The brute-force approach to tutorials is to jam them all at the very front of the game. Some text boxes will tell you what buttons to push. Once you successfully complete the action you’re given another, then another, until you’ve got all the mechanics down. Then the story is allowed to proceed.
This is bad for a lot of reasons. It’s actually a bad way to teach the player about the game, because you’ve got too many concepts delivered back-to-back. Sometimes you’ll be taught how to do something an hour before the story calls for it. If you take a break from the game, then you’ll likely forget the skill by the time it comes up again. Game designers sometimes guard against this by adding more reminder prompts later on, which makes the game feel patronizing and handhold-y. Worst of all, these brute-force tutorials are torture on repeated play-throughs, since you already know how to do the stuff and there’s nothing else to hold your interest.
Arkham City is a perfect example of how tutorials should be done. It’s a masterwork of teaching through doing, without breaking the flow of the story or patronizing the player. The Arkham series is actually a blend of three entirely different but overlapping gameplay modes. There’s brawling, stealth, and explorationExploration is a big mishmash of navigating + platforming + puzzle-solving + finding secrets and collectibles.. Each mode has numerous concepts the player needs to understand. Batman is famous for his tool belt, and the game is not shy about loading that thing up with a lot of different ways of solving problems. This means the player needs to learn a lot of different controls. The fact that players can glide through these lessons without getting bored is a testament to just how good developer Rocksteady is at their job.
The Rule of Three
As in: The setup is when Luke insists he’s a pilot and they don’t need to waste their money hiring Han Solo to fly them somewhere. The reminder is when Luke tells Biggs the trench run will be “Just like Beggar’s Canyon back home!” And the payoff is when he successfully flies the mission to destroy the Death Star. If he just jumped into the X-Wing and flew the mission without the prior setup, it would have felt like a random ass-pull. If the writer left out the reminder, then it might have felt like being a pilot was just a very minor detail of his character (is he even a good pilot!?) and so the end might have felt jarring and un-earned. The story needed to hit all three beats for this detail to work.
Another example: The setup is when we see young Peter Quill listening to “Awesome Mix Vol 1”. The reminder is when we see grown Peter Quill willing to risk his life to recover the tape. And the payoff is when he gets “Awesome Mix Vol 2”. Without the setup we wouldn’t understand where the tape came from. Without the reminder we wouldn’t understand how much it meant to him.
I think this same structure applies to videogame tutorials. In fact, I think it’s even more important to games than it is to movies.
The setup is when Alyx tells Gordon Freeman to remove the energy spheres from the thingy powering the gate, and the player learns that doing so results in powering things down and flinging awesome energy spheres all over the place. The reminder is when he gets to the Citadel and the place has energy sphere contraptions sprinkled all over the place, doing various stuff. The payoff is when those spheres are used in the final boss fight.
Far too many games want to skip the reminder. They give you a brute-force tutorial message that says “If you encounter a Widget, you can Press X to defeat it.” Then two hours later you run into a widget-based boss fight you’re unprepared because you haven’t had to deal with widgets since the tutorial.
But Arkham City not only introduces concepts with the proper setup, it’s able to interleave multiple tutorials together without bringing the plot to a halt. In the first hour or so of the game, every single scene serves the dual purpose of advancing the plot while also guiding the player through the setup / reminder / payoff for a particular gameplay concept.
The game will present you with a problem and tell you what buttons or actions will solve it. Then it lets you do something else for a couple of minutes before presenting you with the same challenge again as a reminder. After that, the game can be confident that you understand it, that you’ll remember it, and the concept can be mixed with others as part of standard gameplay.
I’ve found that having you wait a couple of minutes before you do a task a second time is really good for signaling to the brain, “This is something you should remember.” It sticks out as something you’ll need to do in the future, and not one of those goofy one-off mechanics you find in games sometimes.
Check out how much learning they pack into the first chapter without breaking the flow of the gameplay or story:
Batman investigates the scene where the sniper shot entered the courtroom. This is the tutorial on how detective mode investigations work. He discovers the shot came from the tower of the nearby church. When he gets to the church, he has to deal with a hostage situation. A few minutes ago the game gave the player a quick tutorial on how to sneak up behind a lone guy and silently incapacitate him. This hostage situation reminds the player of how that works, and then offers a few variations on that same idea.
When Batman reaches the top of the tower, he finds the sniper rifle. The game has you go into detective mode to examine the rifle. There’s no crime to solve here, and in fact Batman discovers a bomb and has to dive out the window to escape. This moment teaches you how to dive through windows while also acting as the reminder of how detective mode works, and it does so during an exciting action escape that keeps the excitement levels high and advances the story!
These tutorials are safe mechanically but tense narratively. It’s not hard to pass these tests, but the hostage situation and the mystery of what the Joker is up to are there to keep you engaged so it doesn’t just feel like you’re “still in the tutorial”. Obviously you’re still in the tutorial because the game is teaching you things, but the point is that the story is moving, so it feels like you’re learning as you go rather than having the story stop so you can learn how to properly be the protagonist.
Batman discovers that Joker is hiding in the old steel mill on the opposite side of Arkham City. Once there, Batman has to enter through the steelworks rather than going through the front door. This leads to a series of very gentle “puzzles” designed to teach you the language of the game: When you see a big rusty metal ring, it means it’s something you can grab with the grapnel hook. When you see a button you can’t reach, throw a batarang at it. Here’s how to walk on tightropes. Here’s how to navigate ledges. Here’s the reminder on how to drop down and hang from a ledge. Here’s how to enter crawlspaces. Here’s how to slide under things.
Now, if this section was nothing more than a series of tutorials it might get a little dull. So we get some exposition. We can hear Harley Quinn yelling at Joker’s goons, and her dialog explains what’s going on. The Joker is sick. He might even be dying. They kidnapped a doctor to treat him, but the doctor couldn’t help him. The player might have learned this if they had stopped to eavesdrop on Joker’s goons on the way to the steel mill, but here the story makes sure you understand the important stuff.
Exposition + tutorial is pretty good, but it still might feel a little slow, particularly for returning players. So the writer adds some tension to the scene by showing the doctor. The Joker is angry that she couldn’t help him, and so the doctor is thrown into his crowd of goons to be killed. So now we’ve got some excitement keeping the story lively. The player is learning their tools, getting exposition, and also in suspense over whether they will reach the doctor in time to save her.
This is the sort of stuff we usually take for granted until a game gets it wrong. Tutorials are something we only notice when they’re bad.
The doctor is dragged off, and Batman decides to stop hunting the Joker for a few minutes so he can rescue her. When he gets to where she’s being held we get yet another stealth section, but this time there are a few new mechanical bits to play around with. You can now hang from stuff on the ceiling and ambush guys when they walk underneath you. Also, your adversaries are mobile this time around.
Batman saves the doctor, punches the goons in the face, and by the time it’s over the player has gone through the Setup » Reminder » Payoff for a dozen different gameplay concepts.
When it’s over Batman adds another gizmo to his Bat-belt. Let’s talk about this gizmo.
A Gun? How Shocking!
Once Batman is done talking to the good doctor, he reaches into a nearby machine seemingly at random, scoops out some blue electricity goop, and then all of a sudden he’s got this shotgun-shaped thing that shoots electricity balls.
Mechanically, this is fine. You use it to power up machines. It also reverses the polarity of electromagnets for reasons that I’m sure would make sense if I was a physicist and also insane. You use it to open doors, move machines around, and shock troublesome scoundrels in the heat of battle. It’s a fun little addition to the game that – unlike the shock gloves in Arkham Origins – takes its place beside your other tools in battle without overshadowing them.
My problem is with the appearance of the device and how it’s introduced. Was Batman carrying around a weapon designed to shoot electrified gel just in case he found some? What is this thing and why was he carrying it around?
The weapon is enormous compared to most of the other stuff Batman supposedly has on his utility belt. I get that the belt isn’t physically big enough to hold all of his gadgets at the same time, but that’s no reason to introduce something that’s obviously too big to be carried anywhere on his person. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of comic book logic, but there’s an upper limit on how much Loony Toons spatial physics my subconscious can ignore before it gives up and calls bullshit on the entire scene.
Also, this thing looks like a gun.
The thing is made of comic book science-magic anyway, so there’s no reason it couldn’t be small and not-gun shaped. Call them “electrified Batarangs” or something. Whatever. Just don’t have Batman carrying around enormous shotguns that serve no purpose and stowing them in the tiny pouches of his belt, because it will bug me and I’ll complain about it on my blog.
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