re gettin’ it!”
This isn’t exactly the best way to go about teaching someone to play a game. So what games do this well?
Mega Man X
One of my favorite games of all time. I love this game because it teaches you not by placing button prompts on the screen and making you feel dumb, but by design. For instance, when you first start the game you have a wall to your left and open space to your right. Great. You move right. Then there are enemies you have to shoot. Great, you move right and shoot. Bam. That’s the game in a nutshell. There are other mechanics like charging the buster, wall jumps, and dashing, but those are all introduced with similar elegance. Mega Man X doesn’t just tell you something about the game and then expect you to be able to deal with it, it teaches you in the game because the design is good. It doesn’t hold your hand throughout the game because it expects you to be intelligent enough to know that when there’s a gap in the ground you have to jump over it, and that’s empowering as a gamer.
This is an example of how to do button prompts right. When you start Dark Souls you get a prompt that says ”RB = attack, RT = heavy attack,” then they give you some harmless enemies to try it out on so that when you face a real enemy you can be aware of the timing for your weapon.
The game is filled with smart design choices like this. When you get a prompt that tells you how to dodge, odds are the next thing you have to deal with can be solved with a dodge move. Lo and behold, a boulder starts falling from the stairs which you can easily avoid with a simple roll backwards.
This makes you learn each mechanic not by a prompt telling you how to do it on screen, but by being able to contextualize it with an action; a material memory that your brain can grab onto and never forget. Can you imagine how much of a nightmare Dark Souls would be if it laid out all the controls at the beginning and then expected you to remember it?
What can be done about this?
Instead of quick time events and hand holding, please just let me learn on my own. When I have to fire my weapon, put “RT to fire” on the screen and then nothing else. Nothing. I’m not stupid, I can figure things out on my own and so can other people. No one is going to buy the next Call of Duty or Battlefield and be upset if they don’t shout at you “This is how you move! Do you understand? Let me show you how to move forward! You do this! Do you get it? Here let me show you again!” and instead say “Oh yeah here’s how you move cool bye have fun.”
We’re not idiots, game developers. You can assume that we’re intelligent. If you treat us like we’re intelligent then your game will inherently be more fun to play than a game that treats the gamer like an incompetent human being.