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Hidden Information

Lara Croft of Tomb Raider dead after missing a jump - the tedium of hidden information

When Tomb Raider came out, it seemed as though wherever I went, I’d find friends playing Tomb Raider. People even used to play it in little groups, gathering round the screen to discuss plans of action and taking turns trying to execute particularly difficult jumps. This perplexed me, because I hated Tomb Raider with every fibre of my being.

What, may I ask, is the point of playing a game which largely seems to involve hurling yourself at blank walls and desperately stabbing at buttons in the hope that there’s going to be a handhold to grab on to? In a nutshell, the problem I had with Tomb Raider is that it encouraged you to experiment with the game environment but gave you very few clues as to how you should shape that interaction in order to progress. I’ve always loathed that aspect of game design – it seems supremely lazy to me and hateful to play through. It made it’s first appearance in early adventure and interactive fiction games where the “puzzles” seemed to consist of you just trying different inventory objects in different locales until one worked, with precious little rhyme or reason as to what combined properly with what to achieve the desired effect. It was bad enough in adventure games which at least gave you time to stop and think. But Tomb Raider was the first time I ever saw this gameplay technique in an action game. And boy, did it suck big time.

Since first playing Tomb Raider, I have discovered this in a variety of other titles. In one instance I had to keep replying a section of Brothers in Arms because I needed to find a tiny hidden spiral staircase in order to progress. In another I discovered that to complete a critical mission in Knight of the Old Republic you had first to talk to a completely unconnected character in the planet. In all of these cases the problem is not that you have to discover something in order to progress, but the fact that little or no clue is offered to the player as to what that something is, or how to go about fixing it.

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The worst offender that I actually slogged through myself is probably Silent Hill 2 which features several instances in which the protagonist must search the town for a hidden item with little or no clue where it actually is whilst having to endure a gauntlet of horrible, endlessly spawning monsters, without the benefit of save points or endlessly spawning ammunition. It’s a testament to how good the rest of the game is that I put up with these instances of awful, lazy, tedious, repetitive design but they’ve burned themselves on my memory with hideous clarity and put me off playing future iterations of the franchise. I suspect fairly strongly that the lack of this sort of daft game play is a key reason why Resident Evil caught the imagination of gamers in a way that Silent Hill did not, in spite of its superior scripting and atmosphere.

There are parallels in board games too, albeit fairly loose ones. In a lot of European style games where the theme has little relevance to the rules or play of the game, I often find myself struggling to understand how, exactly I’m supposed to leverage the mechanics of the game in order to progress. When I finally get to grips with it, sometimes the game underneath is good and fun, but I never have that sort of struggle in games with strong themes, where you can usually use some sort of real-life experience to guide you. If a game involves negotiation, everyone knows how to that to some degree. If it involves moving armies across a map, even a pacifist can relate to the basic concept. If it has an element of trading then we instinctively appreciate how the values of different things relate to one another. But in something like Stone Age which features prehistoric people smithing metal, taking turns to have sex in a specialist “love hut” and apparently gold-plating their mud-walled dwellings, how on earth is the novice player supposed to get a handle on what the hell is going on? This disconnection is the number one reason I’ve found for casual players being turned off supposedly simple, supposedly family friendly European games. It matters not a jot how simple the rules are if the mechanics make no sense to the players.

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I was reminded of this when reading through this fantastic essay on game design by veteran RPG author Greg Costikyan of Paranoia fame. Greg says “If you don’t tell the player… what good is it? It won’t affect the player’s behavior; it won’t affect his decisions” and as I pondered the truth of that observation, the memories of all those dull hours of fruitless searching, of watching my friends repeatedly fling Lara Croft at blank walls, came rushing back to me. And I wondered how on earth it was that something that seems so obviously flawed to me, backed up by an observation from a highly respected designer, ever became a central tenet of a certain genre of game?

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

12 thoughts to “Hidden Information”

  1. You know, I agree with the point of the article, but for some reason I loved the original TR despite that fact. I just really enjoyed the setting and the puzzles. When the rare enemy appeared I was generally annoyed because it got in the way of my puzzle solving.

  2. Maybe I remember Tomb Raider trough rose colored glasses given the recent excellent remake from Crystal Dynamics, together with there original ones. I was always a fan of Tomb Raider, and yes there is hidden information in the sense that I have to explore the level and find the levers and keys and solve the puzzles, but to my mind most of the deaths was not because I didn’t know were to jump but because I failed the execution, yes there was always the occasional geometry the you missed but don’t remember being to frustrated with it. Don’t know if you played the old ones in the console or the PC, the PC version was clearly better in every way so that may pose a problem. Anyway I like exploration in games and I don’t see how you can achieve that without hidden information, of course grinding for information is no fun so is a careful balance and as it always happens in this cases something that is obvious to a player will be completely obscure to another.

    1. I played it on both formats, actually. My version was on the PlayStation but the friends I mentioned played on PC so I tried both and didn’t find one any better than the other.

      Exploration requires hidden information, but exploration is different from fruitless searching.

  3. “it encouraged you to experiment with the game environment but gave you very few clues as to how you should shape that interaction in order to progress”

    I actually consider this a feature. There were subtle visual cues in most cases during Tomb Raider that prevented it from being “hateful” to play. At the same time, I’m fairly sick of games that do everything but play the game for you. “Go here!” it says…”Use your blue key to open this blue lock!” The only difference, in this case, is the game spelling out everything required of you, rather than the player making the effort to figure it out.

    It might fly in the face of most current game theory, but some players don’t mind failing once in a while. Sometimes it can make the game more engaging.

    1. I think my opinion falls somewhere in between Matt’s and pixel’s. The way to balance between tedium and experimentation, IMO, is managing expectations.

      Braid starts each “zone” with a “proof of concept” level – a very easy puzzle that leverages the rewind power that’s in use throughout the zone. There is no tutorial, but this level is there to take the place of one, and the player learns expectations through gameplay. Later, when he’s stumped, it’s his damn fault, and I agree that that can be really fun.

      Meanwhile, I stopped playing Zelda shortly after it went 3D. After accepting the original’s obtuse secrets (including one that made it impossible to find the last dungeon without a spoiler, or literally running into every bit of wall on the overworld map), I got to an elevator in the 3D game. (Does it matter which one it was?)

      I just started whipping out inventory items and jamming on buttons. I don’t even remember what got the elevator running – only that the answer was stupid. So stupid that I never played another Zelda game, ’cause I knew they would do it again.

  4. You’ve just echoed my own internal dialogue about the TR phenomenon. Trial and error is fine, but I have to have at least some inkling of what I’m doing.

    Truth be told, I’m not sure if the complete lack of guidance is an worse than games like Fable, where your hand is held the entire time.

    1. I think the lack of clues is worse. I’m not advocating that hand-holding is desirable but if a game lacks difficulty there are other things you can perhaps enjoy. I had a great time with Fable because I found it very funny, and I enjoyed the exploration element and the mini-games. But if you can’t progress because of hidden information that’s it, you won’t be getting any further in the game to see what it’s other charms might be.

  5. I tend to be forgiving of Tomb Raider because the original was so distinct back in the day….by the third TR however I was getting tired of the formula, I admit. But the thing I remember about TR was that it was so precise in design, I could eyeball almost anything and tell what I needed to do/where I needed to be/how I needed to go about accomplishing a jump or maneuver. Usually the death happened from botched execution, not from jumping in the dark (usually, but not always).

    I never noticed the issue with Silent Hill 2, though, perhaps because the nature of the game (horror) left me feeling like it was okay not to have a save point every five minutes, and sometimes part of the grim and dark nature of the game was the relentless danger.

    1. I agree that there shouldn’t have been more save points in Silent Hill 2, or any more ammo for that matter. What got me was the randomness of the search, the lack of clues. It was a long time ago that I played it so I don’t remember the details but on more than one occasion the game sent you out into the monster infested town to search for an object with no clue as to where it was. You might find it in the first building you chose to investigate, or the last, and which order you chose had a critical impact on your success in the game.

      Your comments about TR are interesting. I hit a bit of a nerve for criticizing it here, which is unsurprising as it’s such a popular game, but perhaps the issue with TR is more one of the learning curve. I never learned to recognise the visual cues you and others mentioned, or at least I got frustrated with the game before I did. So it seemed an exercise in futility to me.

  6. I also hated Tomb Raider, for this and for other reasons – but this kind of puzzle-oriented play works because when you *do* succeed you get the hit of triumph that justifies the pain up to the point. Or at least, that’s the theory… in practice, a lot of players just give up.

    *waves*

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