gamesTM column - Driving Miss Desmond

For the last year, I've been writing a regular column for the lovely folk over at gamesTM magazine and they've really kindly said we can reprint them here. So I'm going to gradually drip them through, and hopefully they'll be interesting in some form or another... 

My most recent column for them, all about killing Nazis in Wolfenstein is up here, and here's an older one moaning about hand-holding in Assassin's Creed***

 Grand Theft Octogenerian. Who wouldn't want to play that?

Grand Theft Octogenerian. Who wouldn't want to play that?

Driving Miss Desmond.

You get into the car for a nice drive. You turn the key in the ignition and suddenly a disembodied voice cries “Whoah there! Before we set off, see that wheel in front of you? You can turn that left and right! Let's try that!”

You sigh heavily and do as you are told. Right, time to set off. “Hold up there!” says the voice, “let's talk pedals”. And so you repeat the process for the brake, accelerator, clutch, gears, indicators, windscreen wipers, radio, door handles... I've been driving a while now and not unreasonably, I just want to drive the thing. Learning to drive is important, but I don't need to learn all over again whenever I sit behind the wheel of a new car.

I love Assassin's Creed. Loved the first four games, but I've never made it past the first forty-five minutes of AC3 and I haven't even broken AC4 out of the plastic because I just can't take the endless in-game tutorials. Just like driving; I can understand new drivers need to learn the controls, but I don't want to suffer through it to 'learn' stuff I already know how to do, or given half the chance could figure out myself. Figuring it out is half the fun anyway. This isn't an problem specific to Assassin's Creed either. The Tomb Raider reboot held your hand like an overly protective Grandma so long you wanted to hurl Lara off a cliff just to shut it up. Even The Last of Us seemed to not want to admit I might, as a gamer, be OK with figuring it out myself.

Whatever happened to the training level? Half Life, Metal Gear Solid, System Shock 2 – these had separate training levels accessible from the main menu. Tomb Raider III had the Croft Mansion, complete with secrets and the ability to shut the butler in the fridge, before letting you loose into the world without any further help. I really like this system. It gives newbies a chance to learn the game, but it lets experienced or adventurous players dive right on in and learn or re-learn the hard way. I miss them. It seemed a really elegant way of protecting player experience right across the board.

Ramping up difficulty or complexity in a game is fine, and it's a tried and tested formula of game design. But there's a difference between this and treating all players as equally inexperienced. Forcing everyone through the stop-start grind of tutorial isn't just dumb, it's damaging to the game experience and there's something a little patronising about it even for newbies as well. It's a game, not a car. I'm not likely to injure myself or anyone else playing it, even if it's a Wii game - it's OK to learn by experimentation and failure. I know I'm missing out on great stuff in the new AC titles, but until Grandma backs off, it's not going to happen. Stick Desmond in a training level and we'll all be happy.  

*** OK, caveat. Since then, I did play AC4 and it DID actually not treat me like a soup-brained sloth with fingers made from sponge-cake and a learning curve shallower than the lyrics to the average Miley Cyrus song. I know Ubisoft have been waiting eagerly, perched on the edge of the collective studio desk to hear that I've forgiven them, so there it is. I take it back. The wider point about less hand-holding stands though. Next up, why Vita Chambers make me want to punch my head through the screen and scream in despair at the void.