The Joy of Knowing Nothing

Some time ago I picked up Tales of Zestiria from a PSN sale. It was an impulse buy; basically it was priced very low and I’d vaguely remembered hearing good things about the larger series. I didn’t, I hasten to add, pick it up because I had any specific interest in it or time to play it.

It sat on my home screen, waiting for me to give it a try, wondering if I’d really play Spelunky atrociously for the thousandth time again instead. At one point I did try it. I didn’t play for very long…just long enough to start to feel overwhelmed by the battle system. I figured I’d pick it up again, eventually, when I had the patience to really learn it.

And I didn’t touch it again for ages. I was intimidated by what I felt to be a needlessly complicated set of controls. I didn’t abandon the game, but I definitely decided I didn’t have the time to dig into it just yet.

Video games occupy a pretty interesting position in entertainment media, in the sense that gamers don’t really feel obligated to start a series at its beginning. Final Fantasy XV just came out, and if my Facebook timeline is to be believed, there are an awful lot of people diving in not because they have any familiarity with the series, but because it looked fun on its own merits.

The same thing happened with Fallout 3. With Ocarina of Time. With Skyrim. With Persona 4. Heck, it happens all the time. With very few exceptions, any series will be visited (or not) by an audience that dips in here, dips in there, samples one title, gets immersed in another, and probably isn’t following along in sequence.

It’s a bit odd. I’m sure relatively few people picked up the fourth Harry Potter book first, because it looked the most interesting. I don’t think anyone starts with Back to the Future III. People, on the whole, start series in other media at the beginning, and decide with each installment (or during each installment) whether or not they’d like to keep going.

I’d be tempted to compare video games to television episodes in that regard, but in the era of easily available back seasons and an increased reliance on serialization (even in silly sitcoms), people may not be dropping into and out of shows at disparate points as much as they used to.

Video games, though, are embraced in that way. In fact, developers bank on that fact. There’s no way Final Fantasy XV would have been greenlit, for instance, if Square Enix expected it to be purchased only by those who had played all fourteen of its main-series predecessors.

We count on people hopping in and out of game series. We’ll remaster or port an older installment for modern systems now and again, but almost never is it intended that gamers play each entry, in order, before grabbing whatever interests them most.

I know what you’re thinking: with few exceptions, video games series don’t have consistent plot threads. Characters from an earlier game might show up in a later one, and we all enjoy finding some visual or aural nod in a new game to an earlier one in its lineage, but stories are self-contained. Link is on one quest, and in another game he’ll be on the next. (And he probably won’t even be the same Link.) Mario still needs to rescue the princess. The members of STARS need to find — and stop — whatever’s behind this particular outbreak.

Experience with earlier games in the series might give you a deeper understanding of what’s happening, or help you to appreciate echoes and resonance that a newcomer wouldn’t recognize, but it’s not a prerequisite. You just need to jump in, find out what you need to accomplish, and then set about doing it. It’s a short story more than it’s a chapter in an ongoing narrative.

It does have some negative side effects, however. My experience with Tales of Zestiria was tainted almost immediately by the overwhelming controls. There seemed to be a preposterous number of button combinations to learn, which would trigger various actions that would then require their own button combinations to trigger the next set. It was too much.

I was fighting weak spiders in the intro dungeon* and slaying them easily…but I was only pressing one button. The tutorial windows and hint stones and menu explanations kept telling me how much more there was to learn. Sometimes they’d come in such rapid succession that I wouldn’t even be able to practice what I’d been told before I was being told something else.

For everything I had the chance to actually try, 10 different windows would be trying to teach me things I didn’t. It was noisy. And it just never seemed to stop. No matter how many I’d seen or how far I’d gotten, the game just wouldn’t stop telling me things.

I was still beating enemies with simple combinations and strategies, but I know that couldn’t last forever. At some point the game was going to ask me to use 50 things I’d learned to defeat a boss, when I would have retained only five. I had no hope of catching up. Hints and advice and guidance multiplied with every step I took.

It was too much. I stopped playing.

And yet, someone who had played the previous games probably wouldn’t have been overwhelmed.

I certainly can’t say for sure, but I suspect that the absurdly complicated controls of Tales of Zestiria evolved over the course of the fourteen previous games. They didn’t arrive fully formed; they started with some degree of complexity, and developed gradually from there. Fans of the series may have had some new things to learn in Tales of Zestiria, but I had to learn 15 games’ worth of new things. Those tutorial windows were there for me. Most people could blow right through them. “I remember this.” “Yes, yes.” “Oh, this is new…”

Me? I had to read them all. And feel crushed beneath their weight.

Game series don’t often have a crucial inter-title continuity…at least, not in a narrative sense. In the sense of game design, they nearly always do. Super Mario Bros. teaches us that Mario can stomp on enemies, but later games don’t bother, because they assume we know. A Link to the Past teaches us that link should cut grass and smash pottery. Later games assume we know. I hadn’t played Donkey Kong Country for years (or very much) before I played Donkey Kong Country Returns, and in that game I missed a lot of collectibles that relied on me “remembering” that Donkey Kong can leap out of a roll while falling.

You might know things; you might not. Games don’t expect you to remember (or even experience) all plot details, but they do expect that you understand the basic mechanics.

I don’t know why I stuck with Tales of Zestiria, or even why I went back. The story wasn’t especially engaging, but I did very much like the visual aesthetic. The soundtrack was also pretty incredible. And I think I was at least a bit seduced by the chance to play as an angel, which must hold some inexplicable appeal to me, as I remember that being something I also very much enjoyed in Dragon Quest IX.

But I did stick with it. At some point I felt so overwhelemed by the controls that I looked up a “how to play” video on YouTube. Again, I wasn’t doing poorly in the game; I just didn’t understand so much of what was being told to me that I expected to hit a wall at some point that I wouldn’t be able to get over. (Something I didn’t very much enjoy in Dragon Quest IX.) I only watched a little bit of the video, because something** was said that made everything click for me. I went back to the game…and played regularly from then on until I finished it.

And I loved it.

I genuinely fell in love with the game the more I played.

I loved the world. I loved navigating it. I loved the characters, who engaged me and felt important and distinct. I loved the animated cut scenes. I loved the music more and more with each new area I discovered. I loved tracking down the gigantic monsters that decimated my team earlier in the game to cut them to ribbons now that I’d gotten stronger. I loved finding sidequests, not because they were varied and exciting (they were often neither) but because the towns and NPCs felt real, and I actually felt like I was helping people. Like my assistance made a difference. Indeed, revisiting older towns to hear NPCs share rumors of my accomplishments helped me to feel that way.

I wasn’t a guy steering a video game character through challenges. I was helping people. What’s more, I was on an actual journey with my teammates. I could see and feel them change. I could see the world becoming a better place. I could understand how — precisely how, step by step — my character went from being a well-meaning nobody to being a savior. And I believed in the transition.

When I finished the game, finally, I looked it up. I read about it. I wanted to hear interpretations of its themes. I wanted to see people talking about how it tied into other games in the series. I wanted to get some sense of which characters (and stories) appealed to players on the whole, and which did not.

Instead, I found a lot of complaining. A lot of discord. A lot of people who felt let down by the experience. That was a bit strange to me, since I enjoyed it quite a lot, but the stranger thing was that they were taking issue with much of what I specifically loved. The music. The characters. The environments.

And what they were doing was comparing them, unfavorably, to the games that had come before.

When I played Tales of Zestiria, I could appraise it only on its own merits. It was necessarily its own experience. Maybe the soundtrack was a letdown compared to previous titles. Maybe the character design was a step backward. Maybe the story was, relatively speaking, simple and too predictable.

But I couldn’t possibly say any of that for sure.

And so I was free to enjoy it.

Which I kind of love.

The players experienced with the series likely weren’t as baffled or frustrated by the controls as I was, but they also didn’t enjoy the experience the way I did. And, of course, I wasn’t baffled and frustrated forever. Eventually I got over my misgivings. Did longtime fans get over theirs?

I don’t ultimately have advice to share, or a point to make, or much of anything to convey, really.

Except that, sometimes, knowing nothing might be its own reward.

* “Introdungeon” is a portmanteau that’s almost too perfect when discussing video games.

** I could explain it here, but it’d only bore you. Suffice it to say that the game wasn’t teaching me new things the way I thought it was…it was giving me multiple ways to understand the things I’d already been taught. It encouraged me to complicate my strategy, rather than attempted to redefine it. Once I realized that I was free to concentrate on getting very good at just a few things, it made all the difference.

3 thoughts on “The Joy of Knowing Nothing”

  1. Would it be fair to compare the way the video games industry doesn’t rely on you having played all the previous titles with the music industry? I’m not sure how many bands are actually making “concept albums” these days (my guess is three) but even casting my mind way back (way WAAY back) to Mid ninties Metallica, with albums such as “Load” and “ReLoad”, and specific songs like “Unforgiven II” are as close to needing prior knowledge of the “franchise” as they come.

    I am of course in no way suggesting ReLoad was a concept album, even if it kinda reads that way.

    Would it be fair to say games kind’ve HAD to adopt this model being that previous versions were for previous consoles that aren’t available? You CAN hunt down old episodes of X-Files and Twin Peaks because while we’ve changed the format we watch things on, there’s enough lag/crossover because so many people haven’t changed tech yet, there’s always a way to access it. Plus then the studio can rerelease it on BluRay and make mo monneh. With new consoles – and large jumps in technological capability – old games were precisely that, old, and the amount of work to remake Mario Bros for the SNES was better spent making Super Mario instead?

    I mean, it’s starting to sound all fruity, as if the games industry is “more artistic” and “forward thinking” and “technology oriented” and that’s all kinda more marketing than actual reality, but I would imagine that the Harry Potter books would be more stand alone if after the third one we all stopped using English entirely and had to use Esperanto? And all the older books were stuck in English and we physically could not read them with our new eyes? And that business model of “games for the current console until we move onto the new console” helps.

    I suppose it’s better to look at Video Games as more like individual entries in a body of work, like Pynchon novels or Wes Anderson movies, in that knowledge of the prior ones helps and informs the way you digest and interact with the work, rather than direct sequels like Star Wars movies or Lord of the Rings, which don’t evolve in style but rather in story?

  2. The one-way advance in technology does seem like it has something to do with it…at first. It makes perfect sense, but I don’t quite know if that’s the cause the more I think about it. For starters, video games lacked any kind of real story (short of “kill this monster,” “escape this place,” “save this person/thing”) prior to the NES era. (Yes, I’m simplifying, but go with me here.)

    That’s about the earliest that narrative would have been any kind of expectation for a player, rather than an exception. And at the time, I think it’s fair to say that the developers didn’t expect that the technology they were working with would be abandoned every 5 years or so. Once the console wars kicked in and companies got used to evolving their hardware, this would have been a valid concern. “Given that all three games in the series won’t be playable on next year’s system, shouldn’t part four be standalone?” Absolutely fair.

    But if we look at the NES era–before anyone had an expectation that the technology would be lost or left behind–we still see a trend toward standalone entries in the same series. Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man come immediately to mind as major series that punched the reset button (not the literal one) each time…at least in the sense that newcomers required no narrative knowledge of what the previous games did or didn’t say.

    I’ll admit that I wasn’t much into RPGs at that point in my life, so there may be a few exceptions in that genre, but the only major series I remember at the time that truly built upon its own story with each title was Castlevania. Was it mandatory to play one and two before three? Of course not. But on the NES we had Simon’s initial adventure, then a story that built directly from it, and then a story that led directly up to it. Relatively speaking, narrative mattered.

    But that was the exception, rather than the rule, and I think if the NES lived, say, five times longer, we still would have seen Mario, Mega Man, Zelda, Contra, and whatever other long-running series churning out standalone adventures…based only on what we DID see them do during the console’s actual lifespan, before technology became a conscious development consideration.

    Again, once Sega arrived on the scene and Nintendo built the SNES, it’s fair to say that this would have become a reason to keep the tradition of standalone titles going. And eventually technology will stabilize for longer periods. When it does, perhaps we will see more games leaning more heavily on inter-title narrative. Then again, perhaps not; a decent PC can play computer games from two decades ago, many of which are still easily and legally available, and I don’t think there’s a greater trend toward narrative on PCs than there is on consoles.

    Mainly thinking out loud, because you’ve tapped into something that’s very worthy of consideration.

    I will say, though, that numbering your titles (or just changing subtitles) does imply a kind of continuity that we wouldn’t otherwise expect, so I don’t know if I could see five games in the same series as being akin to five disparate Wes Anderson films. Not that you’re wrong; but I might refine that somewhat, or pick other examples. Say, Chandler’s stories about Philip Marlowe. Same character, standalone adventures.

    Or Hammett’s stories about the Continental Op. Or Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes. Or Christie’s stories about Poirot.

    Man, detective fiction, now that I think about it, definitely adheres to the “pop in/pop out” approach we expect of video games.

    1. Detective fiction, and pulp in general. It could be said, then, that the layers of narrative expected of you to have previously seen only come about as an artform “develops” into one of a “higher class”? You’re not expected to have seen each Bond film in the Connery/Moore eras, but the Craig films have been structured so as to be watched as a set. This could be more because of the spy thriller “p[ulp” origins, or because of the higher value placed on franchises in 21st century filmmaking, but it’s also because Bond has grown and matured into something “higher” (kinda) than it was. Same goes for Batman. You haven’t seen Tim Butron’s batman 89 but you’re watching Batman Returns? No problem. But if you haven’t watched Dark Knight and you’re watching Dark Knight Rises, you’re gonna be, maybe not lost, but missing out on a lot. Nolan making these movies “serious” makes the ongoing narrative matter.

      Also, perhaps too it stems from the original makers OF video games, and WHY they made them? No one made Pac-Man to tell a story. It was purely lights and technology to entertain. A game. Stretching your muscles to code cool stuff was the creative impulse. Without a basis in narrative the whole industry took a long time to even begin to tell stories beyond “get from point a to point b” let alone give them narrative structure. Jumpman proceeding from platform to platform was the story, with the monkey only really supplied as a conceit for which to allow for the rolling obstacles to come down the ramps (and why the princess has been taken up so many platforms).

      I guess there’s a lot of factors that each play a part. I mean, they were also largely for kids. So on one hand, you don’t give kids too complex a narrative, and on top of that, kids outgrow kids entertainment, and new kids come along. One of my favourite facts/anecdotes in comics is how back in the 50’s there was a comic book company who only had 2 years worth of stories, and who just reprinted back from the start labelled as the next issue, because kids had moved on after 2 years and the new kids didn’t know the difference. I’m not sure how many cycles they got till people caught on, but yeah, you get what I’m saying.

      Sorry to kinda steer away from the “enjoying things for what they are” topic, which was the focus of the article, into this discussion of narrative focus within the video games industry.

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