[tommy angelo with baseball bat, multiple poses]

It’s Tommy Angelo’s first job. Don Salieri is testing his new footsoldier in the field with a simple errand: smash up and torch some cars of a rival mob. But this is Illusion Softworks’ Mafia and Tommy’s success is down to me. The game has little interest in an alternate future where Tommy dies, gets arrested or simply does badly.

Paulie, Tommy’s minder, sits this one out in the car. As I stop the car near Morello’s Lounge Bar, he suggests Tommy enters the parking lot via an off-road alleyway.

On the first attempt, I miss the entry point I’m supposed to use and walk around the entire block. Sweeping past the window of the bar, I can see the rival family’s henchman downing beers inside. I then flirt recklessly with the main entrance to the car lot – and the stooge out front immediately clocks Tommy as the wrong guy in the wrong place. It does not play out well. Fade to black.

Next time around, I probe the edge of the car lot properly and find the correct ingress. I let rip with the baseball bat and start smacking some cars about, but the guard out front turns around, raises the alarm and…

Fade to black. Try again. I go right up behind the guard and knock him out with the bat before taking on the cars. This seems an incredibly risky move because he’s standing on the edge of the road. Surely someone would notice if I knocked a guy out in broad daylight? The game doesn’t seem to mind. Smooth wood connects with skull and he goes down. The Thief-phile within me is desperate to drag the body out of sight but it’s not a verb the game offers. The guard lies there on the roadside, a message to the world that Tommy’s life of crime has begun.

[approaching guard with baseball bat]

I take the bat to the automobiles again but before I’m finished, guys pour out of the bar and start shooting. Not sure what I did wrong but… fade to black. I try again but –

Fade to black. Fade to black. Fade to black.

Then there’s this time Morello’s henchmen rush the car lot and I scarper instead of trying to hold the line. Tommy gets back to the car and Paulie is sitting there like nothing has happened, eyes gazing into the draw distance limit. I try to get the car going but… it’s simply not starting. It’s not bloody starting! A platoon of made men are closing on us and we’re sitting ducks.

I bolt from the car and flee. I spot a train station and decide to risk it, climb the stairs up to the platform and hot damn: it’s a dead end. I can see Morello’s men homing in on the station. My palms are sweaty; in this moment, I am Tommy and the city is real. A train slides into the station and… excellent! I can catch trains in this game! I’ve escaped!

I alight at the next stop which turns out to be a bad decision. Before I can consider whether it’s possible to complete the mission, I’m shocked to see Morello’s badfellas emerge from a side-street – they’ve followed me here on foot. Tommy is trapped as they storm the platform. Fade to black.

On the next attempt, I end up fleeing for my life again but forget to holster my weapon. A cop on his local beat spots it and now I’m being pursued by both the police and a bunch of trigger-happy mafioso who the police conveniently ignore. I evade the cop but the game HUD kindly informs me ALL POLICE HAVE BEEN ALERTED. I have to do a shitload of running and hiding before the alert status is dropped. But it is pretty impossible to finish the mission at this point.

Fade to black.

Of course, I eventually pull it off. The cars are wrecked and Tommy calmly closes the gate at the rear of the car lot behind him. He doesn’t run back to Paulie, he walks, walks tall. He’s proven himself now. He’s one of the guys.

[car driving off under fire]

Mystery Before Mastery

To the player, a new game is virgin territory. Although a well-trodden game trope can suggest what kind of play is involved, those first few hours are like a honeymoon as the player feels out the contours of a fresh game. What verbs are available to you? What tools can you use? How does the game respond to your actions?

Not every game works like this and tutorials often take the virgin bite out of the game, leaving you with little to figure out. A review with a double helping of mechanical spoilers can blast away much of this sex-with-a-stranger excitement before you’ve even installed the game.

Inevitably, the mystery is worn away as a player masters the game. Beguiling GTA girlfriend missions become repetitive, rude interruptions. The narrative colour of Xen wildlife popping out of inter-dimensional portals in Half-Life eventually degenerates into a typical boo-shock enemy-spawning event. The post-apocalyptic roads of FUEL are sparsely populated with trucks that head to unspecified destinations: but they’re just extra decoration like the abandoned structures on the roadside. AI bugs and patterns are exploited to get ahead. Game scripting becomes more obvious. The new reality fails.

But I’m fascinated with the early stages in a game where its world appears to be larger than it really is, the AI seems cleverer than it really is and the developers always have some new trick to confound you. Your imagination runs wild with gameplay rules that don’t exist.

Enjoy those honeymoon hours while you can, because they don’t last.

[tommy angelo resting against car]

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18 thoughts on “Those Honeymoon Hours

  1. Excellent read. Now, without wanting to sound too illegal, I do distinctly remember loading tapes with new -obviously pirated- games and spending ages just figuring out what the controls were. Time-consuming but oddly exciting that.

  2. Damn, man, how do you make this sort of thing look so effortless?

    Great post, has made me think about mechanical spoilers far more seriously than anything else which I’ve read.

  3. Beautiful, and too true. It’s agonising that we can’t seem to have these kinds of big world games that only have 3 hours of content – then it could be the honeymoon period the whole time. I absolutely cherish that early period when it’s all strange and new.

    Here’s a question, though: should we blame ourselves as players at all? Is it that we let our commitment to the world and “being there” slip a little, too? Or is it just these confounded games?

  4. @gnome: Thanks! I actually wanted to talk about that subject – game piracy giving rise to the mad puzzle of trying to figure out games without instructions Back In The Day – during Where We Came From but it was already too large a series and not enough to put into the article. I think I mentioned Bill Williams’ Necromancer was a tricky one as we were missing instructions for the second stage and could never figure out what the trees were actually for. Some of those games became far more mysterious, with strange rules emerging from empirical investigation, than they actually were. Did we enjoy those games more *because* of piracy? Now there’s a thought.

    @ShaunCG: I’m glad it looks effortless because I’ve been trying to get this one done for about two months. I seemed to lose interest in working on this one somewhere along the line, but the idea of “the start is the best bit” has been on the Electron Dance ideaboard for over a year. So there are some other ideas there right now which you’re not likely to see for another year =) The mechanical spoiler line only occurred to me as I was finishing this off yesterday.

    @Nicolau: There are always more honeymoons!

    @Pippin: I guess that’s the implication I’m making here- if a game could stop just before it runs out of clever, so as to avoid making the mechanics so transparent and master-able, we’d probably enjoy some of these games a lot more. But I doubt players will be happy to have a game with just a couple of hours of AAA content for a similar price. I wonder how much of a million-dollar budget could be cut if the game was reduced to just “three hours”.

    I don’t know if we can blame players – or developers for that matter. I think it’s just something we do as humans. We can’t avoid learning how things work and, once we reach the critical point where the laws of this particular pocket universe open up to us, it’s difficult to experience the same wonder.

    It’s just like the difference between a child and an adult. A child’s world is full of surprises simply because they don’t know how it works or what’s out there. Through education and experience, that child is being killed, one memory at a time.

    Yeah, just ending on a nice depressing note there.

  5. Great one, HM, as always.

    I wonder if it would be possible to make a series of games that are nothing but first moments. Not even episodic – each a short vignette, like the first mission of Mafia, the Bafford Manor of Thief, the exploration-before-the-explosion in Half-Life.

    Obviously they wouldn’t be marketable, but it would be really interesting to see if those first moments can actually be crystallized by simply making the game experience very short. Your remark about how things like AI bugs and patterns become tools to exploit rather than unexpected moments of immersion struck a chord with me. It’s when you learn how to game the system that a game stops being a world and starts being… well, just a game, I guess.

    As for your and Gnome’s conversation, as children my brother and I would also get piles of floppies with games loaded on them, and we too would spend hours just learning the controls, learning which games were fun, learning which ones didn’t work. I wasn’t aware of piracy as a concept back then, so I can’t say that I enjoyed them more for the fact that they were pirated; I certainly enjoyed the newness and the sense of riches that game with getting five floppy disks, each with ten games on. I would hazard that the childish sense of discovery was what made those moments so great.

  6. That is why Far Cry 2 and Dark Souls are so majestic. Your affinity for the verbs in place increases and the game’s rules seem more clear but the uncertainty of what will happen next looms over you at all times. Just because you have better weapons and ‘levelled up’ personally you can never be confident that everything will be okay as the game changes.

    Great article, this part:

    “AI bugs and patterns are exploited to get ahead. Game scripting becomes more obvious. The new reality fails.”

    Is something I actively avoid looking for.

  7. Just an add-on, the mechanics spoiler stuck with me for a long while, in fact it came up in my Saints Row: The Third review on AR. There was one mechanic, that if you are paying attention breaks the game mood a bit. I alluded to it and mentioned QTEs but avoided the other part that some people might not realise.

  8. The general idea of short games that hit the “wonder center” and then gracefully end is a lovely one. Have to wonder about the financial issues companies would face in making a game like that though? Surely a lot of the money is spent on big infrastructure issues that any of these world games would need, whether they’re 3 or 30 hours?

    Still, we should be trying to make such games. The closest one I can think of right now is probably Gregory Weir’s “A Ride Home”… though it’s a very empty world, it has some of that initial feeling of discovery, then ends.

  9. You know, I feel this, but at the same time, I kind of don’t agree. I always feel so awkward and confused during the first two or three missions of a big game, and feel a little happier once I’ve settled in to a groove – not the point where the game becomes boring, but the point where I feel like I’m starting to get it. Often times I will replay the first couple hours of a game after I tried them once and feel more confident with the controls and mechanics. I would wager I’ve done that with about half the games I own, and it’s not because I enjoyed the first mission so much, but, rather, because I didn’t quite understand the game then and need to play it again when I have that understanding.

  10. @Pippin: Beacon, Knytt, One Curious Nightfall, The Mirror Lied… Also, a copule of LD20 entrants, like Don’t Go Alone and Apply 1000mg. Not a lot of mechanics to discover, but also no time to “master” them. I found these games to be wonderously honeymoonish. They end before you can start feeling at home, I guess that’s the catch.

  11. The Mirror Lied was very confusing, so much so that I felt like I did some actions to an extreme just to try and read a reaction out of the game. The honeymoon of a game can be brilliant, but sometimes it can feel like wasted time if it doesn’t end up being a game you stick with.

  12. @Steerpike: Reading ketchua’s comment, I wonder if we already have this. I’m thinking of the brilliant Gravity Bone, for example, which stops dead when you least expect it. On the piracy-being-fun thing, I was alluding to the fact that in some cases, we’d over-embellished the complexity of the games because we had no manuals, which meant we’d made these tutorial-less games better in our heads. This argument wouldn’t hold today. There’s so much info online plus most games have tutorials of some sort.

    @BC: That’s what I loved about Far Cry 2 too, the freeform, responsive nature of its combat. Shame about the narrative. I’m not going to say, though, I *cannot* dig something like Bioshock, even though the experience of the early stages are far superior to the repetitive gameplay that emerges once you understand its mechanics.

    @Pippin: I’m not sure of the financial implications involved either, but there’s often a vicious backlash against AAA games that are perceived as “too short”. Credibility may be the more serious constraint. Still: Gravity Bone!

    @Amanda: I agree in the sense that the “honeymoon” doesn’t apply to every game. Some games only become interesting after you’ve mastered the basics – AI War, Armageddon Empires, Waves. Not just narrative-less games either. I’ve started Morrowind twice and just burned away so much time getting to grips with the opening character creation that I end up not returning to it. But the play in Mafia and Bioshock is so much more memorable and evocative than in the post-mastery phase.

    @Ketchua: Hello Ketchua, always nice to see a new name in the comments! I think we could all argue about which games we see the honeymoon in, but you’re right – there’s no doubting there’s plenty of small, free game fare that stop just before you get a chance to understand them deeply. Probably another reason why I spend so much time on short-form stuff. (Although I have an example I’m playing at the moment which seems to keep that mechanical mystery going for some time; we’ll see.)

    @BeamSplashX: I’ve not played The Mirror Lied myself, but Calunio wasn’t much of a fan either as he wrote about in a new comment against the post “Twelve Flowers” from two weeks ago.

  13. Funny you should bring up Bioshock, it took me two years to finish that game, I played through the beginning 4 times and then sort of got bored. It wasn’t until both my housemates finished it that I realised I needed to knuckle down and complete it.

  14. @HM: Judging by the articles I’ve read so far, I’m here to stay. 🙂

    As for The Mirror Lied, I loved it’s ambiguity and confusingness. In an industry where most employ a picture-book level of writing, narative experiments like this are what I treasure the most. 🙂

  15. @HM: you know, I am not sure how true this is, but I have read in the theory that this might be gendered. That is, women are happier doing a skill such as a game after they feel they have at least a little mastery, whereas, men are more likely to just jump in face-first, understanding or no, and enjoy it anyway. I can’t remember where I read this, but I have seen it used as a way to explain, for example, one reason why multi-player shooters are less popular with women. There’s no way to practice that isn’t “just playing it,” and you’ll suck a lot before you get good.

  16. Amanda, I just asked Mrs. HM about this and she sort of concurred – with caveats. It depends on the game. Something like GTA III was a nightmare at the start, trying to learn how to drive around and aim with weapons – but once that was all mastered, it was lots of fun. Assassin’s Creed was the opposite: it was exciting learning what you could do and how you could use those skills to reach different places – but once Altair was mastered it quickly degenerated into repetitive set-piecing. She got bored and never finished AC.

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