Do you remember instruction booklets?
Operation Europe’s interface is so bad that it took me about five tries to actually get to the part where I play the game. It’s one of those games where the insipid instructions on how to start a new game and load a saved game would actually be useful. There are no labels, headings, or extra pieces of information; it’s an utter failure as an independent interface.
But remember, it wasn’t independent at the time. Instruction booklets were how you learned to play the game. Almost no game actually contained an in-game tutorial. The instruction booklet, for an apparently complex, obtuse game like this, was an essential part of the game itself.
I think that the movement towards in-game tutorials is a good one. It makes games into self-contained experiences, not requiring an external key to decipher them. This game makes absolutely no sense without an instruction booklet, although I doubt that the instructions would be particularly illuminating. And instructions are made of paper – they tend to get lost, torn, borrowed, stolen, wet, whatever. We don’t take care of them like we take care of the games themselves. Without them, some games are almost unplayable, like this one. Everything is an abbreviation with a full word, a signifier without a signified, a reference without a referent. It’s gibberish.
Many games can get away without instructions or tutorials – games that build upon an existing cultural structure of gamer knowledge, instincts drilled into us since Mario, like “the face button under the joint of your thumb is the jump button, and the face button under the tip of your thumb is the attack button.” Even just an options screen with the controls is often very helpful, or loading screens with instructions or button layouts.
The best method, I think, is to instruct you how to play without the artificial contrivances of tutorials, without the necessity of looking up what buttons do what; some games can ease you into the flow of play and allow you to discover it for yourself. Unfortunately this isn’t always possible, especially with complex strategy games. Often it will result in a jarring message like “Alright, we’re going to do some practice, Agent. Press X to jump.” This from the mouth of a character who, previously, was doing his best to pretend he was a real person.
Some games, though, will remain cloaked in obscurity, behind the locked gates of their interface, and this is one of them.