Press Thee X, Young Warrior: The Effective Tutorial 9

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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 Paul Gotzon is a beguiling ne’er-do-well, prancing about the stage by night, and hawking shrimp and cheap alcohol by day. He’s about as qualified to write about games as the average squashed cockroach. He does, however, run an extremely successful male escort service and bait shop out of his grandmother’s basement. If you’d like to send him a message, put it on a piece of paper, and throw it away.