Press Thee X, Young Warrior: The Effective Tutorial 9

An impor­tant con­ver­sa­tion we need to be hav­ing about videogames has very lit­tle to do with the medium’s oft-referenced sim­i­lar­i­ties to other forms of art like film and lit­er­a­ture.  It is true that, when we bring a par­tic­u­lar crit­i­cal lens to bear on a con­ver­sa­tion about games, chances are good that the form of crit­i­cism got its start hold­ing forth with gaming’s par­ents and older sib­lings.  However, it’s wise to keep in mind the ways in which games dif­fer from their sto­ry­telling pre­de­ces­sors.

For one thing, as we’ve men­tioned before, gam­ing still relies on nov­el­ty, what with it being a New Thing in the world and all (I sus­pect this will start wind­ing down, now that the indus­try seems to have caught up with its own tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions; note the unprece­dent­ed longevi­ty of the cur­rent con­sole gen­er­a­tions).

For anoth­er, well, here’s an exam­ple: have you ever read a book that explained to you, at the begin­ning, that you would have to hold the thing upright, and make your eyes go from one side of the page to the other, then down slight­ly, then from side to side again?  Did this open­ing instruc­tion both­er to men­tion that, when all of the con­tent of both vis­i­ble pages has been com­plet­ed, you’ll have to grasp one paper cor­ner and move it across and to the left to reveal more of the story?

My guess is no.

What about a film?  Aside from the odd, usu­al­ly short PSA, was there a lengthy dis­course given on prop­er film eti­quette, pos­ture, appro­pri­ate noise lev­els, and elec­tron­ics usage?

If not, maybe there should have been.

So, not only is it impor­tant to notice how we inter­act with the mean­ing of a game, but how we draw that mean­ing out mechan­i­cal­ly – what phys­i­cal process­es we use, and how those shape the medium’s sto­ry­telling neces­si­ties.

While it’s true that the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of videogames share com­mon rules of prop­er use (sit on butt, pick up con­troller, press but­tons to make fun hap­pen), each game is dif­fer­ent, even those from the same genre: they pos­sess dif­fer­ent mechan­ics, con­trol schemes, and end goals.  The game can’t just func­tion as an inter­ac­tive chal­lenge of humans vs. AI (or other humans), or of an art­work, or of a con­vey­or of plot, set­ting, and nar­ra­tion.  No sir (Or ma’am.  Uhm, Hannah, what’s a good gender-neutral hon­orif­ic?).  As it turns out, we’ve got to add one more task to Fair Lady Gaming’s bur­den­some chore list:

It is the respon­si­bil­i­ty of videogames to teach us how to play them.  Before the game can even real­ly strut its stuff, it has to play the role of teacher, and show us what plastic-thingies do which murdery-kill-ma-bobs.

More than that, the tuto­r­i­al has to be woven into the game in such a way that it doesn’t man­age to detract from the game itself, or dis­tract from that immer­sive ele­ment which is key to most expe­ri­ences of fic­tion.  In the ‘biz we call it “sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief.”

So, in this (very sexy) col­lec­tion of words, I would like to illus­trate how games man­age to suc­ceed, and some­times fail mis­er­ably, at this irk­some task.  I’ll man­age this feat by break­ing down the dis­parate types of tuto­ri­als into cat­e­gories for easy con­sump­tion.  It’s fun-ducational!


Examples: Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, pret­ty much every game pub­lished before 2001

Back in the days of yore (as in, “yore vec­tor graph­ics are giv­ing me a split­ting headache”), most games didn’t both­er with tuto­ri­als at all, at least not as part of the play expe­ri­ence itself.  Instead, the but­ton com­bi­na­tions, end­goals, and required infor­ma­tion per­tain­ing to which-is-what-where were sequestered in the man­u­al (often, “player’s guide”) includ­ed in the box.

These guides, in addi­tion to con­tain­ing the req­ui­site infor­ma­tion, would often include some back­ground on the game’s world, intro­duce some impor­tant char­ac­ters, and occa­sion­al­ly tell some side-stories from the canon to shed light on the cur­rent plot and set­ting.  Those gamers who were espe­cial­ly ded­i­cat­ed would begin the games with these sto­ries in mind, hav­ing pre­pared them­selves men­tal­ly for the reper­cus­sions of the chal­lenges they were about to face.

Some of these guides would fash­ion them­selves as phys­i­cal intru­sions IRL from the game­world.  I have par­tic­u­lar­ly fond mem­o­ries of Homeworld’s “Historical and Technical Briefing.”

The primer placed you, the player-reader, as a com­man­der in the Kushan navy, and pur­port­ed to con­tain all known intel­li­gence rel­e­vant to the Hiigara mis­sion.  And trust me, this suck­er did have it all: a com­pre­hen­sive syn­op­sis of events lead­ing up to the present sit­u­a­tion, a cat­e­gor­i­cal delin­eation of the var­i­ous ves­sels avail­able to your fleet (com­plete with sta­tis­tics, mea­sure­ments, and manufacturing/design his­to­ry for each), and of course, instruc­tions on how to con­struct ships, order their move­ments, and engage in com­bat on the long and treach­er­ous escape from a ruined prison plan­et.

Yeah, Homeworld was pret­ty much badass.

Whether the man­u­al was as ele­gant, cre­ative, and thor­ough as that of Homeworld, or a poorly-translated after­thought (here’s look­ing at you, Robopon), you’d find the tuto­r­i­al in there.  Even if the lan­guage itself was unin­tel­li­gi­ble, the copi­ous screen­shots and dia­grams of “A = drag­on­face jump­kick” were usu­al­ly more than enough to get the play­er up to speed.

But, you might be ask­ing, what about the arcade cab­i­nets that nec­es­sar­i­ly couldn’t come with man­u­als?  How did they man­age tuto­ri­als?  Why, they’d just slap the con­trol map­pings on a big stick­er, right there next to the but­tons them­selves.  Many of them would have a brief tuto­r­i­al scene play­ing out on the screen, show­ing some explo­sions and enemy encoun­ters to entice you to plunk in some quar­ters (or entice your five-year-old broth­er to wig­gle the joy­stick around mani­a­cal­ly and pre­tend he wasn’t poor).

Now, com­pan­ion vol­umes have shrunk in size and con­tent as gam­ing as grown.  The days of being plunked straight into the action with­out so much as a “hold down L2 to use Storm Fart” have gone the way of the dinosaur.  Now, games are much more prone to uti­lize…


Examples: Batman: Arkham City/Asylum, the Bioshock series, Dishonored, most action/FPS games out there

The old arcade method of show­ing a game­play demo whilst some super­im­posed text informs you what the play­er must do to per­form X Cool Move of Awesome gave way to a new approach to tutor­ing: kick­ing off the actu­al game­play right away, and adding over­lays and popup win­dows at key moments to show you the con­trols.

This has had the bonus effect of alle­vi­at­ing the respon­si­bil­i­ty of jus­ti­fy­ing the tuto­r­i­al with­in the con­text of the game­world (which we’ll get to later on).  The hero doesn’t have to be a green­horn or an ama­teur, it’s not nec­es­sary that he or she come from a mys­te­ri­ous for­eign land or some such, and there’s no amne­sia required.  You as the play­er are able to get right down to the busi­ness of being Seasoned Veteran Knight Sir Asskick, and you are taught how to play as you go along.

The text and the dia­grams and what­not that you see in this kind of sce­nario are total­ly eman­ci­pat­ed from the game­world, or any con­tex­tu­al unfold­ing there­in.  It’s like the vol­ume slid­er appear­ing on a tele­vi­sion when your room­mate tells you to turn down The “L” Word when his grand­par­ents are over.  It’s a mes­sage from the game soft­ware deliv­ered direct­ly to you, the play­er.  No in-between pos­tur­ing, with the char­ac­ters deliv­er­ing the instruc­tions them­selves (we’re get­ting to this bit, too).  Just the devel­op­ment team say­ing “hey, you have to push this but­ton to make Gun Guy use Gun.”

Often, the full “how-to-play” is revealed slow­ly, with your con­trol options increas­ing as the dif­fi­cul­ty curve starts ramp­ing up.  This is some­times facil­i­tat­ed by in-game sit­u­a­tions ren­der­ing cer­tain respons­es nec­es­sary, prompt­ing the GUI to inter­rupt and tell you how to per­form the required func­tion.  An NPC may say some­thing along the lines of “Hey, over here!  Let me tell you about my daddy issues,” fol­lowed by some floaty text encour­ag­ing you to “press A to talk.”  Or, your battle-hardened comrade-in-arms party mem­ber may scream: “Hurry!  We’ve got to escape this burn­ing depart­ment store before the three-armed zom­bie her­maph­ro­dites attack us,” accom­pa­nied by a visu­al instruc­tion of “hold down R2 to run.”

These are nice lit­tle touch­es, giv­ing the game a chance to show us some new aspect of its world and lever­age its expec­ta­tions and win con­di­tions on the play­er in one fell swoop.  However, there are ways to take this impulse too far, such as…


Examples: Spyro, Final Fantasy XII, Earthbound, Pokemon, the Metal Gear series, StarCraft II, and many oth­ers (prob­a­bly when you least expect it)

Hey,” say the devel­op­ers, “weav­ing the tuto­r­i­al direct­ly into the sto­ry­line!  What a grand idea!  Perhaps we should try to do away with the text instruc­tions alto­geth­er, and just have the char­ac­ters them­selves teach you how to play.”

Not a bad idea on its face, right?  Cut out the con­fu­sion and pos­si­ble breach­es of immer­sion caused by requir­ing the play­er to be inun­dat­ed with pop-ups and clut­ter every time he or she is called upon to per­form a new task.  But some­times this well-meaning inten­tion can fail pret­ty spec­tac­u­lar­ly.

Take a look at this video from Spyro the Dragon.  At right around the 3:12 mark, Spyro res­cues a ven­er­a­ble old drag­on from his hor­ri­ble stone prison.  What hap­pens next is sim­ply inex­plic­a­ble.  The older beast pops out in a beam of lighty-magic-funeffects, and the first damn words out of his mouth are: “Hey, Spyro, press the jump but­ton twice to glide.”


Now, our hero is a drag­on whelp, armed with naught but his nat­ur­al defens­es, and those of his mag­i­cal fire­fly com­pan­ion.  There is noth­ing in the game which pos­si­bly could be referred to as a “jump but­ton.”  Spyro doesn’t pos­sess a jet­pack or mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy of any kind.  But here is this big scaly ass­hole telling the play­er char­ac­ter how to play the game that the play­er is actu­al­ly play­ing, of which the play­er char­ac­ter is not aware.  And Spyro just lets it slide like it’s the most nat­ur­al thing in the world.

This makes about as much sense as the wiz­ened men­tor in a movie telling the pro­tag­o­nist, total­ly out of the fic­tion­al con­text, that the restrooms are out the exit to his or her left, and by the way there’s a sale on pop­corn and soda com­bos and thank you kind­ly for vis­it­ing AMC.

Thankfully, these insane-sounding nar­ra­tive breach­es are com­par­a­tive­ly rare.  Still, Spyro is far from the only offend­er.  Take, for exam­ple, the open­ing level of Final Fantasy XII, in which Captain Basch von Ronsenberg (Don’t believe Ondore’s lies!) speaks to Reks direct­ly as they set off on a mis­sion to save the king.  This fine spec­i­men of scriptwrit­ing con­tains such tri­umphs of dia­logue as “use the left ana­log stick to move, Reks,” and “do you see the excla­ma­tion point float­ing above my head?”  Granted, these bits aren’t voice-acted, but that’s cold com­fort; plen­ty of mod­ern Final Fantasies alter­nate spo­rad­i­cal­ly between text and voice, and there’s no ques­tion that the intend­ed effect is that, yes, Basch is the one explain­ing the “red tar­get lines.”

Personally, one of the most dis­ap­point­ing exam­ples of Type III for me was the han­dling of the tuto­r­i­al sys­tem in StarCraft II.  After the orig­i­nal StarCraft’s rous­ing Type IV suc­cess, it was more than a lit­tle dis­heart­en­ing to hear the Adjutant, in her famil­iar metal­lic drone, declaim that “this tuto­r­i­al will teach you how to play StarCraft II.”  How classy.

But, there is yet hope, hope for an inte­gra­tion of story and tuto­r­i­al which com­bines the best of both nec­es­sary worlds.  I’m talk­ing about…


Examples: StarCraft, Fallout 3, prob­a­bly a good few oth­ers

This is my favorite arche­type, and these also hap­pen to be some of the rarest of tuto­r­i­al expe­ri­ences; so much so, in fact, that I was only able to find two exam­ples which fit my cri­te­ria to the let­ter.  If any of my dar­lingest read­ers have sug­ges­tions, you know where to find me (I’ll be wait­ing in a black Speedo).

This ideal form for tuto­ri­als com­bines the best parts of Types II and III; the tuto­r­i­al takes place in the game­world, but the actu­al, but­tony instruc­tions are given direct­ly to the play­er, rather than to the play­er char­ac­ter as in one of our afore­men­tioned con­tex­tu­al foibles.  More than that, though, if the game invites us to role-play as the PC (NPCs, for exam­ple, will address the PC as “you”), we’re the ones doing the learn­ing, and a tuto­r­i­al sit­u­a­tion is made to be read as a cru­cial part of the story.

In the orig­i­nal StarCraft, depend­ing on your race of choice, you step into the shoes of a back­wa­ter colo­nial mag­is­trate new to com­bat, the Khaydarin armor of a recent­ly mint­ed fleet execu­tor, or the goopy genet­ic quag­mire of a young Cerebrate.  At the start of each cam­paign, “you” are addressed to begin your first course of com­bat or com­bat train­ing in the field, intro­duced to the resources and units you have at your dis­pos­al, and shown how to use them.  Best of all, the direc­tions inform­ing you how and where to click are total­ly encap­su­lat­ed in the text and side notes: not once does a char­ac­ter implore you to make use of a tool or func­tion which doesn’t exist in the game­world.  True, a marine may tell you the dif­fer­ence between the “move” and “attack” com­mands, ref­er­enc­ing the part of the GUI known as the “com­mand card.”  But, in StarCraft, the con­sole that fills the bot­tom of the screen is assumed to be part of the world, as evi­denced by the video communicator’s pres­ence, which allows your indi­vid­u­als units to see you, com­mu­ni­cate their sta­tus and com­men­tary on the present sit­u­a­tion, and receive orders.  In this way, the nec­es­sary seg­re­ga­tion between the real human meat with the plas­tic joymabob­by and the stal­wart star com­man­der is pre­served.  We’ve got­ten down to the nec­es­sary busi­ness of learn­ing how to play, with­out need­ing to stop play­ing, and with­out express wet-towel-to-the-fact reminders of “hey, this is fake.”

Fallout 3 real­ly takes this type to the max.  What bet­ter way to intro­duce us to the game­world, and how life is lived there, then by start­ing us off with a brand-new life inside that world?  Your “father,” James, implores you to walk toward him, to take your first baby steps into post-apocalyptic America, into the NPC’s lov­ing arms, and into the game.  The rest of the open­ing mis­sions play out sim­i­lar­ly.  We are shown snap­shots of the PC’s life as he or she matures and ris­ing ten­sions in the Vault final­ly come to a head, forc­ing the Lone Wanderer out into the Capital Wasteland.  Whoever came up with that “You Are S.P.E.C.I.A.L.” book must have thought it was mighty mighty clever, and you know what?   That per­son would be damn right.


Now, Type IV is pret­ty much my favorite sort of tuto­r­i­al, but I real­ize that not every story can have a new­bie for a pro­tag­o­nist.  It takes a cer­tain kind of game to be able to pull off this sort of inte­grat­ed expe­ri­ence.  When it man­ages to hap­pen, it’s a good deal of fun, and usu­al­ly very sat­is­fy­ing.

But, to be per­fect­ly hon­est, your mod­ern stan­dard Type II works just fine for me.  It’s not usu­al­ly intru­sive, it rolls out the com­plex­i­ty as the learn­ing curve dis­en­gages and the dif­fi­cul­ty lev­els start to climb.  Best of all, it doesn’t require an engage­ment of the game’s cen­tral work: its’ world, story, char­ac­ters, and dramatic/cinematic deal­ings.  It doesn’t have to toe the fine, fine line between inten­si­fy­ing immer­sion and stul­ti­fy­ing it, as in Type III.  It’s just the Directions, plain and sim­ple.

Type I, out­dat­ed as it may seem today, was enjoy­able because of the wealth of infor­ma­tion about the game­world that it was capa­ble of pro­vid­ing to the play­er.  It was fun to be just about the only young hope­less nerd on the block to have Read the Book, and be able to point out to my friends that the Nagglfar, Argo, Sarengo, and Reagan were the ships that car­ried the orig­i­nal colonists to the Koprulu Sector, or that the gold­en titan Sargeras was respon­si­ble for the cre­ation of Azeroth (long before World of WarCraft was released, mind you).  More than that, hav­ing a com­pre­hen­sive intro­duc­tion to game mechan­ics and mythol­o­gy had its perks for any play­er, not just the trivia-minded.  It meant that the gamer could begin play­ing already thor­ough­ly ensconced in the game­world, ready to ful­fill his or her role as an impor­tant par­tic­i­pant there­of.

Perhaps, one day, we’ll reach the apoth­e­o­sis of our new beloved inter­ac­tive medi­um, and achieve true VR, giv­ing us more holis­tic Type IV expe­ri­ences, or per­haps ren­der­ing tuto­ri­als unnec­es­sary by some other means.

In the mean­time, how­ev­er, even the older-style, fourth-wall-breaking tuto­ri­als man­age to retain their share of unique perks.  At the very least, they often do suc­ceed in teach­ing us how to play in a mem­o­rable fash­ion (and is it any coin­ci­dence that many Type III tuto­ri­als are in games tar­get­ed for younger play­ers?).  Sometimes, these types of intro­duc­tions are por­trayed self-consciously, as in Earthbound (“I hate to give you all this game-type advice, but…”) and, more famous­ly, the Metal Gear titles (“Press the action but­ton!”).  And, admit­ted­ly, there is a cer­tain charm in traips­ing through a col­or­ful, friend­ly land­scape on my lat­est princess-saving cru­sade, know­ing that at any moment a denizen of the Mushroom Kingdom may pop out from behind a card­board bush to ask me if I know about Timed Hits.

Aaron Gotzon

About Aaron Gotzon

Aaron Gotzon was a contributor to the Ontological Geek from 2010-2013, and had more fun with it than Super Smash Bros. (most of the time) and the entire Halo series (all of the time). He can be still be found occasionally sharing Dungeons and Dragons memes on Twitter @AP_Gotzon.

9 thoughts on “Press Thee X, Young Warrior: The Effective Tutorial

  • Zach A (@IcePotato)

    yo but your type 1 thing leaves a crit­i­cal bit out — hard­ly any­one reads the man­u­al (and often times those arcade cab­i­net stick­ers obfus­cat­ed more than they illu­mi­nat­ed)!
    isn’t it pos­si­ble that some games teach by virtue of con­strain­ing inputs (whether through con­troller design or con­ven­tion) and then let­ting the play­er screw around? And then from the level design and the lim­it­ed num­ber of inputs, the play­er could learn the game? I mean that’s basi­cal­ly Anna’s whole thing (http://​www​.aun​tiepix​e​lante​.com/​?​p​=​465 ). It’s an ele­gant way to present the game in a way that does­n’t require explic­it instruc­tion and is MY favorite way of learn­ing a game. To say that you learn Super Mario by read­ing the man­u­al does a huge dis­cred­it to the won­der­ful way the game is pre­sent­ed to the play­er. It’s like unwrap­ping a present your­self vs being told what’s in the box before you get to open it.

  • Derpadoo

    I think that too often, Types 2 and 3 are too intru­sive or insult­ing to the play­er. Controls should be felt out and learned nat­u­ral­ly, not shoved in my face like I can’t fig­ure out that the joy­stick makes me run. A game like Mario 64 has the per­fect bal­ance, in my opin­ion. You are placed in Peach’s cas­tle with full con­trol of Mario, and plen­ty of space to play around. The only tuto­ri­als (aside from the man­u­al) come in the form of signs placed near a par­tic­u­lar jump or obsta­cle where you need­ed a cer­tain move to progress (and they often came late enough in the game that they were a safe­ty net for play­ers who had­n’t already fig­ured out the nec­es­sary move) The screen did­n’t flash PRESS Z + A TO LONG JUMP when­ev­er I approached a large gap, the game just let me be. If I knew how to pro­ceed, I would jump along with­out a sec­ond thought; if not, the sign would help me out. Breaking the fourth wall does­n’t both­er me near­ly as much as stop­ping the flow of play or forc­ing my hand to be held.

    This video is a good, although crass, com­men­tary on how the Megaman games teach the play­er very effec­tive­ly.

  • James

    I found Gears of War’s tuto­r­i­al, at least in the sec­ond game, to be pret­ty solid. You are out train­ing a rook­ie, and the char­ac­ters describe what they’re doing (“Watch me throw this grenade,” or “watch me shoot from behind cover”), but the but­tons are all pop-ups or over­lays (I can’t remem­ber now, but I think both?).

    From the demo of Darkest of Days, I think the train­ing was sim­i­lar to your ideal. A com­man­der bark­ing orders at you, with small pop-ups to teach you as you go. Never break­ing the world, but also teach­ing you effec­tive­ly.

    As far as type 1 man­u­als, I still real­ly like those. Not that I use them all that often, espe­cial­ly with the abil­i­ty to pur­chase games online and down­load them, but I have fond mem­o­ries of walk­ing through the Pokemon user man­u­al (“Trainer’s Guide”), or read­ing up on the back­ground of the Legend of Zelda, or some­thing like that.

    I don’t mind fourth-wall break­ing tuto­ri­als, pro­vid­ed it is appro­pri­ate for the game to be a lit­tle cheeky about it (pok­ing fun at the genre, like in the excel­lent Cthulhu Saves the World game).

    Would you clas­si­fy games that have a tuto­r­i­al prior to assum­ing a play­er char­ac­ter as one of these lists? I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but sure­ly they exist. A sort of bland “here’s how you play in a hypo­thet­i­cal envi­ron­ment” fol­lowed by assum­ing the role of your char­ac­ter. I sus­pect some shoot­ing games have done this (Tribes Ascend did, but there’s no story there, and so did TF2, but same thing).

  • Kurama101

    The worst part of Journey is that, in game devoid of any UI to speak of, right at the begin­ning they throw up a giant pic­ture of the con­troller with an arrow point­ing to what but­ton you need to press to jump or call. This is dur­ing the walk to the in-game immer­sive level-select screen area. If they had gone for a Type IV rather than Type II it would have meld­ed with the fell of the rest of the game so much bet­ter.

  • Dylan Platt

    You’re right, Fallout 3 does an amaz­ing job of inte­grat­ing the tuto­r­i­al bits into the story; the only part that feels like a bit of a reach to me is the whole “Hey, new­born baby, let’s show you a dig­i­tal ver­sion of what you’ll look like as an adult mere sec­onds after you’ve emerged from the womb!” thing. But obvi­ous­ly that was a bit of a nec­es­sary evil.

    Personally, I’ve always been a fan of the orig­i­nal Deus Ex’s tuto­r­i­al sequence. It’s com­plete­ly inte­grat­ed into the game story (even giv­ing you info that’s never revealed in the game prop­er), but it’s also entire­ly option­al, and must be select­ed as its own option from the main menu. What’s more, even if you decide to skip the actu­al tuto­r­i­al, the first mis­sion (Liberty island) acts as a back­up tuto­r­i­al. It’s not any­where near as hand-holdy as the “real” tuto­r­i­al, but still gets the job done as far as mak­ing sure you’re famil­iar with all the game’s crit­i­cal ele­ments before you get too far.

  • chanman819

    Homeworld had an excel­lent in-game tuto­r­i­al too. Relic was just plain thor­ough with that suck­er.

  • Kajobi

    I was hop­ing you’d men­tion those ubiq­ui­tous tuto­r­i­al quests I’m so fond of! “I sup­pose I could give you the key to the room con­tain­ing that thing you need, but first you must bring me 85 feral dan­de­lion petals for my after­noon salad. Venture out into the Peaceful Glen and fetch my ingre­di­ents.” Gosh, those are annoy­ing. Much praise to FFXIII, Bastion, Myst, Skyrim, and many oth­ers for throw­ing us right into the action.

    You could hard­ly estab­lish “tuto­r­i­al quests” as one of your Types, of course, con­sid­er­ing that they only occur in the sorts of games that involve quests (pri­mar­i­ly RPGs, I s’pose). Ubiquitous only with­in that style of game, then, I should say.

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