So You Want to Play a Video Game? A guide for first-timers

Considering the video games industry is the fastest growing arts medium, it is surprisingly inaccessible to newbies. Most games expect a certain level of game literacy that many new players lack. This is a far from comprehensive guide of what I wish I had known before I picked up a controller for the very first time.

What’s your lockdown kink? Knitting? Baking bread? DIY (how far into building your new ‘spice rack’ before you gave up because you realised you only own a jar of 5 year old oregano and one tub of dubious ‘herb mix’)? Starting a podcast (my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family in these trying times)? Telling everyone that you’re so GUTTED you can’t run the London Marathon because of the PANDEMIC even though you trained SO HARD FOR IT and being secretly relieved that you never had to because since you signed up last year you’ve done sweet FA to prepare for it.

In short: what have you been ‘getting into’ to pass the time? If the answer is video games, do read on. If the answer is no, read on anyway, what else you gonna do?

Not too long ago, I re-kindled my romance with games mainly because my life wasn’t going the way I wanted it to, my boyfriend had a PlayStation 4 going spare, and I needed something to sink my teeth into.

Before then, the last console game I had played was Star Wars Episode 1: Racer on the N64 and frankly, NO REGERTS. What a note to go out on. The re-release of the game for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 will be the single greatest moment of 2020 (well, it doesn’t have much to compete with, I guess, but still!).

So when I decided to picked up a controller, for the first time in 20 years, I was immediately overcome by beautiful childhood memories of spending whole weekends sinking into the worlds of such classics like Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64, and highly anticipating the every new issue of N-Zone, Germany’s most popular Nintendo magazine (soz, Club Nintendo), every month.

I was entranced by the entirely romanticised notion of what playing games used to mean to me. I couldn’t wait to jump straight back into those marvellous worlds that had defined my childhood. Escapism, here I come!

Only thing I had conveniently forgotten about that, at 9 years old, whenever the game got hard, whenever I didn’t quite understand what the hell was going on, I’d jump off my seat, hand the controller over to my uncle, and hide behind the couch, scared to the bone of evil Ganondorf or scary Bowser.

Now, 20 years later, I had been gifted a Nintendo Switch for my 30th birthday and when it was time to kill my first Moblin in Breath of the Wild, I turned around and…to my shock, my uncle wasn’t there! I had to do this on my own?!

I had completely erased from my memory, that, whenever I couldn’t figure out how to progress in a game, there was a responsible adult in the room who I could turn to and ask what to do next. I realised very quickly: I was terrible at games. And games do not have your back when you’re terrible. When you’re new and you have no clue what is going on, games will eat you up and spit you out. A lot of the times I lost heart very early on and had it not been for more experienced gamers around me (such as ‘boyfriend’) who could guide me through the early stages, I may have walked away again completely.

I mean, it’s fair, I obviously can’t expect to be amazing at something from the first go. Except for being very beautiful and very wise. That came very easy to me. And a lot of the times what tripped me up at playing games was simply my terrible hand-eye-coordination. When in doubt, mash some buttons.

But in other aspects, especially when it comes to the underlying logic and laws that games abide by, if I had known a few things up front, I wouldn’t have lost my patience so quickly.

Because once you open yourself up to games, you are in for some of the most beautiful stories you’ve ever experienced. Once you get the hang of them, you become hungry for more great titles, and more amazing narratives.

I’m gutted I found my way back into games so ‘late’ on in life. Being able to play games is such a privilege and I’d love for more people to be able to do so. I know that the gaming community can sometimes feel quite impenetrable (dudes are ‘gamers’, girls play Candy Crush etc etc) but if you manage to see past all that, you’re in for something truly special.

So with this I wanna share with you some things I wish I had known before I started playing games to hopefully make your start into this fantastical world much smoother and easier than mine. Because, lord above, it’s so worth sticking with it.

Disclaimer 1.0: I’m not talking about games like Animal Crossing, Sims, or Bejewelled Blitz (praise our Saviour) – as brilliant as they are; I’ve never come across any challenges in playing them that was to do with me not understanding the games’ mechanics or not knowing what to do next.
The games I’m referring to are those cinematic, capital S-serious (okay sometimes they have fun, witty dialogue, props to the writers), story-driven games featuring grumpy dudes with guns or a bow or some shit (sometimes women, but mostly men, seriously, sort it out); your Zeldas, your Tomb Raiders, your Assassin’s Creeds, your Naughty Dogs, your cool-dude games. (Can you tell, I’m an expert.)

Disclaimer 2.0: These are some of the games I started playing when I first started playing games again. I’m well aware there’s so many other great titles out there (and I will get to them in due time, I’m sure) and this is by no means and exhaustive list of those games or a reflection of their quality in any shape or form.

Games expect a high level of game literacy even from the start

With game literacy I mean the ability to decode and understand the visual cues and hints developers put in place to guide the player in the right direction, know what to do and make her succeed at the game. For instance – if there’s a weak glow around an object in a video game, veteran players instantly know this means they can somehow interact with that item without the game having to literally spell it out for them.

Just like, for example, in IRL, when I look at an inanimate object with a handle, I know, even if I haven’t handled that object before, that I can pick this item up at the handle without it having to say so in big letters across the object.

But if you’re new to games, or indeed new to the world then you just don’t know these things and need someone to spell it out for you. Okay stay with me here because remember when Robin Williams returned from being trapped in the jungle in Jumanji and he was a little boy when he went in and now boom he’s a grown up and has to shave his beard for the first time but no one’s ever told him how to and people just expect grown men to know how to do that stuff but he doesn’t so he keeps CUTTING HIS FACE with a razor.

In the beginning, I struggled because games didn’t always point out the obvious so I would get stuck, in various ways; Behind a wall (The Last Of Us), in a shrine (Breath of the Wild), not knowing what I was expected to do next (Life Is Strange), or, dramatically, I would keep falling to my death because I couldn’t figure out how to climb a vine (Uncharted). So after a few gos, and a few ‘THIS IS BULLSHIT’s, I’d disgruntled-ly throw my controller softly on to a couch cushion (these things are expensive after all) and vowed to NEVER PLAY THIS GAME AGAIN. If this game didn’t want me, I didn’t want the game.

(NB: I’m not saying there is something wrong with these games specifically, they are absolutely brilliant in their own right. I’m just saying I personally found it quite hard to come to terms with their core mechanics. I AM THE PROBLEM, OKAY? Don’t dox me.)

So I’d complain about it to my boyfriend (the one with the spare PlayStation 4, that one), he would patiently ask if he could take a look, I’d exclaim there’s no point because it’s too hard for anyone to ever overcome this challenge, he’d convince me to let him have a look anyway, he’d be with the problem for all but a second, and boom, had absolved me from my misery.  When I’d turn to him, wide-eyed, and in disbelief to be breathing right next to such a deity, whispering in awe ‘how did you do this?’,  he’d enigmatically say ‘that’s just how games work’. And that was that.

So why then do games not tell us this? Why do they tell us some things and not others? Why am I spending 30 minutes on some bow and arrow tutorial or have to read through an entire screen on how to throw a Molotov cocktail, but the game neglects to tell me that some walls I can climb if I find something to drag in front off, some heights I can jump down from safely, but some other heights (exact value undetermined) will literally kill me. How do I know that some items I can pick up but some other items I can’t. How do I know when it’s safe to come out from behind my cover? How do I know which way to go when I’m running away from a group of zombies?

I believe expecting the player to just know certain things is one of the single-most frustrating obstacles for newbies and I do wish developers could be a little more mindful of that. But the bottom line is: If you don’t know how to do a certain thing, that it’s totally fine. In many ways, understanding games and what they want you to do is practically like learning a new language. Keep practicing and it will get easier.

Pressing buttons is very hard

I’ll make this short: to anyone who doesn’t have to take their gaze off the TV screen and stare at the controller when deciding which buttons to press – I salute you.

I’m in constant awe at those who always know where exactly which button is and know so by muscle memory alone.

It really is a shame that most male gamers are virgins because boy would they know how to use their fingers. I’m kidding, I’m kidding, of course. Gamers are notoriously bad at fingering. I’M KIDDING! No gamer is a virgin, in fact they all have lots and lots of sex with beautiful women who look just like Lara Croft, but like, with BIGGER boobs.

So if you can’t for the life of you remember where A or B, or god forbid, Circle or Triangle is – it’s sorta like riding a bike. It’s really hard to figure out where your hand and feet go at first and what exactly they need to be doing, but once you got the hang of it, you soon realise, cycling is easy and you’ll never forget how to, unless you stop doing it for a good chunk of time, then you’ll still sorta know how to, but you might be a bit shaky at first, and maybe fall off at least once, but then you get back in to it, and things are good again. What I’m saying: the more regularly you use a thing, the more familiar you are with a thing – may that be your bike, your controller, or your… children…I guess?

There’s no shame playing in Easy

You might get some gamers breathing down your neck telling you that you’ve only really played a game if you’ve done a world record-breaking speed run of it in DEATH MODE or SURVIVOR MODE or BADASS MODE or TOXIC MASCULINITY MODE.

But honestly, I choose EASY any chance I get like the easy slag I am. I’d rather experience a great story and enjoy every single second of it than be endlessly frustrated because I just can’t move past the next hurdle.

Everybody cheats

If you get really stuck and there’s no game literate uncle or boyfriend or grandma around to help you find all those terminals in that Divine Beast (not an euphemism for my erogenous zones, I swear), there’s literally no shame in looking up a play-through guide online. See, I thought that was completely taboo, directly violating the Holy Guide of Gamers, but as I found out one afternoon WALKING IN ON MY BOYFRIEND CHEATING on Breath of the Wild by looking up how to complete shrine number 79, everybody cheats every so often. Not like all the time but helping yourself along every so often when you get really stuck is no biggie – better doing that than getting so frustrated with the game that you walk away from it….forever. Dun dun dun. (Though of course there’s no harm in walking away from a game either. Some of them ARE actually terrible)

Games give you an enormous sense of accomplishment

Particularly in these shitty times (if you’re reading this at the time of publication, I’m talking about Coronavirus, if you’re reading this in the future, I’m talking about the climate apocalypse, if you’re reading this in the past, I’m, of course, referring to the Plague), it’s hard to feel any sense of purpose or achievement. I don’t know about you but the only thing I’ve got to show for my time in Lockdown is my World Championship title in Staring (middle distance). So booting up my Switch or the PlayStation 4, the one that my boyfriend had to spare, is a sure-fire way of knowing that within mere minutes, I’ll have done something with my day that I can be proud of.

Games give you a very tangible feeling of success. Yesterday, I didn’t know how to stealthily sneak up behind that bore and shoot it so I can make some delicious (?) meat and mushroom skewers, but today, I’ve mastered that skill and am shooting bores left right and centre pew pew pew!!

You can measure how good you are at a game by how skilfully you move from ‘level’ to ‘level’ – I can think of very few things that give you such an instant feeling of success.

It’s all about the fun

There’s no right or wrong way to play a game. It doesn’t matter if you keep dying, or falling off a cliff, or keep getting eaten by Clickers. It doesn’t matter if you completely throw the main mission out the window and just do side quests. It doesn’t matter if you keep failing. None of this makes you a good or a bad player. If you’re having fun with a game, you’re doing it right!

These are a few things I wish I had known before I threw myself into games. Arguably, those games described weren’t, like, the best games to start with after a 20 year hiatus and there are games that ease you in slower than others.

And there’s absolutely no pressure for you to complete a game either. If it frustrates you beyond belief, just move on. Life’s too short. Go and pretend to have run the London Marathon instead.

But if you’ve found joy and magic in those opening cut scenes of your game of choice and you would like to know what happens next but you just can’t figure out which way this goddamn game wants you to go, stick with it! It’ll get easier. And before you know it, you’re the Moblin Queen.

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