Once upon a time, there was always a little booklet nestled inside the packaging of a video game. It was called an instruction manual, and you could usually judge the complexity of a game by how thick it was. Once upon a time, the first thing I did when I bought any new game was read that thing cover to cover, sometimes more than once. Often it would have lots of interesting flavour text about the game’s world and its characters, alongside all the usual stuff about control schemes and mechanics. Once upon a time, these things were really important.
“Once upon a time” refers to relatively recent years – within the last decade, certainly. There’s probably a generation of gamers who don’t remember manuals at all, but there are many more who remember them as a fundamental component of a game’s whole experience. Instruction manuals weren’t just for giving the player necessary information; the best were stuffed with all kinds of ancillary content, from artwork and maps to pages full of interesting storytelling.
Contemporary gaming has rendered these things pretty much obsolete. I can’t remember the last time I even looked at one. Very few releases these days include them at all. Nintendo 3DS games, for example, have digital manuals installed on the software itself. You can have a quick look if you need to, but you probably won’t.
This is largely due to how differently video games are able to communicate with the player now that technology has sufficiently progressed. Why would you want to wade through reams of text when you can watch a ten-minute, cinema-quality cutscene resplendent with exquisite visuals and voice acting? They do pretty much the same job, after all. And when it comes to actual gameplay, we’ve reached a point now where we pretty much have ideal genre-specific control schemes. In most cases we know how to operate a game before we even turn it on.
However, it’s still important for designers to make the player feel comfortable in the world they’ve created, and that means teaching them how certain things work. Basic controls are one thing, but there are still unique mechanics to learn and little changes in formula that need to be adapted to. When video game systems were significantly less complex and nuanced, that kind of thing could be crammed into a paper booklet. These days it all needs to be done in-game, which is why tutorials exist.
The problem with tutorials is that they’re almost always shit. They generally come in one of two distinct flavours – they either take place in a weird pocket dimension where the rules that bind the rest of the game don’t necessarily apply, or they’re woven into gameplay. The latter is preferable, but decidedly harder to implement well.
Most designers opt for the former option, as players have learned over the years to overlook that kind of nonsense on the grounds that it’s there to fulfil a very specific purpose. No, my hardened Special Forces operative shouldn’t need to be led around an assault course and taught how to climb ladders and use guns, but I’d much rather not have to learn how all that stuff works while the AI mercilessly butchers me. It’s silly, but it shouldn’t be considered representative of the proper game.
On the other hand, a tutorial segment weaved naturally into gameplay is a beautiful thing. It’s very tough to do, but when it’s handled with thought and care it’s a great way of communicating necessary information while keeping the player in tune with the game’s world. Valve are particularly good at this; look at the scene in Half-Life 2 where Alyx teaches Gordon how to operate the gravity gun. Yeah, there’s still the occasional need for a little on-screen prompt displaying what button does what, but that’s much easier to look past than an entire twenty-minute segment which is completely dissonant.
We don’t see this very often because, as mentioned, very few developers can do it well, if at all. And when it’s done badly it absolutely earthquakes the surrounding fiction. Consider the opening scene of Metal Gear Solid, as an example. During the first Codec conversation with Colonel Campbell, he’s explaining Snake’s mission objectives. It’s all very serious and intense. He tells Snake that, should he require assistance, he can contact him on the secure frequency of 140.85. Just like a proper spy. Then he says: “When you want to use the Codec, push the Select button”.
Breaking the fourth wall like that catapults the player out of the experience immediately. It happens a lot in that game, and even though it doesn’t stop it from being spectacular (it’s actually one of my favourites of all time), it’s definitely noticeable and damaging to the immersion. It’s actually more damaging than simply doing something daft like the whole assault course thing, because player’s haven’t conditioned themselves to ignore it.
One of the most egregious examples of this I have ever, ever seen was in Splinter Cell: Conviction, which I played through fairly recently. In this particular lesson Ubisoft are trying to educate the player about sticking to the shadows, and the scene shows off the monochrome visual effect which indicates Sam is invisible to the enemy. It’s a nice idea, using a scene about light and darkness to illustrate the play mechanics, but the context is totally wrong.
See, this tutorial takes place during a conversation Sam Fisher is having with his daughter, Sarah, twenty years in the past, when she was obviously frightened of the dark. It’s quite clearly designed to appear as a natural portion of dialogue, but with Sam subtly instructing the player about the benefits of avoiding light at the same time. During the exchange, Sam openly admits the existence of “monsters” and “bad people” to his young daughter, although he assures her that “when you’re in the dark, you can see them, but they can’t see you”.
This is so horribly forced. To make matters worse, after explaining about the monsters and bad people, he lists a couple of ways that Sarah could combat them. Drawing her attention to her illuminated mobile suspended from the ceiling above her head, he lets her know that should anything evil be stood underneath it, dropping it on their heads would be an effective course of action.
In this scene Sam is communicating directly to the player, even though the game is trying its hardest not to let you in on that fact. It’s a terrible bit of design. Someone at Ubisoft must have children, and they must know that this isn’t how parents are supposed to communicate. Not that Sam and Sarah have ever had a particularly strong father-daughter relationship (they spent several years believing each other to be dead, actually), but still – it shouldn’t be this mental.
Then again, this is Ubisoft we’re talking about. The problem isn’t specific to them though; it’s a rampant issue throughout the medium generally, and while it’s far from the most important one video games have, it’s something I’d like to see improved all the same. I wouldn’t exactly say I lament the lack of instruction manuals these days, but I do miss being able to jump straight into a game and just be allowed to play it. There’s nothing wrong with learning on the fly, and I’d actually prefer to learn that way than have the characters, story and integrity of the game suffer as a result of its clumsy, ham-fisted attempt to teach me shit I could figure out for myself in under a minute.
This is almost certainly something which will improve over time, as developers start to better understand video games and the language in which they need to communicate in order to be truly respected as an artform. But tutorials do seem to be improving at a much slower rate than other elements. I don’t want to drone on about this too much because it’s a minor issue comparatively, though it’s something I’ll be paying attention to in the future. When gaming finally manages to sharply hone these core aspects, that’s when it’ll truly be able to start building something genuinely original atop them.
I’ve got one more post to follow up with on this subject, and then I’ll leave it alone and start moaning about something else. See you then.