Do you remember when you could load up a video game and just play it? The introduction was a line or two of text, the control scheme was printed in the manual and everything else you discovered as you played.
Nowadays when you fire up a game you get a five minute cutscene explaining the oh-so-clever plot closely followed by a tutorial that explains how the controls for the game are identical to every other game you have played. The tutorial is mandatory because you may just be the one person on the entire planet who is playing that type of video game for the very first time and you are unaware that R1 will fire the gun and pushing L3 in will make you sprint.
In action games you must press X to jump and there is a tutorial for this because somewhere in the past ten years developers have decided we can’t press the four buttons on the controller during the first five seconds of the game and discover what each button does for ourselves.
Say Apple. Portal 2 does ‘press X to jump’ properly.
Occasionally you may read a fantastic fact about the amount of time an average person spends doing something in their life. They spend two years in the shower, two weeks making cups of tea, that kind of thing. In the future scientists will calculate how many years an average gamer sits playing tutorials and watching cutscenes – I bet we spend at least a week of our lives learning X is jump.
Making games is expensive, printing is not. Amongst those little slips of paper for pre-order DLC codes and offers to send away for a $400 Resident Evil leather jacket you may occasionally find a handy guide telling you exactly what each button on your controller does.
This is how games used to be. When you bought Manic Miner the inlay of the cassette told you the space bar makes Miner Willy jump. Think of the huge savings publishers could make if, rather than make their coders create a tutorial, complete with voice acting from Someone Quite Famous From Television, they simply flash up the text “Please refer to the manual for controls.”
Manic Miner's inlay. Note: instructions.
“Watch out the slippy slidey section!” Perky But Non-Combatant Sidekick will advise. “You need to find the Mystical Doodah Of Bobbins to proceed through this door” he or she will helpfully suggest, thus channelling you through yet another corridor of cloned enemies. After locating the Mystical Doodah Of Bobbins the Perky But Non-Combatant Sidekick will perform a hack/mystical spell (delete where applicable) that will take exactly three waves of enemies before the Doodah can be interfaced with the Gubbins and door will open.
Have you noticed it’s always three? Boss Battles always have three stages and it’s not just games. In a movie when a hero is searching for a bomb, will it be in the first storage cabinet? No. The second? Of course not, it’s in the third.
When Captain Picard is confronted with an anomaly will reversing the photon beam work? Nope. Attenuating the particle accelerator? Fail! What if on the third attempt he inflects the shields to a fluctuating waveform of 3.56 photons? Success! Any attempt at building tension in both games and movies has been ruined because everyone knows success is only three steps away.
Super Mario 64, proving even Nintendo isn’t immune to the “three-times” rule.
Over the past few years games have become less about the game and more about the story and very few have managed to successfully pull off the balance act. We barely get to play the game anymore – after every few moments a cutscene will pop up to either further the inane plot or to show a scripted action sequence as a burning wooden rafter collapses under Hero and he almost falls to his death.
Elite did not have cutscenes and yet managed to convey a huge, living universe in which anything could happen. These days games are no longer random because that makes them too hard for newbies. If we die we know that Evil Bad Guy is always going to be in the same place when the game restarts and rather than use skill and thought we simply plough through a combination of weapons and attacks, say hello to the Grim Reaper at regular intervals until we find a strategy that works. It’s gaming by trial and error, not skill.
We have pseudo-random gaming because enemies have AI and they may move and attack you in a slightly different fashion but it’s still the same enemies in the same place.
I have bought quite a few games over the past few weeks, grabbing titles I missed over the year in the January sale and not a single one of them has gripped me because they are all exactly the same game in a different skin. They all have inane tutorials and the Perky But Non-Combatant Sidekick who will explain missions that funnel you through areas where scripted Evil Bad Guy always appears in exactly the same place and always takes three attempts to be destroyed, closely followed by a cutscene explaining Plot For Mission Two.
They may look like different games as one is on a tropical island and the other is set in space but they are not.
Far Cry 3. Set on a tropical island.
Somewhere along the way developers and publishers have decided gamers are stupid. We need our hands held every single step of the way, we need AI companions and ridiculously lengthy cutscenes to explain a story we have heard a hundred times before.
There are, of course, some notable exceptions and as much as I like to rant on at Bethesda they have created games which have engrossed us for hundreds of hours. Amongst the scripted events there is a world in which anything can happen: in Skyrim you may turn a corner and be unexpectedly attacked by a bear. There is no warning, there is no cutscene, it just happens and you have to rely on your skill to win the battle.
Other games have successfully embraced the move from gaming to storytelling and are marketed more as interactive tales than a videogame. Telltale’s The Walking Dead has the briefest moments of game hidden among hours of dialogue and Asura’s Wrath has credit sequences at the end of each episode and a recap at the start of the next so it plays more like a Manga cartoon than a video title.
But they’re few and far between. The Next-Gen future may bring photorealistic, motion captured Hollywood stars to the world of video games but unless there is an innovative and exciting game after the cutscene, what is the point?