Throwing praise at Valve is a bit like pissing in an ocean. You're going to be surrounded by people who can piss much harder than you and who have been doing it for much longer, but ultimately, you're going to wading knee deep in piss. Valve are one of those companies that are universally revered for their friendly disposition, independence, and inability to make a bad game. But I think people are generalising. People understand that Valve make good games but don't really understand why beyond "I play their games and don't feel stupid". Or something. Evidentially their games boast high production value, endearing design and excellent support, but there is one thing residing at the base of their design that even ludocrats, as such as myself, have nigh on taken for granted for all of these years. That shining underappreciated star of game design is how they teach us how to play.
Only recently have I began exploring the developer commentary offered in Half-Life 2 episode 2 and Portal, and I was amazed at just how much insight they've been willing to impart upon the eager listener, and a little disgusted that I'd previously ignored it. See, the developer commentary has that similar magical effect in its power that is decadently wielded by adventure games; the power to make everything fall into place in your mind as you link the discussion to the situation, and sit, mouth agape whilst one of the designers divulges the trials and tribulations in getting one small component to work. Throughout the commentary I was frequently dumbstruck as just how they engineered solutions to the smallest problems, but by far, the greatest impositions they faced involved teaching players just how to understand the systems of the games - intelligently and naturally.
When you play a broad variety of games, you gain an unprecedented understanding for small systems that make the experience a pleasure or a chore, depending on the context. Choosing an appropriate way to introduce the player to a game's systems is probably one of the most difficult and underappreciated components of a game, as a better system will be less obtrusive than a poor system and less likely to be recognised (ironic, huh?). Valve appear to have adopted an ethic that applies a sort of "dynamic" teaching system; the clever arrangement of set pieces, situations and imagery designed to expose exactly what the player needs to see, whilst leaving plenty of room for experimentation. Interestingly, the point at which explicit information becomes implicit is quite a distinct line, and one that can either lead the player into knowing how a situation can be approached, yet not telling them how to use their tools, or completely leaving them in the dark.
An example that you will all be aware of if you have played Half-Life 2 involves Valve's unbridled enthusiasm for seesaw puzzles; a little obvious, but it makes a good starting point. Early on, a seesaw was explicitly placed within the centre of the player's view with a clear objective and an evident means of achieving it. From this situation, the player can deduce that A) walking on the seesaw makes it tip, but on its own it tips too quickly, B) a chest high wall presents an unambiguous goal and C) The player's physical properties alone cannot solve the puzzle. With the solution "algorithm" firmly implanted in the player's mind, the game proceeds to introduce similar style puzzles of a higher difficulty and the player solves them accordingly, now familiar with the game's physical properties, minus the need for onscreen prompts.
Although Valve have often favoured the subtle procedural method of exposing gameplay technique to the player, they have not neglected to ease them into the games systems before challenging them within their environments. The opening to Half-Life 2 still gets me. You roll into a train station, oblivious of the reasons behind the morose expressions worn by those around you as the ominous tones of Wallace Breen leak from the speakers. Everything is an assault on the senses, yet it never becomes too tied up in its delivery to acquaint the player with just what everything does.
Bioshock probably has one of my favourite opening sequences in a game because 2K realised the importance of letting the player teach themself how the game works, whilst steadily raising the difficulty imposed by the addition of features. You start off with nothing but a cheery Irishman yammering at you down a radio, and this in itself provides a good basis for instructing the player in character. As you progress, important features are slowly introduced to you until a stage where you are completely competent in your own actions and the game's systems. Giving the players a melee weapon and letting them break some scenery before encountering an enemy; forcing them to use a Plasmid to open a door before putting them in any imminent danger. Above the importance of feature exposition, the importance of letting the player perform the actions, quickly acquaints them with the control scheme and their abilities without the frustration of trial and error or having the break out of character to show you something.
Now I'm hoping your beginning to see the importance of this in regard to immersion.
Immersion, or suspension of disbelief is that moment in which you're drawn out of your chair and into the world of the game; better allowing you to feel part of the environment and part of the story. What developers may not have realised is that teaching players how to play their games may just be impinging on this immersion with the inclusion of jarring tutorials and blatant reference to things outside of the game *COUGH* Metal Gear Solid *COUGH*. So I think a contrasting example is in order.
Metal Gear Solid wears its disregard for immersion like a badge of honour. "Snake, this is a sneaking mission", "Snake, use X to aim" "At this point you would change the disk over, but through the magic of Blu-Ray...". Yep, regardless of how inaccurately I quoted that, Otacon said that. These issues really make you notice this problem in a lot of games. Whilst MGS manages to disguise stalling the action through its infamous cutscenes, there are a lot of other games I have played that will not only freeze the player's controls to show them something, but spread animated tutorials all over the screen in order to demonstrate how something should be done.
So what have we observed?
- Good exposition involves showing the player only what is important to a situation, yet keeping hidden how it is utilised so that they may learn the method, yet not become obsessed in the detail.
- Good introduction involves letting the player directly control the newly acquired elements in non-threatening, yet tangible situations so that they feel, not only a heightened sense of immersion, but a closer connection with the actions that they are performing.
- Metal Gear Solid should not be taken seriously
Of course, any single method is not going to suit every game, as every game attempts to achieve a different rapport with the player. But regardless of the particular context, these certain principles should be observed so that they player knows how the world works without being explicitly shown, or hidden from a puzzles solution; the player knows how to use the tools at their disposal; the player knows the game's parameters and limitations.
There have been so many good games that have suffered the fate of poor teaching systems, yet it is still something that is largely ignored. I think that the issue is that good game system tutorials are only generally seen as "ways of teaching the player how to play the game", and the impact of these tutorials is never even identified. In games that strive for mind-blistering realism through visuals, faithful reproduction of real life objects, grippingly cinematic stylings, buzzword buzzword etc; something as simple as educating the player in the games systems is shamelessly pushed aside and ignored. The realisation that this component of game design is just as important as the level design and gameplay itself will inevitably brush away that feeling of "There's just something missing" and make for more immersive games and gratifying player experiences.