I’ll be straight with you: I don’t read a lot of videogame reviews. But every now and then, especially if GOG.com has a sale, I will find myself reading its user reviews—a good way to get a handle on, if not the game itself, at least some memories of it. I will end up reading a few reviews. A few too many. Several.
This time, there were patterns there, among these reviews of old games written by their long term-fans: a lot of nostalgia, a lot of “They don’t make them this way anymore!”
But there are always patterns in my mind; I try to ignore them but sometimes something unrelated provides the angle to solidify it.
Things started to come together after I started playing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. After the download, the installation, the settings configuration—the rituals of PC gaming that open the portal to the game world—the first thing you see is a black screen with white text: “This is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”
It was the developer acknowledging what this group of GOG reviewers were so fixated on in their reviews of other games (not the Ethan Carter reviews, which were almost unanimously positive): that ‘hand-holding’ is somehow invalidating. Why does ‘narrative experience’ need to be explicitly stated; why promise the game will not hold your hand? Why does this bit of paratext need to occur after all the pregame rituals, before play begins?
Backing up a bit: Paratext is a term that originated in literature studies to talk about all the supplemental information that exists around (‘para’) the text (‘text’). Title pages, back-cover blurbs, knowledge of the author’s life or the publication history. A dust jacket with “A Novel” printed on the front will prime you to read what it wraps differently than one with “A Memoir” written on it. Betraying that paratext is a big deal; just ask James Frey.
Paratext is a powerful force, one that is barely undermined by the incantation-like cliché “don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Packaging and manuals, though on the wane, have filled this role. But PC games of the 1980s and 1990s also came with ‘feelies’—often printed newspaper clippings, or perhaps brochures. They established a sense of time and place long before the game was even installed for the first time. Paratexts are often completely external to the world they surround, but feelies were like part of the game world crossing over. You didn’t need a computer to examine them in the back of the car or on the bus or subway home.
Those rituals, the installations and configurations: They’re their own kind of paratext, just like the screen and the machine and the setting in which you play, or the website that today replaces packaging.
All of these carry so much weight and shape so much expectation that, now, an opening statement like “This is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand” has to be here. Immediately before the game is where a paratext’s potential to be forgotten is at its lowest. It’s the last word before the game begins, and it says “This game is not what usually follows these rituals, what is usually wrapped in this paratext.” It’s the inverse of the feelie: a last-minute real-world reminder of what to expect.
You need to bring this real-world knowledge to make any sense of what the rest of game will ‘say’; The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s opening screen is signalling to the player that words must be paid attention. Words are the point of the game itself, rather than something to be skipped to get to ‘gameplay’. There will be no testing of your manual dexterity, your timing, your ‘skill’. (Skill here is anything above a baseline of knowing how to navigate a virtual space using a keyboard and mouse.) There’s no ‘fail state’. You won’t die and have to navigate the same space again in order to progress. You won’t shoot things.
Elsewhere I’ve called this particular kind of game a First-Person Nebber—the primary action is snooping through the material of other peoples’ lives. To better explain, I’m going to dip into film theorist Rick Altman’s 1984 semantic/syntactic film genre analysis for a moment. (Apologies to both Altman and the subject matter for turning the former’s work into a bludgeon on the latter.)
As a genre, the FPN is semantically full of empty spaces and life-detritus—remains supposedly incidental but always too specifically useful to solve a certain kind of puzzle-mystery to actually be so. FPNs use a first-person viewpoint, controls for moving this viewpoint as representation of both body and head, mouse-look, WASD, etc. Syntactically they deal with themes of disappearance, hauntings, lost and uncoverable pasts.
Now, genre has its uses. Genre can set expectations (which can be met or undermined), can prime the player on how to make sense of what’s going on. But when genre shifts from being descriptive and helpful to prescriptive and exclusionary, its power twists into something that limits meaning rather creating it. It chops away potential. It suffocates.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter promises not to hold your hand, but after a series of auditory flashbacks, the player-character, Paul Prospero, provides his interpretation of what’s happening. Prospero is holding our hand (even as we, through our keyboards and mouses, are holding his agency).
Voiceover can do one of two things: It can corroborate, or it can contradict. When a narrator is ‘corroborating’, this often accompanies a lack of trust in the work and the audience and their ability to communicate; the narrator needs to explain everything to the audience, to do its understanding. It’s narrative hand-holding.
When voiceover ‘contradicts’, however, this is usually used to illustrate something about the voiceoverer’s character (see also: the contradiction between the story being told and the images being shown during Don Lockwood’s retelling of his own career in Singin’ in the Rain).
Why is the appellation ‘hand-holding’ and not, for example, railroading? The latter term has a long history in gaming; tabletop RPG players use ‘railroading’ as a pejorative for when a gamemaster keeps their players on a narrow path. It’s a bad thing—a control issue—this destruction of the players’ illusion of agency.
There’s also this sense that hand-holding is a new thing and is therefore suspect. But the absence of tutorials and in-game tips was often a limitation of computing; maximizing ‘play’ use of memory and processing and storage left little room for instructions within the game. That’s exactly why manuals, feelies, and box art were included.
The idea that tutorials and tips should be paratext is limited by the past. I wonder if some folks’ rigid definitions of What Games Are is limited by that same past—what fit on the cartridge, what could be loaded into RAM.
Literal hand-holding in games is pretty limited. Again, I assume this often has to do with the architecture of the game itself: Animating two separate models, with their own geometry and their own keyframes, in a way that they display a believable physical link, isn’t particularly high-priority. When it is a priority, like with Yorda in Ico, it becomes about control: Pressing the hand-hold button turns her into an extension of Ico, to be moved by the player’s will, dragged along to safety by a horned boy because if he doesn’t do this, she’ll look at butterflies until a shadow monster drags her into a black hole.
This game trope doesn’t illustrate friendship, or partnership, or togetherness. Instead, the ‘escort mission’ is a twisted analogy for parent and child. So when the hand-holding is used as a metaphor, the game’s designer or developer becomes the ‘parent’. There’s no equality; the player is treated like a child.
Not being treated like a child is crucial here, I think.
What you so often see referred to as ‘hand-holding’ (search string suggestion: “nintendo hand holding”) is usually just the game not assuming you already speak its visual/verbal/manual language.
Instead of working the learning process into play design or just chucking it completely and letting you sort it out for yourself (Portal, or even Super Mario Brothers for that matter), ‘hand-holding’ becomes synonymous with the hamfisted tutorial, the unskippable videos. I’ve been frustrated by these moments: The first few hours of any new Legend of Zelda feel specifically designed to invoke déjà vu. It’s easy to feel insulted by the game for daring to assume you’ve not been playing them for years.
But then you have to remember: It’s not about you. It’s about every potential player, about all those people who could share in these games’ joys if someone would just take the time to show them how.
Making tutorials a key part of the game implies a different audience being catered to, and you’ll see players frustrated with what they see as lowest-common-denominator appeal. But sidestepping the frustration/challenge/perseverance/victory arc is not the same as removing the first three and just presenting a ‘hollow’ victory. Easy-to-play doesn’t necessarily mean they’re shallow or unrewarding or lowest-common-denominator.
So don’t be so offended. Alter your expectations; be willing to go along with the game on a journey. Hold its controller in your hands and see what happens. Don’t use dopamine-drip challenge/victory-loop generator as your ‘normal’—and maybe you can find its worth without the game holding your hand and telling you what that is.
Brian Taylor’s Twitter is a narrative experience that doesn’t hold your hand.