For years at Ars Technica, we’ve discussed how the video game industry could benefit from breaking down its oldest traditions. This November Death Stranding will come with a “very easy” mode, and that inspired us to wonder if other video games should do the same. And we loved how the Halo: Master Chief Collection launched in 2014 with an option to jump to any time within the multi-game library. That led us to suggest that more games should let their owners browse to every “page” in a game, rather than force players to earn their way through a challenge.
This week, a video game and pop culture critique channel on YouTube looked at the existential question of “access to video games” from a very different perspective: a yearlong analysis of an adult trying video games for the first time in her life. The results, as posted by the Razbuten channel, are embedded below, and the 20 minute analysis is fascinating on both the macro and micro levels.
Even Mario can learn something
Rather than call the video “I Made My Wife Suffer Through Video Games for the First Time Ever,” Razbuten chose a title that speaks to the inherent learning curve for anyone new to the hobby. “What games are like for someone who doesn’t play games” came as a result of a full year in which the host’s wife tested nine video games she’d never played before: Super Mario Bros.† celeste† Kick Knight† Portal† disaster (2016), The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim† The last of us† Uncharted 2and dark souls†
Those nine games were chosen for their “diverse array of genres and gameplay mechanics, and, well, I liked them,” Razbuten said. The host made it clear that no guidance would be given to the player. (This was followed by a joke about the couple’s end of marriage, along with a quick-listened asterisk of “That’s not true.”)
While we’ve seen essays and thinking about the obscuring “language” of video games and how that can create a barrier for those who haven’t grown up with the hobby, Razbuten’s video excels because it gathers and presents clear video evidence of his concerns. It starts with SME‘s Level 1-1, often cited as a masterpiece of game design to teach players how to do things like jump, run, face enemies and collect a power-up. However, Razbuten’s video points to the lack of clear “loop” instructions inherent in the game’s handling, while also exploring a way for players to organically misunderstand how the iconic Super Mushroom moves.
The other side-scrolling games in the test revealed their own awkward moments. In celeste, the crucial act of air-dashing, required to reach distant ledges, the player is taught with a seemingly innocuous prompt: press a button and one diagonal up direction at the same time. As a result, the tester thought that this was the nothing but in the direction she could run, until an accidental tap of the button showed otherwise. And in Kick Knightthe death condition of having a bag of money appearing as a “ghost” confused the tester and made her think that this was an enemy to be avoided or attacked, and not a convenient way to recover lost items.
Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, the tester got lost in 3D games for various reasons, mostly due to information overload and unclear markings on the screen. (The video also noted confusion about the fact that one computer game required a mouse to move the tester’s perspective, which she didn’t realize was necessary for nearly five minutes of gameplay.)
More surprising than that were the tester’s problems with a lack of openness and ability to achieve apparent objectives. In doom 2016, a marker on the screen refers to a required step: walk to an object and then press the “interact” button to continue. But the player on this test saw the mark on the screen on top of a scary-looking object and tried something else: clumsily kick an explosive barrel toward that object, then blow it up. It did not work.
To be fair, a large number of genres, especially puzzle, strategy, and sim games, are missing from this video, as are examples of touchscreen games whose inherent tactile advantages can solve some of these problems by default. Still, the video does an interesting job of selling the tester’s familiarity with computers, phones, and technology, but not necessarily the dense, underlying language of how traditional video games work. What is an “L3” button? Do all games have “run” or “sprint” options built in? If something in the game world looks destructible, why can’t it be destroyed?
The resulting perspective is an interesting mix of rigid and wide-open, and it talks about how even seemingly “accessible” games can make a little more room for brand new eyes, especially as services like Apple Arcade, Google Stadia and Microsoft Project xCloud loom as gaming entry points for people who would otherwise never have owned a console.