It's a thought that's been lying on the periphery. It doesn't matter to me whether games are 'linear' or 'open world' or have diverging paths or any of that buzzword nonsense. I only care about one thing. Video games please: let me use my initiative.
I was playing Tearaway. A game I should have been in love with. But I wasn't. Why?
There's just so much to like about Tearaway. The art style is quote-on-quote 'delightful', 'charming' insert any of those words used to describe the sort of twee, gorgeous art-style that a subset of folks (including myself) tend to enjoy. Tearaway is original. Like really original. It ties the PS Vita's unique set of hardware capabilities, not just into the game, but into the thematic content of the game. It's actually quite dazzling in practice.
You play as a character called the 'you'. 'You' are the person who can interact with the world, 'you' can use the back touch screen to burst your fingers into the world. In a unique twist the PS Vita uses its camera to beam 'you' into the world. 'You' are the sun. Literally. Your face beams from the centre of the sun in the games world. It's all gloriously innovative.
Yet Tearaway made me feel hollow, for reasons I find very difficult to explain.
At first I thought it was the overload of 'twee'. I felt something similar with Thomas Was Alone. An interesting puzzle game that felt desperately twee, Thomas Was Alone seemed unconfident in its core mechanics. A voiceover was tacked on to provide a superficial layer of story that — ultimately — felt superfluous to the (actually quite great) puzzle experience.
Thomas Was Alone — that was a legitimate twee overload. I literally felt as though I was being manipulated by twee. Tearaway is different. Its a game that makes sense from most perspectives: a seamless marriage of form and content. In that sense Tearaway is a beautiful thing.
So what was the problem.
Initiative. Tearaway never allows me to use it. I can never shake this feeling: everything I do in Tearaway I do because someone has directly told me to do that thing.
Take a picture of this white paper animal.
Kill these things with your magical finger powers.
Walk in this direction. Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
A quick disclaimer: I don't believe that games have to be any 'single one thing'. When we start defining what games should and shouldn't be we start having problems. Proteus isn't a game. Dis4ia isn't a game. Candy Crush isn't a game. That's all bullshit quite frankly. My issue with Tearaway is personal preference. Clearly people find great value in what Tearaway is but I'm personally struggling. I am finding it very difficult to remain engaged because I feel completely disempowered. I am not allowed to use my initiative.
It was a feeling that was cemented for me when I began paying Super Mario 3D World. From a certain position these video games are very similar. Both are platformers. Both have gorgeous art. Both integrate clever little tricks using hardware specific technology. Yet one feels markedly superior to the other. Why is that?
There's no one over-arching reason, but the ability to use your initiative — I think — is key. In Tearaway it feels as though you are constantly being taught. No matter how quirky the voiceover doing the teaching, no matter how cute the integration, you are constantly being taught and it feels as though you are being taught.
In the original Super Mario Bros Shigeru Miyamoto wanted a mushroom powerup. In a hostile video game world where everything is essentially trying to kill you, Miyamoto struggled to find a way to inform players this mushroom was good thing. That it wouldn't kill you. His solution was simple. No talking head taught you a single damn thing. Miyamoto simply designed a sequence of play where picking up the mushroom was close to unavoidable.
You might say this is the opposite of initiative but Super Mario 3D World is full of this trickery: providing players with a space where specific lessons can be learned just by exercising one's curiosity. Players are being guided, but what's important is the illusion that we are acting on our own impulses: that's what makes the joy of discovery a tangible thing. And once those lessons are learnt the best games are constantly providing players with the opportunity to practice that skill, without bludgeoning players over the head with endless instructions that take the fun out of everything.
"Why don't you take a photo?"
"Why don't you take a photo?"
ALL RIGHT BLOODY HELL FINE I'LL TAKE A PHOTO!
(Couldn't you just tell me once and then give me a picturesque view? Maybe then I would have thought, 'oh, I should take a photo!' That would have felt nice.)
In Super Mario 3D World there are three green stars on every level and a stamp. The stamps can be really hard to find and are — for the most part — completely pointless. Why then am I so obsessed with collecting them?
Because finding them requires that I leave the beaten path. Finding them often requires practicing a set of skills in an inventive way. Finding them requires out of the box thinking.
Finding them requires that I use my initiative.