All Games Should Unlock Every Level Right Away

By Chris Suellentrop on at

Super Mario 4D Universe—or whatever the next one will be called—should come with every single level in the Mushroom Constitutional Monarchy unlocked. The next Grand Theft Auto should make all of its missions immediately playable in the very first minute. Uncharted 4 should let me jump into the middle of Nathan Drake’s adventures as soon as I slip the disc into my PlayStation.

I don’t want this because I am bad at video games or intend to skip to the end so I can post the video on YouTube. I’m a diligent, obedient player, one who patiently and thoroughly explores the games that I play. But the Call of Duty people were right this week. Locking up video game levels is archaic.

Does your Kindle force you to read every word before you can turn to see the next page of Moby Dick? Does your Blu Ray player insist that you watch every frame of The Fellowship of the Ring before it deigns to permit you to see the bonus material on the disc? Does it wall off the scene selection menu until you’ve “conquered” an initial viewing? Does iTunes require you to hear each track of Exile on Main Street in order on first listen, or can you skip ahead?

The Irish comedian Dara O’Briain has a nice bit on this:

Literature, music, television, and movies do not impose content restrictions on their readers, listeners, and viewers because they are not worried about the consequences. A novelist or filmmaker assumes that most people will engage with the text or the movie in order, as the creator intended. And if they don’t? Well, who cares? It’s their loss.

Many players—including some of my Kotaku colleagues—bristle at this logic. Let me try putting it this way: Walling off parts of a game until a player has completed other portions of it is a form of digital rights management. And you hate DRM, don’t you?

You should be able to play a game however you like. If the only way for a game to persuade you to go through it the way it was meant to be played is a combination of psychological trickery and force feeding, I would suggest that this is a failing of the game.

Besides, a little skimming never hurt anybody. Michael Kinsley, one of the great magazine editors of this and any other age (and a former boss of mine), all but admitted to skipping parts of Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate when he defended “turning every page” as equivalent to reading while serving as a National Book Awards judge. Readers leaf through books. TV viewers get up to grab a drink out of the fridge without pausing the DVR. Others fast-forward.

Sometimes people do these things for boorish reasons. Other times, they do them because they’re rightly bored, or they’re re-reading or re-appraising something. Maybe they’re—gasp!—doing research or writing criticism. I began Grand Theft Auto III, more than a decade ago, on an Xbox whose optical drive died midway through my playthrough. I never finished. Had I begun again on a new machine—or were I to begin the PC edition on Steam right now—I would have to repeat tens of hours of play. No medium that is respectful of its audience, or confident in its craft, would impose such a constraint.

If, in 1985, I had received a Nintendo Entertainment System that included an unlocked copy of Super Mario Bros. for Christmas, would I have immediately begun the game in World 8-4? Of course not. And if I had, I’m not sure that it would have mattered, other than to teach me that I wasn’t ready to go there.

Some of the surprise and delight of exploring a game would be lost, I concede, if you knew you could see the same thing by opening a menu in the title screen. Still, games that are spatial and skill-based—meaning, nearly all of them—will always be able to wall off certain areas or regions by making them especially challenging or remote. More important, in the age of YouTube, that stuff is always a thumbprint or a mouse-click away. You don’t even have to get up from your couch to see it. People who want to ruin games for themselves without earning it already can.

Games have been moving this way for a long time, because the benefits are clear and the consequences are close to nonexistent. Rock Band 4 comes with all of the songs on the disc unlocked. Fighting games, which used to require you to play through a game in order to unlock specific characters, now tend to give them to you at the start. In Grand Theft Auto V, you can replay all of the missions you’ve completed by opening a menu, instead of having to replay scores of hours of the game, in order, to get to the moment you want to see again. It would be trivial to make that possible at the start of the game in Grand Theft Auto VI.

This doesn’t have to be complicated, or perfect. Developers should just put reasonable methods in their games to let players, whether new or old, move through a game easily. Books use pages and chapters, but no reader expects to be able to instantly find the paragraph they’re looking for. Books also expect you to, you know, be able to read the language in order to finish them. There’s a skill involved! Albums are segmented by tracks, not by notes. So don’t over think it. Let players move from level to level, or mission to mission, or checkpoint to checkpoint. Whatever. Just go with something that works.

Yes, climbing Mount Everest is less satisfying when everyone can teleport straight to the top. But a good video game is one in which the ascent itself is a pleasure, and not just the final view.