Lead, and I shall more than likely follow

Image by Flickr user GloomyCorp
Image by Flickr user GloomyCorp

My current game rotation consists of the following:

Metroid Prime 
LIMBO
Guacamelee (thought it’s been several weeks)
Pokemon LeafGreen 

Looking over my list, it occurred to me that the varied games on this list have one thing in common: they are mostly directionless. LIMBO actually sticks out the most in this regard as it contains absolutely no narrative about where to go or what to do in the game. The other games contain hints about your next destinations, but none tell you specifically what paths to take to get to where you need to be. All the games have logical “forward” courses. In the 2D platformer LIMBO, with just a few exceptions, you can only go forward. In Metroid Prime, the game informs you regularly of your next goal, but you can ignore the computer in favor if exploring. Guacamelee in the “Metroidvania” style shows your next location on the map, but never says “GO THERE NOW!” And in Pokemon, with its top-down view, you aren’t really told where to go next – following trails will get you to where you need to be. But you’re free to explore, and you can travel to any past points as much as you like.

As much as I enjoy these games (and I really do), I actually have mixed feelings when it comes to in-game commands and directions. With directionless games, on one hand, I like the freedom that they give players. Though they contain senses of urgency in terms of story (you must save the day, after all!), there’s not much stress in terms of desperately needed to get to one place or another. I can take all the time I want getting to the Phazon Mines in Metroid because the enemy will be there no matter how many extraneous caves I explore. There’s no timer counting down in LIMBO, so I have plenty of time to figure out the game’s many puzzles. But on the other hand, for me, having limited or no directions often leads to me wasting time, getting stuck, or stumbling across a terribly difficult enemy or three.

Players will often decry the use of breadcrumb trails or direct commands in games, citing that they make games too easy or limiting, and that they interfere with a game’s narrative. While I will agree that using them will often lead to missed secrets and simplistic play, I’m more than happy to use them when they are available. As an example, in Fable II and III players can turn on a glowing trail that leads them to quest destinations. I kept the trail on at all times during both games because it helped me stay focused. There’s a lot to do in the open-world Fable universe, but I couldn’t always spare the time to travel about unheeded. Following the trail to reach the next goal made for simple and welcomed progression.

But command mechanics like breadcrumb trails aren’t perfect, whether the errors are in the game or with the players. When driving in Grand Theft Auto IV and V, I frequently used to GPS system that presented a specific route on the in-game map. (In GTA IV, there was even a model of car that gave you turn-by-turn directions.) However, some of the routes were extremely lengthy or convoluted. I figured out shortcuts and, because I could, sometimes just drove through unincorporated land or over hills and valleys in order to save time (though that often resulted in trashed vehicles). L. A. Noire presented a very different and somewhat annoying “GPS” system that involved your passenger telling you which way to go. It worked well enough but the repeated commands of “go left” and “straight through” made for some irritating play. And as a final example, take the trail mechanics in Batman: Arkham City that involved a clue system rather than an out-and-out line from point A to point B. It got props from lots of players, and I liked it as well to a certain degree. My general terrible sense of direction hampered my full enjoyment of it, as I found myself out of place on occasion. Yes, it was easy enough to get back on the right “path,” but I usually found myself bored with the detective work by the time I figured out I was in the wrong area.

There’s more than enough room in the industry for directionless and direction-filled games, and I remain on the fence about which I favor. A lot depends on how much time I have to play at any given time and whether or not I’m really into a game’s story. The more immersed I feel in a plot, the more likely I am to want to explore every aspect of it, trail or not. It’s great fun getting to know a game through visuals and self-determined actions alone, but it’s also nice on occasion to have a more directed approach.

*****

When it comes to commands in games, where do you stand? Do you like to having directions fed during play, or do you prefer to be your own leader? Are breadcrumb trails in games the best things ever or the worst things possible?

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Hatm0nster says:

    It’s a hard call between the two. If my own gaming choices are any indication (FFVII, Pokemon, the upcoming Destiny Beta) I’d say I’m in the “directionless” camp right now. But depending on the games coming out, that could change at any time I think.

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    1. cary says:

      Yeah, I get what you mean. It all depends on the game. It’s not like I purposefully sought out directionless games, that’s just the way things ended up. What brought on this trail (haha) of thought was Metroid Prime. I was having a difficult time remembering which elevator I had to use to get to the Phazon Mines, and I got myself stuck and confused. I kept thinking about how I wished the game had waypoints. Though I did figure things out, I was truly exasperated in the meantime.

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  2. duckofindeed says:

    I prefer it when games give me more freedom. I don’t want to be told what to do, just as I dislike when games start with tutorials on how to do things I could just as easily learn on my own. I certainly want some direction on what to do, as it can be frustrating when they tell you nothing. I just don’t want to be pushed.

    Portal 2 is a game that comes to mind. It could be rather hard figuring out where to go and how to get there because they give you really no direction at all, but that’s part of what made it fun.

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    1. cary says:

      I can’t quite imagine what Portal 1 or 2 would have been like with tutorials! The mystery of it all was what made it so special.

      I’m also not a fan of tutorials at the start of a game. I much prefer when instructions are incorporated into gameplay. It just makes it easier to get engaged with a game right off the bat.

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  3. simpleek says:

    I think it depends on the game for me too. Sometimes I like knowing where to go and other times I want to have the freedom to explore. Either extreme isn’t good at all. You definitely don’t want your games to be too easy, but you don’t want it to be frustrating either. There were points in games where there was too much freedom to explore and when I was ready to move onto the next point to progress the story, I got frustrated when I couldn’t figure out where to go. At that point, I wanted to plead with the game to show me the way!

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    1. cary says:

      I’m with you there! It pains me to think of how many hours I’ve spent wandering aimlessly in (open world) games trying to figure out where to go next. It’s key for a game to strike a decent balance between too hard and too easy. I’m not sure that many games have gotten it right yet! (But many try and do succeed to varying degrees, but like you alluded to, it’s all about personal preference).

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