Bob Dylan once told a journalist that the first time he heard a recording of Elvis Presley singing "That's All Right", he realized that no one would ever again be able to tell him what to do.
I personally had a similar moment as a ten-year-old, playing Super Mario Bros. 3: I managed to use only my resourcefulness and a raccoon tail to score 99 extra lives on the second stage of the game, with the help of neither a pop-up tutorial nor the instruction manual. Twenty years later, games stop at every tiny opportunity to tell us what to do, how to do it, and sometimes even why we should do it.
Hello, it's me again. For the next .00000129% of your life, I am prepared to type many naive things on a variety of subjects, ultimately (hopefully) zeroing in on the topic of why I personally think that games talk directly to me too much. You see, someone has to say naive things — everyone else is always so serious. Well, I, for one, am not afraid of saying something stupid.
To start with, here is a list of things I hate:
1. Being asked if I have the hiccups when I clearly have the hiccups (aka "being asked what I'm doing when it is very obvious what I am doing")
2. Being told what to do
3. Being told how to do something that I don't want to do / am not currently doing (as a passive-aggressive means of asking me to do something)
4. Being "asked" to do something immediately after I start doing something (if I bring you a Coke Zero from my refrigerator, don't ask "Hey, could you get me a Coke Zero?" immediately before you take the Coke Zero out of my hand)
5. Being asked if I am okay because I drop a shampoo bottle in the shower, and from the kitchen it sounded like maybe I fell, or dropped something bigger than a shampoo bottle, or something
6. Being told / asked to do something immediately after I just finished doing it — right in front of the person / object asking me to do it
And the worst transgression of them all:
7. Being told how to do something that I am clearly doing magnificently.
Modern videogames tend to do all of the above things in infuriating ways. If you'd like, you can start imagining what some of those ways are. By the time I finally start talking about videogames, you should be all prepared to bring something essential to the discussion.
Now here is a short list of things I notice in my every day life.
1. The loudspeakers hovering near my apartment window, just out of reach, blasting advertisements for local businesses: one bike shop (there are six in my town), a jewelry store (which is not in my town), a cat food wholesale store (which sells the same cat food as the supermarket, just at higher mom-and-pop markup), a pachinko parlor (one of twelve in town) and a tiny bar (which seats only six patrons). I am actually 50% of the way finished writing a non-fiction novel about my smaller-than-life experience trying to get these (illegally placed, mafia-owned) loudspeakers removed from my city.
2. The closest excellent supermarket to my house has a downstairs area for the produce and frozen foods. Positioned just above the escalator and the stairs is a loudspeaker that could double as a hair-dryer. It informs you, as you rush down the escalator, thinking of pineapple, that you should not carry "guns or explosive devices" into the grocery store, nor should you leave your small children unattended.
3. Ticket machines in train stations in Japan begin talking to you immediately after your first button press, or immediately after you put money into the machine. If you put money into the machine, it hypothesizes that you might not know that you now have to press a button to choose the price of the ticket you want to buy. If you press the ticket price first, it hypothesizes that you might not know that you now have to put in the proper amount of money. In either situation, the machine immediately presumes that your action indicates you don't know something. I could use some computer programming language to make that last sentence sound decently more sophisticated, though in the interest of sounding down-to-earth, I will resist. For now, reflect on that bolded point: as money is the root of all evil, this is the root of all of the things that infuriate me and people like me (if they exist (please exist (so lonely))). Nothing can prepare my videogame-fed socially starved criminal tendencies, however, for what comes after I have successfully navigated the hyper-user-friendly ticket machine menus and successfully obtained my ticket (or charged my train pass). The ticket (or train pass) — and my change (if there is any) — pops out of the machine. I take the ticket, I take my change. The machine continues screaming: "Thank you very much. Please do not forget to take your money or your ticket. Thank you very much. Please do not forget to take your money or your ticket. Thank you very much. Please do not forget to take your money or your ticket." Yes, it says this three times, very slowly. It screams this with such volumetric excess that, usually, when I walk up to the machine to put my money in, I am able to catch the last two and a half repetitions of the previous customer's warning.
4. It is illegal to smoke cigarettes on the street in the Suginami ward of Tokyo. Look on the ground, and there are these big red signs: "IT IS ILLEGAL TO SMOKE ON THE STREET IN THE SUGINAMI WARD OF TOKYO". It has been illegal to smoke on the street in Suginami for as long as I have been living in Suginami, and that is a pretty decent length of time. Three years ago, they plastered brand-new, shiny, redder signs on the ground next to the "no smoking" signs. "AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st, 2006, YOU MUST NOT SMOKE ON THE STREET IN SUGINAMI WARD". The signs proclaimed that anyone smoking on the street would be fined 2,000 yen if caught. These signs disappeared in December of 2006. Just two weeks ago, new signs appeared. "AS OF OCTOBER 1st, 2009, YOU MUST NOT SMOKE ON THE STREET IN SUGINAMI WARD". These signs, also, announce that violators can and will be fined 2,000 yen if caught. A little asking around at the local government office reveals the knowledge-tidbit that the fine for smoking on the street is, in fact, 22,000 yen. I've never heard of anyone getting fined, and I don't think I ever will. Lately, small and bizarre groups of youths and senior citizens have been patrolling the streets of Shinjuku with hand-held ashtrays, encouraging smokers to put their cigarettes out and obey the law. I don't know if this works, either, though it highlights two things:
A. The citizens themselves, not the policy-makers, are the ones who tend to care most about the rules
B. Nobody likes doing anything anybody tells them to.
When JR outlawed smoking on train platforms in early 2009, did it stop people from smoking on the platforms? Only in the designated areas. Just two weeks ago I saw a man, dressed like a rebel rocker, get chewed out by station staff for smoking right there at the edge of the platform amid two dozen other rush hour commuters. The man threw his cigarette onto the tracks and miraculously lit up another one after getting on the train. People just stared at him like they were watching their own house burn down with their grandmother inside, asleep and dreaming of watermelons and kittens. That was the first time I'd ever seen that.
This highlights two final ideas, which we are going to, for argument's sake, consider the absolute, sad truth:
I. When you tell people not to do something, someone with an authority problem is going to jump at the chance to be a rebel
II. It only takes one jerk to prove any hypothesis absolutely false
Like, have you ever heard the rumor that you can drop cash on the street in Tokyo and the people are so honest that someone will find it, pick it up, and take it to the cops? Well, that's absolutely 100% not true, because I once found a plain envelope on the ground with "6,000 yen" written on it. Inside was 6,000 yen. I put it in my pocket and kept walking.
Sometimes I could swear that we are mere social millimeters from the government installing loudspeakers inside our houses, telling us to consider getting flu vaccines.
notice the sign over the escalator at the end of the video, which reads "ESCALATOR"
NOW WE ARE TALKING ABOUT VIDEOGAMES
I consulted a psychiatric expert friend of mine just this afternoon. He looks a lot like me, and I can only see him when I position a mirror in front of my favorite chair. His chair looks a lot like my favorite chair. I talked to him about this dream I had wherein I opened a store where I only sold photographs I'd taken of myself with my iPhone camera. I asked him what he thought the dream meant. He said he didn't know. Then I asked him about videogames and the people who played them, and why he thought they had such a chronic problem with authority. He gave me an enlightening response.
Games, you see, are about having control.
Videogames, most often, present the player with a world with a single end goal of "winning". They are a perfect contrast to the real world, in which one makes one's own goals, where goals and desires are constantly shifting, and the only ending anyone ever sees involves the main character dying. News flash: most people in the world are not astronaut supervisors or rock-star-slash-helicopter-pilots. Most people never get an opportunity and/or have the balls to be the guy who shows up to his job in a big stuffy corporate office on his first day in a leather jacket and sunglasses, tell the boss "You codgers need to change your game!", and be the flip-flop-wearing CEO by Friday. Games like Dynasty Warriors give us a world with the invincibility code turned on: now we are the badass warrior capable of killing 300 guys before learning what a flesh wound is. We do — and this is a trite a thing as one can say — play games, sometimes, to escape the real world. People talk about that all the time. What I am proposing is that we play games precisely to avoid the parts of the world that tell us what to do, and when to do them, dangling "a more comfortable life" in front of our eyes all the while. Though that's not all: games also present us with things we can finish. Things we can see through to an intended end. And we want to see the end. And the makers want us to see the end. Hence their trying to help us.
We can distinguish mainly two types of games that tell us what to do: we have the type of game that tells us what to do because it is afraid that we have no capacity to figure it out ourselves, and that we will complain to our friends about the difficulty of the game, thus killing its favorable reputation, and we have the type of game that only tells us what to do constantly because its designers fabricated far too many things for us to do in the name of keeping the game's air of "sophistication". Both types of game are equally obnoxious. Some games actually blend these two types, and that's even more obnoxious. I'm going to try to articulate the finer points of these two transgressions; I will probably fail to precisely articulate all my points. So be it!
GAMES THAT TRY TO APPEAR SOPHISTICATED
For two days every August, citizens of Koenji, Tokyo, Japan dance in the streets. They call this the Awa-Odori. It's a festival — of the night — celebrating a traditional Japanese dance. It's fantastic. After it's been going on for three hours, it starts to become near-unbearably noisy, though we'll conveniently ignore that. Participants in the festival tend to be your typical every day people. It's great. Observing the groups of sometimes 50 dancers yields many socio-musicological observations. For example, the theory that if you get together enough people with drums, it'll sound like the erratic rhythm is intentional.
What's most interesting is that this particular form of Japanese traditional music has evolved so that arrhythmia is, in and of itself, a key characteristic. The majority of Japanese folk music can be played with one position of one scale containing only five notes. Players of the shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese instrument) will only play three notes on one string, two notes on another string, and one note on the third string, for any given traditional song. Players of the shakuhachi (a Japanese flute) will also play only those five notes. In an awa-odori dance, the players (we don't call them "musicians", because music isn't the point of this dance (the point would be "atmosphere")) agree on a key and a rhythm. The multiple flute players play the same five notes over and over again, backward and forward, all slightly out of time with one another. What was, long ago, a mere symptom of the participants' lack of "formal music training" has now become a key of the "sound" of an awa-odori dance: the flutes are all slightly out of time with one another, relying only on the drums. The warbling we hear as the flutes interact with one another is pleasant and interesting. (Other genres of music that have evolved this way: rock and roll, etc.)
However. Please watch the following two videos:
Do you see what I see?
One "instrument" in an awa-odori ensemble is a hand-held cymbal-like bell. The man banging the bell is the most important member of an awa-odori troupe. He is the only one that needs perfect rhythm. He is the human metronome, guiding the enormous chorus of taiko drummers. More than just a metronome, however, he also has the role of conductor and of DJ. The rhythms he beats out on his metronome-bell are all unique to one particular pre-agreed drum beat. The flute-players need only remember which key goes with which drum beat. They, too, rely on the sound of the bell to tell them which pre-agreed melody is needed.
One must-mention characteristic of the bell is that it is very, very loud. It possesses a clinking, tinny tambre that is audible over even the pounding of drums and squealing of flutes. In rock and roll band terms we would say it "cuts through the mix".
As it is loud, and noisy, it is impossible to not hear when listening to an awa-odori troupe's musical performance.
As it is so present, it has gradually come to be considered an essential part of the sound. This is why, in one of these videos, we see a troupe with two bells, just being recklessly clanged and beaten within an inch of their lives. An awa-odori troupe only needs one bell, one conductor, one DJ. It doesn't necessarily need twenty drummers, either, where just five will do, though adding more drums can't hurt. Adding more bells, however, can. Some of the troupes I saw last week at the festival had a six-man bell section. That's ridiculous! The most interesting, entertaining, coherent, and exuberant of the troupes, however, only used one bell.
I find this to be a pretty perfect metaphor for games that lump in needless shit in the name of appearing more sophisticated.
I was a child once, and me and my friend Carl had Final Fantasy on the NES. You'd level your dudes up in that game for hours and hours just to save up the money to buy a Silver Sword so you could Do 100 Damage Every Hit. You'd level up forever before your dude had 100 HP.
Then there were pictures of Final Fantasy II in Nintendo Power. We didn't care, back then, that the game was actually called Final Fantasy IV in Japan: we didn't know we were missing two games; we were pumped. One of the first screenshots showed Rydia summoning a Titan. The kid in our class who had said he had Bart vs The Space Mutants and it was the best game ever, when clearly the game wasn't out yet saw the screenshot with the Titan and was like, "Dude, you can summon a Titan! You have to get this game and let me borrow it." All he had to do was read the caption with the words "you can summon a Titan", and he knew he needed the game. He had never seen a Titan, nor had he "summoned" anything in any other game, and it was enough for him. Let's ignore, for now, that summoning a Titan is just pretty wallpaper for a dull room called "attacking a monster", and get to the real issue: Carl pointed at a screenshot of a status menu, and exclaimed:
"Look! Cecil is on Level One and he already has two hundred hit points!!!!!!!"
Fast-forward nineteen years and hundreds of crushing disappointments (some small, some huge). I have grown up into a somewhat responsible adult with many quirky and lovable habits, a bizarre singing voice, and a renowned lyrical style. The global games industry has been married six times, and three of its ex-wives have not been found.
Yesterday, I saw this.
The purple border was my idea. Kotaku editors: please, if you leave one thing from this wall of words here, make it that purple border.
Get a stiff drink and watch that video. Feel free to stop it after two minutes.
Warning: if, in the comments, you try defend this, I will likely reply with something that appears polite and thoughtful, and then, later, when you're not looking, I will remove you from my Livejournal friends list, unless I notice that you have no other Livejournal friends, at which point I will feel socially responsible, sigh, and decide to keep pretending to enjoy your company.
In short: what the hell?
In long: what the fuck is going on, there? If you walked in on someone playing this game, what would you do? Would you ask, "Hey, what is this? It looks pretty cool!" Or would you stare at the screen for the duration of the "conflict" like an old spinster seeing pornography for the first time? That unique mixture of hatred and fascination — fascinatred!
Yesterday, I commented on that video, by the way, with "こういうのはもういいじゃないか", which roughly means "Haven't we had enough of this shit?" in some Asian language that might not be Chinese. My comment was thumbs-upped twice in the past twenty-four hours! Please, if you happen across my comment and you hear what I am saying, thumbs it up. Japanese game companies are scared as hell of people disliking their shit. Remember when Square-Enix said Dragon Quest IX would be an action game, and five people went ballistic on the internet, posting 300 persons' worth of hate? They changed that game right back around! Also — completing this tangent, here — did you know that the people making Sonic the Hedgehog games at Sega in Japan have no idea that people think their games suck? That's a fact. Anyway. Digressing is fun!
Now, the big question: how many dozens of story-point-connected battles do I have to sit through before the game designers have drip-fed me every pop-up tutorial message explaining every tiny incoherent thing that is going on in that action scene there?
Answer: probably a lot! I reckon you'd have to play that game for fifteen hours before it stopped telling you what to do. It seems, to me, that the people designing RPGs in Japan know that their audience consists almost entirely of the types of people who would otherwise and elsewhere have actually applied to medical school because they thought the doctors on "ER" sounded "cool" when they yelled out names of medicines and dosage amounts while sprinting down a hospital hall alongside a gurney on which a man lay with a sucking chest wound.
GAMES THAT ARE AFRAID PEOPLE WON'T UNDERSTAND THEM
Nintendo has stated that their chief goal in marketing the Wii was to "win back" the gamers who "gave up" on games after Super Mario Bros. Nintendo stated this many times between detailing the nature of the "Revolution" controller at a press conference at Tokyo Game Show and announcing the first games for the console.
The above paragraph, my inner Expert Scientist tells me, is More Than Enough Text to set off militant Nintendo fans. Disclaimer: I am not dissing Nintendo in the slightest. (Not yet, anyway.) If you are going to immediately jump in my face and comment about how Nintendo made "lots of money" with the Wii and "broke sales records", you're missing something: the very fact that anyone was able to "break" said "sales records" is indicative of the fact that they could have been broken even harder, making even more money. If everyone at Nintendo thought the way internet console fanboys did, we'd still be playing 2D Zelda games! (Come to think of it, that would be grrrrrr-eat.)
What is "wrong" with modern Nintendo is not that their AAA games constantly tell the player what to do, and when, it's that they are more often that not built from the ground up to be enjoyable by everyone, even people who have
1. Lost the instruction manual
2. Hyper-volatile short-term memories
Case in point: there is a stage that requires (I think) 45 stars to unlock in Super Mario Galaxy, with a big lake surrounding a mountain. 45 stars (again, I am not sure of the exact number) is well more than half of the way into the game. Anyway, Mario can't get any peace and quiet in general in Super Mario Galaxy. Every stage has a host of talking animals on hand to present you with not-so-subtle hints re: your objectives and how you're supposed to accomplish them, whether you ask for these hints or not. This stage in question, however, is a particularly obnoxious offender. You get in the water, right, and you're swimming, right? It's a hell of a long distance to swim. The far shore is way out there. Anyway, you get about halfway there, and a penguin glides by in the water, literally unavoidable. When he gets close enough to you, a huge text box pops out flagrantly onto the screen:
"PRESS THE A BUTTON TO SWIM!"
Am I not already swimming? Is this not a violation of my Holy Commandment #7: Thou shalt not tell me how to do something when I am already doing it with great verve and gusto?
Well, not quite — there is a chance that the player is not pressing the A button to swim. See, in Super Mario Galaxy, it's possible to swim very, very slowly by simply tilting the analog stick. So it's further possible that the "uneducated", "casual", goldfish-brained, instruction-manual-losing player might not be swimming full speed.
Here's what goes on in the mind of a player who is not swimming full speed, and does not know how to swim full speed:
1. "Man, this sure is taking a long time."
2. "Maybe that penguin was lying to me when he said I had to swim all the way to the far shore."
3. "For God's sake, why does it have to be so far?"
How do we solve this? By telling every player, regardless of his current course of action, that he can press the A button to swim faster (even if he is swimming as fast as he can)? That would be the Nintendo way. I'll give you a minute to think of some better ways. Go ahead. It'll feel good. You'll feel smarter than Nintendo game designers?
Did you solve the riddle? The better solutions would involve:
1. Making Mario swim fast all the time, when you just press the analog stick
2. Making the far shore much closer
Solution #1 would sacrifice some of the game's illusion of "depth".
Solution #2 would sacrifice some of the game's illusion of "scale".
Keep in mind that, when we use the word "illusion", we're not being snippy — games are, in and of themselves, not real. It's all illusions. Just that some illusions are better than others.
Dig deeper into Super Mario Galaxy — a game that is, for all intents and purposes, everything good and bad about modern game design mixed together on a silver-plated platter like so much curry and saffron rice — and we find some delectably irreconcilable examples wherein the level design and game design has allowed the "'win back' the gamers who walked away" motive to seep in all the way to the core. My favorite example would be a particular stage about halfway through the game wherein Mario arrives on a rabbit- and bee-inhabited planetoid. I will now describe the very first "challenge" for this planetoid. Disclaimer: if you happen to like Super Mario Galaxy, that's okay! I like it, too! A lot, even! That doesn't stop the criticism train from rollin', however.
The name of the challenge is "The rabbits are looking for something" (translated from Japanese; I don't know what it's called in English).
Mario arrives on the planetoid. Immediately after his feet touch the ground, a bee throws a text bubble in our faces. He says:
"The rabbits on this planet are looking for something. I wonder what it is?"
Let the record show: we have mentioned the rabbits, and that they are looking for something, twice before the first microsecond of play. The only line of non-tutorial-related script to grace our consciousness is a rhetorical question: "I wonder what it is?"
Ahead of us is a path. Giant boulders are rolling down the path. All we have to do to avoid the boulders is not walk on the path. Directly we see, to our left, a bee, a rabbit, and three posts sticking up out of the ground. (This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.) The bee sidles in to inform us that this here rabbit is very carefully searching for something. We talk to the rabbit. He says "Where, oh where, is the STAR CHIP?" Except instead of using the words "Star Chip", the dialogue box includes a star chip icon.
Before the dialogue box fades, the camera swings back and pulls up, to reveal that a star chip — looking identical to the star chip icon in the dialogue box — is hovering above the three posts.
The use of an icon to illustrate the star chip in the dialogue box is of key importance: it is the game designers acknowledging that
1. Maybe the player can't read
2. Maybe the player can read, and just doesn't know / remember what a "star chip" is
#1 is born of a subconscious presupposition that the rest of the dialogue in the box is insubstantial, so long as the player is able to make a connection between the "real" star chip floating in the sky and the abstract representation of the star chip within the dialogue box.
#2 is born of a subconscious presupposition that the player hasn't lost the game disc in addition to the instruction manual, the game box, the controller, or the console, or else that he would never recognize a floating, rotating, sparkling item, revealed by a slow camera tilt, as something that he needs to obtain in order to proceed.
Even on a fundamental level, something is wrong, here. We won't snipe at it further. Instead, we will address the problem of "solving" this "puzzle":
What do you do to get the star chip? You try jumping. Mario can't jump high enough.
Well, the solution is obvious, if you've gotten this far in the game. By "obvious" I mean it's something that an absolute newcomer to games would never understand in a million microseconds.
Three posts stick up out of the ground. Mario is capable of performing a hip drop if you press the trigger while jumping. This hip drop is capable of pounding pegs into the ground. The ability to pound pegs into the ground is ingrained in the seasoned player's brain as "something Mario can do".
You pound all three pegs into the ground. Immediately, after the third one is pounded into the ground, a rotating star-like thing appears roughly in between the three pegs.
A seasoned player knows that if he stands in the star thing and shakes the controller Mario will launch high into the air.
You stand in it, and shake the controller. Mario launches into the air, and grabs the star chip.
You go on your way. A bee floats around near the path. He confronts you: "That rabbit over there seems to be looking for something! I wonder what it is?" The camera pans to show a rabbit under a waterfall.
You go to the rabbit under a waterfall. You talk to him. "I can just smell the STAR CHIP! It's got to be around here somewhere!" The camera then pans to show a crate.
The player will know, thanks to the tutorials the game has presented from its outset, that shaking the remote will make Mario do a spin attack. This spin attack can break boxes. Mario walks over to the box, spins. It breaks. The star chip is, of course, inside.
In both of these cases, the player is "rewarded" for remembering what he can do in a given situation (if pegs, stomp pegs; if box, break box; if star-gate-thing, shake remote to fly), and his reward for doing what he can do is something that the game has contrived us to need. They sometimes call this "lock and key" design, though being that in Super Mario Galaxy's case the "keys" in this example are mere sequences of button presses and not items that need to be collected or challenges that need to be surmounted, I feel safe declaring it as a particularly heinous example. Add to this the fact that the rewards are pieces of a thing that, when combined, gives you a thing that lets you perform a simple action to access another area wherein you must collect another thing — and it just gets ridiculous. It's McGuffins on top of McGuffins.
Furthermore, after setting up the story that the rabbits are the protectors of the stars, trying to assemble the stars to assist the Space Princess, after establishing within this very stage that the rabbits have come to this planet looking for something, when it comes right down to the final showdown, when you collect all the star chips and warp to the next planetoid, you find a rabbit who claims to have the star piece. He then says, let's play a game — catch me if you can?
Why has the game gone through the painstaking process of detailing its story if it's only now going to present these benevolent rabbits, protectors of the stars, as playing a stupid little game with the item they are sworn to assemble? (Am I missing something?) Also, how did this rabbit get to this planetoid? The other rabbits were searching for the star chips, presumably so they could make it to this planetoid and get the star piece. Why did this rabbit not need the star chips? Is he an evil rabbit? How does that work?
So now, the game's pretzeled internal logic is making us think too much about the story. We are snapped out of the should-be-blissfull gaming experience. This is, quite frankly, weird. It's a buzz-kill! A hard-off! Chasing the rabbit around the little planetoid is joyful, frictive, fun. However, the designers saw fit to attach a local (level-specific) narrative and a global narrative, which makes us think too much about the whole experience. Shigeru Miyamoto himself said that he was opposed to Super Mario Galaxy having a "story". He just wanted it to be about Mario, in space, jumping on shit! Instead, the game is an interactive instruction manual.
If I were an even bigger jerk than I really am I could pretend to insist that Super Mario Galaxy is Nintendo's attempt at a Federico Fellini "8 1/2"-style "experience about itself". I'm not going to do that!
GAMES THAT ARE UNNECESSARILY COMPLICATED AND FEAR YOU WON'T UNDERSTAND THEM
The Zelda games are notorious (in some circles) for their constant hand-holding. Ocarina of Time might even have been the game to introduce the gaming world to the idea of an omnipresent sidekick who explains anything and everything to you. Zelda games appear duty-bound to always be considering the possibility that the player has lost the instruction manual and that he has ignored all the in-game tutorials. Still, the games carry on heedlessly telling the player, every time he picks up a key, that "This is a Magic Key! It can be used to open a door! You can only use it once." Do we need this, every time we get a key? Seeing as the number of keys we're carrying at any given time is displayed on the screen at all times, shouldn't it be common sense that keys are something we will need more than one of, and shouldn't it logically follow after that that if we can have more than one of them, then we probably should be able to use them only once each? Every time you open a treasure chest containing a blue rupee, the game pauses to inform you, "This is a blue rupee! It's worth five rupees!"
Remember Four Swords Adventures for the GameCube? Yeah, that was about as much fun as getting together with your friends at the local dive, getting plastered, and then doing your taxes. Parts of the games were competitive, parts were cooperative; game-design-wise, it was really shimmering and sparkly and precious. Then there were parts where you were madly dashing to Get The Money, and then you'd touch a blue "force" (they weren't rupees) and the game would freeze to tell you you'd just picked up a blue force, which is worth five force. Literally, every time you picked one up off the ground, they'd do this to you, because they figured that the game was predominantly multiplayer, meaning that someone in any given multiplayer game was probably roped in by at least one more-game-inclined friend.
Zelda games are also guilty of the "You Can Summon a Titan!" syndrome — putting pretty wallpaper on mundane actions. In Fina Fantasy, summoning monsters is wallpaper for choosing "attack". In Zelda, using bombs to blow open walls, or using a hookshot to grapple across a gap are mere wallpapers for the act of moving from point A to point B. The very first Zelda was more or less focused on the thrill of finding and then subsequently penetrating to the core of a dungeon. Later entries place focus on getting The Necessary Item and then remembering the spot where you're supposed to use it.
Zelda games are generous gaming experiences, I'll give them that. They are full of neat set pieces and sometimes the dungeons have really ingenious gimmicks. However, Zelda games are also very popular, and very highly reviewed on Metacritic. So you get big games publishers always thinking about the specter of Zelda.
One great recent example is the game Dead Space. I personally didn't like the game. That's neither here nor there. Here's what I'm talking about: game companies say they genuinely want innovation, they want something new. However, they don't want to make a game that's not about Guy With Gun shooting Freak Bastards, because that's the Genre That Sells. So they decide to funnel the required "innovation" into something more mechanical, something in the way the game handles. I tend to not have a damn problem in the world with this thinking, most of the time — it's what brings us Gears of War, a (don't laugh) near-perfect video game when it comes to the game design / level design elements. However, as Dead Space shows us, sometimes this train of thought barrels down the wrong tunnel.
I can imagine the planning meetings for Dead Space. They must have written on the white board (warning: conjecture ahead)
Hero —> has gun; aliens —> must be killed.
Head shots —> industry standard —> chance for innovation?
So one guy says, "Well, if shooting the enemies in the head isn't the way to go, what does the player have to do?"
"How about he shoots the enemies somewhere other than the head?"
"Remember that scene in 'Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country', where Captain Kirk kicks that alien in the knee and the alien falls over and he says 'I didn't kick him that hard' and that alien woman says 'Not all species keep their testicles in the same place?'"
"That was bad ass; Kirk is such a dude!"
"How about you have to shoot these guys in the kneecaps to kill them?!?!"
So they set this up, and Producer Guy is in the room a couple weeks later.
"Look at this. You shoot the alien monster freak in the kneecap to kill him!"
"Hmm. Interesting. We can make this into a . . . . . . . . . feature."
Weeks later, the producer is back.
"This breaks with industry standard — and that's innovation, as far as we are concerned. However, the general gaming populace is not quite as open-minded or intelligent as us corporate executives. If they were, they'd be rich, and we'd be living in their mothers' basements! So we need to make the whole kneecap thing a lot easier to swallow."
"How do you suggest we do this?"
"Well, we reckon, you've got kneecaps in there; you might as well throw in elbows, too."
"Okay. That makes sense."
"And then we figure, if you've got knees and elbows, you might as well include shoulders and ankles."
"I follow you."
"And then, while you've got all those parts of all those limbs, why wouldn't you want to multiply the fun — and the thrills — some more?"
"Just what is it you are suggesting?"
"I am suggesting that you give the enemies somewhere between sixteen and forty-two superfluous appendages growing out of all parts of their bodies."
"Whoa! Whoa! You just blew my mind clear into the next room!"
A week later, the producer comes in, sees the mocked-up prototype, and says:
"Okay, this is good. In a perfect world, people would see that an alien has forty-five limbs and go, 'If I were asked to make a list of the "special features" of this creature standing before me, I'd probably put "lots of limbs" at the top'. However, I still can't seem to find Scotch-tape-scented cologne anywhere, so this world is pretty far from perfect. We need to tutorialize this."
"Whatever you say, Uncle Pennybags!"
"There are five ways we can do this —
"1. We can put it in the instruction manual. 'Shoot the enemies in their limbs!'
"2. We can take a hint from BioShock, and make the hint something visible within the game-world (maybe write 'SHOOT THEIR LIMBS' on a wall — in blood!)
"3. We can take a hint from Ocarina of Time, and have a character in the game tell you over the radio that you should shoot the enemies in the limbs — nevermind that this character doesn't have a gun and is currently trapped in the safe part of the space station.
"4. We can make it a 'feature' and advertise it on the back of the box. We can push to have reviewers — those malleable saps — refer to the game's genre as 'dismemberment action'. We can call the demo 'dismemberment demo'.
"5. We can do all of these things.
"All of us producers sat around and discussed this very thoughtfully, and we figured that the only way to truly hammer this idea home — the only way to keep the parents of a thousand underaged gamers from suing us for blowing their kids' minds — is to go with option #5."
The game is released. It sells moderately well. It gets good enough review scores. There you go.
WHY IT HAS TO BE THIS WAY
So here's what Nintendo's hypothesis must look like: Super Mario Bros. was undoubtedly a cultural phenomenon. People played it, told their friends, bought their own Famicoms and NESes, and cherished the game for years to come.
Games started to get more complicated.
No games met Super Mario Bros.'s fantastic sales numbers. This could have been because
1. Games weren't "new" anymore
2. Games were "too complicated"
3. No other games matched Super Mario Bros.'s sheer hilarious virtuosity as an entertainment experience
I am a pessimist and a harsh critic by nature; however, I would gladly bet on #3.
Nintendo watched its audience dwindle away for the better part of twenty years. Their strategy for "winning back" the gamers who "walked away" was to make simple, paste-like games such as Wii Sports, where all you had to do was shake the controller to either win or nearly win. The game filled in all the details for you.
Super Mario Galaxy arrived as the sequel to a Mario game that had failed to set the world on fire. Someone high up at Nintendo interpreted Super Mario Sunshine's failure to make the front page of the Wall Street Journal under the headline "Greatest Thing Ever Released" as a result of the game not constantly telling the player what to do. Clearly, it was just a visibility issue: around the time Super Mario Bros. 3 was released in 1989, the world moved on, and games didn't present anything nearly as interesting for a while, hence the declining sales.
It was Brain Training that brought videogames back to the forefront of pop culture. People were suddenly aware that games existed again. Someone coined the term "casual games". Now deep into the age of the internet, with twenty years' more marketing experience pooled in the collective conscious, Nintendo were able to keep hold of their visibility longer. They sold many games of varying degrees of complexity for the DS; they launched the Wii. Eventually, there was Super Mario Galaxy.
The producers must have shit a dozen aluminum bricks and quickly ordered the interns to spray-paint them silver in the process of contemplating a maximum-penetration strategy for Super Mario Galaxy. Eventually, the best they could do was to make the game appear "sophisticated", to mint as many new trademarkable characters as possible, and then litter the game with hand-holding tips so that each and every player can get to the end of the experience, to see what happens, in the end, to every one of these now-registered-trademarked characters.
We've probably all been over this before: when you buy a ticket to a movie, you are guaranteed a "complete" experience. When you buy a videogame, if you can't get past level one, you just paid five times the price of a movie ticket for an incomplete experience. So, in other words, games are risky endeavors, at least when it comes to the stage where you're asking people to pay money to play them.
Why not make a game that's all about the atmosphere, so that merely standing still in the game world is a "complete experience"? I must admit that I am a very harsh critic of BioShock, because I find that much of the actual experience of playing the damned thing is cluttered with so many proverbial tiny keys and tiny locks. However, it gets the atmosphere thing better than right. It gets it all the way right. Right at the beginning of the game, we arrive on some kind of underwater pier, with abandoned luggage and dropped signboards everywhere: "We're not your property", the signs say. We feel like a detective, piecing together clues. Be you a seasoned hardcore gamer or a casual newcomer, as long as you can use the analog stick to look around, you will get something out of the experience. Nevermind that BioShock has a persistently chatty Tutorial Character assisting your silent protagonist at all times, and that the game dares to make Tutorial Man a character with deep importance in the story at some point: for those first few pieces, it's really a glimpse at a fantastically realized world.
Did BioShock need all that . . . shit in it, though? According to the marketing men, most likely, it did.
Game companies employ algorithms correlating Metacritic rankings to sales numbers for every recently released game, and then feature-snipe those games, picking out the features that are name-checked most often in the pullout quotes from all the aggregated reviews. What they don't realize is that those games they are feature-sniping originally feature-sniped other games — maybe based on Metacritic readings, or maybe based on the games designers' personal taste and preference in games. If you go back far enough, way back before Metacritic or even Wikipedia or Gamespot existed, you will find that the great games relied exclusively on the taste and preference of their game designers. In other words, right here, in this paragraph, we stand on the cusp of mathematically proving that you don't need Metacritic to make a great game. Before you try to talk sense into me, let me tell you that I have seen people feature-hunting on Metacritic, and heard stuffed-up businessmen literally say things like "Five out of seven reviews cited 'sensation of speed' as a reason why Burnout Paradise was a good game". Duh! It's got fuckin' cars in it! Anyway, you can see how games pick up dozens and dozens of clashing features, necessitating wall-to-wall tutorials in the process.
What is with this drop-dead conviction, however, that games need to be "complicated" in order to be seen as "sophisticated"? And what's with the belief that a game has to be "sophisticated" to sell millions of copies?
Halo is as simple a game as exists. Point the gun, shoot, hide behind something if you're being shot at. A Google search result for "Halo repetitive" yields about 300,000 results. And the games sell ten million copies.
Dragon Quest sells many millions of copies in Japan, with battle systems infinitely simpler than the cluttered nonsense of other RPGs. For over twenty years, Dragon Quest games have sold millions of copies despite their battle systems never involving pseudo-real-time elements, never contriving a "system" with a terrible descriptive acronym to advertise on the back of the box.