It feels as though games are playing themselves more and more these days. It’s not that they’re literally taking control away from the player or anything. No, it’s more that it feels like modern games, at least those in the AAA space, have been trusting players with less and less as the industry has advanced. Where players once had to find their own way and figure out games organically, now they’re tutorialized until everything is drilled into their heads. Where it was once on the player to figure out where things are and where to go, now they’ve got mini-maps and all-seeing compasses to just tell them. At first glance these sorts of mechanics appear to be nothing more than simple conveniences; advances in game design that make the modern game that easier to play and enjoy. Is that really the case though? Are our mini-maps, objective markers and tutorial levels really making games more fun or could it be that they’re just making them into more passive experiences? Being explicitly told what to do certainly is convenient, but that convenience comes at the cost making what could be an interesting activity into a dull, automated one.
I touched on this idea somewhat in a previous article, but I’d to try and explore it a bit more deeply this time. To begin, I want to say that I don’t think this is a simple matter of pointing to older games and saying “modern games should be doing more of this.” Tutorials, objective markers and the like have been a part of the gaming fabric for a very long time, and plenty of older games are just as guilty as their modern counterparts of doing too much for the player. It was forgivable back then, but shouldn’t modern games be trying to do better?
Take something like “instinct vision” for example. It’s become almost standard in just about any game that either involves exploration or observing one’s environment. In and of itself it’s not a bad thing and definitely serves a need. Gamers aren’t all trained trackers after all, so a feature like this is indeed a good way to make the important information clear to them. The thing is that it’s too easy to use these modes as a crutch, and I wonder if there’s a better way to do it. Instead of a system that highlights everything and just have the player walk around a defined area on their map until they find all the highlighted clues, why not subtly train them to spot clues on their own? This could apply to everything from spotting tracks and noting their direction to finding an individual person based on suspicious behaviors they observe. This would ultimately accomplish the same thing as “instinct vision” but would actively involve the player instead of putting them on autopilot and they walk around and scan for the highlighted objects. Similar solutions to this could also be explored for other features like the all-seeing compass.
Much like “instinct vision”, the all-seeing compass is something that can wind up automating gameplay if not carefully implemented. I admit that it’s difficult to argue too heavily against this one since it does cut out what was once busywork. Still, I think it would be better if it was still on the player to figure out where they need to go before the compass takes over. Perhaps there could be clues in the quest description or the location could be discovered by talking to the quest-giver. Then the player could mark the location with their own marker rather than having it automatically done for them. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild doesn’t do this exactly, but it still puts the responsibility of marking the map on the player (outside of main quest locations). I think that’s a step in the right direction. Persona 5 does a good job of getting around this too. It’s not really an open-world game like BotW, but it still makes the player memorize where things are and discover the world for themselves. Neither game allows the player to rely on the compass to figure out where to go, yet neither make the process of discovery into a tedious task.
As for heavy handed tutorials, I think the method for solving this one has already been solved. Going back to Breath of the Wild, the game gets most (if not all) of its tutorializing done in the Great Plateau; an area cordoned-off from the rest of the game that pushes the player to discover all the necessary skills on their own. Once they find something new, it’s explained and the player gets to try it out. It’s a bit more natural than dropping people into a tutorial zone and stopping them with more info every 5 seconds. I’d love to see more of this in gaming in general, where it’s left up to the player to learn, remember and apply rather than stopping the game to explain things constantly.
All I’m saying here is that convenience can be nice, but too much of it can wind up making games overly automated and uninteresting. If a task isn’t really asking the player to do anything, then what’s the point of having them do it at all?
What do you think of these sorts of systems in games? Would you like to see more of them or would you like to see them involve their players a bit more?