Getting stuck in a game is far from uncommon. The precise reasons for it are as varied as the games themselves, however all such situations can be grouped into one of two categories; skill based obstacles and logic based obstacles.
Common to action games, the former situation is where an inability to progress comes from a lack of skill. The goal is obvious and the actions required equally so, however achieving the goal requires actions to be performed with a degree of skill not yet attained. Consider God Of War, standard combat encounters are skilled based, the aim is clearly to defeat any and all enemies and the means of doing so are the standard attacks and special abilities at your disposal; some attack are more successful against particular enemies however they are rarely the only options available. Achieveing 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.
Achieving progression is bound to the acomplishment of certain 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 concerned with situations where the goals and the actions required are clear. The challenge exists in the act of performing those actions.
The second type of obstacles 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 signposting, players are left performing seemingly arbitrary actions in the hope that they might progress. 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 least 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 walkthrough. They provide a solution enabling progression without the need to necessarily understand the reasons why you were stuck, or the logic underlying the obstacle. I’ve used walkthroughs myself and understand their appeal, however if we are to create games with meaningful mechanics walkthroughs as they are often written, can be potentially damaging to the play experience. If the meaning of a mechanic can only be appreciated through the act of play, using a standard walkthrough could be damaging. 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 seems vital for players to learn how that mechanic functions and understand their application. If such a mechanic is difficult to understand that could be intentional and the act of understanding itself is important to an appreciation of the mechanic.
Using a walkthrough would enable players to use a specific mechanic without any requirement to understand it.
For people with a history of playing games, the often obtuse logic behind some game mechanics is understood, often expected. We might laugh as a boss character changes its attack pattern upon entering the “third stage”, willfully ignoring the logic that if such advanced attacks were available the boss should have been using them earlier. As seasoned gamers 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 that logical at all. For gamers without this learned understanding of the illogical logic of games, without this game literacy, even the most straightforward of obstacles can seem insurmountable.
There are various methods used to try to mitigate this problem. The most obvious of which is to attempt to make any obstacles as straightforward as possible; to, in the words of some, “dumb down” by limiting available options and possible actions until only those vital to progression remain. Though I personally don’t share same concerns of some about this trend, I am worried that such attempts to ease progression can be damaging to the ability of game mechanics to convey meaning. If games reach a stage where players are effectively going through the motions, there will be little need to pay attention to the mechanics themselves and so their meaning could be lost.
One interesting possible method to avoid this was presented by Nintendo, and is due to make it’s 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 important that actually doing it, the ability is what is retained not the act itself. Understanding the logic behind a particular problem makes it more likely that players will be able to solve future similar problems.
It’s important to help players create a conceptual model of the logic behind particular mechanics because often that conceptual underpinning is consistent throughout the entire game.