Teach me how to play, by letting me play.

Extra Credits’ first video of their new series ‘Design Club’ is absolutely brilliant:

Now, I do feel like I have to say that I don’t generally like Extra Credits as much as some other people. Videos seem to get a little ostentatious about their supposed intellectual discourse of the way games work, often inventing nonsensical terms such as (to cite the most ridiculous example I’ve seen) ‘negative possibility space’ to describe something simple — in this case, areas to which a player can eventually get but wasn’t intended to, through clever use of game abilities. It doesn’t invalidate their approach in any way, and I still think they’re doing great work.

This Design Club video, much more my kind of thing, coincides with a post I was going to make anyway at some point, so now may as well be that time.

Games are an interactive medium, and experiences are primarily convey kinesthetically via interactions with the virtual space. An earlier video by animator Arin Hanson (AKA EgoRaptor) used the Mega Man games to display how a game can teach a player how to play it by simply showing, and not telling, the player how it behaves.

One of the things I picked up whilst studying my animation degree is that animation itself is a visual medium, and often the maxim “show, don’t tell” represents the strongest way in which to use the form to convey information. It’s an extension of the well-known phrase “a picture speaks a thousand words”, which means simply that the non-literal nature of pictoral representation can often convey very quickly that which the linear nature of the written form may have some difficulty in doing.

Video games extend this further due to their interactivity. Don’t tell, don’t show, but let the player do the thing they are engaging with the game to actually do; play.

Why do we fall, Master Wayne?
Why do we fall, Master Wayne?

In my own game MAN UP, I realised the concept may be a little esoteric for some gamers to understand at first. Although not perfect, I did the the following to aid their understanding of the game;

  • The game is started with either the left or right arrow keys — the controls used for the rest of the game.
  • The game starts with the player avatar suspended in air, where gravity immediately takes effect and lets it fall.
  • As the player avatar falls, it collects items on its way down – and is awarded points for each.
  • If left idle, the ‘PATRIARCHY’ dumpster will place a threat where it will fall right on top of the player avatar.

Indeed in the first second of actual game play here, so much is taught to the player. That the game is about gravity and collecting things, and that these items are worth points – 90 of which are awarded before the player has done a single thing; which should ideally be to experiment with those arrow keys they are directed toward. Many of the other rules may not be as clear, but the bare-bones principals are, and this is what is important.

All without a single line of descriptive text past that initial “press left or right arrow to start the game”.

Of course, how this works is that the human mind is actually great at bridging gaps. A phenomenon known as ‘typoglycemia‘ is the observation that only the first and last letters of any given English word need be in the correct places to be readable, and the brain does the rest of the work. We are smart beings whose pattern-recognition abilities (the very same things used to excel at many games) may have been in part instrumental to our evolution as a technology-creating species.

There is no triangle here, but your mind tells you there is.
There is no triangle here, but your mind tells you there is.

This ability to extrapolate from incomplete data is the one in action when a game shows its player how to utilise various facets of its ruleset. I saw something very clever of late in a Twitter-friend and fellow indie developer’s recent entry for the Fuck This Jam game jam:

Show and (then) tell.
Show and (then) tell.

SnoutUp’s ‘Shurican‘ is Flappy Bird with a sword; the ninja can ‘attack’ enemies with a short-range swipe for every small ascent made with a ‘tap’ of the space bar or mouse button. Throughout the single level, there are instructions and encouragement written on the walls; however “Double TAP to shuriken!” appears after a short segment that, if the player chooses the higher route over the latter, will have seen a double-tap happen anyway regardless — and the resulting shuriken being thrown from the ninja (as shown).

This is absolutely brilliant; engineering a situation in which the player can achieve something and is then told what it was is in itself rewarding in a small way. It’s the kind of autodidactic learning as seen in Extra Credits’ analysis of Super Mario Bros.’ world 1-1 and is to me great design.

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