I recently picked up Mario and Luigi Dream Team for the 3DS and was kind of shocked at how condescending it is. I was walked through so many menu tutorials and explanations of basic RPG elements that I almost put it down out of exasperation. To be fair, I had just come from playing games like Bravely Default and Bioshock Infinite, so it’s possible I had maybe forgotten what it was like to play a video game made for children.
That’s an interesting concept in an of itself: “video games for children.” Arguably, Mario games aren’t really for children. Some of the mechanics in games like Super Mario Bros 3 and later games like Super Mario Sunshine aren’t really ones that are going to be intuitive or even possible for kids interact with, yet the games constantly treat the player as though they’re only a decade old. This realization forced me to confront something that I often shy away from: writing and designing games for an audience that isn’t entirely comprised of people exactly like me.
Nintendo’s first-party games have typically always been childish in nature, despite having complicated systems like in Pikmin or certain Zelda games. Much like the production of the Wii, I think this is a result of Nintendo’s mission to make games an inclusive experience as much as possible. Still, I think there’s a disconnect there: if the game’s mechanics and logic are meant to be understood by children, isn’t it true that children can understand a story without spelling out every single detail?
When I was taking that online course about the gaming industry, one issue that was brought up was considering what audience you’re going to be aiming for. My answer on one assignment was essentially “I’m making this game for people who are exactly the same as me otherwise why would I even like the game.” I realize now that that’s pretty arrogant.
The truth is, game developers and writers in general will always have to think about audiences and how they’re going to react to what they’re playing. Even though it might pain me to have to explain how to use a menu in my game because I think the “smart” thing for a game to do is make the menu intuitive to begin with. Unfortunately, “intuitive” doesn’t really mean the same thing to everyone.
Perfect example: I was trying to teach my wife (a decidedly NOT experienced player) how to play Metro:Last Light for PS3. The story seemed interesting to her and I figured why not get her into something she’s already intrigued about. It was an instant failure for one reason: dual axis analogue sticks.
“If the game’s mechanics and logic are meant to be understood by children, isn’t it true that children can understand a story without spelling out every single detail?”
To me, using the right stick to look around and the left to move has made sense ever since Halo. The thing I didn’t consider is that she’s never played Halo. Or Goldeneye. Or Doom. None of these systems make sense to her yet and it’s going to take a while before they do.
The point I’m trying to make is that, if I want to make a game that is to be played by people that don’t have the same experiences that I do, I’m going to have to think outside of my little box. I’m going to have to consider that the player MIGHT need a stupid little sprite to ask me if I want to explore the items menu and learn what a mushroom does in battle. I’m going to need another idiotic character to explain that pushing the A button makes me jump (to say nothing for the complete disregard for game immersion).
Writing for kids has never been my strong suite. Hell, I can’t even decide what is or isn’t condescending to say to kids in REAL LIFE. Something a friend once said has stuck with me for years: “You talk to kids like they’re not kids, then you’re surprised when they don’t react like kids.” I guess it’s time to start learning how to relate to children, hopefully without getting arrested for hanging out in the park during recess.