If you’ve ever played Settlers of Catan for the first time with someone who is way better than you, you are fully aware that there is nothing more frustrating than a game you don’t know how to play. A video game can be nearly perfect, but if the player is not taught how to play it, it becomes as fun as reading a dissertation about wood pulp while getting a sandpaper massage.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is considered the worst game ever made. There were so many unsold copies that they were eventually (and still are) buried in a desert in New Mexico. This is not a ridiculous analogy. It’s a historic fact. Take a look at the gameplay below to see why:
Feel like you had a comprehensive understanding of how to play the game? No? NEITHER DID ANYONE. This game was so nauseatingly bad that gamers and their parents spiraled downward into an existential crisis upon the realization that they had spent exorbitant amounts of money on utter crap, which had a pretty nasty effect on the industry. So what made E.T. the abomination it was? Well, no one could even wrap their minds around how to play it. The moral of this story is that clarity is imperative in game design. And this, kids, is how the tutorial came to be.
The tutorial’s primary objective is to teach users how to play the game. Throughout the years, developers have constructed various types of video game tutorials, but, after some exploration through my own library and beyond, I have broken them up into five different categories.
So let’s begin! “Scroll Down to Begin.”
Ahh, the booklet. Any seasoned soul who used to spend their paychecks on cartridges may remember these tiny magazines well. Booklets usually gave you a bit of background about the characters, the world, your objective, and the gameplay mechanics, simply because all of those components are very difficult to convey with only colored squares and what sounds like a duet with your microwave buzzer and a bassoon muffled with a Tesla coil. As handy as these booklets may have been, they existed out of necessity more than anything else, and should be avoided at all costs in modern day gaming.
Why, you ask? Well, look at it this way. Using the booklet to teach someone how to play a game is like teaching a seven-year-old how to play baseball over the phone. Sure, you can teach little Caitlyn that the ball will fly over the plate and that she’s supposed to hit it with the bat, but you can’t teach her diddly squat about how to stand, when to swing, and how to adjust to the pitch unless you’re right there with her, guiding her physical movements in the moment. The same goes with video games, which is why the Booklet approach doesn’t hold up.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Well, duh. Who uses booklets anymore? That would be stupid.” You’re right, even if I don’t appreciate your tone of voice. But the booklet approach has not completely died. Consider this image:
This look familiar? It probably does, even though it shouldn’t. Games should never, ever do this because the commands have no context. They’re just meaningless concepts that you’ll instantly forget until an enemy puts a grenade in your pants.
The Danger Room
After video games gained the capacity to include tutorials, they began to implement a new tactic: a little something I like to call the Danger Room.
If you’re familiar with X-Men, then you know about everybody’s favorite place to practice fighting baddies. If not, then the Danger Room is basically a VR training space that uses holograms to simulate dangerous missions without creating as much risk for the heroes. Exercises in the Danger Room can be cancelled at any time and are generally inconsequential to the mission at hand, unless the Danger Room breaks for the sake of an interesting comic book issue, which it very often does.
Video game developers fell in love with this concept for a good while. This is generally what people think of when they think of tutorials: long, heavily expository, and often boring missions that walk players through increasingly difficult tasks that have nothing to do with the story. These are far better than the Booklet tactic because they actually teach the player in the game. The most notorious use of the Danger Room tutorial can be found in strategy games, such as Civilization, Command & Conquer, League of Legends, and, for our example, Advanced Wars. Take a brief look at the tutorial below.
If you started, you probably didn’t watch the whole video because it’s boring. Now I love Advanced Wars and I would consider it one of the best strategy games ever made, but it’s pretty complicated and no player can jump in the campaign expecting to succeed without completing all ten (that’s right, TEN) tutorials. The Danger Room tutorial is functionally effective, but detachment from the story can really make the experience seem dull. Since gamers are strongly affected by first impressions, this can kill someone’s interest in a game early on, which is no good.
However, not all Danger Room tutorials are so drab. Take a look at the video below:
Spider-Man (2002) and its sequels utilize the talents of the snarky and, in my opinion, hilarious Bruce Campbell to bring some life to boring old tutorials. However, even with humor, there are better and more interesting methods to go about player-education.
Games that implement mini-tutorials into the narrative, rather than having one large tutorial outside of the story, are pretty much objectively better. Let’s pretend that the aforementioned baseball player Caitlyn has practiced with you every day in the backyard, while her rival Libby regularly plays games on a school team. If they were to both join a real game the next day, Libby would annihilate Caitlyn because she learned how to play baseball in a game rather than only inconsequential practice. When you learn how to play in the moment, it sticks, simply because it’s more consequential.
Within this “method” I have identified two distinct categories. First, I’d like to discuss something I call The Otacon. In the Metal Gear Solid series, a whiny nerd named Otacon (which is an abbreviation for Hal Emmerich, somehow) calls you on your fancy in-ear radio to tell you how to tackle certain obstacles that you encounter along the way, interrupting the action and then filling you in with verbal exposition. This method is much better than information dumping the gameplay mechanics on the player in a separate tutorial, because it creates an element of surprise when the player comes across new abilities, items, and obstacles. However, there is a dark side to the Otacon technique. To demonstrate, I will leave this image:
For those of you who don’t recognize this little ball of winged light, allow me to introduce you to Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. As Link goes on his adventures in order to save the land of Hyrule (or smash pots for six hours), this little fairy flies alongside him every step of the way. When a new concept is introduced in either the story or gameplay, Navi is there to guide you through the challenges. She’s quite helpful and, as a character, I’ve gotten attached to her over the years, but nobody remembers her this way because their memories are overwhelmed by Navi annoying the piss out of them. They remember running across Hyrule Field towards the Fire Temple only to have Navi scream, “Hey! Listen!” until they stop their movement, pause, and listen to her tell Link that he has to go to the Fire Temple. Though Navi’s inclusion in Ocarina of Time is helpful for first-time players, even newbies will develop wrath-induced stomach ulcers after hearing “Hey! Listen!” during the final boss fight with Ganon, only to have Navi tell them that swords are sharp.
This is so infuriating because the Otacon method lends itself to treating gamers like newborn antelopes on ice-encrusted crutches rather than self-reliant human beings. If a player has a solid grasp on the game and is enjoying the flow of the story, nothing is more irritating than being taken out of the moment so he or she can learn something already known. This is why the Pop-Up is a much better tactic.
So we’ve learned that stopping the player in the middle of the game to teach them lessons about gameplay is not ideal, but we’ve also learned that separate tutorials are no good. So what’s a developer to do? Here’s your answer: Pop-Ups.
What do I mean? Well, consider the “tutorial” from Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
Here’s a “deep” quote from Marco Polo and then BAM! You’re playing a game about a guy in a train dangling off a cliff!! Wha-?!? H-how are you gonna survive?! How do you even play the game?! Where’s the Start button?! You could DIE!!
Yet there’s hope because the game, through brief but impactful Pop-Up instructions, fully informs you of how the game is played without interrupting you for even a second. The instructions flow seamlessly with the narrative and it is infinitely more interesting to watch, let alone play, in comparison to the Benedryl-laced tutorials of Advanced Wars.
However, many might argue that Uncharted 2 has an unfair advantage over other game series and genres. It has a crazy budget, an action-packed story, and quick, simplistic gameplay that caters to the Pop-Up method. Games like Advanced Wars, for example, simply could not use the Pop-Up tactic because of their inherent structure and complexity. However, for mainstream shooters, adventure, and sandbox games, the Pop-Up method is usually a wonderful tactic. Therefore, this must surely be the most effective kind of tutorial! Wrong.
The DIY Approach
Few things are more satisfying than doing something all by yourself. Whether it’s mastering your first solitary potty-training session or answering a Jeopardy question correctly without Siri, human beings love feeling like they figured something out using their gigantic brains alone. Thus, the best kind of tutorial may not even be rightly classified as one. With few to no text boxes and no Navi-like guidance, these games leave the player seemingly alone.
“But wait a minute. This sounds terrible. Isn’t that what E.T. did?” you ask, dumbfounded and teary-eyed. Yes, E.T. did exactly what I just said, but E.T. did it very poorly. See, the goal of the DIY approach is not to leave the player to fend for his or herself in a game that makes no sense, but to guide them through an environment that “clicks” with their intuition. I’m aware that this is getting a little cryptic so here’s a concrete example from Portal:
The game uses the Pop-Up method a few times to present basic controls: move, jump, and lift. That’s it. For the rest of the game, the only Otacon-ing the player receives is from GLaDOS who appears to constantly lie, and, visually, Pop-Ups are replaced by these cryptic signs:
These are the only friends the player has in Portal, so he or she is forced to rely on his or her own perception, intuition, and creativity to progress through the game. The player is treated as a competent, intelligent human being and is not told or even shown how the game is supposed to be played, but expected to pick up on patterns such as how portals, switches, momentum, and other mechanics function in the game. And when the player figures out puzzles by themselves rather than with help from a pre-configured assistant, it’s infinitely more satisfying.
For another example of a game that uses the DIY tutorial, take a gander at Egoraptor’s video about Mega Man X.
WARNING: The following video may contain language NSFW… unless, y’know, your work is cool.
So what do you think, my dear readers? Any particularly great tutorials that I haven’t mentioned? Can you think of any other tutorial categories that might not fit into these categories? Let us know in the comment section below! And don’t forget to stop by Top Shelf Gaming for brand new articles every week!