To state the extremely obvious, tutorials are an undeniably important part of video games. Before you can overcome anything, you obviously need to understand just what the very basics of a game will entail. Without these things, we’d be stumbling around in any number of games, struggling to keep up with the challenges that were being thrown our way.
As long as there’s been video games, there have been sections and levels dedicated to easing the player into the game’s systems. Even before we got the more involved tutorials that are commonplace in the modern era, even the early days of gaming had the intro level be designed to guide the player. Basically, tutorials have been a part of the wonderful world of gaming since its inception, and there’s no denying their presence is more than justified.
However, I kind of wanted to examine some of the more particular things tutorials can introduce to the fledging player. What about the tutorials that show more than just basic mechanics, but also introduce more specific mechanics, and even elements of the game’s themes and narrative? Tutorials like that fascinate me, if only because the developers are taking kind of a risk to include elements like that in a system that some players are just going to glaze over.
So, don’t dally: press the down key on your keyboard to jump straight in.
Teaching specific or nebulous concepts
There’s no doubt that making sure the players knows how basic controls operate is probably the most important part in a new player’s introduction. A player is really going to struggle moving forward if they don’t even know which button lets them attack, or even how to move the camera. However, a lot of games are going to have concepts or attributes that are more specific to those particular games, and they’re sure as hell going to want to introduce the player to these things.
An example that springs to mind is how Dark Souls’ opening level, the Undead Asylum, teaches the player about the game’s habit of opening new routes and shortcuts around a level, and to reward the player for making sure to explore their surroundings. The Asylum is mostly just a by the books tutorial level: the very straightforward instructions written on the ground and one-way corridors help to give a new player the basic controls while keeping them to a simple level layout. Combine this with forgiving enemies and a boss that isn’t too taxing and you’ve got a level that’s perfect for allowing the player to grasp the absolute basics, ensuring they’re not going to be completely helpless when they get thrown into the game proper. The really interesting stuff comes in the elements that aren’t as clearly signposted. For example, your day gets significantly worse after an assault by a rolling metal ball as your climbing up a set of stairs, and even worse the door at the top of the stairs is locked. However, after turning around to find another route, the player will spy a hole that was blasted in the wall by the very same ball that had knocked their asses flat to the ground a moment earlier. Even better, the poor sod on the other side of the wall has an extremely critical healing item and the key to continue forward. This, combined with the one-way shortcut door you’ll have stumbled across just before or just after this escapade, are early signs of Dark Souls’ two most recurring map elements: a lot of damn shortcuts to and from the bonfire, and the fact that the player is going to have to jump through some hoops to do something as simple as finding a key to open a door. Likewise, both of these occurrences tie into the game’s habit of rewarding exploration. The shortcut is an extremely convenient way to get around the asylum should one die at this point, and the fact that two extremely important items were hidden off the main path installs a sense that players should definitely keep their ears and eyes out for secret routes. The final exercise for rewarding exploration comes just before the boss of the area: if one takes the time to go into a side room off the path to the boss, they’ll find a tougher enemy than the types they’ve been facing up until this point, as well as instructions on how to perform a parry. While parrying isn’t as crucial a technique as what the player will have learned up until that point, it’s still a nice skill to learn, and the tougher enemy in the room has plenty of health in order to teach the player of the counter-attack’s power. All of the above is why, despite being fairly simple and straight-forward, Dark Soul’s tutorial level is still one I rate fairly highly.
Another game that has a tutorial area that teaches a clear-cut element of the game is the first Metal Gear Solid game. This lesson comes all at once, and from one of the more memetic lines in the game: “whose footprints are these?” For those not in the know, this is a reaction from a guard after he’s spotted your footprints in the snow, while you’re no doubt not far away from them. This seems like a simple thing nowadays, but back then this was a never before seen attention to detail. This occurs in the second area of the game you can access, so it hits fairly early on. This was a kind of crazy moment for a first time player, mostly because it wasn’t expected, but also because of what it teaches you. Namely, this is a game that’s in love with its attention to details. There are quite a few moments in the game where the player benefits from thinking outside of the box (well, sometime you need to be in the box, but you get me) and paying attention. The chief example of this is using the cigarettes that Snake snuck in with him to find out where the laser trip wires are, though something as simple as resorting to using the guided missile launcher instead of a sniper-rifle during what is traditionally a sniper duel also counts. Another thing that the game teaches early on is to be ready to see the fourth-wall completely shattered before the game is over: in a game that’s (at the start) playing itself deadly seriously, some of the things you hear in the Codec-Calls are pretty odd. The biggest one is when the player is taught how to save the game, using those words. There’s no kind of justification for what you’re doing that would make sense in-universe, you are literally just having a character save the game data, and everyone is just kind of rolls with it. Teaching the player early on that the game has no respect for the fourth-wall will be an important tool for when the player come face to face with Psycho-Mantis, which remains one of the coolest fourth-wall breaks in gaming. It makes sense that game would make sure that the player knows about these elements fairly early on, and it stands to reason that a game as good as Metal Gear Solid does it with a clear elegance.
A final special mention goes out to Darkest Dungeon, for the last kick to the nuts at the end of its tutorial level: after you’ve cleared the forgivingly simple enemies and boss fight of its ‘Old Road,’ you’re presented with a chest. Since this is the end of the tutorial, you (not unreasonably) think “sweet, a reward for clearing the beginning level.” Only problem is, the chest is always trapped. Whoever opens the chest will receive a nasty portion of poison for their troubles. Admittedly, since the level is over, there’s no actual consequence to this, but it’s an early hint to the fact that everything and anything will be trying to kill you. Considering how rough things can get later on in the game, players are likely to look back on this warning with new found appreciation, especially after their favourite Leaper got his rotting ass handed to him because the Oculist didn’t heal him properly.
Introducing significant story and narrative elements
Another thing that always interests me in tutorials is when they actually use the time to introduce factors and elements of the story in the game’s tutorial section. This is less prevalent across the medium, mostly because either A) the tutorial is completely removed from the story/narrative, and only exists to get players familiar with the controls. Or B) the beginning level is the tutorial, and thus the game’s story has already actually begun by the time the player has finished their training. That being said, there are a fair few cases where the game will hint at some important factors in their narratives extremely early on, to the point where the player may already be receiving hints before they know all the controls. This is slightly different to the game play mechanics, where the developers are trying to subtly teach the player important elements they’ll need to just win the game, and is more of a case of developers foreshadowing narrative points. It’s still quite an interesting choice, since the player might not be looking for these kinds of story hints as early as them learning the controls.
The biggest and most clear example of this that comes to mind is the Destiny Island section of Kingdom Hearts I. Make no mistake, the game isn’t subtle about a lot of story elements that this section introduces, since this is of course where we first meet the main trio of important characters, Sora, Riku, and Kairi. But like the above examples of game play mechanics being taught to the player without too much signalling, there’s quite a few important story details that are hinted at without much attention being brought to how important they are. For example, it’s mentioned early on that Kairi has no memoires of where she grew up, and indeed can’t recall anything about her childhood. The whole thing doesn’t get a lot of attention, mostly because the idea of going back to whenever she grew up is already on the list of places the main characters want to go when they build their raft. Hell, the player is likely to forget that particular fact, since a lot of stuff happens before it becomes relevant again, but that small conversation is a very early hint at an extremely important plot point related to Kairi. Another thing that gets hinted at early on is that Riku, despite otherwise being the most cool-headed and skilful out of the main trio, is also the one that is probably the first to leap into a situation without first thinking things through. During a casual talk between the three, Riku mentions that, despite having agreed to help build the raft that they hope will take them to other words and having thought a lot about the concept, he’s not actually thought about what he would actually do when he gets there. Likewise, he’s the first one to bring up the fairy-tale about a very particular fruit that grows on the island, namely that sharing it with someone will “intertwine” your destiny with theirs. While the former is just a small thing he says offhandedly, and the latter seems to be more of a joke, both of them point to idea that Riku is way more likely to act on his emotions than he lets on. This will become really damn clear as the game progresses, and he find himself in a crap-ton of trouble because of it.
Another game that uses this kind of subtle narrative cluing is Bioshock: Infinite. While Booker, the main character of the game, is still freshly arrived in floating city of Columbia, he happens to pass by a barbershop quartet. Interestingly enough, the quartet are singing a rendition of “God Only Knows.” This is interesting for two reasons: A) who would have thought that the Beach Boys would sound so good in a barbershop quartet? And, much more importantly, B) Bioshock Infinite is set 1912, more than fifty years before that song is ever invented. A first time player might just assume that, since they’re currently standing on a flying city, this is just a bit of artistic licensing being used so the developers could include a neat song that will be appropriate for the later events of the game. The actual answer, however, is much more convoluted. It’s also in this early part of the game where the player will need to take part in a coin-flip wherein, no matter what randomised answer Booker calls out, will always land on heads. Indeed, if the heavily one-sided results board is anything to go by, that coin has been landing only on heads after nearly one hundred attempts. This seems to just be an extremely weird gag by the two mysterious twins that seem to be following Booker around, but is an actually a hint to one of the revelations that the player is shown by the end of the game. It’s especially important in Infinite that they start showing this kind of stuff early on, because the game is only going to get more and more confusing as time goes on.
We could go on and on about different examples from different games, and about the wide arrangement of stuff that can be taught to the player without them realizing, but I think it’s best to stop there. There’s no possible way we could cover everything, and I think in some cases it’ll be better to discover some of the more particular examples yourself. Not to mention, we were getting dangerously close to spoiler territory in above story segment, so I should probably know my limits and go no further.
As is usually the case, I like making these entries because they allow me to think way more about subjects and elements from my favourite game than I ever would have normally. It’s a pretty fun mental exercise, in many ways.
In any case, I would love to hear some examples of these kind of subtle teaching techniques that you guys have noticed in your favourite games, and what your take on them was. Have a nice day!