It used to be that, before playing a game, you had to read the manual. Otherwise you’d have no idea how to play, or what was going on. Today, no one reads manuals, although they are still included with most games. Instead, the games themselves teach us how to play; when you load up a game, the early sections introduce the main game concepts and explain the controls, so you can get playing even if you never touched the manual.
This is a great idea. It removes a barrier to entry for games, letting anyone jump in and have fun without having to prepare first. But there can be definite downsides, which are not always considered when a tutorial is implemented. One of the foremost is that when a tutorial is integrated into the beginning of a game, it can significantly detract from the game’s atmosphere and narrative by interrupting it with instructions to the player.
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A prime example is Bioshock. Bioshock has an excellent opening, with your character finding his way to the underwater city of Rapture, shown through a breathtaking submarine ride. The game proper begins upon arrival, when you quickly realize that something has gone horribly wrong here, and you are left on your own, knowing that there is a murderous madman nearby that could pounce at any moment. As you creep through the hallways in fear, you encounter a small pile of rubble. “Press SPACE to jump.”, the game then informs you. Oh, right… you’re just playing a game, and it’s teaching you what to do. All fear is gone in that moment, as you realize you are still in the safe tutorial section.
Another downside to this type of tutorial is that it hinders the player if they decide to replay the game. I was reminded of this when replaying Oblivion recently (I never played the Shivering Isles expansion pack, you see, and I need to finish it before Skyrim comes out). Oblivion has a tutorial dungeon in which your character escapes from prison, and also meets the emperor and is introduced to the game’s main storyline. This actually works well narratively and is quite engaging the first time you play the game. Thing is, Oblivion is specifically designed to reward multiple playthroughs. Once you might play a fighter, join the fighters’ guild and follow the main quest. Then you might start over as a thief, ignore the main quest and rise in the ranks of the thieves’ guild. Then you might try a mage, and ignore everything in favor of simply exploring all the ruins scattered over the landscape. But each time you start a new game, you must go through this rather long tutorial dungeon again. And it gets pretty boring after the second or third time.
This is on top of the fact that most tutorials are not actually designed with certain types of learning in mind. According to this Gamasutra article, players are divided into those who learn through Explorative Acquisition, i.e. who learn by doing, versus those who learn through Modeling Acquisition, i.e. who learn about a task before attempting it. I am definitely in the second category. This is why I still read manuals before playing games, even though I know there will be a tutorial; I want to know as much about how it works before I start. So when I play Bioshock, I already know that I need to press Space to jump, and when the game tells me it hinders immersion while not actually helping at all.
Is there a way to get around these issues? Maybe. Making tutorials is actually quite difficult, for reasons covered in that Gamasutra article, and in this Edge article [EDIT: this had been incorrectly labelled as an Escapist article]. But I think that there can be a lot gained by simply separating the tutorial from the main game.
This has certainly been done before. Games like Deus Ex (the original), Thief, and Half-Life all used this approach. These tutorials focus mainly on teaching mechanics, and usually let the players retry sections as many times as needed to make sure they learn said mechanics. The typical arguments against this technique are that a separate tutorial feels tacked-on and unrelated to the main game, and that players will just skip it in favor of the game proper and subsequently become confused. On the first point, the games I mentioned above handle this very elegantly. Half-Life introduces controls in the context of your character training at a firing range before the game itself begins. In Deus Ex, the tutorial is literally your character’s special agent training course, which makes sense in the context of the game and even hints at some revelations to come later in the plot. In Thief, the player follows Garrett’s childhood lessons with the mysterious Keepers, before being abruptly told (by Garrett himself) that he split with them to become a thief. Why? He doesn’t say, and the player is left wondering who the Keepers are, what they want, and why Garrett parted ways with them. It actually serves as a fantastic introduction to the main plot.
As for players simply skipping the tutorial, I am probably biased on that point. As a Modeling Acquisition player, I would never skip a tutorial the first time, because I want to learn all I can before the game begins. Other players might not have any interest in a separate tutorial and might very well skip it. But if anyone decides to play the game for a second time, they will almost certainly appreciate the chance to skip it, and I don’t think this should be removed. Perhaps a compromise would be to have the tutorial mandatory on a first play but then become skippable on replays. Or maybe the tutorial always starts up before the game does but it can be actively skipped if the player has already played the game, or simply really doesn’t want to play it.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (which I have already recommended you play) has an interesting approach to tutorials. The opening of the game is an introductory scene that you play through, but it’s not actually a tutorial. Instead, at certain points, an on-screen prompt tells you to press tab for a tutorial on a certain subject, such as how to use the cover system. These tutorials are short narrated videos that show you how to do things. While the non-interactive nature of the tutorials is a problem, the fact that they are completely optional even while integrated into the game is definitely a strong point. They are also kept relatively short so as to provide as little interruption as possible. I think a similar idea with interactive tutorials could work quite well. Your character could recall his training in short, playable “flashback” sections if you wish, or you can just play on through if you already know what you’re doing.
Other games are also taking an experimental approach to tutorials. The indie hit Minecraft, which is focused on exploration and crafting, completely lacks a tutorial. While in many games this would be criticized, in Minecraft’s case it actually garnered a lot of praise as it fits very well with the theme of the game; the experience of wandering the randomly-generated world and slowly discovering what to do and how to survive the night is very rewarding. Portal experiments with essentially making the entire game a tutorial, and makes it fit with the design and narrative extremely well. With more experiments like these, we’ll hopefully see some truly interesting and imaginative tutorial designs in games to come.