If you’ve played at least a couple of videogames in your whole life, chances are you’ve resulted to exploring the virtual world by the means the game gave to you in the tutorial (if there was one) and then proceeded to search for new ways of interaction, new reactions, new mechanics and new content. It’s reasonable to say that this search probably has become a second nature to you, dear reader. So much so, that it’s become the actual goal of whole lot of games you’ve played: You do what you can or are allowed to, until the game ends, at which point you’ve beaten the thing or just gave up.
It’s certainly a basic observation to make, but I just wanted to be sure to get everyone on the same page before I start elaborating on this.
Cool? Well, it seems to me that the people that don’t “get” videogames ask themselves a very important question the minute they sit and pick up the controller/mouse: “What am I supposed to do?”. It’s certainly a question I’ve asked myself when I was little and found myself playing a videogame for the first time.
It’s kind of hard to describe that sense of bewilderment. You press a button and then you get immediate feedback on the screen. You’re surprised, amused and probably intrigued. You push other buttons and other things happen. You start playing around with the controller for minutes, if not hours on end, experimenting what does what and how did you do that thing you just did.
But the thing is, the process of learning how to play a game makes us focus on the mechanics themselves and, consciously or not, we abstract the whole thing out into “simple” interactions. It’s a wonderful process that let’s us learn and comprehend very complex systems easily (something that no other medium can do with such efficiency) but at the same time it somewhat diminishes the punch of the context of your actions inside the virtual world. Especially so when considering that most of us had very shallow games as our introduction to the medium, therefore we learned to just ignore context because it’s ultimately meaningless. Mario is an italian plumber… how is that even relevant to whatever happens in the actual game? But I better not get into that or I may risk going off-topic for a few paragraphs and I don’t want this whole post to be all over the place.
So, while learning how to play, we abstract the experience in order to be able to comprehend what’s happening under the hood, but once the process of learning is over and playing the game becomes second nature, we begin to fully appreciate what the game does context-wise since we are no longer focusing on the mechanics themselves and can instead focus on what they can entail.
That’s one of the reasons why I think that the whole GTA franchise is backwards: The story of every single GTA game tries desperately to get you to care about this virtual world and their virtual characters from the get-go, but you, the player, don’t know how this world works, at least not the first time you play. And even if you’ve played every previous game, chances are you’ll be experimenting to see what you can and can’t do this time around. Because that’s what we do when we play something for the first time: we explore, we are elements of chaos, of creation and destruction, we want to see what verbs and interactions are available and no amount of tutorials will ever quench that thirst for exploration. So, what I’m saying here, among many things, is that games must let the players experiment around and learn the mechanics before introducing themes, characters or just general context that we are supposed to care about*.
It’s endemic in almost all of us and it’s only natural that the first thing we try to do in any game is tests it’s limits.
Because that’s the thing: Games have limits. They let you do what they can afford to let you do. The designer is never absent, she’s always present at every single moment, though the amount of control she has on you varies from moment to moment, but that’s a whole other discussion. Basically, we always test game’s limits because they will always have limits. That’s what kids do to their parents and the world in their first few years of life: they test what they can and can’t get away with, what’s good and what’s bad, what tastes awesome and what makes them puke. We have to learn these limits in order to behave accordingly inside this new world.
And that’s where we get back to the question one might ponder when coming face to face with a videogame for the first time: “What am I supposed to do?”. It’s simple, silly, just explore, test the limits of this world until you comprehend most of it, and I’ll guarantee you, if the game is good, you’ll know what you are supposed to do in a heart-beat.
*Caveat incoming: Unless the game is short enough that playing through it multiple times is not only easy, but actually encouraged. Which is something I tried to do with Vignettes but I ran out of time so the polish was lacking on that part of the design (or in other words: I think the pacing needs some work).