Smart Games

Published on February 2, 2011

Over the Christmas holiday, I purchased Dead Space on Steam (happily, for only $7). The game was a major letdown on a number of levels, but there’s one nit in particular that I’d like to pick. I was really struck by how dumb the game assumed I was. Often, direct audio cues (i.e. the spaceship’s computer) would tell you exactly what to do. Here’s a typical example:

The player enters a room filled with radioactive debris. Upon entering said room, the ship’s computer announces, out loud, that the room is locked down due to these dangerous conditions. In order to lift this lock down, all radioactive debris must be removed. To further complicate matters, the debris can only be removed when an airlock to outer space is opened (again, all of this is announced by the computer). A monitor in one corner of the room displays, in what would realistically be a 200-point font, the text “open airlock.” Using this computer opens the airlock, and the player is then free to remove the debris.

Sadly, a number of other games make this same assumption; namely, that I as the player am generally unable to figure out how to proceed on my own. I think this is what draws me to the games that Valve develops. Every Half-Life title ever released assumes from the outset that the player is smart. Clues are always provided as to how to proceed, but precious few hints are explicitly stated. Portal is another perfect example of this. The user is instructed (via the narrative itself) how the portal gun works. It’s then up to the player to figure out how to use it to proceed through the game.

As a gamer, I would much rather developers assume my intelligence, rather than my stupidity. It simply makes a game that much more fun to play.

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