Monday Musings: No One Tells Batman What To Do

Playing Batman: Arkham Asylum recently, I was struck by two things. One, how good it is. Two, why does Batman need his hand held?

First point: yes, Arkham Asylum is good, at least based on the two hours I've played. It's good for a licensed game - perhaps even one of the very best, up there with the likes of Riddick and Goldeneye in the way it marries pitch-perfect gameplay to a studied appreciation of what people enjoy about the original property.

Better, it's also a good game in its own right, regardless of the license. Even without Batman, without the familiar villains and the recognisably Dark Knight atmosphere, Arkham Asylum succeeds on its own merits. But more on that later.

Instead I want to focus on one aspect I found troubling. Near the end of my play session I entered a large room housing a small central chamber. Inside that chamber were five thugs pointing their guns at the woman I was meant to rescue. Directly in front of me the wall of the chamber showed a weak point that I could destroy by spraying it with and then detonating some explosive gel. My Bat-vision told me three of the thugs were immediately behind this wall, meaning I'd take them out in the blast.

So I did. As soon as the wall exploded, killing three of the thugs, a cutscene kicked in to show the other two thugs fire upon their hostage. She died and I'd failed in my rescue bid. Game over.

But during that cutscene I noticed the other two thugs were standing in front of a wall similar to the one I'd just destroyed. A-ha! I thought. If I apply the explosive gel to both walls before detonating, I should take out all five thugs in one go, and thus keep the hostage alive.

I hit Retry on the Game Over menu and a loading screen popped up. It advised me to consider applying the explosive gel to both walls before detonating in order to take out all five thugs in one go.

Irritation hit me first, as I felt denied of the opportunity to test my solution. I now knew it worked, so where's the fun in that?

Then I felt insulted. Yeah, so, I failed something once, it doesn't mean I'm too stupid to work it out on a second attempt? Thanks, Mr Condescending Game Designer!

Then I felt despair. Is this really the way games are designed these days? So utterly terrified are our game designers that someone, somewhere will get lost for a moment or stuck on a puzzle that they feel it necessary to tell us exactly what to do the very instant we hesitate?

Admittedly, I'd died once earlier, during an encounter with more armed thugs. Here, the idea is you can't engage them in direct combat but have to make stealth attacks, leaping from the shadows to take down one guy then retreating back before his colleagues spot you. When I died here, the loading screen tip emphasised the advantage of a stealth attack.

This didn't bother me, as it was merely reinforcing a tactic I'd just learned. In any case, I knew what I had to do, I just had to get better at it. Contrast that with the explosive gel scenario where, instead of giving tactical advice, it solved the entire problem for me.

I'm Batman, I shouldn't need anyone holding my hand.

Years ago, games never held our hand. Instead, they'd kick our arse.

In my youth I'd map platform games across sheets of graph paper so I'd know where I was meant to be going. I'd fill entire notepads with clues and information from role-playing games in lieu of an in-game journal system.

Since then, in an effort to attract a wider audience - and, let's be honest, allow the existing audience a better chance of actually finishing the damn game - designers have tried all kinds of ways to make games more accessible. We now have pop-up tooltips, tutorials, automatic maps, quest logs and journals, GPS systems, map markers, waypoints, giant neon chevrons on the floor!

Metroid dropped us on an alien world and said, "Good luck!" Metroid Prime drops us on an alien world and says, "Hey, why don't you head this way."

Professor Layton lets you access a tiered system of hints, paid for with in-game currency, and says, "If you need help, it's here." Fable II by default throws you some glowing bread crumbs and says, "Follow this to the end of the game."

It's a fine balance to get right. Design something to be too accessible and it's unlikely to still be a game; design it too challenging and you'll alienate your audience. Batman seems to get it wrong and right at the same time.

I'd like to see designers place more trust in the player. To have faith that, despite hesitation or failure, they'll still manage to get it right in the end. It's nice to know there's a hand there if you want to hold it, but sometimes its grasp is too tight. Sometimes you just want to let go and find your own way.


Comments

    The dumbed down gaming experience for the lowest common denominator is, unfortunately, here to stay. This all ties in with the increase in casual gamers. Casual gamers want the McDonalds family meal deal in their gaming. Get in and get out.

    I remember playing the original Bard's Tale with my graph paper and notes everywhere to map the dungeons. They were the good old days of gaming. I think with all of those romantic things from our childhood they are gone and not forgotten but never to return.

    Good points, well made, Goose. I'm totally with you on sketching out level maps on paper too. Good times.

    Still, gauntlet-covered hand-holding aside, I've played about a third of the way through Arkham Asylum, and so far I reckon it's the most enjoyable game I've played on 360 this year.

    Not that competition has been exactly fierce, but this Batman game is just impossible to put down. It just hasn't yet given me any reason to *not* play it. I enjoyed Red Faction Guerrilla, Prototype and Resident Evil 5 (just), but all of them pissed me off enough to switch off at times (for varying reasons).

    Whereas, as a gameplay experience, Arkham Asylum is as slick as Batman's cape in the Gotham City rain*

    *Note: I stole that line from my song 'Girl, I'm as Slick as Batman's Cape (In the Gotham City Rain)'

    That story reminds me on Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. In that game a prompt appears periodically to press L2 for a hint. Sometimes this helps to point you in the right direction, but sometimes it's so stupidly obvious you need to wonder why they bothered.

    There was a section of a level where all I needed to do was quite literally jump from platform to platform. That's it - nothing tricky, nothing unusual from what I'd done 100 times before. But for some reason the game felt compelled to offer me a hint here, and when I pressed L2 (thinking maybe I'd missed something) it pointed me towards the final platform in the jumping sequence I was already heading to. Umm...duh? I'm only a few hours into it (yeah I know I'm late) but the game's already done this several times. I don't mind having my hand held a little during the opening "tutorial" sequences as I'm learning the mechanics, but pointing out the stupidly obvious to me just seems like a bit of an insult to my intelligence.

      The hints only seemed to appear if you spent "too long" in the one area in Uncharted. But I agree it was annoying/frustrating/insulting, particularly because with all the bloody hidden treasures you were encouraged to explore every little nook and cranny, and then the game would prompt you as if it thought you had no idea what you were doing.

      Luckily you could turn the hints off in the options.

      Another frustrating one was the recent Wolverine game. Not matter how far along you were, if you took a few hits in a row it popped-up a "Press LT to block" message. Gee, really? Again the hints were promptly disabled in the options.

      If Arkham doesn't have the option to turn off hints, then that is really, really annoying.

    Is this really an issue worth spending time on?

      Apparently it was worth commenting on.

        Haha, Roger was owned.

        Surely there's something more worthy of discussion? I just don't see how hints such as these really impact your gaming experience to a level that requires discussion.

        For me, the issue isn't the hints, it's the puzzles. It is hard for me to remember a game from the last 5-10 years that had some truly engaging puzzles in game. Discovering the need to spray 2 walls with explosive gel is hardly a puzzle.

          "Discovering the need to spray 2 walls with explosive gel is hardly a puzzle."

          Absolutely agree, it's far from a particular clever puzzle, and yet the designers still felt the need to tell me how to solve it...

            Oddly enough I didn't even notice the destructible walls in that section, and instead went about silently throttling the five guards to death.

            If anything, the game didn't give me enough hints!

            So clearly this game is so smart it can tell that I'm a better player than you, Goose :P

            Game of the year.

              You're not thinking of a slightly earlier stealth-focused section in the hospital ward?

                Ah, my mistake. I was thinking of the bit later on with and the five .

                You're right, blasting those two walls simultaneously is the only course of action for that section. And it's obvious enough that it doesn't require the developers spelling it out for you on the loading screen – maybe if you've failed it 10 times, but certainly not after the first try.

                Perhaps you could get around this problem of the game spoiling itself for you, by changing the game's language settings to Chinese?

                Unless you can read Chinese, in which case I'm all out of ideas.

            That's another problem with hand-holding in game sometimes it just means the developers are lazy in creating good puzzle/challenges that can be solved intuitively without hints but are also not boring. I really hated the path that the new prince of Persia took. The light which shows you where you want to go was stupid becuase the "open world" itself was rather limited and pointless, apart from preventing you from doing an entire level in one go and artificially lengthening the game. Then there was the combat, perhaps if it didn't rely so much on quick time events and had much more free movement then they wouldn't need to have Elika save you all the time, the enemies health refills anyway so they might as well have just had die and reloading.

      It's called Monday MUSING not Monday 'In depth discussion into major issues surrounding gaming, life and death.'

      The internets are a very big system of tubes, there is room for a few 'not so important' but interesting pages.

    Ghostbusters has this problem too.
    Youre suppose to find all the hidden items in the game, but you can only find them with your ghost goggles on and scanner going (whatever theyre called) but the game tells you to put your goggles on every time theres a hidden item in the area.
    So, you dont need to be actively looking for the items. You just wait for the game to tell you when theres one near by.
    So much for being 'hidden' items.

    I am hoping that game designers remember that sometimes people like to be able to turn features off. I don't mind trial and error problem solving, and I don't mind repeated attempts to get things right. Sometimes I'll load a save just to get something near perfect.

    I hate it when games spoil good puzzles though. I'd be very frustrated if what you outlined happened to me.

    Sometimes, the most powerful ability a game character has is the save and load function. If at first you don't succeed... :P

    Indeed. As long as you don't have to complete some totally random and complex ritual ingame, hints are a total waste of time.

    Savescumming ftw.

    fantastic article goose.

    and yes Roger, this is certainly something worth spending time on.
    One thing i hate is dumbed down games - i like them to be challenging but not impossible. I loved getting compleatly lost numerous times in games like phatasy star (although at times it could be frustrating lol)
    Some of the best games are one that offer no help

    Good article David, I agree wholeheartedly. Games have been dumbed down to the point where there is hardly any interaction at all. It is something that I feel will just continue to get worse.

    Sometimes the hints games (or that gamers give each other) give aren't very good. For example when playing Prototype on PC this weekend, I died ~20 times trying to do a mission which required me to "evade the military".

    I tried everything, like fighting my way out, or running away and hiding, and no matter what would get beaten down hard despite having a pretty solid character built up. So I searched for some advice from other people.

    I saw that LOTS of other people had trouble with the exact same mission, and kept getting the same cookie cutter advice, which was either "kill the helicopters" (which didn't work, as they appear to keep on respawning), or "run and hide", which also didn't work, it was nigh impossible to get to any area where I wasn't seen.

    I did discover three posts to solve it, two which involve getting out of line of sight for a micro second long enough to switch costume and hide (one through a bug in the software), and one on how to fight which I didn't test.

    Now that it's behind me though, and I read your post, I think it's not just about whether there is a hint system, but how useful it is, going in both directions - one too easy one too hard.

    Another system I like being used was the line on the ground in Dead Space on PC, and I used it almost constantly. Why? Is it because I'm some dumbed down gamer? Maybe to some people I am, despite playing PC games since the early 90s.

    I choose to play that way because its purpose was to relieve stress, kill some demons, and most importantly uncover the plot I'd followed through the comic book and movie. Memorising base layout or getting lost are complete mood killers for me, and I'm not there for some mental challenge - if I want that, I'll go to work and put my mind on something actually productive.

    I play games to "have fun", so it's good to have hint systems like that.

    Compare that with the Season 1 collection of Sam & Max. That was so complicated I couldn't work out a single puzzle on my own and cheated through the whole thing just for the jokes and story. I wouldn't get any gratification from working out the obscure puzzles.

    I'm torn on this one
    I agree that a lot of games, especially in the RPG genre have a lot of hand holding now.
    On the other hand, in game journals are awesome, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just on a nostalgia trip. Most of the people who are complaining about things like in game journals and auto mapping could choose to ignore that feature. You don't have to look at it, draw yourself a map on paper, if that's what floats your boat. I think you'll find it's not as fun and awesome as you remember...

    I think monkey island 3 and Indiana jones and the fate of Atlantis had the best idea. Give you difficulty settings which are based on the difficulty of the game, not just how much damage the enemies do or how many hp they have.
    Of course, that's a lot of extra work for the developers.

      "...You don’t have to look at it, draw yourself a map on paper, if that’s what floats your boat..."
      Rofl

      As a child I enjoyed this. As an adult ... I don't have time for it.

        "As a child I enjoyed this. As an adult … I don’t have time for it."

        My thoughts exactly. Seeing as how the average gamer is a young adult these days, most people dont have the ridiculous amounts of free time they once enjoyed when they were younger. I barely have any time to play games, let alone spend hours getting stuck figuring stuff out, constantly dying or grinding etc.

    Great point! This issue has annoyed the hell out of me ever since the PSONE/N64 era. Man, I remember playing my old nes and snes to death, without a single tutorial or hint! In fact, hint's were so special they catalogued them into hint books, but this was before the internet.

    It's a shame that the notion of 'dumbing down games' is here to stay, but perhaps game designers could implement a 'non-hint' mode, or an 80's mode, where you get 3 lives and no continue's, no saves like Ninja Gaiden or Rygar. Old School!

    Another game that could get annoying like this was MGS4. You could simply ask for help sometimes, which wasn't a problem because it was an option, but I hated it when Otacon would jump in and tell you what to do without letting you solve it yourself.

    Well, Game of the year… so far. That has Mark Hamill in it.

    (apologies for the double post)

    I thought the system in the Paper Mario system was a good idea. You buy a hint from a central point.

    Hey David, nice article.

    Also, WHEN IS THE AUSTRALIAN RELEASE DATE? Every retailer in the country has different dates and Eidos have said nothing. Is it the same as the European date?

    I think you make a very good point, I've raised this on the Batman: Arkham Asylum message boards and hopefully the design team will take it seriously.

    Part of the appeal of this game is becoming the Dark Knight himself, and that means solving problems and riddles. If they solve them for me.... then what's the point in having them in the first place? If anything that would detract from the game.

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