Why games need to explain themselves less

Another dose of pretentious Edwaffle

Midway down the sparking, burbling waterslide of joy and nostalgia that is Polytron's Fez, there's an unexpected wall made of words. The game's 2D-going-on-3D environments are riddled with mysterious cuboid hieroglyphs, the lingo of a long-dead civilization. At first they're just ambiance, turning what could easily have been a universe of dry, colourful abstractions into an odd but convincing society, steeped in backstory. But there comes a point when simply appreciating isn't enough, and you're asked to translate the runes and put the advice they contain into practice.


It's pretty stern stuff if all you're expecting from Fez is a goofy, dimension-bending platformer, and when I first became conscious of the mystery after much toing and froing, I was impressed but slightly annoyed. The key to the game's linguistic challenge is easily missed, taking the form of a sly visual analogy hidden away in some forest backwater. Expecting players to persist in search of it seemed, to me, a bit of an ask. But then, I've perhaps been corrupted by the tendencies of certain developers and publishers, the ones who are so terrified that ambiguity or hardship will cost them sales that they present every detail as a big, bold, utterly infallible prompt.

It's easy to be snobby about developers who resort to such tactics, as many on the OXM forums have noted - easy to forget that games design is as much an exercise in teaching players the rules as inviting those players to meddle with them. Without enough in the way of context, purposeful opacity on the developer's part begins to feel like arbitrary sadism, and those who champion such behaviour come across as gluttons for punishment and/or irrational purists, resentful of any attempt to court the favours of laymen.

But it's also easy to equate the withholding of secrets with mere "grind" - with that age-old desire, born of coin-op arcade gaming, to prolong the player's involvement by unscientifically hiking the challenge. The argument for opacity in games is more constructive than that, nowadays at least. It's about creating more opportunity for the thrill of discovery, of poking your head into a situation and getting to grips with what makes it tick.

And in a roundabouts kind of way, it's about nurturing the sense that you don't have to succeed to enjoy yourself, or at least that you don't have to succeed on the designer's terms. After all, taking excessive pains to help the player is another way of conceding that the game is an either/or affair, only worth playing if you follow a linear path from dilemma to resolution. The cushioning, hand-holdy approach, often termed commercially "safe", can actually be more stressful than leaving the player to bang rocks together.

Simply put: when you're constantly being told what to do, you're always aware that something's expected of you, that you're a success-making machine in a world of potential failure. "Doing it right" becomes an unbearably prominent part of the game's matrix. By contrast, a game that consists of a scenario and things to poke it with is an experience that's both more relaxing and in an odd way, more considerate.

"No, I'm not going to tell you what to do," it says, "because I don't want you to do anything. I'm not in the business of telling you how to enjoy yourself." And if that's the payoff, the odd kernel of sheer impenetrability like Fez's language barrier is worth swallowing.