Should games always be created to be accessible? Or is there something to be said for making something that erects barriers to the “ease of use” of the player?
Watching the Director’s Cut of the film Donnie Darko was a strange experience for me. The original was (and remains) one of my favourite movies of all time. I found it profoundly moving and satisfying despite the fact that I couldn’t really have spelled out what was happening with the rabbit and the drugs and the discussions of time travel. I was excited to see what would be revealed once Richard Kelly had the budget and freedom to express his original vision.
It was fine, I guess. If I hadn’t seen the original, I probably would have loved it. The time travel stuff was much more overt, and it was clear that there was now a “correct” way to interpret the film’s strangeness. But a good chunk of the magic was gone. By adding material and making things “clearer”, he had robbed the film of something important and meaningful. At the same, this was a surprise to me.
I’ve been thinking about how similar phenomena apply in games. This line of thinking was precipitated by two unrelated things I’ve happened across recently.
The first was a complaint about Dark Souls that came up on my Facebook feed recently. The poster was arguing that combined aspects of the game – from the brutal difficulty to the lack of tutorial and clunky interface – amounted to bad game design. Clearly, there are contexts where all of these things could be considered to be bad design, and yet they have in no way blunted the critical and player acclaim for the game. Dark Souls’ Metacritic scores are mostly in the high 80s, with only some aspects of the PC version’s port drawing serious criticism. So have the Souls games succeeded despite their “flaws”, or is there something else going on?
This is where the second thing comes in: while visiting my parents over the holidays, I picked up a copy of New Scientist magazine, and read this article about how the readibility of fonts influences comprehension. For those who don’t want to sign up for an account to read the full article, here’s a key quote:
It would be easy to assume that legibility also makes it easier to remember what you read, but in 2010 we discovered otherwise. Danny Oppenheimer at Princeton University and colleagues asked people to memorise a printed list of 21 features that characterised three species of fictional alien. The team found that although groups presented with the list in an ornate font had a harder time reading it, they remembered far more details about the aliens than groups who read the same information in a plain typeface such as Times New Roman. Oppenheimer later found the same effect among school students – they retained course materials better when it came packaged in a brow-furrowing font.
Having to decode the harder-to-read font switches on the dorsal parietal cortex, a section of the brain linked with attention and memory which is inactive when skim-reading text in Arial or Times. Of course, the extra effort involved is likely to cause some readers to give up in frustration, but the rewards are greater for those who do persist.
The equivalent surface layer in games would be the user interface (UI). Could it be that clunky interface elements that make a game harder to “read” actually serve to increase some people’s engagement with that game? Have dedicated players of Dwarf Fortress, for example, or the original X-Com, actually engaged with those games on a deeper level – at least in part – because they have wrestled with obtuse interfaces (and presumably won)? In a game like Dark Souls, which thrusts the player into a purgatory of repeated punishment and resurrection, does the clunkiness of certain UI elements in fact support the theme and draw those players who are willing to commit to to the experience more fully inside it?
Of course this logic extends beyond surface detail like fonts or UI – creative texts and inaccessibility have a long history. Few would consider font choice an essential aspect of a work (although why not, I now wonder?), but there are other ways to put up barriers to ease of “use”. A novel like Ulysses is not celebrated despite its textual density - that density is a fundamental aspect of the work. Many will find the book too challenging, and bounce off it (I confess that – so far – I am one of them); but for those who persist, the book’s chaotic construction is undoubtedly a vital part of the experience.
The reader is forced by these kinds of barriers to be more attentive than they otherwise would be. They may then be more thoughtful about their reading, and thus experience insights or feelings that they would otherwise have missed.
Dark Souls seems to be this kind of experience. Those who put in the time and effort to master its quirks speak about it with something approaching religious fervour, while those who bounce off do so quickly and forcefully. I say this as someone who sits somewhere in the middle – I loved the time I spent watching my cousin play the Souls games, scanning wikis and providing him advice and information to assist him on his journey, but that was a masochistic world that I did not want to personally inhabit.
My current conception of art is as a tool for bringing the irrational and the unconscious into the realm of the rational and conscious. It is a dialogue between creator and audience, and by nature a variable, subjective experience. There are many ways that a game designer (or any other creator) can facilitate the player’s leap beyond the rational, and obfuscation is one of those ways. If there are barriers in place, and we have to work hard to overcome them in the process of finding meaning in a work, then the knowledge we find may be less constrained by the limiting factors that can so easily be imposed by “rational thinking” on the part of creator or player, and the understanding we reach is likely to be deeper and more primal.