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.