Solution Telegraphing vs Player Agency

I recycled aluminum cans and saved my money all summer to be able to afford The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past at launch.  A few weeks after its release date (the cart was in short supply) I had procured it and was able to return to that familiar world of Hyrule.  This new 16-bit incarnation contained mysteries and technical wonders around every corner. As I progressed ever deeper in the game, among all of countless innovations I found one aspect to be a minor disappointment.

This was not my first outing in Hyrule.  I had cut my early gamer teeth on Nintendo’s holy trinity:  Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda. One of the most impressive aspects about these early games was the sheer abundance of secrets, especially in The Legend of Zelda.  The longer you played that game, the more you realized that nearly every other screen of the over-world is hiding some form of secret. These are primarily uncovered via burning the foliage or bombing the rocks.  Most of these discoveries were helpful, a few were harmful, but you never knew quite what you could find or what to expect.

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But in the third Zelda game things had slightly changed.  All of the destructible facades are denoted with a distinguishable crack, crag, or crevice.  This can be seen as helpful during your quest because bombs are a finite inventory item. But it also robs you of the feelings of personal discovery that the first game had fostered so well.  There are fewer random secrets as well, most of these passages only help progress the story. I understand why the developers made these design decisions. With the increases in graphical fidelity, adding these ‘tells’ probably felt like a realistic touch.  And with the expanded scale of this game, completely disguised bombable walls could feel arbitrarily obtuse to a newcomer.

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I accept that this type of communication is simply a part of the language of video games.  Video game designers attempt to make sure their game mechanics can be understood by as broad a range of players as possible.  Unfortunately, that means that a helpful reminder for one player is a condescension for another. In an effort to ensure that the player is never overwhelmed, these concessions funnel you towards every solution.  As I mentioned, I’ve been on this ride a long time, I don’t need the training wheels on every game.

The 3D Prince of Persia games have been on my mind recently.  It has been a long while since I’ve played them and I keep being reminded of them.  Over the summer I was playing Darksiders II, in which Death has a traversal skill set informed by the Prince games.  And early last month Prince of Persia ‘08 was added to Xbox One backward compatibility. As I pondered these games in my mind, I am reminded of the way they telegraph the path forward.  If, in order to progress, you need to initiate a wall run, the wall will have a arched scuffed texture showing your running path. It’s as if 1,000 princes have already taken these paths prior to your arrival and left their marks all over the environment.  Given the time twisting nature of these games’ story lines, I briefly thought that the writers may use that conclusion as a late game plot twist! These environmental hints are omnipresent in many 3D games, including the aforementioned Darksiders II.  

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Just like in a Link to the Past, the traversal puzzle’s solutions are solved by the environmental clues instead of my own brainpower.  Instead of serving me a blank canvas, the game is giving me a paint by numbers picture. Thinking of these textures I was wondering how nice it would be if a remaster replaced them with normal wall textures instead.  Or even better, an option to remove them. A difficulty setting can do more than just make the enemies stronger and the player more fragile.

Let’s move from Prince of Persia to its soul sister, Tomb Raider.  As I write this essay, it is the release weekend of the Shadow of the Tomb Raider.  One of the features I learned about from its reviewers is different difficulty settings for different aspects of the game.  

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Amazing!  This imaginary feature that I was opining for in a game from the past is now a part of a new release!  When I get this game, you can bet I will be playing it with the exploration difficulty on hard, probably the puzzles too, and I can’t wait!

My blog has given me the chance to write about video games but I feel that this is my first video game essay.  I may turn it into a video essay, we’ll see.  I love games and can talk about them at length, but I’m only now trying to stretch my creative wings into writing about them.  There are other games that each have unique transferal options that are worthy of study and critique that I couldn’t neatly fit into what I wanted this essay to be.  A few that I would like a future opportunity to discuss are Portal vs Portal 2, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and there is more I could say about the Prince of Persia series, including its console exclusive versions.  

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