The Art of Tutorials

Video games are complicated amalgamations of visuals, audio, controls and systems. Naturally we as gamers need to be gently guided through the initial stages of a game to get accustomed to what the developers expect us to do – enter the tutorial. If done right, you have an effortless experience into adequacy. If done wrong however, and it is more akin to involuntary hand-holding – a personal space invading, weirdly clammy experience that drags on for way longer than social norms would typically allow.

Unfortunately bad tutorials have plagued the gaming universe like the black death, and honestly, they have probably resulted in more deaths as well. Fighting games are one of the biggest offenders of this, with Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter being among the most agregious. At a stretch they will tell you what buttons you need to press. But applying those buttons in a way that is useful? Barely a mention. An often frustrating introduction to one of the most highly competitive and exciting genres in gaming.

Whilst fighting games often have poor, or no tutorial other games are beyond baffling when it comes to their implementation. For example Fallout 2 has a tutorial sequence so mind-boggling that makes me question whether Interplay even tried. You are forced into a scenario that for the most part is completely out of theme for the rest of the game. It refuses to actually tell you how to play the game. It then goes ahead and forces you into melee combat, meaning if you did not spec for close combat you are buggered. Throw in an unskippable boss fight at the end that requires either very specific skills to overcome, or constant dice rolling and reloading and you have a tutorial that completely fails on every level.

These examples are just the tip however, and arguably the most frustrating are the ones to come. Spoken in hushed whispers, the unskippable game interrupting tutorial messages. Imagine you are going about your everyday life, starting to have a good time and then all control is wrestled away from you and you are forced to watch/listen/read a forced, unskippable tutorial sequence. The 3D entries into the Legend of Zelda games are fine examples of this methodology, with Ocarina of Time being so infamous that there are entire clothing ranges dedicated to it. Unfortunately this way of teaching is probably the most common and least creative way developers implement tutorials.

But tutorials don’t need to be this way. Arc System Works Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator is a fighting game breaks the mould. They implemented an amazingly detailed tutorial disguised as an optional string of minigames. These not only teach you every mechanic the game has to offer, but also the intricacies of movement. Perfect for beginners whilst not being too in your face for the hardcore.

But true mastery of the tutorial comes from games like Super Mario Bros. and Megaman X. They teach you everything you need to know without a single line of dialogue. By introducing the player to a simple concept, such as moving or jumping, in a safe environment the player will gain a basic understanding of the mechanic. Then they introduce an obstacle that you need to get past using the mechanics you have just learned. This stage is often still in a relatively safe environment allowing the player to learn how to apply their new mechanic without fear of failure. Finally, the they throw in an obstacle with an element of danger. This forces the player to test their new skill in a potentially life threatening scenario. The best part? The player doesn’t feel like they are being tutorialised, and instead they get the satisfaction of teaching themselves through clever game design. Genius.

Obviously, not all games can adopt the Mario style of tutorial. Some games are simply too complex. Strategy games are often a brick wall when it comes to mechanics, but then you have Star Craft 2. A game that masterfully guide you through every unit, building and mechanic the game has to offer through the use of a single player campaign. This campaign prepares you for the unrelenting terror of its online play, which is the meat of the Star Craft experience.

Nowadays it is simply unacceptable to have a sub-par tutorial, and games from as early as the 8-bit era have managed to achieve amazing results. It is a time developers take the time to craft tutorial sequences that allow the player the freedom to learn their game in an intuitive way, and not in a way that instils rage levels so severe that my disk combusts and burns my house down.

Do you have any games that you think have particularly good/bad tutorial sequences? Let me know in the cooling rack below.

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