Use Me, or Tutorials

I finally got hold of Frozen Synapse the other day when it formed part of one of the excellent “Humble Bundles” that allow us to play a bunch of indie titles for not much money. Or at least, as much money as we deem reasonable. Anyway, it’s a game I’ve been meaning to look at for a while, particularly because I wonder whether its asynchronous and turn-based play might make me able to handle the whole military strategy genre that I otherwise find unbelievably obtuse.

At the same time as firing up Frozen Synapse for the same time, I’m trying to finish off my absurdly simple game Trolley Problem. Much of Trolley Problem revolves around the language I use and how I convey the point of the game and how to play it. The game itself is little more than a “press a button or not” affair, but the point of the game is to encourage thoughtfulness about choices by simply telling the player to be thoughtful, and thus to strike a particular tone.

In particular, it’s been a challenge writing the texts for the tutorial, because that’s where it all begins of course. This has also given me the chance to realise that making games is definitely helping me to look at other games with a more critical eye, because I’ve been a little disappointed by Frozen Synapse‘s tutorial sequence. Haven’t finished it yet, but what I’ve seen so far doesn’t feel terribly well put together – despite the game itself being impressively polished and interesting.

So far during the tutorial I’ve been struck by the highly variable quality of the narrator – sometimes it’s being all cynical and “ha ha, I’m an AI and don’t care about you” and sometimes it’s straightforward instructional. It feels confusing to me and I kind of wish they’d stuck with a single tone throughout – probably just the straight-up version, since I’m less than convinced by the joke-writing they do. More importantly, the tutorial makes various references that aren’t quite right when playing on a mac: copious references to “left” and “right” mouse buttons as well as distinguishing the “backspace” and “delete” keys. This is pretty elementary stuff which, although it obviously doesn’t prevent me playing, does push me way outside of any deeper involvement I might have gained. There are other niggles, mostly to do with the crazy complicated UI, but those are two big ones for me because they’re tonal rather than technical and in many ways I find that more interesting and more important.

Anyway, the point is, really, that in having to write exactly these kinds of texts myself for Trolley Problem I’m feeling very attuned to the voice of a game, how it presents itself. It’s not something I typically am aware of, but I’m sure it has always affected my experience nonetheless. It’s good to know, too, that there are various games that pull this kind of thing off brilliantly and that we can learn a lot from, both myself and the Frozen Synapse team.

3 October 2011
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