Press Thee X, Young Warrior: The Effective Tutorial

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.

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