Good Tutorials

by L.B. Jeffries

31 March 2009


One of the most underappreciated and yet intrinsic parts of a video game is the tutorial. It’s our introduction to the game design, our means of learning to recognize the game’s obstacles, and frames how we’ll relate to the rest of the experience. An article at Openskies goes into the various tutorial techniques of games, which can range from just reading the manual to creating a full blown cinematic experience. When discussing the ultimate range of the tutorial it comments, “In order for learning to be effective, the lessons must move from the student’s short-term memory to long-term memory. The keys to this process are repetition, and practice that takes place at least 30 seconds after a technique has been demonstrated.” The article is concerned with applying game techniques to training simulations, but one of the issues their criterion raises is what exactly the game is teaching to the player. You aren’t just learning how to operate a system in a game, you’re assuming a role and engaging in conduct that represents it. The tutorial of a video game isn’t just explaining how to play, it’s showing us how we’re supposed to behave. How have games approached this?

The initial reaction of most games in the 80’s and 90’s was to simply give a very thorough manual and throw the player into the mix. Adopting a ‘Learn as you Go’ mentality, they often relied on cutscenes and exposition to explain what the player was supposed to be doing and then let them work out the mechanics as they went. The brick wall learning curve of the old Fallout Games is a prime example of this approach to teaching the player. The latest installment solved this issue by walking the player through each step of the game and having them make choices about themselves. You’re born and you pick what you look like, you wander about your play pen and pick your traits. For an RPG this constant process of making choices is important because this is the central theme of Bethesda’s games: choices. You start off with very minor, insignificant choices that have little consequence. As the tutorial progresses though, you start to pick between being rude or polite, which again have little consequence. But this expands as you grow older and choose between picking a fight and even saving a life all before leaving the tutorial. What’s intrinsic is that the game is focusing on you picking the role you play instead of handing one to you. Many freeform or emergent games suffer because the players are just unaccustomed to making choices. Consider Far Cry 2, whose tutorial involves little choice. The game simply cuts you loose in an enormous open space and reminds you that you can now approach everything however you want despite the very limited approach it just showed you. Bethesda’s approach is superior because they are teaching the player how to deal with freedom whereas Far Cry 2 still trains you by holding your hand the whole time. Getting the player to start thinking for themselves instead of waiting for orders is key in a good tutorial.

Other tutorials maintain dropping the player straight into the game and instead having the tutorial occur much later. In both Silent Hill 2 and Eternal Darkness they rely on the confusion of being dumped into a combat situation with no inkling of what to do at first. A player can eventually put together the controls through trial and error, but the lack of a tutorial can often be an effective tool for creating a rare sense of fear in a game that helps establish the tone. Kane & Lynch and Beyond Good & Evil also opt for this tactic, but instead of fear it’s excitement they’re adding. Jade learns to attack and perform power moves in one huge boss battle right from the start while Kane is broken out of death row and fleeing through the streets. Both games swap out the ‘Explain then wait for player to show’ mentality, opting instead to impose a pressing sense of need for the ability. When Jade’s orphans are captured by the aliens, the narrative is creating a need for freeing them. The game then shows us how to fight in addition to setting the tone for Jade’s role in the game as savior. Kane & Lynch handles its own tutorial with a unique quirk by having the player be the one whose instructing their partner on what to do. The screen flashes how to perform the move and then they do it so Lynch can see. You then have to wait for Lynch to perform the same move. That’s key to getting into character as Kane, whose both the leader of the criminals he leads but also imperfect in his own way.

It’s easy for these narrative tutorials to get carried away as well. Both GTA IV and Persona 4 feature tutorials that well outstay their welcome. Since both games are enormous and feature huge numbers of activities and options, a tutorial that tries to go over every single detail is going to become lengthy. But no matter how much story or motivation you try to provide, the player is eventually just going to want to be cut loose and start playing. The best solution seems to be the one employed by Fallout 3, which would be equally bogged down if it tried to explain everything. You create a sense of curiosity and teach the player to explore their environment. Other tutorials will often abandon narrative and just use achievements to avoid boredom, such as Call of Duty 4’s rapid shooting range and completion times. If the game is simple enough, you can simply do like Mario 64 and have the tutorial be a series of optional signs if the player gets stuck. There isn’t any one particular formula to a good tutorial since game design and role can be communicated in arguably countless ways. Even the cutscene is a viable form of tutorial, as an article at Offworld points out about Valve’s approach in their latest games. The opening movie for Left 4 Dead may be just a grisly shoot-out with zombies, but it also outlines every monster and tactic in the game. The Witch, the blinking grenades, and the Smoker all appear and are defeated by the characters. The ‘Meet the…’ series of videos for Team Fortress 2 uses a similar approach. At the core of all of these tutorials is the foundation for any teaching session: enabling the person to grapple with the subject matter unassisted. The most successful tutorials are the ones that foster a sense of independence in the player that matches what the game design is offering.

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