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Between Telling Too Much and Too Little: Balancing Video Game Instruction

Striking the right balance between telling too much and telling too little when it comes to in-game instructions.

How should video games guide or instruct players? Is it by hand-holding? Or is it not telling the player anything at all? The best way lies somewhere between the two.

Most games these days have been accused of holding the players hand and not letting players think or explore for themselves. I like to think that there are two types of handholding, the first is when a game tells you exactly where you need to go, and the second is when a game tells you exactly what you need to do. Final Fantasy XIII is guilty of the former. The thirteenth main game in the world’s best known JRPG series feature extremely linear environments (a straight line to be exact). To make this worse, FF XIII’s in-game map marks the player’s destination with a yellow exclamation point. The way the majority of FF XIII was designed leaves no room for exploration, and it immediately tells the player where to go next.

As for telling players exactly what they need to do, a good example would be in Red Faction: Armageddon. In one of the game’s boss fights, a text prompt clearly details how a boss can be beaten. As seen in the screenshot, the game does not let the player figure out what to shoot or what object to interact with in order to defeat the boss.

On the other end of the spectrum are games that fail to give the player enough information. I recently played Ico (as part of the Team Ico HD collection) and I was dumbfounded by how the game doesn’t tell the player a lot of important things. It doesn’t tell players that they can save using the couches, that they can use the circle button to swing the ropes/chains, that energy doors open by dragging Yorda into them, and there are instances wherein bridges would magically form only if the player was holding Yorda’s hand (without any prior indication that this would happen). I’ve been told that most of the game’s mechanics are explained in the manual and that ICO was made in 2001 so its in-game instructions should be held to a different standard, however, I’ve played games that are older than Ico and I didn’t need to look at the manual to progress through them. To me, this is a sign that ICO fails to give players enough information.

In Team ICO’s second game, Shadow of the Colossus, the instruction aspect has been improved as several on-screen prompts appear during the beginning of the game explaining the controls and the gameplay mechanics. However, the game’s most important mechanic, the grip meter, is not explained. During the first colossus fight, players find out that they need to grab the furry parts of the colossus and climb up to its head. An on-screen prompt appears stating that the damage to the colossus is directly proportional to how long the player holds the attack/stab button before releasing. During my first playthrough, I thought the pink circle/round meter measured the strength of my attacks on the colossus, and I couldn’t climb up to the colossus’ head and defeat it because I didn’t know how the grip meter worked. Other players (video, start at the 45-minute mark) had problems with this as well. Mechanics like riding the horse and using weapons were explained but the most important one, how to use the grip meter in order to defeat the colossi, was left out. This is a glaring flaw in how the game instructs the player because the game mechanic most critical to progression is not given enough emphasis, if any.


Of course, as I’ve mentioned during the beginning of this entry, the key to proper in-game instruction is balance. I believe that there are three pillars that constitute the right balance between telling the player too much and telling the player too little. First, games should not tell the player exactly where to go (no x marks on the map). Second, games also shouldn’t tell the player exactly what they need to do in order to progress (provide hints or clues if needed). Lastly and most importantly, games should always explain all of its mechanics and features well enough that players feel that they have been given enough knowledge in order to figure things out for themselves and progress.

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