Video games can be difficult to get into — or at least, they might appear that way from the outside looking in. Within the last five or 10 years, though, it's an industry that has opened up in a lot of ways. Technology like motion controls and smartphones have broken down barriers and made gaming more accessible for more people, and that's great. However, when it comes to console games, or what you might call more traditional games, they can be a bit presumptuous about the player.
One very specific thing about modern games has been bugging me lately, and it was brought on by something my partner experienced a few years back. To cut a long story short, my partner and I sat down to play Onrush at EGX Rezzed a few years ago, and as she hasn't played a racing game since the PS1 days, she came a little unstuck. We joined a group for a round to try the vehicular multiplayer game out, but she couldn't accelerate. The game never told her how. The rest of the group and I were flying along merrily enough, while my partner sat on her ATV wondering how to go. A developer did tell her that R2 was accelerate, and she got moving, but it made me realise: some games just skip over the fundamentals sometimes.
I've been thinking about this a bit, and I decided to do a little experiment. I fired up fresh saves on some titles I have installed to see which of them would tell me how to move. After all, if you have to explain to players how to jump, attack, and dodge, surely you should go the whole hog and mention how to walk. Anyway, a surprising number of the games I checked out don't tell you how to move your character.
Hades is the example that really caught my attention. After selecting a new game and listening to the brief narration, you're dropped into the Underworld immediately to tackle your first run. My rule was that I'd only push buttons the game told me to push, and Hades provides no prompts whatsoever. Not a one.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice also provides no instructions on how to proceed once you're in control. Demon's Souls (at least, the PS5 remake) makes no attempt to teach you how to move, either. If you're following the same rule as me, you'd find yourself forever trapped at the start of these titles.
A game that almost gets there is Untitled Goose Game; you're told to push Square to honk, then you're taught that you can hold X to run. However, if you try this with no input on the left stick, the goose remains stationary — you're never instructed to use the stick to move. Similarly, Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales teaches you how to swing through the sky, but it does not tell you to use the left stick to walk, run, or direct yourself in mid-air.
It goes on: Ghost of Tsushima tells you that Square is attack, then leaves you to it. Yakuza: Like a Dragon begins with a quick time event sequence, and when you're next in control, offers no control prompts. There is absolutely a small degree of assumed knowledge, but isn't it interesting that those familiar with games just don't need telling? This stuff is just part of an unspoken language of which gaming enthusiasts are all somehow aware.
But if you rarely — or never — play video games, this assumption could leave a very bad first impression. We've had, what, between 20 and 30 years of iteration on controls, and have settled on lots of basic inputs. Left stick to move, right stick moves the camera, L2 to aim, R2 to fire, X to jump, and so on. If you're a newcomer, with none of that prior understanding, wouldn't it seem a little strange to have zero instructions or guidance?
I'm labouring the point a bit, and obviously there are answers. Curious players who don't know what to do can just try out all the buttons until they figure things out. Sure, but I don't think you should ever have to resort to that. There's the argument that games used to be even less tutorialised; if you play Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog, say, they never tell you what does what. While that's absolutely true, that doesn't mean it should still be happening. We live in a time where more people than ever are playing games, of all ages and skill levels, and some software still skips the most basic of interactions.
If you're wondering, there were some games I checked out that do tell you how to move — Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Bugsnax, The Witness, and Returnal all instruct you to move with the left stick. I was going to say that it's possibly a matter of target audience, that the people who play games like Sekiro or Yakuza simply don't need to be taught such fundamental actions. However, Housemarque's latest game manages it, and is among the most niche, hardcore video games in recent memory. There's clearly no harm in a quick explanation, is there? I just don't see that there's much of an excuse for skipping over this stuff anymore.
What do you think about this? Do games assume too much of the player? Should they explain the basics, like how to move? Does any of this matter? Discuss in the comments section below.