Few video games are entirely self-explanatory. In the early glory days of arcades, instructions were printed on the cabinet around the edges of the screen. When video games came home, many titles were released in a box with several pages of printed instructions. Developers typically try their best to make games intuitive, but once in a while the details in those instructions could prove crucial.
If you’ve bought a new video game in the past few years, you either purchased a download, or you received a plastic case with a disc and not much else. I distinctly recall purchasing “Assassin’s Creed II” in 2012 and seeing a note from the publisher, Ubisoft, that they were shipping games with barebones instruction booklets in an attempt to use less paper. So you could rest easy knowing that while you’re using precious energy to simulate murder and mayhem for entertainment, you’re not wasting paper!
I’m being facetious, of course. It’s a noble goal to use fewer resources, and, frankly, by 2012 most games were shipping with tutorial segments and even hint systems – no need for a physical booklet when all of the pertinent details are in the game itself. The trend took hold and soon all publishers were releasing games with tiny booklets at best.
Logic be damned, I can’t shake the feeling that something was lost in that transition. A part of me waxes nostalgic thinking of my youthful years poring over the instructions for a brand new game while my mother drove me home from the store. I couldn’t wait to play, but I had to wait – so I did the next best thing, learning everything I could about the game without actually playing it.
In 2020, if a game fails to provide suitable instruction, there’s always searching the internet. But in my mind, readily available advice from strangers online doesn’t justify poorly explained game mechanics. One guilty subject is “Minecraft,” which has so many arbitrary interactions and crafting recipes, it’s enough to make your head spin.
It absolutely shocked me when “Minecraft” took off in popularity, eventually becoming the bestselling video game of all time with 200 million units sold and counting. It’s especially popular with Gen Z, so I’d hazard a guess that having to consult YouTube tutorials and entire wikis dedicated to a single video game doesn’t much bother that generation.
Countless “Minecraft” players have an encyclopedia-like knowledge of the game, including yours truly, but I have my limits – the most recent example being “West of Dead,” a fun game that’s nevertheless trying my patience.
I’m having the time of my life shooting my way through a Wild West-themed purgatory, but I have no clue what the ultimate objective is or how to attain it. In lieu of explaining the game, “West of Dead” commits countless minutes to vague exposition and dramatic monologues. I can’t shake the feeling the developers emphasized style over substance in this way because they managed to recruit actor Ron Perlman to voice the protagonist.
After a particularly frustrating death that reset most of my in-game progress, the character tells me, “it looked like the barman was fixin’ to tell me something.” So I walk over to the bartender, who proceeds to state the obvious: “You’re in Purgatory, so you’ll keep coming back here if you die.”
Such a useless exchange almost feels like an insult when you grew up playing games that were designed to tell you as much as possible with little or no exposition. At the time, it was done more out of necessity than style since games often had to be squeezed onto cartridges with tiny memory banks. By contrast, it feels sloppy to leave out simple details when it’s so easy for developers to implement.
I’m not asking for games to hold my hand – far from it. One of my favorite gaming experiences in recent memory was clearing “Darkest Dungeon,” a brutally difficult Lovecraftian role-playing game. It starts off with a brief tutorial level to show you the ropes, then cuts you loose to develop more complicated strategies as the game progresses.
Beating “Darkest Dungeon” relies mostly on common sense. But for everything not obvious, there are pop-up explanations to explain game mechanics and reference materials in the pause menu. The game is intended to be difficult, but you’ll never lose because you had no clue what was happening in front of you.
That’s the exact opposite of “West of Dead” – where 9 of 10 times I lose, I have no clue what happened. It’s a fun little game regardless, but it stands out as a modern example of how not to instruct players. No matter how many or how few video games a person has played, a comprehensive tutorial or good set of instructions is crucial to enjoyment.
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