Dear Video Games, Please Let Me Use My Initiative

Dear Video Games, Please Let Me Use My Initiative
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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?”


(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.


  • I had a similar feeling with beyond two souls. I don’t recall specifics but I do recall having the same feeling with that. Just didn’t give me the time to figure anything out.

    • I think Uncharted can be bad at that as well.

      If you take more than a minute to figure out a puzzle Sully is all ‘HEY NATE HEY NATE WHAT IF WE MOVE THESE STATUES’


      • They should make uncharted 4 a Sully simulator where you’re commanding Nate through the previous games in the series


      • Yeahhh, same thing is happening to me with Last of Us. Trying to explore the environment a bit when a bit ‘X – HINT’ appears, then reading ‘FOLLOW YOUR FRIEND TO THE DOOR’. Cool, got you, but I’m going to enjoy this area it took some poor guy weeks to design first.

      • lol I did find this amusing but I usually made Sully just wait around for me to do my exploring, but then he comments like “Shouldn’t we get going?” and I’m just like “yeh yeh I’ll take my time thanks Sully.”

        I usually enjoy my open world, choice heavy, approach it how u want to games, but damn did I sure enjoy the hell out of the Uncharted series. Even though its pretty much a linear action adventure. It really felt like what a modern Indiana Jones would be like. And those set pieces, wow, (even though they are usually a series of quick time events) has surpassed most recent movies for me. I’m thinking of the train level in Uncharted 2 and the cargo plane in Uncharted 3.

      • ‘Hurry up’ barks from NPCs or mission objective indicators are my pet peeve in games.

        “Come on man, we’ve got to move!”
        “I thought you guys were military, have you ever heard of clearing a room? No wonder we keep getting ambushed and flanked.”

        “Hey, player! Open this door.”
        “I’m rummaging for precious, rare medkits and bullets, so maybe we can make it out of this alive, thanks. If you’re so DAMN desperate open it yourself. Or maybe I’ll just let you bleed out instead of providing the medkit you couldn’t wait ten damn seconds for.”

  • I find it odd that you cite Super Mario 3D World as a good example of ‘initiative’ gameplay because of stamps that require you to ‘leave the beaten path’. Doesn’t Tearaway feature the exact same thing, in the form of presents? In order to collect all of the, mostly pointless presents, you had to get to hard-to-access areas, and were given no hints on how to do so. Sure, some presents were accessed by doing some sort of over-explained minigame, but a majority of them were hidden away and required at least a small degree of independent thinking.
    Although please note that I haven’t played Super Mario 3D world, so I may be misunderstanding the stamp concept.

    • Nah you’re right. But Mario 3D World really tends to put them in a spot where something designed exists, or where you have to use a particular skill to get there. In my experience Tearaway’s presents are just there. In a slightly different place to the direction you’re supposed to be headed in.

  • I recently finished Enslaved after owning it for 2 years. Really good game, good characters and the enviroments are gorgeous. But one problem I had with the game is that the camera was constantly taken away from me. Whenever I enter a new area I would get a sweeping view of the area to show everything I can do. Whenever I completed a combat area the camera would view towards a ledge I can grab onto (the ledges already glowed white). Near the end of the game, there’s a part where you have to turn a couple of valves. The wheels are huge, can’t hide in the background and it’s a small area. I couldn’t interract with them until the game told me I could. I was standing right next to it, when the camera then zoomed in towards it, then did a sweeping shot of the area next to it so that I could know what the area around it was.

    It was also a huge problem I had with Halo 4. But I go into more details about there here–not-forcing-them.aspx

    • Yeah, it’s the way game mechanic design is leaning to these days. Need more 12 yr olds on consoles playing without annoying their parents every step of the way. inb4 flamebait, but you know it’s true.

      This is why Half-Life was so ‘wow’, because there’s no directions and you gotta work everything out. Different mechanics, appeal to different players.

  • I think you’re referring to the on-rails concept of game design? It’s not an entirely stupid ‘genre’, but I think you’re just finally realising that we’ve been swamped with brainless “go here and do this, but only via this path” games for the past 5 years and it’s reaching breaking point.

    “Go here, do this” games are pretty much everywhere and give some meaning to the game. They differentiate themselves in how much flexibility they give to get the tasks done – or better yet, the illusion of flexibility.

    • I think there’s a difference though. On rail shooters for example, they totally allow you to use different weapons for different situations, or time your shots differently, etc. There’s still room for initiative in those games.

      • I haven’t played Tearway, so okay. The way I’m reading it, is that it played like the generic ‘intro’ scenes in games now, which is usually 10 mins or so of guided and restricted gameplay. Is that pretty much the whole game though?

  • There’s an old Sonic ripoff that went by the name of Tearaway Thomas. This contributes nothing to the story, just thought I’d share.

  • I agree completely. Each discovery in a game, no matter how scripted or free-form, needs to feel like your own. I love Skyrim for that reason. I also love the CastleVania games for it too.

    Mark, if you haven’t yet, you should try Bean’s Quest – a great mobile platformer that pretty much let’s you play each level in what ever way you see fit. Head straight to the exit, try for the jump par, or collect all the gems. I know people scoff at mobile games, but whatever, it’s one of my favorite games for exactly the reasons you mentioned. No IAP and awesome music are the icing on the cake 🙂

  • yeah i have had a hard time getting in to tearaway for this reason, i hate naging games. its likely the biggest reason that skyward sword made me angry but a link between worlds was one of my favorite games in ages

  • Sounds like what I label “Cinematic” games – stuff like Uncharted, The Last of Us, CoD/BF singleplayer, even the new Tomb Raider.
    They seem to all be about pushing you through the game in just the right way and pace so it feels like one big seamless cinematic roller-coaster ride. Then fill it with tightly scripted gameplay and quicktime events between grindy fights so you feel like you are contributing without the risk of disrupting the interactive movie you are playing.
    Also characters who don’t shut up – always saying “I/you/we need to go/do/kill X!” repeatedly in case you forgot in the last minute.

    At least I have saved money by buying less games in the last two years.

  • Nice piece, Mark – I think this is why I enjoy the Lego games so much. Sure, the puzzles aren’t necessarily difficult, but once I’ve made it through the first few levels and come back to find all the secret bits, I have to use my initiative. Though the newer ones do have an annoying level of prompting, reminding you which characters (or at least character abilities) you need for which tasks, I know the target age group is a lot younger than me, and you can turn at least some of them off. And often in the overworld puzzles there aren’t many hints. It’s a satisfying thing to clock 100% on one of those games.

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