Show me how to play.

Getting stuck in a game is far from uncommon. The specific reasons are as varied as the games themselves, though all such situations can generally be grouped into two categories; skill based obstacles or logic based obstacles.

Common to action games, skill based obstacles stem from an inability to complete a given task. The goal is obvious, the actions required equally so, but those actions need to be performed with a degree of skill the player doesn’t yet possess. Consider God Of War, standard combat encounters are primarily skilled based. The goal is to defeat any and all enemies, the means of doing so are the standard attacks and special abilities at your disposal; some attack are more useful against particular enemies though they are rarely the only options available. Achieving the goal, defeating the enemies, is a matter of skillfully wielding the tools at your disposal.

Even the environmental puzzle section – at which I became stuck – was a skill based obstacle. That I needed to walk along the beams and avoid the blades was obvious; however, I lacked the skill to do so. My frustration was caused by my own inability to perform what I knew to be the correct actions required for progression.

Progression in games is bound to the accomplishment of goals; the completion of any goal is a two stage process. It requires an intent and an action. In order to proceed players need to know what to do, and how to do it. Skill based obstacles are those where the goals and actions are clear, the challenge exists in the act of performing those actions.

The second form of obstacle are those based on game logic. These occur when either the goal itself, or the means of attaining it, are unclear. In either case, without adequate feedback, players are left performing seemingly arbitrary actions in the hope of progressing. The player’s conceptual model of the game has broken down, they can no longer made valid judgements about which actions will lead to which outcomes. Their ability to communicate their intent to the game has been removed, or at best severed hampered.

Unless and until the correct course of action is identified progression is halted. At this point external information is required in order to keep playing. The most common form of external information available is the FAQ or walkthrough. They provide a solution, and enable progression without the need to necessarily understand the reason you were stuck, or the even logic underlying the obstacle. I’ve used walkthroughs, I understand their appeal; however, if we are to create games with meaningful mechanics- where the meaning of a mechanic is expressed through interaction with it – walkthroughs as they are traditionally written, could be detrimental to the play experience. They provide the solution but rarely highlight the logical deductions and assumptions that led to it.

In order to experience the meaning inherent, or imbued, in any mechanic it is vital that players learn how those mechanic functions, and understand their potential applications. If a mechanic is difficult to understand that could be because the act of understanding is an important facet of the meaning being expressed.

For people with a history of playing games, the often obtuse logic behind certain mechanics is understood, often expected. We might laugh as a boss character changes its attack pattern upon reaching its “final form”, willfully ignoring the logic that if such advanced attacks were available the boss should have been using them to begin with. As seasoned players we have an understanding of the conventions of games and this can often enable us to deduce the solutions to logic based obstacles that really aren’t logical in any formal sense. For those without this learned understanding of the illogical logic of games, without this game literacy, even the most straightforward obstacles can seem insurmountable.

There are various ways to mitigate this problem. The most obvious of which is to attempt to make any obstacles as straightforward as possible,  limiting available options and possible actions until only those vital to progression remain. Such attempts to ease progression might be damaging to the ability of game mechanics to convey meaning. If games reach a stage where players are effectively “going through the motions” will there be any incentive to parse the meaning expressed through mechanics?

One interesting possible method to avoid this was presented by Nintendo, and is due to make its first appearance in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, that of the “digest moving image” or what has been referred to as the Nintendo “Kind Code”. The core of this system seems to be the ability to allow players to, at any point, view a playthrough of a particular section with which they might be struggling. Though they will not be playing the section themselves, by watching it being played it seems likely that they will pay more attention to the mechanics themselves, than they would if they had simply been told the solution.

Learning how to do something is potentially more expressive than actually doing it; the knowledge is retained rather than the memory of the act itself. Understanding the logic behind a problem makes it more likely that players will be able to solve future similar problems. It’s important to help players create a solid conceptual model of the logic supporting a mechanic, often that conceptual underpinning is consistent throughout the entire game.

I, Fanboy.

There are some games I like a lot. When you consider that I feel most games are bad, you may start to realise why this is a big deal. Yes, there are some games I enjoy but most I tolerate. I am inspired and awed by the potential of games but so few approach that, or even attempt to, that it’s difficult not to be cynical. So when a game really gets to me it’s a matter of personal significance.

Sadly very few games have ever affected me in this manner, those that do often achieve this in spite of their design rarely because of it. These games I profess to adore are not without their faults, I like to think I’m unbiased enough to be able identify these flaws; but this recognition does little to detract from my respect for these games. All that is necessary is a single moment, one small spark of imagination or intelligent that shows me a glimpse of that potential . What is any amount of design flaws or technical bugs compared to that?

Over the last few years I’ve been fortunate enough to play several such games. I’ve talked at length about some of them but still it’s difficult to describe the reason I hold these games in such esteem. I’ve described the fate of Frank Bilders but I fear in my attempt to personalise that account I may have sacrificed clarity. This was an event that actually caused me a moment of pause. I sat thinking, dwelling, on what had just happened. Through my actions I’d allowed another to die, somebody who had risked their life (albeit a virtual one) to save me on prior occasions. I felt something. I’m not trying to say I understand the pain of losing a friend (something I hope never to experience first hand), I imagine what I felt to be barely a shadow of that, a fleeting glimpse of a shadow of a concept of that. But it was enough. In that moment I saw the potential of what games could achieve. I’d been emotional affected by the game, something only a few works in other media have ever truly managed. It was different this time, stronger somehow for all it’s fleetingness; I’d witnessed the power and futility of my own agency.

Surely If I could get everybody else to play that game and experience a similar moment then that would put an end to the entire discussion of whether games could be art, whether they were interesting or worthy of study.  If I could convince everybody else that for that briefest moment I had truly felt a pang of guilt for the consequences of my actions then I believe they would understand the power of games. I understand that such things are subjective and maybe Far Cry 2 isn’t the game for everybody, but I can only speak from my personal experience so I had to try and get people to play this game, and appreciate it as I do.

If a moment like that could be attained in a era when games are still so focused on the juvenile concepts of violence and direct action what could be accomplished in the years to come?

It might seems ridiculous, asinine, that I could make such claims about a game like Far Cry 2. But no matter how much I wanted to be engaged I was utterly unmoved by the death of Aeris, unable to understand the appeal of the Zelda or Metal Gear series and left feeling stupid and frustrated by Braid. Something about Far Cry 2 drew me, held me, engaged me like so few other games have ever do. So that it was able in that one moment of holistic purity to me cause me to stop and really reflect on my actions; to offer me a look some of potential of games. How could I not want to talk about it, not want everybody else to share that experience?

And then, it only went and did it again.

I want to scream it from the rooftops because I believe in the power of this medium and honestly think that if I can get others to have the same experience I had with this game then they’ll understand it too. I cannot always accurately describe what it is about a particular game that has such an affect on me, and the excitement I feel at having witnessed that moment of potentiality can make such critical thought even harder. I can explain the circumstances of the event and what I felt but even that is not always enough. I get frustrated and angry at my inability to make other people understand, I get emotional, irrational. I rant, I snap, I resort to childish insults. You don’t understand and I can’t make you, and that’s painful.

So with a fledgling critical language and incomplete vocabulary I strive to explain a moment that was at once precisely as simple as I’ve described yet orders of magnitude more complex. Out of context it is easy to explain but without the foundation of the rest of the game, the build up and the pay off can seem facile, meaningless; my reaction to it pretentious at best and comic at worst.

If I can seem overly intent in my praise or damning in my condemnations it’s born of frustration at my inability to get across how much of an impact something has had on me, or how close I feel it came to giving me one of those rare moments of clarity. I am a fanboy and I have something to really be a fan of. It’s is my privilege, it is also my curse.