After pressing start: How tutorials became inefficient
Ever since game controllers became hand-crippling monstrosities developers have had trouble starting their games. Super Mario Brothers could teach us how to play in exactly three seconds: there’s a goomba walking towards you, and you have to press one of the two buttons to jump over it. The other button you don’t need for four worlds, but you’ll probably figure out what it does by randomly pressing it. There’s only two, after all.
Now the industry standard controller has four shoulder buttons, four face buttons, start and select, two control sticks (each with its own button), and a directional pad. You’re not going to be able to figure out anything for yourself because it’s impossible to know where to start. “Flailing around on buttons” can no longer be a tutorial mechanic, not because games are becoming more “accessible” or anything condescending like that but rather because of the controller’s sheer girth.
Nor can games employ the classic PC method of tutorializing: no one’s going to read the fucking manual anymore, primarily because so many games don’t come with manuals. No one wants to read for thirty minutes to understand a game, either; we all have long enough backlogs of games to play that there’s absolutely no way we have thirty minutes of patience to not be playing something.
The only thing worse than reading a manual, of course, is a forty-five minute tutorial section where absolutely nothing exciting happens. Or, in the case of Final Fantasy XIII, a twenty hour tutorial section where nothing happens.
Tutorials are the most difficult part of modern games. How do you teach someone to do something obscenely complicated and unnatural without boring them?
The most popular method of teaching in modern games revolves around text overlays. Enemies appear, and a pop-up says, “Press X to shoot.” Mass Effect has done this for three straight games. And as a method, it’s effective: obtrusive but efficient, and it doesn’t stop the player from enjoying the game. The downside, of course, is that you can’t convey too much information to the player. It’s a low retention method of education: we’ll remember simple commands, like how to shoot a gun, but in a game like Darksiders we’ll forget that pressing left trigger plus B performs a special dash attack because it’s too complicated. We’ll have to go look it up.
Speaking of Darksiders, let’s talk about its tutorial. It uses a method popularized by Prototype where the player begins the game in media res, with powers they wouldn’t unlock until much further in the game. Darksiders does this for three reasons: to forward the plot, to make the player have more fun immediately (it’s a lot more enjoyable to be overpowered than a scrawny newbie), and to very transparently teach the player various mechanics. The most obvious of these situations comes where a wall explodes with demonic vines precisely to tell the player, “Hey, look, you can climb these!”
It’s a far cry from the subtlety of Super Metroid, but it’s a very understandable change. Metroid had to teach you how to do five different things: run, shoot, jump, become a morph ball, and change weapons. Darksiders has about a million things to teach. And yet, the beginning of the game isn’t especially complicated. You need to know how to attack, jump, dodge, block, and use a couple powers. It’s complicated, but it isn’t rocket science.
The difference is that developers don’t trust us anymore. They have focus groups now, and there’s always one guy who goes into the room with the hell vines and absolutely nothing else and gets lost. So the camera pans to it, a pop-up text appears, and he doesn’t get lost. The rest of us, however, are left feeling like we’re dealing with a patronizing narrative.
At heart, tutorials are a question of efficiency, something that is magnified in introductions. When I was in college one of my friends loved pushing Valkyrie Profile, saying, “It has four hours of introduction, but once you get past that it’s amazing!” I always wanted to smack him and yell, “Four hours! You could play a whole game in the time that it takes Valkyrie Profile to start up!” Tutorials are like that: I don’t want to spend hours learning how to get into a game. I want to be in the game.
That’s where the “off the deep end” approach of classic PC games and older console games really worked. You might have to learn to play Final Fantasy VI or Planescape: Torment, but this learning didn’t impact the actual playing of the game. Experienced gamers weren’t bogged down by tutorials, and both games began with the player either powerful enough (VI) or in an area easy enough (Torment) that they create a safe space for both new gamers and old.
Tutorials have arced like so: they have gone from being safe spaces to learn to childproofed rooms with directions cut out and pasted to the walls. They’ve followed gaming as a whole into a space with less subtlety, where everything is spelled out for you with the express purpose of preventing you from becoming alienated. In doing so, they’ve left us with more bloated, heavy introductions than ever before, leaving the simple beauty of the past in the rear view mirror.
(After Pressing Start is a new series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by self-appointed narrative guru Tom Auxier. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those stories influence the arcs of video games. A variety of games he’s totally never talked about before will be featured. This might be sarcasm. Previous Entries:
Have a suggestion about a game to discuss? Post it in the comments!)