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.