Recently with my Nintendo Switch I’ve been showing a few games here and there to my girlfriend and teaching her how to play them. Now I’ve played video games since I was about six years old, while my girlfriend has not played many video games at all. Outside of a few tries at games here and there and some mobile games she plays on her phone, her experiences with video games were non existent. She enjoys playing games like the Jackbox Games (Drawful, Quiplash, etc.) and other party-style games but hadn’t ever played anything else on consoles.
I figured I would get a few different kinds of games that might be of interest to her and start slow to try and find some things that she liked and go from there. The games I’ve downloaded so far are Stardew Valley, Snake Pass, and The Bridge from the Nintendo Switch e-shop. Stardew Valley is a Harvest Moon-esque farming simulator, Snake Pass is a 3D physics-based puzzle game where you control a snake and he collects…things, and The Bridge is a 2D physics-based puzzle game where you have to guide a little dude through some weird, MC Escher-esque levels. And after showing her each of these games, I started to observe something I hadn’t really thought about before.
Video games are not designed for people who have never played video games before.
Now you might read that statement and think “well, duh.” But it becomes a very interesting point to determine the accessibility of video games. I play board games a lot, and while each board game has its own set of rules, part of playing the game for the first time is going over the rules and learning what each figure or card represents and why the board is shaped like it is. Now granted, you wouldn’t grab a person who had never played a board game before and start them off with Arkham Horror – but if you started them with Candy Land, they’d probably be able to understand the rules pretty quickly and be able to play the game on their own eventually. And after Candy Land, you can start working your way up to more complicated games.
All three of the games I chose because in my mind they were simple – puzzle games usually require the least amount of knowing a controller’s layout, for example. They’re also not usually time based and they’re often forgiving with restarts. More importantly, there isn’t the threat of death and a game over. Same for a simulator game – you’re just living your life and maintaining a farm, not hacking and slashing bad guys or getting overwhelmed by zombies. But each of the games I chose was uniquely poor in actually showing my girlfriend, who is completely new to games, how to play games.
First, let me start off with a caveat – all of these games I had also never played before. I chose completely new games to introduce her to mostly because it would keep the “hold on, let me do that for you” impulse on my end to a minimum. I was mostly going off of reviews and recommendations from gaming media for easy starter games.
Let’s start with Stardew Valley (which was the first game I showed her, consequently). The game has a few minutes of introduction, then you hop off the bus and are given your farm. And that’s it. There’s no tutorial, no explanation of buttons or menus, no instructions on how to achieve your goal. You’re just plopped down at your farm and told to go to work. Me, as a person who has played games for years, would have been frustrated with that off the bat if I’d been playing. Because of this, my girlfriend and I spent a good fifteen minutes trying to figure out the menu and how to equip (and use) the items we had been given. I think we ended up redecorating the house accidentally, chopping a few weeds, and then my girlfriend tried to murder a townsperson with a garden hoe.
Our farm definitely did not look like this.
It was enjoyable and fun because we were both laughing at the absurdity of what was going on, but it was also poor game design because we were not accomplishing anything we were supposed to do. I’m pretty sure it took us three in-game days before we figured out how to plant anything and then water it. Furthermore, the first night her character passed out from exhaustion in the middle of a restaurant at midnight because the game hadn’t really given clear instructions on how the day/night cycle worked. More importantly, since no tutorial had been given, it was a continuous back-and-forth of “What was the button that brought up the menu again?” “Which button swings the pickaxe?” Progress was made, and she enjoyed the game, but it didn’t help impart any of the basic video game knowledge I was hoping for an introduction. Button layouts were still a mystery, etc.
Okay, so maybe a complex farming simulator wasn’t as simple as I thought. It obviously wasn’t the best to start with – so I picked up Snake Pass next. It was a game that had gotten good reviews and was supposed to be a simple puzzle game that’s lighthearted and good for picking up and putting down in short sessions. Plus, my girlfriend likes cute sneks so why not go for a snek-themed game.
Snake Pass did a better job of tutorializing the buttons, but every time it introduced a new button my girlfriend would have to stop and look at the Switch controllers to figure out which button it was telling her to use. The tutorial in Snake Pass was done right because there was no pressure to learning these buttons and no time constraints, so playing around and learning where everything was didn’t penalize anyone. But I realized that as a person who has played games for over two decades, the positions of controller buttons have been ingrained in me. The main four buttons are always going to be on the right side and are usually a variant on A,B,X,Y, the shoulder buttons are almost always a variant of L and R, and the left analog stick controls movement while the right analog stick controls the camera. All this is second nature to me.
Snek, snek, severus snek.
When the tutorial pops up and says “Press ZR to slither forward” my girlfriend was immediately like “What’s a ZR?” I knew what that meant – R is almost universally the right shoulder button, so it’s one of the two shoulder buttons on the right side of the handheld Switch. Basically muscle memory at this point. But for a person who never plays video games, none of that is common knowledge. And yet the tutorial immediately assumes that you know where the ZR button is located. More importantly, it assumes you know that the ZR in a square is a symbol for a button. When the R in a circle came up later to explain how to move the camera, I knew that R in a circle meant the right analog stick. I definitely had to point out what that was to my girlfriend, though.
Now understanding the symbology isn’t a big gripe. If you bring a person bowling for the first time, you’ll have to explain to them what the X and / symbols mean, and they should easily be able to remember they mean strikes and spares. But video game controllers are a different beast and it’s only now hit me just how complex the systems are. The Switch by itself has A, B, X, Y, L, R, ZL, ZR, +, -, and directional buttons, along with a left and right analog stick, a screenshot button and a home button. Oh, and the home button is different from the power button. For a person who doesn’t play games, all those button combinations could be as daunting as figuring out how the inside of a car works. And yet a lot of games simply treat knowledge of all the buttons and their locations as already acquired knowledge and remembering what each button does for each game is the important part. Even Telltale games, which are largely regarded as “easy to play games”, are based around Quick Time events where if you don’t know where each button’s placements are you’ll miss the prompt while trying to look and see if your finger’s in the right place.
And I’m just talking about console games with controllers here. Imagine playing on a PC and being able to bind actions to every key on the keyboard. While innate familiarity with where keys are on a keyboard might help alleviate some of the button knowledge, having even more options could be seriously daunting.
It’s given me a lot of perspective on why the Wii became so popular as well as why people prefer to play games on their mobile phones. It’s very easy to explain motion to new players. To play Wii Tennis, you just swing the remote to hit the ball. To play Wii Bowling, you swing the remote to bowl the ball. You can get more complicated, but the premise is simple. Same for phones – since smartphones have eliminated buttons and all run off of touchscreens, it makes the game design philosophy much easier. Everything has to be operated by touch and swiping, so the instructions become super easy.
After my girlfriend started cursing at the camera controls for Snake Pass (a long-time tradition of video game players that I introduced her to) I decided to go with an even simpler puzzle game that I’d heard about – The Bridge. It’s a 2D puzzle game with only a few buttons and very simple gameplay – get a dude to the door in a set of Escher-inspired levels. No camera since it’s in 2D. Easy, right?
First, the game simply drops you right into the game with no title screen. I booted up the game for the first time and handed the Switch to my girlfriend so she could play it. The game started and there was no introduction, no title for the game, nothing. Just a dude sleeping under a tree. Eventually the button symbols for ZL and ZR faded in over the dude’s head and then faded out. That’s it. That’s the introduction to the game.
Now I understand a puzzle game is supposed to make you think. And the prompt led my girlfriend to trying the ZL and ZR buttons and discovering that they tilted the world left and right, and she eventually figured out she had to shake the world back and forth to dislodge an apple from the tree to wake the guy up. But the lack of information given was astounding. Eventually we figured out we had to walk around for a bit to find a door to exit from tree world, but no indication that we were supposed to do that was given. It’s like leaving a kid in the woods with some flint and steel and saying “okay, find your way back home! Go, uh, that way kinda.”
This is all the information you have at the start of The Bridge. Aaaaaaaand go.
It’s a very unique thing to games and game developers, especially in regards to puzzle games – each developers wants to out-clever previous iterations. Jonathan Blow’s The Witness is a great example of “I’m not going to tell you anything, you figure this out it’s part of the puzzle.” But an important part of the construction of puzzles is outlining the rules ahead of time. If you drop a person into a game without giving them any instructions and then scoff at them if they drop your game in five minutes, are you a genius or are you just being an elitist?
That wasn’t the only frustrating thing that happened with The Bridge. Once we got into the first actual puzzle world, it began to rotate clockwise slowly on its own. Me and my girlfriend initially thought this was part of the puzzle itself and were trying to work around it, but it got to the point that both of us were getting extremely frustrated with the level. I ended up having to take the game from her to finish the level. Then I had a flash of inspiration and checked the menu – and sure enough, I discovered in the menu that tilt controls had been turned on. Because both of us had been laying down while trying to play the Switch in its handheld form, the built-in gyroscope had kicked in and it had been spinning the game world autonomously. Once I turned it off and the worlds stopped moving on their own, both of us enjoyed playing the game a lot more and were much, much less frustrated.
Do you see how if, say, a small tutorial letting players know about the tilt control options could have eased that frustration? Or maybe a title screen with a start game option and when the game started it let you choose between regular or tilt controls? It’s not that much to ask, really. A game’s first five minutes can either draw a person in or turn them off completely. When games nowadays are expected to take anywhere from 10 hours to 100 hours of your time, making sure your game starts off right is very important.
A little while ago, there was a minor snafu in the gaming community when a games journalist released a video of him playing Cuphead for the first time – and he failed hard at the tutorial of the game. You can watch it here (and you really only need to watch the first minute to see the tutorial fail). Video game enthusiasts basically rioted, making fun of him and asking how such an incompetent person could be a games journalist. Some of the rioting was done in tongue-in-cheek jest, but some of it was very nasty. And it highlights a growing divide between “real” gamers and “casual” gamers – there is definitely an elitist twinge to a lot of the video game enthusiasts who have played for a lot of their lives. And it’s really unfair to people who don’t play as much, especially since – as I’ve highlighted in this article – even the tutorials of games assume you’ve played other games before.
Now I want to be clear about something – Cuphead has a fine tutorial. The games journalist in question messed up pretty bad on his own and he definitely deserved a little bit of ribbing since he does make his living because of video games. But it brings a very interesting question to mind: should more games be designed with absolute beginners in mind? Sure, Overwatch on the outside looks like a “simple” FPS game that’s a good starting point for beginners, but knowing 26 characters and how each of their movesets work and maybe mapping different button layouts to certain characters (if you don’t have Lucio’s jump as L2 what are you doing?) and knowing how each map type works and what characters counter other characters and managing cooldowns and positioning….can you blame people if they just want to play Mercy?
All I know is this has opened my eyes as to how it’s okay for games to have beat-you-over-the-head tutorials. It takes nothing away from my experience (aside from slow, 3 hour tutorials like Kingdom Hearts 2) but could one day ease a new person into the gaming fold. Video games have gotten more and more complex as technology has increased, and while those of us who have been indoctrinated from the beginning know how Assassin’s Creed 12 is gonna play, there’s a large swath of the population who’s never touched a controller and maybe never will thanks to barrier of entry. We, as players, should be encouraging new faces – not laughing because they can’t “get good.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to throw my girlfriend into the deep end and make her play Earthbound on my SNES Classic.