A quick note before we begin:
I wrote a good chunk of this article yesterday, when it was supposed to go up, but life intervened from getting it up on time. This means that I owe an extra article. Currently, I spend 45 hours per week at my retail job, and my random scheduling led to an 8 day stretch, which I have just come off. Spending time with friends is part of how I unwind. Occasionally in this 60 days, I may be late an article, but it will still be made up for by all the extra articles I have planned.
Like many in my generation, I grew up on unforgiving games that were difficult to get in to. Mine was a Nintendo household, and until I was 5, all we had was our trusty NES. I was blowing into cartridges before I can remember being taught to. It wasn’t until I was 9 that I finally beat a game for the first time: “Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past”. This was a game where I still had to learn to do a lot of things, but doing so was engaging in a way I had never before experienced. While the game was not nearly as hard as the original entry in the series (which I never properly beat until I was into my 20s), but the real change was that I could understand the mechanics. From the time you wake up in your bed, until you rescue Zelda from the dungeon, you are essentially in a tutorial level. The game never calls it a tutorial, and you can skip talking to the guards and miss it, but mechanics are introduced, and in the very next room after you get the sword from your dying uncle, you encounter two of the easiest enemies in the game. This allows you to test out the new sword you got, and the design of this room also introduces four different concepts immediately to the player. When you enter the room, the exit is visible, but a hallway stretches off to the right, drawing the player’s attention. This introduces exploration to the player, checking every room for secrets. In this hallway lie the aforementioned enemies. When you move right, the screen scrolls, communicating to audiences at the time that the screen scrolled, so entire rooms no longer had to fit on a single screen. After defeating the enemies in the hallway, you find a treasure chest, two pots containing magic potion, and a torch. If you missed the lantern in the chest in your house, it will be here (along with every other treasure chest, otherwise it contains 5 rupees). This lets the player experiment with the lantern in an easy environment. The player then leaves the room to storm the castle. I could write a whole series of articles on this, and that’s the intent, but the point is that the game subtly communicated it’s mechanics to the player, making them better able to understand the rest of the game. These minimalist, subtle tutorials were something that Nintendo excelled at during the SNES generation. “Super Metroid”‘s intro (including cutscenes) and the first island in “Super Mario World” are also stellar examples of this at work. This move was designed from the ground up to make Nintendo’s franchises more accessible to a newer, more widespread audience.
Another frankly excellent example of this comes from a more recent Zelda game: “Ocarina of Time 3D”. The remaster added Sheikah Stones, there to offer hints to those players who were truly stuck, and dialed back the difficulty of the infamous Water Temple. While a very vocal minority threw tantrums about the changes, they made this famous game of theirs fresh and new for an audience that might have never experienced them in their original version, allowing a new generation to fall in love with that particular classic. The backlash against changes such as these is frequently decried as “dumbing down” by the histrionic, so-called “hardcore gamer” cretins that inhabit the internet is predictable and almost always as insane as it is inane. A reduction in difficulty, tutorial levels, clearing up confusion about mechanics, these are all very powerful tools a developer can use to let as many people as possible experience their work. Even games designed to be hard often feature some, or even all, of these tools, as well as countless others to fine tune the accessibility of their title. When these same lunatics scream and cry when games aren’t considered art by some critic or pundit from other media, the lack of general, basic accessibility is the reason. It is good for everybody, the audience, the general public, even the “hardcore” crowd, that games be made accessible to as many people as possible, as this leads to greater acceptance of gaming as a tool for communicating more complex ideas. That’s how something is considered by the general public to be an artistic medium. While challenge is an important thing to retain, it has to be be introduced bit by bit, to keep the player engaged as the challenge ramps up.
Come back next time, where we will talk in depth about why the original “Dark Souls” is an exemplar of all of this, all while convincing the player it isn’t.