There are times when one is forced to weep for the future. Say someone bit off your ear - that'd do it. Considering the current standard of in-game tutorials is another.
Games are often tricky to pick up, and since 480% of them are sequels, it's even harder. A complicated control system needn't be an obstacle, but a training level that completely fails to get the relevant points across, or bombards you with details you'll never remember, or spends more time doing its Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant impression than actually pointing out how to fire a gun, is about as much use as my old history teacher, who used to wear low-cut tops and bend over a lot while complaining that nobody was paying attention. (What she really meant was nobody was listening; we were all very attentive.)
I bring this up today for a pair of reasons. First off, you can summarise this week's new releases as 80% ports, 10% stuff no one would send me, and 10% grammatastrophe ("The Sims Celebration! Stuff" - presumably that exclamation mark is meant to excite, but coupled with "Stuff" it just sort of sits there panting like a bloated prostitute beached on a sweaty sheet of drunken mistakes), so they can get their publicity another way. Secondly, I've been playing Splinter Cell: Double Agent on the PS3. It's not that far removed from the Xbox 360 version (you can read my full review, including lots of very angry sentences about how diabolically it's been converted, next week), and it's a perfect example of a tutorial that doesn't actually tutor.
I haven't really bothered with Splinter Cell since the first one, which I didn't like very much. Double Agent on the 360 was ace though, so I thought I'd use this excuse to play it properly - and would have on the first afternoon I popped it in the drive, had the game not been quite so loath to allow me. Instead it does lots of really ingenious things, like introducing pipe-climbing concepts and then spawning you directly in front of a pipe where they don't apply. (Actually, thinking about it, it didn't introduce the concept either - I had to read about it in the manual.) It tells you to go through the north door without defining north; it shows you a glass cubicle that you have to smash the side off to enter, but doesn't instruct you how to punch; it tells you how to disable security cameras, but doesn't mention that they come back on after a few seconds; and this is before we get onto some of the things that just don't make any sense in general, like not being able to grab onto a horizontal pipe above your head even though you can jump high enough for Sam Fisher's head to clip through it. If you're new to the game, you're forced to study the manual and learn the rest through trial and error. Lots and lots of error, with plenty of confusion stemming from the way some of your contextual take-downs seem to fail if you're a few pixels off. Pixels the game doesn't clearly define, obviously.
Double Agent's presumption is hardly the worst such offence though. Nintendo Wii games released in recent months (largely third party affairs) fail spectacularly to introduce the actual rules that govern success and failure. Instead they offer broad-ranging descriptions and leave you to guess the rest; half the reviews and forum posts you read bear scant relation to one another, as gamers struggle to actually grasp what's working and what isn't. Why not just have the game say tell us? Depressingly, it's probably fair to assume that if they did, they'd still explain it all badly.
Surely this has to stop. Last week we talked about off-putting game names and box art (on the subject of the latter, congratulations are to Ubisoft for their latest effort, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Sexual Predator), but this is a bigger problem, and one that's surely easier for developers to fix. In-line tutorials and control systems would help. Failing that, a bit of research into effective methods of education and a person dedicated to ensuring the points are conveyed would surely be a good move. And why not go further? Make tutorials the thing that hooks the player in the first place. Compose them spectacularly, imaginatively, subtly - if your game is all of those things already, then why not? Education can be the silver bullet. At the moment all we're doing is shooting people repeatedly and hoping they get the picture. It's enough to make you cry.
- Burnout Dominator (PSP)
- Charlotte's Web (PS2)
- Frontline: Fields of Thunder (PC)
- Guitar Hero II (Xbox 360)
- Luxor 2 (Xbox Live Arcade)
- Rayman Raving Rabbids (Xbox 360)
- Playwize Poker & Casino (PSP)
- Prince of Persia: Rival Swords (Wii, PSP)
- The Sims 2 Celebration! Stuff (PC)