I Liked You Better Before We Were Introduced

I continue to play Legend of Zelda 2: A Link to the Past for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System as part of my project to play through some of the classic games that I never had a chance to experience (for whatever reason I went the SEGA path in the old console days). It’s a pretty great game for many reasons, not least of all that it is still a pretty great game today.

I guess I’ve played a few hours of it now, mostly just when I have time, and one overwhelming impression I’ve had is of the strange bigness and foreignness of the world it presents. I spend a great deal of time really having very little idea of what to do, constantly being shocked by the behaviours of new enemies, unsure of how to use my weapons effectively, and on and on. In other words, the game has bucket-loads of the “contingency” that is often regarded as the secret sauce of great play.

Today, though, I realised that games like Zelda probably have manuals. So I looked it up and, lo and behold, you can get the manual online. I read it through, and now I feel a little conflicted. The manual has greatly reduced the sense of strangeness and uncertainty I’d been feeling about the game. It explains a lot of the nature of the game, including items I’ll get in the future and how I’ll get them. It offers strategic tips for how to defeat particular enemies. It chips away at my sense of an alien world with its friendly, older-brother style of instruction.

I rather wish I hadn’t read it. It drew me back into the gaming tradition of a player being provided with ample information and preparation for the world to come. In contemporary games, of course, they rarely expect us to read manuals and instead they ply us with often highly detailed tutorial introductions (I hear Final Fantasy XIII‘s is epic – haven’t started it yet). In a way, these tutorials, or the manual for Zelda are a way of tilted the playing field in our favour – specifically they aim to lead us to a certain level of competence before we have to engage with the game proper. I think that these days such a condition of competence is regard almost as the fair and natural state of gameplay – you shouldn’t be utterly bewhildered, for instance, or fighting for your dear life from the get-go.

This is not to say that the Zelda manual is a problem, however – it’s a really nice document and it evokes warm feelings for the game. The tone and loving attention to the nature of the world you’ll be encountering can also serve to make the coming experience all the more exciting – like a warm-up for the main event. And I think some contemporary manuals still sometimes achieve this – I still recall the deep fascination and joy with which I read the manual for Grand Theft Auto III when I first got it, for instance. Largely, though, manuals and tutorials are a device that can make the initial experience of a game somewhat blasé – you know what to do, you “pre-recognise” special objects and entities, you hit the right button the first time.

There’s a sense, perhaps, in which I had the “wrong experience” with Zelda by jumping in without any preparation – but it was a great wrong experience. Specifically, it felt like a more “real” experience – a world where the very fabric of reality wasn’t straining to help me know what to do, where my enemies hadn’t allowed themselves to be carefully cataloged, where I didn’t even know what button did what (requiring the primitive gaming equivalent of extensive “rehab” for Link).

Given the extent to which game literacy has presumably increased in the past years, it surprises me in some ways that there isn’t more of the “throwing you in it” style of game. For some reason Forbidden Siren springs to mind as a game which was unapologetically scary and confusing when I played it – though perhaps I just didn’t read the manual.

It’s not always appropriate to begin games with a blank slate, I’m sure, but I sure could use it more.

15 August 2010
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