I recently published an article about Code of Princess. Within it, I briefly mentioned an incredibly old, incredibly iconic parody review system set down by the site Old Man Murray. Dating myself, it was penned in 2000 and is still relevant today even though the site hasn’t posted for over a decade. The system suggested that by gauging how long it took for the player to reach the first crate or barrel you could tell how good a game was. The less time, the worse the game. It was simply called Start to Crate or StC.
The reasoning behind this is simple: If every game has crates, every game can be judged by them. See, to Old Man Murray, the crate was the developer quitting. It’s when a solution can’t be gracefully solved and creatively implemented. What do we do when the player needs health, ammo or items? We put them in crates and leave them around like no one on earth ever does except the owners of bad guy video game facilities.
Now, twelve years later, I feel that we’re even further removed from this contract between developer and gamer. The developers think we’re dumber and we gladly accept. In other words, the crate isn’t cutting it anymore. We open them, throw them, push them, pull them, make them, place them and use them to hold down switches. Against all odds, the crate is no longer the benchmark of stupidity in gaming.
For argument’s sake, I’d posit the “Alright, you need to crouch to get through” moment. That moment when, in a completely linear game, you have to be told how to simply use the game. Whether it’s a fallen tree stump or a half-shut blast door or a small hole in the side of a derelict building, there is always a “crouch to get through” (CTGT) moment. It is the lowest blow to a gamer’s intelligence I can think of.
See, the crate is a suspension of disbelief. Supplies are in crates at one point or another but the problem is how and where the crates are. Maybe the receiving guy was off yesterday; maybe the storage room is too full? It could happen. The CTGT moment — or any ham-handed, immersion-breaking kiddie lesson — takes that disbelief and adds a layer of assumed ignorance on the player’s part.
I tremble to think what Old Man Murray would think nowadays.
Where the crate was a solution to a problem of necessity — a clumsy solution to a problem without an answer still, mind you — the CTGT is a solution to a problem of irrelevance. We don’t need a tutorial to teach us basic game functions. In fact, it only serves two detrimental functions: length fluffing and immersion breaking.
And the thing is, the needless tutorial is everywhere. Most famously, Peppy’s “Use the boost to get through!” has been immortalized (still, at least it actually was necessary to get through). The examples are too numerous to list. Sometimes, worst of all, you’re even shackled before completing said CTGT moment. You’ll have the item or ability but physically won’t be able to use it before you’re “taught.” This is bad game design!
I say this because it gets rid of one of the most fundamental pillars of gaming: exploration. Whether it’s physical or (in this case) trial and error, people enjoy learning through failure. Granted, the game has to play by its own rules; jumping can not suddenly become seppuku and hearts can’t suddenly become spiders. It boils down to this idea that gamers have to be coddled. That failure is a bad thing and we want to play interactive movies instead of games.
Even though both the StC and my StCTGT are offered up in jest, there is a real motive behind it. And that’s for developers to respect the curious, intelligent, challenge-seeking audience they have cultivated. I get it, I am playing a game and there are certain criteria to consider; suspension of disbelief being chief among them. However, when the line that separates streamlining and patronizing is crossed, ears should perk and lips should curl.
So, the next time some NPC says “Alright, you need to crouch to get through,” make sure there’s not a crate on the other side of the wall. If there is, run for the hills.