I remember a time in about 1991 when I borrowed Super Mario Brothers 3 from a friend for a weekend. I wanted to beat it before I gave it back, but this being the relatively early days of console gaming,
SMB3 had no save feature of any kind, so in order to reach the end I just left my Nintendo on overnight a couple nights in a row to maintain my progress until I could come back to the game. When I finally beat it on day three or so, there was an added sense of triumph – not only had I beaten the game, I had beaten the system by managing to finish it before I had to turn off my system and lose all my progress. As far as ten-year-old me was concerned, Raccoon Mario and I had just stuck it to the Man.
Along with limited save capabilities, most console and PC games I played in the late eighties and early nineties had little to no in-game tutorials, so I could plan on spending some quality time with the instruction manual before playing if I wanted to know what I was doing. In-game nudges in the right direction were also rarer; I spent a good chunk of time playing The Goonies II and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on NES without a terribly clear sense of what kind of progress I was making through the game.
Modern game conventions have changed to the point where experiences like these are rare today (with the partial exception of game manuals, which survive in reduced and increasingly electronic form). When you buy a game today, you can usually expect to load it, start playing, and have the game teach you at least the basics on the go, and at any given point, there will be task log screens, map markers, and/or in-game path indicators to show you where you need to go to achieve your various goals. When these conventions started appearing in games, I was thrilled – I didn’t have to leave the console on all night, I could play one game while in the middle of another without losing all progress, no more wandering around with no idea where to go next or what to do when I get there. But it’s worth asking what’s lost if we expect all games to always let us start and stop on demand and show us where we’re going and why at all times.
This week I started Demon’s Souls for the first time (**minor SPOILERS of the first few hours of gameplay ahead!**), and I spent the first couple hours pretty sure that I was doing things totally wrong. Partway through the opening tutorial, I got my first glimpse of a serious enemy, Vanguard, and two strokes of a ridiculously large weapon later I was dead in someplace called the Nexus and only able to continue playing as a disembodied soul with half my health until (so the manual told me) I could defeat a major demon or find a way into another player’s game to help them withone in the game’s uniquely limited co-op. I picked the route back to the world that I thought would get me back to the area where I’d been so cursorily executed, but I wound up somewhere I didn’t recognize, where I died several more times as I kept finding my routes blocked by seemingly overpowered enemies. I became convinced I had screwed up somehow and that I’d missed some easier, quicker path to reclaiming my body and full health and continuing the tutorial and first level.
After about two hours, I finally found a survivable route to a killable demon and realized that I’d actually been following the path the game had intended. Vanguard killing me had been the intended end of the tutorial; that was the game’s way of telling me I wasn’t in Kansas anymore; making me play the next two hours at half health was another way of letting me know what kind of game this intended to be.
The experience of floundering through the opening hours of Demon’s Souls, without a clear sense of the way forward or an option to reload where I thought I’d gone wrong, made me kind of anxious. It had been so many years since I’d felt so unclear on what to do in a game (and this despite having read the manual) that I assumed it was unintended, that I’d wandered off the game’s path—no current-gen game would make me stumble around blindly like this on purpose, right? Once I realized that this was the game’s way of dropping me in the middle of the action from the outset, though (just to be sure I did a web search to confirm that this was the case), I appreciated the experience a lot—my character was supposed to feel overwhelmed and out of her depth, so the game had made me feel that way, too.
There is value sometimes in not knowing what’s happening, not having the information needed to plan well, and not being guided. There’s still a place for these sorts of time-inefficient experiences in gaming, and in various ways games are exploring them, though they’re not the default reality that they were when console gaming was younger and less streamlined. What are some games you’ve played—retro or new—that required these kinds of patience, trial and error, and uncertainty? Do you see these game experiences as intentional or accidental? When do they add to the experience and when are they better left in the past?