I began playing games in earnest in the early 90’s. My earliest, and some of my fondest, gaming memories are of Atari 2600 and NES games, like Joust, Mega Man and Mario. When friends began to tell me I should play Dark Souls, I was hesitant at first. When I tried it, I had flashbacks to early childhood gaming memories the likes of Zelda and Metroid, but maybe not for the reasons you may think. It wasn’t because of similar gameplay loops or systems; it was because I was able to really learn how to play a game again.
What I’m referring to here specifically is the act of discovery — or conveyance as it is known in game design. Going into a new game with very little understanding of how to play, and learning how to succeed through experience. In the days of Atari and NES, games games didn’t have tutorials. Every piece of instruction was in a small and simple booklet which consisted of little more than basic controls and a bit of backstory. There were no on-screen or in-game prompts (Sequelitis: Megaman where Arin Hanson of Game Grumps goes over this very same topic). Mega Man did not explain that the Robot Masters are weak to certain other Robot Master attacks. The Legend of Zelda does not explicitly state that cracked walls can be blown up with bombs. You had to experiment and pay attention to fully master a game and learn how it works. And when you made these connections, a sense of accomplishment followed.
It was a very similar feeling I had when I played Dark Souls. Much like the Robot Masters’ weaknesses, I remember the joy of learning that different weapons attacked and moved in different ways. This allowed me to adjust how I played and tailor my character to my play style. Finding the passages that linked areas and opening up shortcuts between them to avoid repeating frustrating sections empowered me as a player. These were all things I learned through experimentation, and not from tutorial messages.
Another good example is Elite: Dangerous. This is a space sim where players are given full agency to do what they want in a galactic sandbox. The game loans you a ship, and allows you to find your way with any method you choose. There are items and systems that help improve basic ship operation, such as power plant and engine upgrades, that are never explained in tutorial messages or videos. Entire methods of playing, such as pirating by interrupting another ship’s supercruise and breaking their cargo hatch, are never explained but can be learned by reading item descriptions and experimenting.
While this lack of clear direction and explanation can be viewed as an obstacle and not player-friendly, there is a fine line when it comes to conveyance. One of the criticisms Fallout 4 has received is the lack of explanation of some systems like VATS and settlement construction — power lines especially. Where Fallout 4 fails and Dark Souls succeeds is in the precedent set by the game itself. Fallout 4 contains a number of tutorial messages that pop up when a new system, like lockpicking and hacking, are encountered for the first time. Yet, when you begin creating a settlement for the Minutemen and are asked to create power for them, there is no explanation for connecting structures with power lines. In a game where so many other things are explained clearly, suddenly leaving out important details is a shock to the player who has become accustomed to being given instructions. The exhilaration of figuring out these details organically is then tinged with annoyance.
A game with a great balance of conveyance was Shadow of the Colossus. The game starts with a cutscene of the main character riding a horse into a temple with a young girl draped across the horse’s back. He lays her on a slab and a disembodied voice addresses the main character who then explains the girl was sacrificed. The voice tells the player to hunt colossi to help save her. As the player sets off for the first colossus, a series of on-screen prompts explain simple controls, but they do not explain how that will pertain to the player’s task. As the player is standing next to the first colossus, the voice then provides a final point of direction: use the light from your sword to find the colossus’s weak point. After that, there is nothing. I feel this game strikes an almost perfect balance between direct and indirect conveyance. You get just enough information to know how to control your character and explore the world, but not enough to know everything.
When I came back to the game for a second playthrough, I learned about systems in the game which impacted character stats which revolved around fruits and lizards. They are completely optional and the game is fully playable and beatable without them, but are there for the player to discover and learn how to use. Furthermore, each colossus has its own design and personality that become a puzzle in and of itself. The designs are not different enough to clearly say, “Hey, this one thing is different, so it is probably what you need to pay attention to.” The colossi do have a weak point that is visually represented, but it appears as a natural part of the each beast. It does not shine like a golden beacon, obvious from hundreds of feet away (see Lost Planet 2). While they may vary is size and shape, the process of getting on each colossus and finding its weakpoint(s) stays the same. The execution of conveyance in Shadow of the Colossus has made it one of my favorite games of all time.
No game is perfect and there is nothing wrong with a game providing players with details about how to play. However, I for one, do enjoy the thrill of entering a game world with very little understanding of how to do what I want and being able to overcome seemingly impossible situations by studying what works, what doesn’t, and how I can use what I’ve learned to my advantage. I don’t always want to be told what Geralt’s magics do, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading the bestiary entries for contextual clues.
Featured image via horrorcultfilms.co.uk