Learning from Loading Screens: The Pedagogy of Bayonetta

While I focused last week’s blog on the hypersexual and ultraviolent spectacle of Bayonetta (as many game critics seem to be doing, like Chris Dahlen and Leigh Alexander), I wanted to briefly mention a little detail about the game that I admire beyond its audaciousness, something much less spectacular at first glance: the loading screens.

Loading screens are usually viewed as an irritation by most, and most players would like to see them removed or shortened as much as possible (as my colleague, L.B. Jeffries wrote about not too long ago). While I am no fan of staring at loading screens, I have found that occasionally they serve a useful purpose in my gaming experience. Sometimes they teach me something.

Indeed, many developers seem to recognize this problem. Often the solution seems to be to use them to educate players about the game that they’re playing. Sometimes load screens offer background about the game world or its characters. Other times they contain useful (okay, and sometimes less than useful) game play tips. You know, stuff like: “Did you know that pushing the analog stick to the right will move your character to the right?” Unfortunately in most of these cases, a constant recycling of the same old tips and info becomes nearly as tedious as watching the word “Loading” blinking over and over again.

Really though, some games do sometimes offer good strategy tips that the player may not have considered or remind players (or sometimes inform a player for the first time if a particular mechanic was skipped in the tutorial) of control options that they may have forgotten about (maybe something that was introduced in the tutorial 10 hours ago but has not been applied since then).

A few months ago, I wrote a bit about the active and passive approaches that various games take to teaching players. While suggesting that both active and passive learning are sometimes useful and sometimes less so to players, as a reader noted, some assumptions are often made by designers about how much a player may or may not know about a particular genre and that it is assumedly difficult to know how much information an experienced or inexperienced player needs to know. Of course, this is the problem with any kind of public education, individual learners all come with varying bases of knowledge. Likewise, it is difficult to know how much a player gleans from a tutorial that is more passive in quality (explaining the rules didactically) and how much they retain from actively participating in learning the game (practicing controls, like “use the A,B,A combo on your opponent three times”), again partly depending on the varied learning styles of players.

While most loading screens present expository information and, thus, provide players with passive reinforcement of information about the game’s world, strategy, and controls, Bayonetta interestingly uses loading times to reinforce active learning of its very complex combo system.

Basically, as the game loads from scene to scene, the player is greeted with a Bayonetta existing in a kind of void, she is controllable during the load time and can walk and run as normal. In addition to walking Bayonetta around, though, the right hand side of the screen features a long list of combos available in the game that can be scrolled through using the D-pad. It also includes the number of times that you have performed that combo, whether on the loading screen or in the game. What I had a tendency to do while playing (which appears to be the intention of listing combos in this manner on the screen) is scroll through this list and begin performing those combos that I had not yet used while waiting on the game to load. Since there are scores of combos in the game, the tutorial certainly hadn’t taught them all to me yet (it largely teaches some basic attacks and then suggests experimentation), and I found it a good opportunity to figure out some moves that I hadn’t realized existed.

Now this may not be the first game that a developer has ever considered utilizing the load screen as a practice mode (though, no others spring to mind immediately for me) rather than only explain information about the game, the particular genre that Bayonetta belongs to and especially the approach that the designers have taken to that genre seems especially well served by this approach.

The pedigree of Bayonetta speaks to an interest on the developers part in learning and the constant evaluation of play, specifically its execution and less so its results. Death and dismemberment is a given in stylish action games of this sort, but the manner in which death and dismemberment occurs is a different matter. Hideki Kamiya’s Devil May Cry “graded” players on their stylish kills by assigning a series of letter grades to players who used stylish and varied techniques as they battled demonic forces. While on their surface action games like Bayonetta or those in the Devil May Cry series might appear to be mere button mashing exercises, this familiar assessment model (largely mimicking the letter grade system) encourages the player to do more than hack and slash away at monsters, but, instead, to slash and hack away at them elegantly. After all who wants a “D” for “Dull” when they can get an “A” for “Awesome”? And in order to get an “A” (or “S” in the case of DMC) that means that you need to be educated.

Given the sheer volume of combos possible in the game, though, no short tutorial would suffice to teach the player all of Bayonetta’s moves. Even if they were, this same volume is likely to overwhelm the player with options. Most players are probably going to learn a few things and quickly forget the rest even through repetition. Hopefully, most tutorials are too brief to include hundreds of combos in a row in any case.

Now, especially slothful players like me are especially prone to learning one or two “good” combos anyway at the beginning of such games and sticking to a few options that seem to work well most of the time, thus, settling into the same “dull” patterns for the course of the game. Here, however, the loading screen becomes a means of teaching and prodding the slothful into trying out something new.

What this particular sloth learned was some extremely useful combos that I probably would not have been able to have gotten through the game without. Punishing as DMC-style games can be, Bayonetta‘s loading screens served as less of a stalling of the game than they served in actually aiding my progress forward. Loading, indeed.