Am I totally inept, or just misinformed?
December 9, 2013 1:44 PM   Subscribe

At a rather advanced age, I decided to give video games a try. I bought a used version of the original Half-Life, and was immediately lost. I didn't know how to get my HEV suit on. And I would never have figured out that I had to go to my locker to charge it. Then I found some online instructions, and the problem was solved. My question: Does anyone tackle a game like this without instructions? Or do games normally come with instructions? I'm from a family of map-reading illiterates, and I have no geolocation sense at all. Is this the problem? Or is it normal to be lost without some step-by-step help?
posted by markcmyers to Computers & Internet (37 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There's kind of a typology/language of video games you get used to from years of playing. So, yes, people do play without instructions (especially adventure games). But if you haven't played video games before, of course your learning curve is going to be steeper. That's what the guides are for!
posted by Miss T.Horn at 1:50 PM on December 9, 2013 [10 favorites]

Best answer: There's a grammar to video games, just as there is in literature. It's not that it's inherently hard, it's just that some things are taken for granted in a modern game. It's hard to jump from zero to 60 in a flash. There's no way around it but experience. I think Half Life is probably a good way to start. The experience is cumulative and portable, so although it may seem a little painful at first you will start to see a benefit fairly quickly (Of course, all of this is assuming that First Person Shooters or FPS is what you are interested in, but the same principle holds within other genres and, to a lesser extent, between them.) I don't think that relying lightly on guides at the start will significantly hinder your enjoyment
posted by Jakey at 1:51 PM on December 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I think a lot of this will start to come naturally after you start to acclimate yourself. Similar how with typing you don't even look at the keys after a certain point. I'm a fairly avid gamer and I'll even get stuck in certain games either due to lack of clues about where to go next or failing to perform a certain action to advance the plot.

Generally I can figure it out given my past experiences with games but when I'm well and truly stuck I'll go to a guide or a online FAQ.

Upon preview: There's certainly a shared lexicon of tools and actions that games of a similar genre share. Once you acclimate things will go a lot easier. I'd expect the back 50% to come a lot more naturally.
posted by Carillon at 1:52 PM on December 9, 2013

Best answer: Haha, I got lost around the black mesa labs when I was a kid playing Half-Life for the first time myself. I wouldn't say it's too odd to get lost in an old PC game like that. Modern games will hold your hand a lot more, but I find that takes out some of the fun.

And on a related note, here's something important that I didn't realize for a fact until years of playing video games - the point of them is to have fun, not progress. Journey, not the destination and all that.

I have a little sister who spent about 3 hours playing half-life without ever progressing the plot. She kept getting sodas from the machine, bothered the guy in the bathroom, and kept loading the game so she could blow up the casserole in the microwave. She jumped up and down the halls and pretended to type on the fake computers. Eventually she figured out how to get the aliens to invade and in the mean time, she had a lot more fun with the game than I did.
posted by johnpoe50 at 1:52 PM on December 9, 2013 [37 favorites]

Best answer: I think the majority of the people who jump into a game like Half Life have played similar games before and are familiar with concepts such as looking around, "using" things, and solving various puzzles. By "puzzles" I mean things like charging the HEV suit.

Some time after Half Life came out, games began giving usage tips in the earlier levels. So as you approached something it might say "Press E to open the door." and after doing that once or twice the hint would go away until the player was mostly familiar with how to play the game.

On preview, what they said. There's a language to these things. You play a couple levels of Half Life and you'll get it. From then on, you'll understand any First Person Shooters a bit better.
posted by bondcliff at 1:53 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Video games frequently suffer from poor instructions.

I've been playing video games for 75% of my life, but despite that, I was playing a new game this weekend (in a new-to-me genre) and I was completely lost on how to access certain menus.

If pressing all the buttons and inspecting all the interesting looking stuff in your immediate area don't produce results, then for sure head to the internet and inquire. I promise you, 99% of the time someone else has just been as confused as you.
posted by royalsong at 1:53 PM on December 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I've been playing video games for almost literally my entire life (seriously, my dad brought home a Pong console when I was four) and Half-Life threw me for a loop, and pretty early on, too.

There's no shame in walkthroughs.
posted by trunk muffins at 1:59 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One thing I like about video game culture is that you can always google and ask questions and check walkthroughs when you get stuck. I don't know if this is taken for granted, but it's certainly not frowned upon.

Back in the 90s when I played PC games more seriously and everything was physical media, there absolutely were big thick gaming guides you could buy. And AFAIK it was relatively common to do so. I mean, otherwise why would anyone publish these thick hard-copy tomes full of tips, hints, and explanations of every little thing? I assume these still exist, probably more often in PDF or ebook form.
posted by Sara C. at 2:02 PM on December 9, 2013

Best answer: Another angle - you might like indie games and more small scale games better. One of my favorite things about these types of games is that early levels typically show you important things and make sure you're aware of all the stuff you need to know to enjoy the later levels. So you don't really need a walkthrough or a guide.
posted by Sara C. at 2:04 PM on December 9, 2013

Best answer: The original Half-Life came out in 1998. While a game in the same genre released in 2013 would probably be quite similar in a broad sense, the user experience would tend to be more streamlined in many ways.

First person shooters in the late 90s, like Half-Life, were aimed at more of a hardcore gamer crowd, that were assumed to have had experience with games like Doom, Quake, and Quake II, as opposed to today when games like Call of Duty and Battlefield are mass-sellers on consoles (thanks in large part to the success of titles like Half-Life). While there still is an implicit language of video games, tutorials are more ubiquitous and interfaces are more user-friendly than they were in the era of Half-Life.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:06 PM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For a first video game, I don't think Half-Life is a good choice. I'm a relatively experienced gamer, and I found it oftentimes puzzling, empty, and unclear as to what to do next. It's so frequently recommended because it was so influential at the time, but it's not a good representation of games (or even games like Half-Life) anymore.

I'd recommend Half-Life 2. The story doesn't require you to know anything about the first game, and it does a truly excellent job of ushering you through the world and the storyline of the game. It is also a very influential game (came out in 2004), and has aged very well.
posted by 4th number at 2:06 PM on December 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah. That intro-level stuff is something that Valve got much better at between HL and HL2. Half Life gameplay generally assumes some shared experience there.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:08 PM on December 9, 2013

Best answer: I'm the very most casual of gamers and have found Portal and Portal 2 to be awesome at instructing without condescending. They also have me doing the thing I've been told is good to do in video games, which is to just poke everything until something happens. Probably good advice for life, too.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 2:09 PM on December 9, 2013 [13 favorites]

Response by poster: This is the most thoughtful, most compassionate, most useful set of responses I've ever gotten from a question on this site. You've put it in context for me, and given me a lot of excellent tips. Thank you all so much. I've marked all the early answers as "best answer," because that's what they are.
posted by markcmyers at 2:20 PM on December 9, 2013 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Portal has a commentary track you can turn on as you play through it that gives some awesome insight into game design and how to make things discoverable to the player without too much trouble.

Some I remember are using windows or overlooks to give a player views of an area before allowing them access to the area, having the game automatically demonstrate a mechanic before the player needs to execute the mechanic, or using changing textures or patterns to encourage the player to look in a certain direction.
posted by brentajones at 2:27 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I remember watching/listening to a special feature about Portal awhile back, in which the developers discussed their approach to game design. The general idea is that a really well-designed game teaches you to play it through the course of playing it, with no manuals or boring tutorials needed. And I do think that the Portal games are an excellent example of teaching you to do specific things the game requires you to do, while making it a seamless part of playing the game. So I highly recommend them to non-hardcore gamers for that reason (being one myself).

To address your actual question and echo everyone else, longer-term gamers are inculcated in the vocabulary of gaming conventions in a way that generally makes the instructions/manual not necessary. HOWEVER, GameFAQS also exists for a reason, and even if you are the awesomest gamer to ever game you are probably going to want to look up the location of the hidden dingus or the trick to defeating a particularly hard boss at some point. There is no shame in asking the Internet!
posted by bowtiesarecool at 2:27 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: And (should have looked this up before posting) here's a list of those commentary pieces, though of course they're more interesting when you're virtually standing in front of the thing they're talking about.
posted by brentajones at 2:29 PM on December 9, 2013

Best answer: Googling "Let's play [game]" generally nets hundreds of videos of people playing that game, from the start, often with color commentary.
posted by unmake at 2:29 PM on December 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

I just wanted to add that when I first played Half-Life, right when it came out, there was definitely an explicit, separate, in-game tutorial that showed me how to charge my suit, jump-duck, etc... I remember it very well because I would use it to experiment with my new 3d soundcard.
posted by ropeladder at 2:55 PM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

GameFAQs is also a classic resource. For pretty much every game there's lots of guides ("FAQs") with plain text and bad ASCII art. They are usually extremely comprehensive and it's often your best bet for older games, plus you'll get to marinate a little bit in Internet gamer culture, if you're interested in that.
posted by vogon_poet at 3:07 PM on December 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Half Life was groundbreaking in the way that it portrayed a relatively realistic environment; most games of the time were much more gamey and cartoony (as one example, a typical way to pick up weapons was to run through a floating, glowing power up; in Half Life you get them from weapons lockers). A side effect of that is that the early part of the game is easy to get lost in. Once the, uh, inciting incident has occurred then it is essentially a long corridor to the end of the game.

I'd second the recommendation of Half Life 2 as a friendlier and better game to start with; HL 1 is brilliant but has some fairly unkind jumping puzzles you need to complete as you move through it. It is also a reaction to existing games in a similar way to how GRRM's Game of Thrones was a reaction to existing fantasy novels, so you might miss some of what made it great without that context.

If you post your system specs I'm sure people can give you recommendations for other games you might want to investigate.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:07 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to add that when I first played Half-Life, right when it came out, there was definitely an explicit, separate, in-game tutorial that showed me how to charge my suit, jump-duck, etc... I remember it very well because I would use it to experiment with my new 3d soundcard.

Oh, yeah so there was. It's called 'Proving Grounds' or something, off the main menu.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:08 PM on December 9, 2013

BTW, if you do take kalessin's advice and watch Freeman's Mind, keep in mind that the guy playing it uses various cheats to make the narrative flow better. There are several things he does that you will not be able to do or will not want to do in his playthrough.
posted by Aleyn at 3:17 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Video games can be hard! I find it helpful to search for the name of the challenging level + the game title on YouTube; somehow there is always information it seems.
posted by oceanjesse at 3:49 PM on December 9, 2013

Speaking of game design and walking players through certain things, there is a rather nice story about the companion cube (An inanimate box with a heart on it that players get oddly emotionally attached to) in the game Portal:

"We had a long level called Box Marathon; we wanted players to bring this box with them from the beginning to the end. But people would forget about the box, so we added dialogue, applied the heart to the cube, and continued to up the ante until people became attached to the box. Later on, we added the incineration idea. The artistic expression grew from the gameplay." Wolpaw further noted that the need to incinerate the Weighted Companion Cube came as a result of the final boss battle design; they recognized they had not introduced the idea of incineration necessary to complete the boss battle, and by training the player to do it with the Weighted Companion Cube, found the narrative "way stronger" with its "death" Swift noted that any similarities to psychological situations in the Milgram experiment or 2001: A Space Odyssey are happenstance."
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:54 PM on December 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Half-life is an older game and newer games do a LOT more hand-holding, almost to an irritating degree, for an experienced gamer.

I'd suggest grabbing a mass-market console game to start -- maybe a nintendo game on the Wii U.
posted by empath at 10:38 PM on December 9, 2013

Well first, you're playing an old game. Gaming is an area where advances in tech and art happen rapidly. Newer games are in many respects just better to play. 1998 is pretty old. If only because game designers are smarter now. But the tech is way better now than 1998. Another thing about new games is more online resources to draw on. Things like forums for discussions, wikis for tips, maps, playthroughs on youtube and MODS. Personally, I won't play a a game that isn't well supported by the community. I need all the help I can get. It's more fun when you can compare notes with other people. If I were you, I would put that game away and browse playthroughs on youtube until you found something that appeals to you.
posted by conrad53 at 10:49 PM on December 9, 2013

I actually think Portal 2 is a nicer introduction if you've never played First person shooters before. While my wife played and enjoyed Portal, she had a lot of trouble with some puzzles which required a lot of dexterity (turning and aiming while in the air) as she had not much experience. Portal 2's design mostly avoids this, and its also really funny and fun too!

Obviously theres lots of genres you can try playing games in, and some will help more than others. Strategy games, for example, are pretty difficult to pick up: earlier ones did actually come with manuals that were worth reading. Nowadays you just sort of have to pick it up as you play (there are tutorials for these games, but they are invariably bad). Starcraft 2's main campaign is actually pretty great about being a tutorial for the game, especially if you play it on a low difficulty (normal or easy).

There are some fun simulation games out there: Try Sid Meiers Railroads for a fun rail game that is pretty good about telling you what you need to do.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 1:12 AM on December 10, 2013

Games have definitely come a long way, and there have been articles recently to the effect of how games are no longer 'hard' enough. Essentially that games are made so that all players can complete them, so that there is never a level that mediocre players can't get past. In addition, there is a lot more handholding in modern games. Just as one example: a game from a couple years back, Homefront, gave so much direction to me as a player that, when the game ended (it was very short) I was mildly surprised to find out that I hadn't still been playing the tutorial. I thought, finally, now I can play the game, and then the credits started rolling.

There's also the new Grand Theft Auto, which, after you fail a mission three times, offers the option to just skip the mission, taking you ahead to where you'd get to if you had actually completed the game. It's not just you, games used to be harder.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:20 AM on December 10, 2013

I am 100% with you on the map-reading illiterate thing, and - like a lot of other commenters have mentioned - older games are so much less forgiving in this area. Modern games aren't always a lot better - for instance, I finally gave up playing Dragon Age because I was spending literally hours running around individual towns, trying to find the store and the church and I WAS JUST AT THESE PLACES HOW COULD I HAVE FORGOTTEN WHERE THEY WERE SO FAST. I really liked other aspects of the game, but the maps were so wind-y and huge that I just couldn't process them well enough to enjoy playing.

I'm currently playing Mass Effect (on the casual difficulty setting, because my hand-eye coordination's only about 1% better than my map-reading skills) and am enjoying it a lot more. The interstellar travel takes place on a well-labeled (and beautiful!) galaxy map, and the individual worlds/missions are small enough that I never actually feel lost, and can get a decent sense of where to go from the menu map. The main hub, the Citadel, is bigger, but once you've wandered to a few of its locations, you get the option to take "rapid transit" which eliminates needing to wander hallways aimlessly if you're not feeling like it. It's not without issues (I was about 20 hours in when I realized I had "biotic" powers I could have been using) but it is missing a lot of the navigational issues that have made other similar games unplayable for me. Plus it scratches my "checking things off a to-do list" itch extremely well, if that's something you find satisfying in your games. I'd give it a shot as the next game you try. If you have a PS2 around, you might give Persona 3, Okami, or Kingdom Hearts a try for some variety so that you can see if turn-based or action RPGs appeal to you at all.

To straight-up answer your original question: it's super normal to be lost without step-by-step help, especially when playing older games. Moreover, needing help (or playing on lower difficulties, referring to maps online, etc) does NOT make you any less of a gamer. It took me a long time to really come to terms with that after spending most of my childhood feeling like Mario Kart (which I love! but which is just one of many, many awesome games) was the only game I "deserved" to play, because it was the only one whose gameplay came to me naturally. When you're online looking at walkthroughs, you'll come across a lot of macho crap about how some dude beat the game you're playing on ULTRA HARDCORE mode WITHOUT DYING ONCE, which you can just ignore entirely. I think what I enjoy most about single-player games is that my playthroughs are mine - I can enjoy playing the way that works for me, without ever having to worry that it's good enough compared to someone else's playstyle.
posted by augustimagination at 9:41 AM on December 10, 2013

My husband is the hardcore gamer in the family, and this weekend I had him sit behind me and coach me through the beginning of Skyrim, because the first time I tried it, I couldn't get out of the opening scene. I've bounced off of video games before when I couldn't figure out what to do or where to go, but he's been enjoying Skyrim enough I figured I'd pick it up so we'd have the game in common (we usually play far, far different games).

I also put it on the easiest difficulty possible, because I wanted to play with the sandbox features of the game, not mire myself in combat.
posted by telophase at 9:58 AM on December 10, 2013

Yeah, I've accepted the fact that sometimes I want to play a game to be challenged, but sometimes I just want to enjoy the games or just get through to the rest of the game. So, sometimes I'll do silly things like make it through Ravenholm using only the gravity gun in HL2, but sometimes when I play through something I've played before, I use cheat codes. One recent example is (SPOILERS FOR ORIGINAL HALF LIFE AND THE BLACK MESA REMAKE) in Black Mesa, in the building full of tripwire mines - I was having a particularly difficult time with the jumping and stuff (I don't know if it's an artifact of the shift to source or what, because I don't remember it being quite so difficult in the original HL), and I finally said what the fuck, enabled noclip, and just cruised over to the next place I knew I had to be. Also, if I'm doing a playthrough for fun, I'll sometimes enable cheats long enough to give myself more health and HEV power and then disable them again.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:21 AM on December 10, 2013

As someone who, like you, is at an advanced age (probably more advanced than you, actually) and who has enjoyed games since Pong, I will add that I recently finished a game - it's called Dark Souls if you're interested - which I enjoyed a great deal. However, to my own embarrassment, I realized upon finishing it that I had used guides to get past nearly everything "hard" in the game (and it's a very hard game.) So this journey you're on may certainly have you feeling like a beginner from time to time, no matter how long you stay on it. Feeling frustrated is normal in gaming -- I actually don't like games that protect you from that. Because figuring something out for yourself is one great feeling, even if it's just in a game.
posted by Infinity_8 at 12:37 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hardcore gamer here. I agree with the above responses about a grammar in gaming, both in terms of what to do and where to go. I generally know what the game wants from me based on what kind of game it is. That said, most games, even older games, have a wealth of information about them available online, and you should squeeze the hell out of that information. There's all kinds of stuff you'd probably never find in some of the newer sandbox type games without the internet.

Infinity_8 mentions Dark Souls. It is a beautiful, rewarding experience. It's also very difficult, for some of the same reasons you ask about gaming in general. There is no hand holding, no difficulty slider, no tutorial level, &c. You should try it.
posted by Alex Voyd at 3:15 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just want to add that it seems like whenever I'm playing a game where I recently got through the tutorial and someone who has played the game a thousand times before is looking over my shoulder, they'll look at elements that I just learned and be like "Hey, I didn't know you could do that" or "I forgot you could do that". There are regularly entire strategies or parts of gameplay that gamers just forget that they can use. I'm not sure how Half-Life is compared to other games (I can't play anything where things jump out at me and I have to shoot them from range with any competence, I'm really bad at that kind of thing), but don't be too flummoxed if you don't pick up everything up quickly, since there is frequently a lot of stuff that's really unnecessary that the game will try to teach you. Or stuff that's, you know, *helpful*, but not *needed*.

Also, most games have a controls section in the options menu that gives you all of the keymaps but that can also serve as a handy guide for what all the buttons that are available are. I usually end up having to use that in those games where you don't have to do something like throw a grenade for the middle 2/3 of the game so that I've forgotten how to do it by the time it's necessary for something.
posted by NoraReed at 5:37 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

There is no shame in using walkthroughs, but it should be mentioned that there is also no shame in losing a game, or trying different things until you figure it out yourself. I played Nethack for a long time before I got my first win. Now I can win fairly often, but I kind of miss the days when I lost more often; it seemed like a greater game, somehow, when I couldn't defeat it.

(When you play online multiplayer it's really easy to get discouraged hearing other players mocking you, even when you're playing well, because they don't see the context of the constraints you're working under.)
posted by JHarris at 5:28 PM on December 11, 2013

Here is a general tip for PC games: there's usually a settings menu where you can change the keys for any particular command. You can just look without changing anything. With new games I like to peek in there just to see what my character can do.
posted by cotterpin at 1:33 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

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