Journey came out on PSN a few weeks ago and turned out to be one of the most amazing games I've ever played. Considering its relatively simple gameplay structure, I decided to force my mom to play through it. While watching her, I got to thinking about how games are designed and what they assume the audience comes to the game already knowing. I would like to share some observations I had and some thoughts on it.
The controls in Journey are fairly basic with you just needing to worry about movement, camera control, jump and sing. Two sticks, two buttons. However, Journey never tells you that you can use the right analog stick for camera control and instead has you tilt the controller. This caused a lot of issues, especially when my mom was trying to do some of the more involved platforming sequences. She would want her character to be gliding to the right and so she would instinctively tilt the controller to the right while also pushing the analog stick in that direction. The camera would swing around for reasons that were not apparent to her and she quickly got disoriented. Overall, she rarely intentionally manipulated the camera.
Navigating 3D Environment
Journey doesn't have much platforming, but in the few instances when it does she was having a lot of issue with depth perception. As an experienced gamer, I would say that I get a sense of how far something is by subtly adjusting the camera and with just a few degrees of change I can get a good idea for how far away I was from something. My mother was not aware of this trick, and even if she was, she did not have enough command over the camera to pull it off without a lot of effort.
For the most part, my mom missed all of the cues the game gave about what you should be doing or where you should be going. I suggested that she just follow her partner around whenever possible. Most people didn't have the patience to wait around for her to navigate an area though. We did eventually get someone who was incredibly helpful and patient, but due to an extended break they moved on without her.
She was often concerned that she wasn't doing what she was supposed to. While this was true in some cases, she didn't realize that the game has built-in boundaries and that you're not gonna wander off into the desert never to be found again. This was mainly an issue in the early game where you are in more open areas, but happen a few times during the more linear sections when she reached an apparent dead end and wasn't able to get the camera at an angle to show a turn in the path.
She was also confused about cutscenes and didn't understand why she was unable to move her character or why it was moving on its own.
I like reading about how companies like Valve do extensive play testing and use that to teach players game mechanics. Usually though, you're still expected to come in with some basic skills such as being able to move your character and the camera at the same time. I wonder if companies consider a portion of their audience coming in without an understanding of shared game mechanics and skills. I find many of the generic tutorials in games that teach you things like moving jumping and killing dudes to be very annoying. These same tutorials seem to do a poor job of teaching people who are completely unfamiliar with a game the basic concepts. If this is the case, then why are they there to begin with?