"Screw This!" In Which We Discuss How Game Mechanics Aren't As Intuitive As You Think They Are

April 11, 2018

How many of us know how to play computer games?

 

It's a more complicated question than you might expect. The timeline goes something like this: a friend of mine got sick, watched TV, took up knitting, and eventually got desperate enough that she was willing to try the computer games I've been raving about for years just to stave off a bit of boredom. At the time I'd just found out that my childhood favorite The Secret of Monkey Island had been remastered, and if there's one thing my friend likes it's a snarky protagonist. I pointed her towards our Mac's app store and watched her fall in love with the insult-based sword fights. As you should.

 

 

 

What I didn't realize at the time was that I hadn't just recommended a nostalgic classic, but a 90s structure that's laughably simplistic compared to our modern games. The Secret of Monkey Island belongs to the point-and-click category of adventure games, meaning that my friend didn't need anything other than the most basic knowledge of how computers function in order to enjoy it. You click on people to talk to them. You click to walk. If you're at all confused about where to walk you're given helpful little "Walk to ___" at the corner of your screen. It's pretty straight forward. Thus, all her attention homed in on the game's puzzles and the learning curve resembled a plateau.

 

Now my friend is addicted to Stardew Valley.

 

If asked whether Stardew is a difficult game I doubt if anyone would raise their hands. I mean sure, getting past a Big Slime before you have a galaxy sword or the charmer ring is a pain, but that's all in the narrative. The game's mechanics aren't hard. At least, I assumed as much until I started getting a string of texts as my friend tried desperately to figure out what she was doing. No, not things like the best structure to build first or how the hell you catch a fish, but the basic ways in which she was navigating her environment:

 

Her: How do I fill up my watering can?

 

Me: You click on the water.

 

Which water?

 

Any water.

 

It's not working.

 

Do you have your can equipped?

 

Ah.

 

And:

 

Her: Help I can't get to sleep while holding an item how do I drop it?

 

Me: [Long explanation of dropping items vs. trashing them. Long explanation of how equipping the main tools is akin to being hands free.]

 

Okay I've equipped my axe but now I'm just chopping the bed.

 

OH. Run into bed. Don't click it.

 

These are highly edited versions of text exchanges that originally included a whole lot more cursing, capitalization, and general confusion as we tried to meet each other halfway in terms of knowledge. As my friend herself said, she's a "total gamer nube" (yes,"noob" spelled with a "u" and an "e"), though I was honestly surprised by how much of what is obvious to me was inexplicable to her. Throughout the first few days of experimentation my friend bemoaned the fact that there wasn't a tutorial, yet Stardew Valley supposedly isn't the kind of game that needs one. To my mind there are three levels of potential confusion: the game's narrative mysteries (meant to be solved over time), the most efficient way of running your farm/wooing the townsfolk (a challenge that's integral to the game's enjoyment), and the actual mechanics that aren't confusing at all... right? The idea of providing a tutorial that explains how to equip, target, interact, or move through the world seems absurd because as a culture we assume that anyone picking up a "serious" game-----aka anything on a platform other than your phone-----will already have a basic, working knowledge of game mechanics. But that's simply not the case.

 

 

 

In which my farm is NOT this organized

 

One of the major elements at play is the ability to experiment. It might seem strange that I would talk about this as a skill, but people who don't frequently play computer games don't automatically know how to try various possibilities out in a systematic manner or thoroughly explore their environment in a way that proves useful. I'll never forget the day I played Gone Home in the grad lounge at Georgetown University and a curious peer asked if she could watch me play. As I worked my way around the room interacting with objects and gaining bits of information she shook her head and commented, "I'd never think to even click there."

 

A former teacher of mine once gave a lecture about how when teaching introductory students you have to keep in mind that not all of them know how to take notes. It seems silly to all of us who do take notes on a regular basis, but what we term "taking notes" is actually a rather complicated, multi-step process. You have to determine what the important information is (how are we defining "important"?) and then record it in a synthesized manner (your notes are useless if they're too long). If it's a lecture you have to do this while still listening to what else is being said and what do you do with the notes after you're done? Read them? Type them up? Make notecards? It's not obvious to someone who's just starting out. Similarly, experienced gamers often condense multi-step processes into one "obvious" piece of advice. When my friend was having difficulty attaching bait to her fishing pole my succinct response was "right click," completely bypassing the steps of: 1. Making sure you do this with your inventory open, 2. Physically picking up the bait, 3. Making sure you're hovering over your pole, and then 4. Holding down right click.

 

We realized later that she seems to be dealing with a bug, but the point still stands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No one likes fishing

 

 

 

Experienced gamers not only know the most probable way you'll navigate an environment, but they know how to experiment with that multi-step process when things don't go according to plan. Just a few days ago I started my first Tomb Raider game and though I'm incredibly inexperienced when it comes to FPS-esque gameplay, I still knew how to teach myself. Though initially stumped over how to aim with my bow, it only took a matter of minutes to figure things out, trying out likely button combinations until I'd hit on how to draw, aim, zoom, and shoot. More importantly, I deliberately started all my experimenting after I'd finished a checkpoint because I knew that I could just reload when I was done. Indeed, I got all the arrows I'd mistakenly lost through trial and error back in my quiver. My friend, meanwhile, is considering starting a whole new farm so as to avoid the permanent mistakes she's already made.

 

Yet there are benefits to her confusion too. What I've come to realize by watching a "nube" play is that newcomers often think about the game more logically than we do, considering that logic (rather than experience) is all they have to go on. When Stardew Valley gave my friend a dog she immediately texted asking how to feed him because we cannot have the dog dying. For a moment I just stood there, a little stunned. It had never even occurred to me that you might have to feed the dog. To my mind there was already a marked difference between an animal the game gives me (free of obligation) and an animal I buy for myself (forever attached to responsibilities like feeding and shelter). Right from the start I'd worked under the assumption that a gift from the game wouldn't have any strings attached, but it's completely logical to instead assume you feed the dog like you feed your chickens. Damn. What if I'd been wrong? Spot could have died. 

 

(Yes, my dog is named Spot. And my horse is named Snickerdoo.)

 

 

Gaming isn't easy. I don't mean that in some shitty 'oh my nerd life is so hard' way, but in a more literal 'it's a skill you develop just like any other' way. No one would expect you to hit a home run the first time you play baseball or make a perfect sweater when you first take up knitting, yet there's a pervasive assumption that anyone can pick up a controller and plough through a game like it was a passive medium; like you were sitting down to watch TV. But there's an undeniable learning curve. I'd enjoy seeing a newbie get tossed into a WoW raid and finding out whether or not their party members are satisfied with their performance...

 

 

 

No, gaming isn't easy, and perhaps that's something more developers should keep in mind. Obviously there will always be games designed for more experienced players, but perhaps there can be more games designed for newcomers too. Games with mass appeal like Stardew Valley perhaps should come with tutorials about how to do something as "simple" as going to bed. This medium already has enough gatekeeping attached to it. There's no reason why we need to make that an intrinsic part of the games themselves. 

 

And for the record? The first thing any newbie should experiment with?

 

Finding the help menu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image Credit

 

#1: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/the-secret-of-monkey-island-special-edition/id415739978?mt=12

#2: https://www.pcgamer.com/you-showed-us-your-stardew-valley-farms/

#3-6: Google searches

#7: Personal screenshot

#8: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hooKVstzbz0

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