During my Batman Arkham City series, I praised the game for the way it seamlessly wove the tutorials into the flow of the story. It’s a big game with a lot of different systems. You’ve got brawling encounters, stealth encounters, detective mode investigations, traversing the worldStuff like gliding, swinging, and parkour., and using gadgets to solve “puzzles”.
The challenge the game designer faces in these kinds of games is that you want to teach the player as quickly as possible. We want the player to have access to the full open world so they can engage with whatever content seems fun to them. That’s the whole point of having an open world. But we can’t let players off the leash until they know the basics because if they explore the open world and encounter gameplay system they haven’t learned yet, they’ll get confused and blame the game. At the same time, ramming too many tutorials down their throat at once is just as bad. It’s tedious, it gets in the way of the narrative right when we’re trying to get the story off the ground, and players will have trouble remembering the lessons if they’re packed too close together.
What you want to do is introduce a concept, allow them to try it, and then give the player a few minutes of doing something else. Then you remind them of the concept. Then later you give them some sort of “final test” where you present the challenge again, only this time with more pressure. Maybe they’ll have to deal with a time limit, or they’ll have less room for error, or they’ll have to blend this concept with another one. The point is that it sort of follows the rule of three in the form of “setup, reminder, payoff.”
How Batman Does It
So we need to teach the player as quickly as possible, but we also need to pace that training so they don’t get overwhelmed and the lessons don’t blur together into a meaningless series of button-prompts. In Arkham City, the tutorials are woven together beautifully. Check out the first forty minutes of the game:
Introduce strikes & counters: Catwoman’s fight during the prologue.
Reminder on counters: Bruce Wayne is thrown into Arkham City and needs to fend off the first wave of inmates.
Reminder on strikes: Bruce has to defeat Penguin’s thugs.
Introduce climbing / traversal: Bruce climbs Ace Chemicals, dons the Batsuit, and glides to the courthouse.
Payoff strikes & counters: Batman defeats the group of thugs in front of the courthouse in the first “proper” fight of the game.
Introduce stealth encounters: Batman knocks out the gunman overlooking the courtroom.
Introduce detective mode: Batman investigates the courtroom to trace the sniper shot to the church.
Reminder on gliding: Batman goes to the church.
Reminder for stealth encounters: Batman has to defeat the hostage situation at the church without being spotted.
Reminder for climbing: Batman climbs the bell tower.
Reminder for detective mode: Batman has to use detective mode on the sniper rifle. This is also the introduction to diving out of a window.
Payoff gliding: Batman crosses the city.
Payoff climbing: Batman climbs over the hazards in the steel mill.
Introduce Bat-gel: Batman has to blow a hole in the floor to proceed. This also works as the payoff for detective vision, since the player needs to use it to find the weak spot.
Payoff stealth encounters: The big hostage situation in a room with patrolling enemies.
The point is that there’s generally a gap between the introduction of a concept and the reminder, and another gap between the reminder and the moment where you must use it in more challenging conditions. Batman manages to pull this off and seamlessly weave these lessons into the story. Button prompts appear on screen without stopping the action and the game doesn’t expect us to read a bunch of text in the middle of a fight.
How Spider-Man Does It
Spider-Man is not nearly as graceful about this. The flow of Spider-Man’s tutorials is like this:
Introduce web-swinging then five seconds later introduce the web-zip move. After a cutscene, introduce pulling yourself towards an enemy then immediately introduce strikes then immediately introduce dodges. Once that fight is over, a cutscene brings in a fresh batch of guys and we introduce dodging bullets. As soon as the player hits that button, immediately introduce shooting webs at enemies. As soon as they successfully web someone up, introduce holding the attack button to launch guys into the air. (This is the first prompt that doesn’t pause the game.) Then while the fight is still going on, explain that they can hit X+Square to jump off a guy that’s already in the air. This prompt will appear even if you’re not in a position where you can use it. It doesn’t pause the game, and it vanishes after a few seconds even if you never successfully execute the move.
Then while the fight is still going, you get some additional text telling you that fighting in the air is safer than on the ground, and further explaining how to look up the moves list later. It’s a two-sentence message, which is pretty hard to properly read and absorb while you’re in the middle of a fight. There’s no way to pause the game to allow you to read this message. Any of the menu / map buttons will take you to another screen and cover up the tooltip. The message will disappear on its own.
That’s ten concepts dumped on the player in the first encounter without a single reminder! The short prompts pause the game, the longer ones don’t, the tutorial will often proceed even if the player doesn’t demonstrate mastery, and the whole thing happens in a live encounter with multiple enemies while Spidey and Yuri are also bantering about plot stuff.
In the reviews I’ve read, a lot of people have complained / cautioned that the game is pretty unforgiving. It certainly felt that way on my first trip through the game. But I think the real problem is that the tutorial is too much of a clumsy info-dump.
Later in the game I found myself dying repeatedly to clusters of Sable agents. Their mounted turrets were wiping me out in seconds and the prompt to disable the turrets was kind of capricious. On my second time through the game I noticed the Kingpin fight also had a quick tutorial teaching you to web up turrets before you try to tear them down. That lesson didn’t stick because it appeared many hours before the Sable teams appeared, there was never a reminder, and that lesson was given in the middle of a boss fight that was also teaching the player about throwing objects and fighting large brutes.
It doesn’t help that the on-screen prompts are variable in terms of importance. Some are prompts for buttons and others are strategic advice like, “Fighting in the air is safer than on the ground.” Players need the former in order to play the game, but they could discover the latter on their ownThey might even prefer to do so..
This creates the classic exchange:
Complaint: “This game is too frustrating!”
Retort: “It’s not bad at all, you just need to pay attention and get good at it.”
The problem isn’t really the difficulty or the lack of attention. The problem is that the tutorial is an unreliable info-dump where important concepts are easy to miss and where the player isn’t sure what information is vital or when it will become important.
It doesn’t help that Spidey is incredibly fragile. Batman can take quite a thrashing before you get a game over, but at the start of the game it only takes ~three firm punches to put Spider-Man into his near death stateYou know the drill: Sounds are muffled and you can hear a heartbeat sound.. Batman usually introduced concepts in low-stress conditions and you have lots of room for error, while Spider-Man teaches multiple concepts during a hectic scene where it’s easy to die while trying to read the on-screen text.
Yes, everyone eventually muddled through. I’m not suggesting the game was impenetrable. I’m just saying the introduction was clumsy in a way that frustrated some people with things that weren’t intended to be difficult.
I’m making a big deal about this because I’m worried Insomniac Games will misdiagnose the problem. They’ll read all the feedback complaining about unforgiving combat and decide that what we want is a shallow game of cheap empowerment with an even lower low skill ceiling. What they really need to do is space these tutorials out so that players are prepared for the challenges they’ll be up against.
The combat system itself is a complex topic and it’ll get an entry all to itself later in this series. In the meantime, it’s important to note that…
We Need Depth Somewhere
I’m fine with the swinging gameplay being kind of shallow. I’m fine with the stealth system being a little shallow. I’m even fine with a shallow combat system and shallow collect-a-thon stuff. But they shouldn’t all be shallow. We need at least one of these gameplay systems to give us something to sink our teeth into. I’m not saying the combat is currently too shallowAt least, I’m not saying that YET., I’m just saying it would be a disaster if Insomniac “streamlined” it in response to the feedback people have been giving them. The game doesn’t need to be easier, it just needs to do a better job of teaching the player its systems.
Note that deep doesn’t necessarily mean hard. Batman’s system is pretty deep, but the game is a cakewalk even for first-time players. Regardless of how punishing or forgiving the game is, we need one of these gameplay systems to offer us something where we can improve over time and where an experienced player can really distinguish themselves from a newbie. Maybe the expert can do it while taking less damage, or do it faster, or do it more stylishly. Maybe the game can rate the player’s performance in some sort of post-brawl letter grade.
It’s true that this game performed well and got a lot of glowing praise. And to be fair, I got a ton of enjoyment out of it. But having a shallow game is a dangerous thing. It’s easy for the audience to burn out. This is particularly true for Spider-Man, who is pretty much inseparable from Manhattan as a setting. If the next game is going to offer the same city and the same shallow gameplay, then what’s the draw? Why plop down $60 for the next title instead of playing through this one again? Am I really paying $60 for a fresh batch of cutscenes?
Sure, maybe some people play for the story. But it’s not like we’re hurting for Spider-Man stories these days. Moreover, I think it would be a disaster for a mechanics-focused game to try to sell itself on its story. Given how many franchises thrive despite having atrocious stories, I think the overall importance of story is pretty low. If the public really cared about good writing, this blog would be a lot more popular, Capcom would have folded years ago, and David Cage would be in jail.
As it stands, Spider-Man 2018 is a cotton candy game. The first few bites are really special and you might wonder why you don’t have it more often. By the time you’ve eaten the whole thing, you’re done with cotton candy for a while.
The point is that Insomniac Games got away with giving us a game that’s miles wide but an inch deep. That worked this time, but they need to refine and deepen some of these systems if they plan to keep making these things. More importantly, they need to smooth out the tutorial to make it more instructive and less intrusive.
 Stuff like gliding, swinging, and parkour.
 They might even prefer to do so.
 You know the drill: Sounds are muffled and you can hear a heartbeat sound.
 At least, I’m not saying that YET.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
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