Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
If you’ve played video games for a while, you’ve probably experienced a wide range of both intuitive and unintutive gameplay systems. Some games have pages and pages of bulky tutorial text and still leave you forgetting things and looking up controls, while others feature barely any direct instruction and are incredibly easy to pick up and play even after a long hiatus. Some of this is due to genre—action RPGs and some turn-based RPGs tend to be tricky to learn, while platformers and puzzle games are mostly fairly intuitive—but a lot of has to do with how the game teaches the player.
The textbook example of intuitive mechanical design is Portal. Aside from a few brief pop-up notifications indicating basic controls, the Portal games feature no formal tutorials. The game leads players to learn to solve complex, abstract physics-based puzzles through nothing more than slowly-compounding puzzle mechanics and subtle visual cues. A rusted ladder, for example, causes a player to instinctively look up, encouraging the player to think vertically. Visually distinct portal-ready surfaces lead to observation-based puzzle sequences where players have to search for similar surfaces in unfamiliar locations. Et cetera.
Portal’s approach to teaching players its mechanics serves three purposes. First, it avoids the boredom inherent in most formal tutorials. Second, it makes the game a lot more intuitive and a lot less frustrating than it might otherwise be—rather than reading about the game’s mechanics and being asked to immediately apply them to a fully-realized puzzle sequence, the game teaches the player organically, piece-by-piece. More importantly, perhaps, the game’s learning-by-doing approach makes the mechanics stick longer, so a player returning to the game after a long break is more likely to remember how the game works—a real challenge in many more traditionally designed games.
Part of the reason Portal is an interesting example of this is its mechanics are not inherently intuitive. The spatial thinking the game requires—placing portals on two surfaces to bridge spaces in creative ways—is entirely divorced from reality. Even with little grounding in expected physical behaviors, Portal is able to train players to understand its mechanics fairly quickly.
You can see a similar philosophy running underneath Super Mario Galaxy. Galaxy turned the typical norms of Mario games on their head by designing levels where gravity doesn’t always go down. This is hugely unusual, and the rules of when and how this applies in the game would be quite complex if you were to try to write them out in the abstract. As with Portal, though, the game makes this all feel intuitive using subtle visual cues. Rounded edges generally mark a change in the direction of gravity, while corners indicate a surface you can fall off of. A black hole indicates the presence of a deadly pit. Coins or other collectibles on the side or bottom of a platform hint that Mario can safely walk off the edge.
As with Portal, Galaxy takes inherently unrealistic mechanics and makes them feel natural and intuitive. Both Portal and Galaxy have other aspects that I would consider their “core” strengths, but their intuitive mechanics are absolutely a triumph and not something that happened by accident.
That said, both games are fundamentally built around movement, and movement tends to be fairly intuitive given enough time. Even playing something like Jet Set Radio, another movement-centric game that does far less to help the player learn, becomes second-nature after an hour or two with the game. The more technical a game’s systems, though, the more difficult this sort of intuitive player learning becomes.
This is often a problem with RPGs in particular. Many RPGs and Action RPGs spend much of the early game gradually introducing the player to new mechanics, usually through text boxes filled with technical details surrounding how the game works. When you play one of these game for the first time and all at once, this works well enough. On subsequent playthroughs, the tutorial segments are annoying, but not hugely problematic.
Where problems come up, though, is when you leave one of these games for a while and then try to come back later. Because the mechanics themselves are unintuitive and the tutorial method was also unintuitive, it can be a challenge to re-learn the game. I have this problem with the more recent Tales Of games in particular, as they’re filled with special techniques and mechanical quirks that add richness to the gameplay when you already know them but that are highly obtuse when you don’t. Playing the games straight through, you know what you have access to and you can use everything effectively, but after a hiatus it’s easy to forget key options and inadvertently make the game much more difficult. Controls and explanations of mechanics are buried deep within tutorial menus in the middle of pages and pages of text, making it even harder to find information about specific systems. Not fun.
I’ve yet to find an Action RPG that solves this perfectly. Some ARPGs avoid the problem by just being fairly simplistic (like Kingdom Hearts), but even the Kingdom Hearts games have a number of obscurities that can be problematic on higher difficulties, and on lower difficulties the simplicity can make the games mechanically boring. The World Ends With You is probably the closest to what I would consider the ideal in this regard, but that’s likely in part because I’ve played the game several times and know its mechanics like the back of my hand.
Turn-based RPGs fall into a nice middle-ground where, like Action RPGs, they often allow for a high degree of mechanical complexity, but unlike Action RPGs they aren’t (usually) bound by the constraints of a time-sensitive battle system and thus they can make more information available to the player at once. There are, of course, Turn-based RPGs with exceptionally complex and unintuitive battle systems that are difficult to return to after a hiatus (looking at you, Persona 2), but there are also a great many that have solved these problems in creative ways.
The key in the case of Turn-based RPGs tends to be contextual information displays. When the player highlights a skill, its effect should be displayed. Even better if the game also provides a damage estimate and an accuracy percentage. When the player highlights a character or enemy, its stats, strengths, and weaknesses should be displayed. There’s a point where it becomes too much information, of course, but generally speaking a smart contextual information display reduces cognitive load and lets players focus on the actual fun parts of the games—the strategic thinking.
More and more RPGs seem to be moving in this direction. There’s a big difference between something like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne and Shin Megami Tensei IV or Persona 5. Even just in terms of skill usage, Nocturne forces the player to remember enemy weaknesses and resistances, as it provides no visual indication of enemy vulnerabilities. In Shin Megami Tensei IV and Persona 5, by contrast, once the player sees an enemy’s weaknesses or resistances the first time, the targeting cursor changes to reflect those weaknesses and resistances on all future turns and encounters, speeding things up and making it a lot easier to come back to the game after a break.
These sorts of systems do make the games easier, but the difficulty they take out isn’t fun difficulty—it’s just annoyance and tedium. The end result is the same as if the player were to take notes on a physical notepad while playing. It saves the player time and frustration, which is a full win, on-balance.
Making games more mechanically intuitive reduces friction and helps pacing. It makes it so players are more likely to continue playing and more likely to come back to a game after dropping it. It’s something that’s often overlooked, but it adds a ton to overall player experience.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition