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Monday, Jun 6, 2011
Final Fantasy XIII
The beginning of a game has to convince the player that it's worth playing, draw the player into the game's world, explain the game's mechanics, and do it all in a way that's not so slow and plodding that players give up before even getting to the meat of the game.

Games are difficult to begin. I don’t mean that in the ‘sitting down to play’ sense, although depending on how much free time one has on their hands, that may indeed be a problem. Rather, the beginning of a game has to convince the player that it’s worth playing, draw the player into the game’s world, explain the game’s mechanics, and do it all in a way that’s not so slow and plodding that players give up before even getting to the meat of the game. A good example of this problem is in Final Fantasy XIII, which has taken a lot of heat, deservedly so, for taking so long to get to the actual parts of the game which feel like a Final Fantasy game. Games need to fill players in on how to play them, but at some point it becomes tiresome. Not only that, but a constant interruption of instructional windows can break the flow of both gameplay and narrative. 
  
The narrative is an even trickier part—there’s not a game in which characters giving instructions on how to use the controller is not strange, although in some cases, as in Metal Gear Solid, the fact of the game’s being just that, a game, is something which is constantly referenced and winked at. If a game is breaking the fourth wall anyway, it doesn’t matter if a character tells you to use the A Button to activate the bomb—it’s part of the game’s schtick, not worth commenting upon. Some RPGs, however, seem to play their respective settings completely straight up until the moment when the player is informed that the sparkly crystal over there is a save point and the player can press X to save at any time.


Many games have recently elected to use integrated tooltips a la the controls for Portal flashing unobtrusively during the introduction and then vanishing. For a FPS, this probably makes the most sense—not only do they tend to be far simpler (this button shoots, this button jumps, the mouse looks around), but the vast majority of players are already at least passingly familiar with the language of the FPS. Anyone who has played games at all can grasp the language of interaction at work, and a short introduction to explain the few differences that might exist between each particular FPS, but the basics are the same. It’s no surprise, then, that a game like Half Life, which cleverly eases the player into the mechanics of the game by allowing for both the story and the controls, to come slowly.


By allowing the game to start without any real action it lowers the risk of the player being overwhelmed by combat situations until the real meat of the game takes place. What Half Life doesn’t risk is letting the player grow bored with the mundane. The beginning of Half Life cleverly ratchets up the difficulty just enough to allow the player time to adjust to the crowbar just before giving them a pistol. It takes a little more time before a gun with a secondary fire option (the army rifle) shows up, at which time the player is fully competent with using a regular gun.


Games with a more complicated set of controls, such as an RTS, generally need a more complicated tutorial. Command and Conquer, for example, starts you out with the bare minimum of units—just minigunners—stands back, and lets you establish a simple beachhead. The Nod missions are even more bare-bones, giving you a single squad for your first mission rather than even allowing for the more complex mechanics of base-building. The narrative backs this paucity of units up by explaining that Nod is essentially a terrorist organization, and the bigger units are introduced via cutscenes and explanations of new advances in research and development. Much like Half Life, the game partially assumes that the player is already familiar with the basic game mechanics.


The original Baldur’s Gate, by contrast, shoehorns the tutorial into the middle of the story. Having been told to obtain supplies for a trip away from your only home, you can wander around the castle talking to various tutors, who will explain the controls of the game. It breaks immersion for the game, because this is supposed to be a fantasy setting and there are characters telling you how to properly manage your inventory. Unfortunately, this breaks up both the gameplay and the narrative. Fortunately in this case, the tutorials are completely optional, which allows players who have read the manual (Baldur’s Gate being a game made back when manuals were actual things of substance rather than tiny pamphlets) a way to avoid what is a semi-game-breaking experience.


Tutorials are only a problem in games that are more story-heavy. More abstract games can have tutorial modes in order to learn the rules of the game. For example, Frozen Synapse has a complete series of tutorial missions (optional, of course) along with videos that further explain the mechanics of the game. As the game doesn’t have much of a story to begin with—although there is a campaign mode—and the gameplay itself is slow and thoughtful anyway, the tutorial mode doesn’t risk breaking up gameplay at all, as it’s completely removed from the game proper. Instead of characters or information boxes popping up in the single player campaign breaking down the fourth wall to explain the game mechanics, the single player game can throw the player right into the action without having to delay things in order to teach the rules to new players.


 

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