Opaque Systems

Words: 1516 Approximate Reading Time: 10-15 minutes

I recently started playing Monster Hunter: Rise. It is not my first foray into a Monster Hunter-esque game, but it is my first time with a game in the series proper. It’s been fun.

But as I’ve started to get a hang of the game I found myself feeling…lost. I don’t know to what extent this feeling is a result of coming into the series so late, but the game feels very much like it needs to be played with a guide. The kind of game where you have to look up all sorts of details just to figure out how the mechanics work.

That’s not to say that the game doesn’t try to explain its mechanics to the player. There are a lot of systems in the game, and thus a lot of tutorial messages. The game is definitely going to great lengths to make sure that players are familiar with how to play the game and feel comfortable with the game’s systems. It all took a while to get used to, and even now I’m still learning pretty basic things (which means I have to unlearn strategies I had already learned).

But even with all this information…I find myself wanting more. I still find myself uncertain about how things worked, and ultimately looking up information.

And so I wanted to talk about this experience through the lens of opacity: how do video game systems reveal information, how much do or should they reveal, and when do they fall short?

Too Little, Too Late

What does it mean for a system to be opaque, compared to being transparent?

It’s useful to begin with asking how the underlying systems actually work. As an example, if you’re fighting an enemy, how much health does it have? How many hits does an enemy take before it dies? How these questions are answered will depend on a wide variety of factors. But what matters is how much information a player has about what’s going on. Is an attack effective? Is this strategy working? Can I actually kill this enemy at all?

So imagine that the game gave you no feedback. Weapons had the same hit animation and sound regardless of whether it did 10,000 points of damage or none. Enemies had no health bars. At this point, the game would be so opaque that it would feel unplayable. You don’t get any information from the game, and as a consequence, you don’t know what you should be doing.

This is a simplified version to help explain one way that a system can be opaque. When there’s just no information, or insufficient information, then you as player cannot make good decisions about what you should do.

But it’s also important to note that it is extremely rare for systems to totally lack information. Instead, they can simply lack information in specific places.

An example from Monster Hunter: do monsters, when they run away to a new zone, regain their health? It’s a fairly simple question, and the answer radically determines how you react. Do you need to give chase immediately? Can you dawdle and search for items or take time to recover? Can you go back-and-forth fighting one monster and then another? The strategies you employ are determined by the answer…but the answer is not given to you by the game. You can discover the answer online, but there seems to be practically no information given to the player about this.

There are plenty of other examples of places here and there where I have found myself asking “how does this work?” And it is that kind of opacity that I would desperately want the game to address. Because it feels like the only way to answer these questions is to go online and see what people have said on Reddit.

While I say this, certainly a response could be that surely games require some degree of experimentation: you have to try different things out to figure out how the mechanics work. After all, you don’t want a game holding your hand or giving you a 300 page manual every time you start it up.

While I think this premise is true, it relies upon the assumption that the game rewards experimentation. By “reward” I mean that it has systems to encourage experimentation and which give ample feedback. So when you try something new – a new weapon, a new strategy, a new item – you know very quickly whether it is helping or not. Is this new weapon better or not? Well, does it do more damage than your previous weapon? That’s the kind of feedback necessary to reward experimentation. The more a game encourages you to stick to a particular strategy or equipment set, the longer it takes to figure out whether a new strategy is helpful or not, the less the game wants you to experiment.

So if I’m 50 hours into a game and having basic questions, it’s hard to say that the solution is “experiment.” Because there’s not really any good way to experiment. Are different weapons better than others against certain monsters? Well, the prohibitive cost of forging different weapons in Monster Hunter means you are better off sticking to a favorite, rather than trying to build out multiple trees simultaneously. So experiment early to see what kind of weapon you like…and then never experiment again.

While we want to encourage players to experiment and explore the world, and foster ideas that engaging with the game itself is desirable, there is a necessity for the game to help with this purpose. To meet players halfway, so to speak.

So what distinguishes a problem of experimentation compared to opacity? When is it the player’s fault for not grasping things, versus when it’s the game’s fault for not explaining things?

The answer lies in access to information. Namely, is the information provided, how clear is it, and how easy is the information to find.

I think the sheer amount of information in Monster Hunter helps us further in analyzing a part of the problem: there is a lot of information to sift through. But the fact that there is so much information makes any particular piece of information hard to find. This appears to be especially true of information regarding the game’s mechanics. While there are plenty of tooltips given to the player about controls and different systems, those tooltips still don’t answer a lot of basic questions about playing the game: information that isn’t absolutely necessary, but is still useful to have and that many players would want to know. There is, so to speak, an information overload. And as the game gets more and more complex, it becomes easy to just tune out more and more in favor of just understanding the specific things that have worked for you so far.

Again, it’s possible to learn all of the things you need…but the solution is to look outside of the game. This wouldn’t be an issue if the information we were going for were things like optimization – what are the best strategies, where do we find certain hidden secrets, what’s the best equipment to use? But when it comes to basic elements of the gameplay – do monsters heal, how many times can monsters be put in special vulnerable states, how do you trigger certain special fight animations – these kinds of questions should be answered by the game. Whether the answer comes in the form of tooltips or a guided sequence or experimentation by the player depends on too many factors to say that there is any one-size-fits-all option. But that they don’t get answered at all is a problem.

Concluding Remarks

This essay is brief in part because the issue I’ve been having is relatively minor. I’ve put a lot of hours into Monster Hunter: Rise already, and will certainly be putting even more hours in. But I think the opacity of game systems is still an important topic to think about. Because we often talk about the nature of tutorialization and the best ways to teach players how to play a game. And a key component of that is how clear the game’s systems are. If a player is at least paying attention, what information will they be drawing from what they see, and what information do you want them to be drawing? I feel like there are plenty of games that have disconnects in these two factors: sometimes the game seems to want you as the player to draw more information than you can. And when that happens, there is a flaw in the design because the system is just too opaque.

I find it useful here to investigate particular systems in particular games – the minor issues we run into now and then in our play – for the purpose of drawing these bigger principles. These examples help us to better intuit these ideas. And as we draw more examples, we are able to then further expand these principles and eventually transform them into rules and strategies that can affect our behaviors down the road.

2 thoughts on “Opaque Systems

  1. As someone that put too much time into World, and a fair amount into Rise I can say with absolute certainty that Monster Hunter does an abysmal job of conveying basic information about its mechanics. There are a handful of things it does well, but, as you noted, there is such a dense volume of information and the game just doesn’t do enough to actually convey any of it. The overwhelming amount I know about the games comes from things veteran players told me when I was getting started. That feels like a pretty damning indictment.

    There’s a fun game there, but it is buried under a sea of bullshit. At least the community is always willing and able to answer questions, instead of being filled with elitests.

    Also, kinda related, Rise is extremely stingy with resources. Making new weapons to experiment feels way harder than World, which I’ve been told was already fairly stingy compared to older titles. Not sure why they made that change, especially with how easily that could help to drive home certain lessons about the game’s mechanics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I love how great the community is in providing all sorts of information – both the basics and more complex stuff. I really appreciate the community for when I have to look up all this information that you’d think the game would be providing…

      And I am definitely feeling frustrated with the stinginess. Like so many other players, I have experienced the frustration of killing a Ratholos over and over again just to get one specific part…Reminds me that I typed up an essay on randomness a long time back that I need to post one of these weeks.

      But I definitely enjoy it. I’ve put a lot of hours into it, and will put in more. I definitely get what people like about it.

      Liked by 1 person

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