Give us a chance to learn

All games need a tutorial in some form, right? Teach the player the ropes, maybe throw in some simple early plot points; generally help the player settle in and ensure they don’t feel totally alienated right from the go. Unless you’re a Souls game I guess, in which case reverse all of the above.

A good introduction to a game’s mechanics can make or break it for the player; not enough description of how the game works can leave the them lost once the game gets going, don’t go deep enough on a key feature of a combat system and you can leave the game seeming unfair or tedious. I must have been 20 hours into Final Fantasy XIII before I worked out how the “paradigm shift” mechanic worked, and the minute it clicked my negative feeling for the combat system there fell away and I ended up really enjoying myself with it, and when I replayed it early last year I enjoyed it way more from the start given I went in understanding how that system worked.

On the flip side, being too in-depth can also lead to the opening of your game being dull. Long tedious strings of story missions that largely exist to show off every tiny aspect of the game in one big information dump are the bane of many “open world” games. Dragging the setup of your story out over hours of very restrictive missions both kills the momentum you need as a game gets going and leaves players tired of your systems before they even get started. Worse yet, having needlessly restrictive tutorials discourages players from experimenting when the game opens up. A friend pointed out that Dishonored’s tutorial has you kill despite the game having a trophy for not killing anyone during a play through. You are actively encouraging a certain style of play when players will actually get the best out of a game playing how best suits them. And of course, any tutorial that gates your progress until you can prove you can press the button it is asking you to can fuck right off.

It is, of course, possible to do tutorials as part of the plot. Horizon: Zero Dawn having the player learn along with Aloy as a child is endearing, and does a good job of explaining the basics and setting up the opening act; Dishonored 2 has a similar and equally effective approach. Slowly introducing mechanics as the plot gathers pace is a tried and tested mechanic that means by the time you hit the first major plot point and the game opens up before the player, they are fully versed in all the tools at their disposal without having had them drilled into them in a short space of time, where they probably would have missed the nuances of these systems that make them interesting, or worse yet, have had to repeat the same basic task so many times they’re already bored.

I’ve spent the last month playing The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, and these thoughts on tutorials and player education all spin out from that, and what makes it quite so easy, fun and rewarding to play. Breath Of The Wild opens with a simple tutorial, one that probably takes 40 minutes or so if you’re taking your time, before you are equipped with the few tools you need, a tiny amount of knowledge on the basics of how they work, and that’s it. It feels vast and almost alienating at first but there is an immense feeling of joy and pride in working out how all this works for yourself, and discovering how using certain things in certain ways almost becomes second nature. 45 hours in I can solve puzzles in seconds I previously would have had no idea where to start with, and that’s because Breath Of The Wild is designed to let players experiment and work it out for themselves.

There is a parallel here to the problems constantly being levelled at, and the outrageous amount of exams students in secondary school face, and how this leads (because of pressure on the schools to perform, and performance being measured on how well the students do in these tests) to the schools teaching the kids to pass tests, not how to actually use that information. In Assassin’s Creed you are taught which buttons to press in order to make the target die. Sure, you have to master pressing them fast enough and in the right sequence, but mechanically all you are doing is repeating a more complicated version of the tutorial over and over. That’s not to say that can’t be fun, but it is seldom rewarding. Developers of triple-A games are stuck in a position where they have to make games that can sell, and if you start making obscure games that make people think or show them that games can be more than just moving from a to b and pressing a button well, who knows where that will end up? There is never any incentive to explore how the game works, and even in massive open world games you are guided from point to point.

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Blend in, stab a guy, repeat. Your only option.

In Breath Of The Wild the core message of the tutorials are so basic that the player is forced to experiment for themselves to solve puzzles. For example, the tutorial for the magnet rune is basically just “you know magnets right? It’s one of them”. You work out how to use it. It does what a tutorial should do, shows you which button does what, not how to actually make any progress. It doesn’t say “if you do X and then Y, Z happens”, it says “you need Z to happen, work out what X and Y need to be”.

As with students in a school, a player will always learn better by doing and solving it themselves, rather than being shown and expected to copy. More importantly, those students will develop new ways to use the same tools to solve more complex puzzles if you let them experiment, and the same goes for playing Breath Of The Wild. This can be seen in the more and more ridiculous ways people beat puzzles every day. The games systems work so well together that it encourages you to try the ridiculous, because it’s all the more rewarding when your crazy idea pays off.

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A world that screams “go make your own fun”.

Of course plenty of other games do this as well, but it is rare for a game that is the scale of Breath Of The Wild to put its faith so strongly in its players. Overwatch is another example, though albeit a very different kind of game, that teaches the player how abilities work within a set environment via it’s training mode, but relies on players to go out and discover the best way to use those abilities in games, by working together and by observing how different people they’re playing against use different characters in different ways. Watch enough people stubbornly play Widowmaker on attack and you’ll learn fast enough that this tactic rarely helps anyone. I’ve had similar experiences playing Magic: The Gathering, which has a very specific set of rules, but when me and my friends play (usually playing the Commander format) we find ways to combine cards that help us do ridiculous things within those rules. I probably shouldn’t be able to have an infinitely growing number of fairly large dragons but here we are, and much like in Breath Of The Wild, Magic’s systems are so tight and well constructed that when you exploit them to cause nonsense you feel great rather than like you broke the game. In the cases of Overwatch and Magic, these are both games where players are using mechanics within definite and small environments, and it speaks to the quality of Breath Of The Wild’s systems that it allow the player to consistently experiment and try new things even 40/50/100 hours in, and more importantly, that doing so always feels fun and exciting.

Breath Of The Wild’s opening actually has a similar approach to that of Dark Souls or Bloodborne, but with a totally different goal. The new Zelda opens with a sense of wonder and excitement to discover; From Software’s games are claustrophobic and oppressive to the play from the go. Their approach of making players learn by doing is one that their commitment to should be applauded, but they’re committed to a fault; if you can’t beat Iudex Gundyr in the opening area of Dark Souls III then you’re stuck, you don’t get to see the rest of the game, and whilst other areas have ways of asking other players for help, the opening boss is one you must beat for yourself. It is a needlessly mean approach. It does a good job of teaching the player how the rest of the game is going to be, but it also locks anyone who doesn’t have that level of ability out of the rest of the game, with very little opportunity to improve outside of banging their head against Iudex over and over.

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“Kill this to unlock the rest of the game” “HOW?!” “Not telling”

As it stands, the PS4 trophy for beating Iudex sits at a 91% acquisition rate, meaning 9% of people who have played Dark Souls III on a PS4 didn’t beat the first boss. Apparently From Software have shifted 1.89m copies of Dark Souls III on PS4, so that’s roughly 170,000 people who didn’t get past the opening area, and as such, only saw the tiny opening area the game had to offer. Such stats are skewed in some ways, not all of those people necessarily paid for the game, but some definitely did and possibly would feel aggrieved at being so brutally shut out of something they spent their money on. Which is a shame, because the worlds in those games are so full of wonder and magic to discover, and having them locked behind such challenging early areas means some people will never see that content. As much as I love the challenge myself, I have friends for whom that style of game just doesn’t click and it is a shame they are missing out on content I know they’d love to explore.

As a final case I want to look at what got me thinking about the way games educate their players in the first place: The Witness. Much like one of the opening shrines Breath Of The Wild, The Witness has a super basic tutorial. You solve a few very basic puzzles and the rest of the game opens up, and you start finding grids full of signs you don’t recognise. Arguably the most important puzzle you find in The Witness is the first one you come across as you leave the opening area. It is unsolvable, and that’s the point. It teaches you from the start that you are going to need to explore the island to find out how to solve these puzzles. The other very important thing about how The Witness works is that all of the island is open to you from the start except the final area inside the mountain, and as well as that, you don’t need to solve all 11 areas to get into that mountain, a game design decision that accepts that some areas will just not work for some people and that’s okay. It also removes the idea that by not being able to complete a certain area (the sound puzzles are just straight bullshit, okay?) you are missing out on other content, in the way Dark Souls makes you feel.

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Easy, right?

Of course the game does have its secrets, but they aren’t gated, they are there for the player to discover simply at their own will. Spoilers here: discovering the environmental puzzles in The Witness is one of the biggest reveals in any game I’ve played; it completely changes the way you look at the entire game. In a world where games arguably take too long to teach their players the ropes and can leave them burnt out or bored before they even get going, The Witness is so refreshingly pure in it’s focus on teaching by doing. There aren’t many games that make you feel like you have genuinely achieved something the way beating an area in The Witness does, and that is all thanks to its relaxed approach, to not guiding it’s played through and letting them work out puzzles for themselves. Personally I feel the reputation it has for being exceptionally hard is unfair. It requires a level of dedication and determination to beat, but the simplistic structure of it’s puzzle system means you are very rarely left feeling like something is trying to cheat you (or if it is, that’s the puzzle). The reason The Witness works so well is that the reward for beating puzzles is more puzzles, and unlike Dark Souls III it doesn’t lock players who don’t like that out of sections. You can find environmental puzzles without beating a single area of the game, so all it’s locking you out of is more puzzles, and if you don’t like puzzles well then, you’ll probably live.

Finding the nuances in a game’s systems and bending them to your will is arguably one of the most satisfying things you can do in games, especially those with deep mechanics. Currently I am playing the opening stages of Persona 5 and am starting to get bored of walls of text explaining how everything works, which is definitely not a problem exclusive to this specific RPG. Eight hours in, I’ve had all kinds of systems explained to me but am yet to remotely get to grips with how they work in battle, never mind all the day to day social interaction aspects. I am excited for when they all start clicking and there are clearly some interesting interactions available to me, but at the moment lengthy tutorials have left me feeling overwhelmed, a bit lost.

To attempt to wrap up my thoughts here, I think the way a game approaches teaching you how it works is vital to your overall enjoyment of a game and it is a major problem with bid budget games, and even more so with big budget open world games that guide the player through so they see all the “big moments” in the way they’re suppose to. Forcing the player to repeatedly prove they understand how to play the game early means that by the time you get into parts of the game where you could experiment, you often fall back on the way the game taught you to play. No one ever figures out exciting new ways to play and almost as importantly no one ever tries something and fails, you only fail because you missed a button prompt. 

The success of Breath Of The Wild proves that big games that put faith in their players to work out how the game works can work. Rather than pushing the player in certain directions so they find the big moments, it allows them to create their own special moments, and that’s all the more rewarding. The joy that is felt in solving the puzzles there is so much more than just having Ezio take out a target. Targets here are also puzzles, but the game has already shown you exactly how to track and catch a target, there’s no incentive or push to experiment for yourself. Despite the criticism I levelled at the opening of Dark Souls III, From Software’s brutal series has the same sense of achievement when you beat a boss, a feeling that a game that puts no faith in it’s players will ever be able to give them.

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3 thoughts on “Give us a chance to learn

  1. This was a fantastic read. BotW has really changed the way I view the opening tutorial of many single player games. The hands-off approach was just so exhilarating as I died countless times just within the first hour, but I learned something new each time I died. I haven’t played Dark Souls 3 as yet, but after BotW I’ve learned to love games that take the training wheels off from the get go. I can’t believe I ever put 10 hours into the massive tutorial simulator that was FFXIII >_>

    That said, would you like to share your articles in our FB group? We’re a growing community of gaming bloggers and we’re always looking for more great writers to share their work and discuss all things gaming. Just search for “Game Bloggers United” on Facebook.

    Like

    1. Hey! Thanks! Glad you enjoyed!

      FFXIII is definitely worth giving another go if you have the time/patience. Some awesome stuff in there.

      Ta for the invite, have joined!!

      Like

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