So, Carson’s mom is learning to play video games, anybody hear about that? She’s starting with MMORPGs and we are hoping she moves on to more… mentally stimulating fare. Seeing how much trouble she’s having, I can’t help but wonder what could be done to make her learning experience more palatable. I mean, we talk about video games as an educational medium all the time, yet we kind of suck when it comes to teaching people how to interact with the worlds we hold in such a high regard.
This week I want to talk about tutorials. Now, this essay is going to be highly subjective, I hope to go into a number of genres and give examples of good and bad tutorials from each. Now I’m still getting used to this 5 page format so excuse me if this information seems a bit compressed.
Straight into the point. Tutorials are some of the most important elements of games. Games are, by definition, a highly educational medium. Hell, most of what I know now I learned either directly or tangentially through video games. Yet, when it comes to actually teaching people to interact with our systems… well… we suck. No need to sugar coat it. We are absolutely terrible at teaching people to play games.
Lets start start with platformers. Now, I will first be giving a good example for each genre I cover today, followed by a bad example next week, just to make my point. My favourite platformer tutorial is the one in Mario Bros., but since Extra Credits just went over that I will instead further illustrate the point with Mario 64. I know, its still Mario, in fact, you could apply this to almost every core Mario game and it would do just fine. Nintendo has platformer tutorials down to a science. Mario 64 starts with a brief exposition dump, followed by Lakitu flying around the castle grounds. This is done to illustrate the fact that, as opposed to 2D Mario, the point of the game is exploration (compared to getting from one side of a board to another). The camera flies all over the castle grounds, but never actually does any jump cuts, this is done to illustrate that all of these places are reachable right now. The game then returns to Mario and performs it’s first jump cut, followed by the sound that is played when you adjust the camera. I will get to that later. Mario comes out of the warp pipe, is greeted by Lakitu, and is left to his own devices. Now, modern games would cut you off right here and tell you to use the analog stick to move forward, but Mario 64 doesn’t do this. You are left to experiment with your buttons. Now, chances are this is your first N64 game, so you look at your controller. There’s the standard D-pad, which you immediately try out since every console game you’ve played until now used the D-pad for navigation. Nothing happens. So you move across your controller. There’s an L-bumper, but that just centers the camera. A big red button labeled Start, you press it. OH! It says Pause. Okay, that’s how you do that. You look down, there’s a stick. You try jostling it around a bit and Mario moves! Now, if you were observant, you will notice that the stick is pressure sensitive. A light tilt will make you walk slower and a full tilt will make you run, but if you’re like me and dumb as a box of rocks, you wont notice that right away. So, you now know that you’re supposed to hold the controller from the middle stick, so you get nice and comfortable. Oh! There’s a button on the back of the controller. Well, we are messing around with controls so lets see what that button does. It makes you crouch. Okay. You move further to the right and find a blue and green button. You try the blue one first and it makes Mario jump. There you go, all of the Mario controls, running, jumping and pausing. All there and accounted for, but wait. There’s also a green button and 4 yellows. You try the green one and Mario punches. You file that away in your head (seeing as you have no reason to use it in this first zone). You try the yellow buttons and the camera starts moving around. It is here that you realize that there is a sound the game makes to let you know you’ve entered the “move camera” command. Once again, no idea what to do with that, but you know that jumping is on the right side of that controller so you place your hand properly and discover an R-bumper. Another weird camera thing, whatever. Now you have all of the basic controls with almost no exposition.
You are given a relatively hazard-free zone to play around with (if you don’t include the moat, where you learn you can drown) and just to make sure it’s all well and good, once you get to the castle proper, you are required to jump in order to enter the first actual level. This is a test to ensure you have the basics of movement. As a bonus, there are Toad ghosts all throughout the castle (that are entirely optional to talk to unless you are going for all 120 stars) who give you tips and pointers regarding anything you might not have noticed in that experiment zone at the beginning. There are even coins scattered throughout the castle so that you can learn how to recover health in the case you scrub it up horribly (like me) and hurt yourself with the blunted spoon that is the mission hub.
Let us move on to the RPG genre. Now, when it comes to RPGs, tutorials tend to be very hit/miss. The ones that are good are -really- good, while the ones that are bad… wow, they botch it so soundly that it comes back around and becomes awesome again. In fact, the only RPG tutorial I can think of that was any good was Pokemon. Quite amusingly, Pokemon stands as a master class in tutorial design. Of course, I just spent a full essay (2 weeks ago) talking about how great the tutorial in Pokemon games are, so let me summarize the point. Great tutorials allow you effectively infinite time and resources to get a hold of each element of the game’s mechanics. If you want to you can grind Rattatas and Pidgeys until your A button is worn into an unresponsive lump and that is perfectly practical.
Lets go to shooters, my favourite shooter tutorial is (obviously) Portal. Really, any valve game, Valve really knows how to compress complicated shooting systems down to simple, easy-to-learn systems. At the beginning of portal you are left in a neutral space to get the basics, there are unobtrusive hints that tell you how to jump and shoot (if you’re particularly dim). Most of all, every set piece of the entire game (excluding the final confrontation with GlaDOS) revolves around having the player learn fun ways to use the 4 basic abilities (running, jumping and firing red/blue portals). The point here is experimentation. Seriously, can’t stress that one enough. Experimentation is the most important part of learning. Fun story about myself. I play every single core Halo just because I want to know what they change in each entry (that and the fact that Cortana and John 117 is one of my OTPs). Of course, I always manage to beat the entire game before realizing I should probably be using more than the mission standard weapons. Seriously, if they managed to squeeze in a single survival mode where you can choose different weapons to start with it would go a long way towards getting more people to play.
Let us move to action/adventure games. My favourite action/adventure tutorial is found in Ratchet & Clank. Now, this game series is a rather iffy choice for best-in-class tutorial because it commits some of the cardinal sins of game tutorials (like putting too much visual spectacle into an intro level) but the thing I wanted to point out was that as you continue on through the tutorial levels of the series, a number of unobtrusive queues pop up to hint you off concerning skills you may need for the upcoming segment. The keyword here is “unobtrusive”. I know that it’s often unavoidable (especially in JRPGs, which thrive on all of the back end calculations inherent to menu combat) but one should always avoid halting gameplay.
Imagine a version of Rachet & Clank : Tools of Destruction in which all of the awesome stuff that happens in the first level gets cut off sharply every 5 to 10 seconds by an alert telling you that you can switch rails mid-grind or use Clank as a jetpack. Better yet, think back to high school. Remember how every day your biology teacher wanted you to read half a chapter on symbiotic parasitism before the lab the next day? How exited were you to read that text book? Unless you were an absolute masochist the answer should be “please no, not the pamphlets”. I mean, you read the book anyway because you wanted to dissect that leech, but seriously, do you remember -any- of the book work? Same basic deal. You don’t want your players flying through your tutorial skipping the explanations for vital skills because they want to get to the next jump.
Finally, let us discuss fighting games. Best in class here I give clearly and definitely to Soul Calibur (series). Why do I like Soul Calibur’s tutorial? Remember my bit on being unobtrusive? Well Soul Calibur takes it to the next level. There is a tutorial in Soul Calibur in the form of Practice Mode. In this practice mode you are allowed to freely select different moves, see what they look like when completed, and put a queue on the screen reminding you how to do the move in question. I was about to give this award to the more recent Street Fighter games, but Soul Calibur has managed to take it even further with it’s challenge modes (a la chronicle of souls, tower of souls, etc) where you are put in situations where different characters, strategies and (by extention) moves become absolutely mandatory.
So, that’s my bit on good tutorials. Tune in next week for what happens when designers don’t even try.