Video Games And—Wait, Another Darn Tutorial?
You’ve been waiting for the release of this new game for months, possibly even years. Today, it finally hits the shelves. You pick up a copy, tear off the shrink-wrapped plastic, and insert the disc into your console. You wait for the file to download. You wait patiently.
Then it’s ready.
You load it up. Cue the studio credits. Cue the start screen. Cue the brightness adjustment. Now it’s time to finally play.
But before you can embark on the quest you were promised, you must first endure (dun, dun, dun) the tutorial.
Ah, the tutorial. Does anyone out there really enjoy tutorials? Does anyone out there load up a game and prepare him- or herself for the forced sequences that teach how to jump, how to pick up items, how to fire a gun, or how to drive the vehicle? Maybe, but the general consensus is, actually, no. Hell no, even.
Take this Reddit thread, for example, in which some players don’t mind the idea of a tutorial but don’t like it being forced upon them 1. Or take this forum thread from The Escapist, in which one player reports that Assassin’s Creed III has six whopping hours worth of tutorial, and another laments the forced sequence “when playing an FPS being taught how to switch weapons or aim down sights” 2.
It would be incorrect to lump all tutorials together, for tutorials do not always follow the same formula. Perhaps the most obnoxious are the sequences that interrupt gameplay by forcing the player to read a number of dialogue boxes and prompts (i.e. “Press and hold this button to do this thing”), or a page-long dialogue box that—let’s be honest—most of us skip through anyway and then think, “Wait, maybe I should’ve read that.” But nothing says hand-holding like making players stop what they are doing to figure out how to do what they are already doing. One might call this the “traditional” tutorial.
Because games are an interactive medium, we often don’t want our hands held. We often want to dive into the gameplay and figure out the controls as we go. While some games are complex and intricate enough that a tutorial is necessary (such as, say, any given Final Fantasy game), others forego tutorials entirely, and others even still implement tutorials in a seamless way that do not drive the player nuts.
Unfortunately, sometimes we need to be given a little direction when playing a video game. Below are just a few games that implement the tutorial in a unique way—and one that infamously ignores the tutorial for the sake of suspense, atmosphere, and, quite frankly, fanservice.
The Original Tomb Raider and Lara’s Mansion
After an opening cutscene involving ravenous wolves, our famous heroine, Lara Croft, finds herself in her first tomb. The critical acclaim of Tomb Raider (1996) owed its thanks to the graphics (back then, they were astonishing), the atmosphere, the environments, the occasional puzzle sequences and, of course, the busty, no-nonsense, dual-pistol-toting English heiress who spent her time and money searching for lost or undiscovered archaeological wonders.
But before jumping into the world of poisoned arrows, flying Atlantean demons, and a creepy cowboy named Larson, the player is given the option at the load screen to explore “Lara’s Home,” or Croft Manor. In the first Tomb Raider, Lara’s home was rather limited. She could not go outside. Few rooms were accessible. Basically, she could perform backflips and side flips in her upstairs gym, climb on some crates that, for some reason, the delivery people hadn’t yet put into storage, practice jumps in her downstairs gym, and swim. Swimming, by the way, would end the tutorial. Climbing out of the pool, Lara would bid the player goodbye: “Now I’d better take of these wet clothes.” And back to the load screen it went.
Lara’s home was great because it was like an additional game level where the player could mosey around all day and explore the mansion’s many secrets without the imminent threat of wolves, bears, and T-rexes that somehow still existed. It also gave an interesting insight into Lara’s life. Although Lara Croft immediately became a celebrity in gaming pop culture, she lacked quite a bit of depth. She appealed to women and girls because she was a no-name-taking badass female who could save the world. She appealed to men and boys because she was a hot chick with a great body and guns. A win for everyone.
But depth? There wasn’t much to begin with. She really was only a cardboard cutout of the stereotypical badass woman. Her home, however, softened her a bit, reminding players that—oh, yes—she is a person, too, who has a home, and sometimes crates in the foyer blocking the hallways, and a swimming pool, and a place to relax. Best yet was that during the tutorial, Lara’s voiceover accompanied the player for most of the exploration, such as “Welcome to my home. I’ll take you on a guided tour,” and “With the walk button down, I won’t fall off even if you try to make me. Go on—try it!” While this is a bit like breaking the fourth wall, it also puts Lara on a more personal level with the player and makes the tutorial more interactive.
In Tomb Raider II and III, the mansion landscape expanded to include an outdoor assault course, hidden rooms, a quad bike track, and a complicated hedge maze. Let’s also not forget the old, ambling butler who endured much torture at the hands of gamers by getting himself locked into Lara’s freezer for no reason other than being a doting servant who followed Lara everywhere. Literally, everywhere.
By II and III, the developers must’ve realized that players really enjoyed exploring Lara’s home. In fact, the end-game level in II involves a shootout at Croft Manor between Lara and the stock baddies. The Tomb Raider series explored the tutorial element in a new way that both added to the main character and the stories themselves.
And the immortal butler who could block bullets with his serving tray was a nice little touch, too.
Fallout 3: “You’re Only Ten Once, So Have Fun!”
Part of the appeal of The Sims is creating your character and building your house. By the time you’re done having fun with that, you might still have it in you to actually play the game.
Set in a post-apocalyptic open world, Fallout 3 (2008) opens with the tutorial, a seamless introduction of the player character. Beginning with the character’s birth from the first-person perspective, the player must respond to, “Let’s see, are you a boy or a girl?” by selecting—you guessed it—“boy” or “girl” on the screen. Oh, and your father is Liam Neeson, and he also just delivered your wriggling little baby self into the world.
Dad Liam then remembers that you need a name. “Your mother and I have been talking,” he says. “What do you think about…?” The player must then enter his chosen name. It can be anything, from Bob to Sue to Player 1. Following the name selection, the player customizes his facial features, including hair style and color.
Sadly, Mom dies shortly after delivery. A white screen leads the player fairly quickly to the “baby steps” sequence of the tutorial, in which the player character is now a waddling toddler taking his first steps toward Dad Liam. When Dad runs to his office and leaves you in the playpen, you figure out how to unlock latches and pick up items. You can also find a baby book and adjust the character’s personality traits.
Another white screen takes the player to his tenth birthday where he is surrounded by Dad Liam, a group of friends, the obligatory bullies, and other adults. This is the player’s first opportunity to interact with the NPCs (non-playable characters), specifically by conversing with them through choosing one of the offered dialogue responses. You also receive your first Pip-Boy and learn how to fire a gun.
Fallout 3 interestingly employs the tutorial by seamlessly integrating character creation into the story and gameplay. Rather than simply frontloading the player with character design as The Sims does, Fallout 3 gives the process a bit more context. At times it seems a little forced, nudging the player in the ribs to remind him that hey, this is still a tutorial and here’s how fast the timeline is moving (such as when Dad Liam says, “Just a year old and already walking like a pro,” and later, “I can’t believe you’re already ten”). But given how quickly these prologue sequences move through time, these hint-hints are somewhat necessary.
Most importantly, Fallout 3’s tutorial places immediate responsibility for the character and gameplay into the player’s hands. Especially given the open world nature of Fallout 3, the player will intuitively explore anything and everything upon gaining access to the outside world. Instead of sitting the player down and forcing him to read pages of direction, Fallout 3 trusts the player enough to explore gameplay and learn the controls to the point where players no longer even feel like they are performing the tutorial. Seamless tutorials imply that the game trusts the player to figure things out on his own.
All Is Quiet in the Maw: Little Nightmares
If Tim Burton made a game, it would be Little Nightmares (2017). The player controls Six, a little hooded character wearing a yellow raincoat, who must navigate her way through the Maw. The Maw is a mysterious ship run by disturbing and ugly creatures like the long-armed, short-legged, blind—thing—that pursue Six throughout the entire game. The objective is escaping the Maw and sating Six’s excruciating hunger that recurs throughout the game, forcing her to eat a live rat at one point and a loyal little Nome creature at another. The final confrontation occurs between Six and “the Lady,” a geisha with supernatural powers and an aversion to mirrors. Six defeats her and inherits her powers, presumably escaping the Maw shortly after.
Little Nightmares hearkens back to Playdead’s Limbo (2010), another dark puzzle-platformer with little to no narrative explanation. The game opens with no clarification on Six’s location, how she ended up there, where she is going, or even who she is. Basic commands like climbing, crouching, walking, and lighting her lighter are given no prompt. More complicated actions, like dragging boxes, are directed through a single line on the screen (“Press this to do this”) that doesn’t interrupt gameplay or offer some extensive explanation to which the player won’t pay attention.
The unique thing about Little Nightmares, as with Limbo, is the lack of dialogue, and this lack of dialogue adds to the dark, directionless atmosphere of the game. With the exception of grunts and mumbles, no words are spoken by Six or other characters. It is a testament to the studio’s creativity that they could create something akin to the silent film, a nostalgic medium of film entertainment that became obsolete after the introduction of the “talkies.” Though surpassed by technical advancements, one would be remiss to deny the creativity required to produce a silent film.
Although not the first game ever to employ minimal to no dialogue or direction, Little Nightmares continues to prove that less is more in terms of development. How different would Little Nightmares be if dialogue existed, or even more directional tutorials? Its beauty is in its minimalism.
P.T.—I Mean, Silent Hills
Oh, how Hideo Kojima cleverly trolled us all.
P.T. (short for “playable teaser,” a fact undiscovered until the completion of the demo) was released for the Playstation Network in 2014 by the developer, 7780s Studios—ahem, the fictional developer—during Sony’s press conference at Gamescom. Little information was known about this mysterious game, and the complete lack of direction in the demo left players in the dark, wondering just what in the heck they were actually playing.
In P.T., players explore the limited setting by moving through the lone hallway multiple times. Each time the player reaches the end of the hallway and goes through the door, he or she starts back at the beginning of the hallway. Access to other rooms and locations branching off from the hallway depends upon the player solving complicated puzzles, puzzles which are frustratingly unclear. In fact, P.T. was so complex that Nathan Grayson of Kotaku wrote an article titled “Nobody Actually Knows How They Solved the Silent Hill Teaser” 3 in 2014, in which he gives a particular example of how a couple played the game at the same time and achieved different results.
After multiple visits down the hallway, things become more unusual and more gruesome. Radio static, messages written on the wall that weren’t there before, the horrifying ghost, Lisa, and a fetus in the sink eventually turn up. The sequence of events and the triggers for those events seem to happen at random. One player’s trip down the hallway may trigger Lisa’s attack, subsequently killing the player’s character and ending the demo. Other players’ trips down the hallway may trigger the unlocked bathroom door. It’s a very clever mystery that, to this day, players aren’t sure they fully understand. Some think the ending is triggered by a certain sequence of actions. Others think that playing with a microphone plugged in affects gameplay. Others think everything happens at random.
And wasn’t all of that mystery Kojima’s intent to begin with? The complete lack of clarity and direction may have indeed frustrated some players to the point of giving up, but P.T. was a very intricately-wrapped puzzle designed to offer great reward to the players who had the stamina to finish: it is not until the conclusion of the demo that players discover a mo-capped Norman Reedus and the promise of the newest Silent Hill game, Silent Hills. What was birthed in complete secrecy and trickery proved to be quite the clever marketing technique. Ultimate fanservice indeed.
Again, while wholeheartedly frustrating at times, P.T. proved that an absence of direction, an absence of tutorial, can create the tensest and most terrifying of atmospheres—and, most interestingly, can promote a new game in a fan-favorite series. But while the game lacks direction and clarity, it certainly doesn’t lack narrative. Kojima wanted players to explore P.T., to take their time and discover the hidden little mysteries that the game offered. P.T. is ripe for the picking in terms of a backstory, if players only take their time to look for it. Players worldwide have extensively studied the hidden messages and story within P.T. A number of written and video analyses exist across the internet, interpreting just who Lisa is, what’s in the paper bag, and why—Lord, why—there is a fetus in the bathroom sink.
Unfortunately, Konami, the publisher of P.T., abruptly cancelled Silent Hills, much to the fury of devoted fans everywhere. Film director Guillermo del Toro, who was set to work with Kojima on Silent Hills, bitterly and understandably slated Konami for their terrible decision. Konami tarnished Kojima’s name, even banning him from accepting “Best Action-Adventure Game” for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain at the Game Awards in 2015 4.Kojima left Konami, and. P.T. was removed for download from the Playstation Store. The glory of P.T. and Silent Hills went up in a cloud of smoke, along with Konami’s reputation.
As the above games prove, the dreaded tutorial doesn’t have to be—well, dreaded. Developers can and should learn to implement fun and new ways to teach the player how to play without boring them to death or interrupting gameplay. Again, these are just a few of many, many games that employ the tutorial in a special and inventive way. What other games with memorable tutorials come to your mind?
- “What’s your take on forced tutorials?” Reddit. Online. https://www.reddit.com/r/Games/comments/37z4uf/whats_your_take_on_forced_tutorials/ ↩
- “I Hate Tutorials in Games!” The Escapist. 2012. Online. http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/9.397242-I-Hate-Tutorials-in-Games ↩
- Grayson, Nathan. “Nobody Actually Knows How They Solved the Silent Hill Teaser.” Kotaku. 2014. Online. https://kotaku.com/nobody-actually-knows-how-they-solved-the-silent-hill-t-1621044581 ↩
- Kotaku. “Fans Boo Konami for Banning Hideo Kojima from The Game Awards – The Game Awards 2015.” YouTube. 2015. Online. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4VAzkK_Wmc ↩
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