Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of people complain about tutorials in videogames, and how there is far too much hand-holding going on in general. Many games force players to pass a series of basic tests before they can start the game properly, or put walls up to prevent them from going anywhere but the right direction. Perhaps it’s partially due to the market shift from physical to digital media and the lack of printed instruction manuals that encourages developers to put exhaustive tutorials in their games. Or maybe it’s that videogames are just more complicated than they used to be, or that publishers want to be able to market their games towards as wide an audience as possible. And when it comes to roadblocks, it could be simple laziness on the part of the developers that don’t want to program a situation where a player can wander off in the wrong direction, and find it easier to put up a wall. Whatever the case may be, tutorials seem to be a necessary evil in gaming, so that getting lost or stuck is a thing of the past. So how did I get so lost and so stuck in Shin Megami Tensei IV?
I literally spent hours wandering the “country” of Tokyo, completely unable to find the next step of my journey. Shin Megami Tensei IV is not a game without tutorials. Before the player can even begin exploring Tokyo, they must play through a large introduction that allows very little room for exploration while they are taught the game’s basics. Ironically, this part of the game is punishingly difficult, as the enemies are powerful enough to defeat the player in a single turn. But putting that aside, when it finally becomes time to explore Tokyo properly, it is absolutely daunting.
Perhaps the biggest reason is the map itself. Tokyo is divided up into a large number of different regions, the names of which appear at the top of the map screen when the player happens to be travelling there. But there is no way to look through the map as a whole to find the names of all the regions and where they are; the player must actually be in a region to see its name.
This becomes a problem when combined with vague quest descriptions. When a quest says something like, “Meet at the Tokyo Dome in Suidobashi,” it’s really saying, “Wander Tokyo at random until you eventually find Suidobashi and the Tokyo Dome.” There are a couple of more important regions used for fast travel that the player is likely to remember, such as Shinjuku and Ueno, but Suidobashi is not one of them. Fortunately that particular quest is optional; however, it was a main quest that I got stuck on.
One of the main quests in Shin Megami Tensei IV involves searching Tokyo for a certain person. The quest description says little more than, “Search Tokyo,” and the player is left to wander at random until the next step of the quest is discovered. There is no hand-holding at all, no tutorials to lead the way. There are the tiniest of bread crumbs scattered about, but they are hard to find and easy to miss. I was able to get through a couple of steps in this quest chain before getting completely stuck. I searched for hours, completing every side quest and searching every corner of the world, but I just couldn’t figure out where to go—25 years of RPG experience be damned. And during the review process, there were no FAQs or guides to consult. Eventually, with the help of GameFAQs users that had played the Japanese version, I was able to find the one detail I had failed to discover on my own.
Everything we know about modern game design says not to build a game in this way. The player should have a good idea of where to go at any given moment. Clever game designers use subtle tricks to guide the player in the right direction, such as eye catching landmarks or noticeable light sources. Others will simply provide a waypoint arrow on the map, steadily leading the way to the next step. But there is a point where too much guidance turns what was once a game into a series of tasks, more like a chore. Go here. Go there. Do this. Do that. Shin Megami Tensei IV stands against such things, telling the player to explore instead.
It’s both one of the game’s finest qualities and greatest weaknesses. Any game designer will tell you that there should be a good balance between giving the player freedom and forcing the player along a path for the sake of pacing and preventing frustration. Ironically, the storyline in Shin Megami Tensei IV is all about Order and Chaos, though it might be a stretch to say that was meant to be felt in terms of tutorials and hand-holding.
As whole, I think Shin Megami Tensei IV could have used a better map and clearer quest descriptions. I actually got stuck a second time during my 115 hours with the game, and amazingly, it was during my 4th playthrough. The game has 4 endings, and perhaps the most desirable ending requires that the player maintain neutrality between Order and Chaos (a common theme in the Shin Megami Tensei universe). During a story sequence that occurs when the player is locked into the Neutral path, a certain name is mentioned. For reasons that I cannot fathom, that name is not entered into the quest interface, and the player is expected to type it in, letter for letter, later in the game. By the time I got to that point, I had completely forgotten the name. How was I supposed to know that this one piece of information in the entire game was something I had to write down? And so I ended up exploring the world again, searching for information about what the name could be. In the entire world I found only two subtle hints, but no actual answer, so I was forced once again to consult GameFAQs.
Despite getting lost a couple of times, I still really enjoyed Shin Megami Tensei IV. I do think that modern games are a bit too insistent about teaching the player. As far as I’m concerned, tutorials should always be optional and hand-holding should be kept at a minimum. Shin Megami Tensei IV may have gone a bit too far (especially considering the number of “I’m lost” threads appearing on message boards), but I still have great respect for the idea behind the game’s design. I hope that more modern game designers will remember that games are made to be played, not worked.