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Top Ten – Video Game Tutorials

Following on from my previous post about this subject, I thought it might be useful to take a look at some examples of video game tutorials which are considered to be effective and try to figure out whether or not they actually are.

Because I’m lazy, I did a single YouTube search and just chose the first video that came up. So yeah, there are probably better examples out there which would facilitate more interesting analysis, but whatever. I’m a busy man.

Here’s the video:

I’ll go through the featured games one at a time and try to give some sort of opinion on each. You can follow along with the video if you like, or you can just skip it completely and read my thoughts on each game. Up to you.

10. Splinter Cell

This is an interesting game to start with, as its distant cousin Conviction was one of the examples I gave of a truly bad tutorial. Remember though, the original was released back when Ubisoft weren’t quite the shady, money-grabbing bastards they are today.

This is actually okay, too. Admittedly it exists in one of those weird pocket dimensions where a highly trained and experienced covert operative is led around an assault course, but they do a decent job of justifying that. Fisher has been out of action for a while and he’s been chosen to spearhead a new initiative, so it makes sense they’d have him go through some refresher training. It also helps with character development if you ghost the whole thing, as Lambert gets really, really impressed by that and showers Sam with compliments about how much of a badass he is.

9. Little Big Planet

I’m not sure how exactly to approach this tutorial, as it’s really a crash course in using Little Big Planet as a design tool rather than an actual game. It is a good example of using named voice talent as a selling point, and it’s very clear and concise for how much scope the creation mode in that game actually gives the player. It’s obviously a functional thing though, and doesn’t do anything particularly interesting in terms of how it relays information.

8. Half-Life

The video doesn’t mention this, but I’m fairly sure that the tutorial in this game is only selectable from the main menu and isn’t part of the proper narrative. A lot of PC games used to do that, actually (Deus Ex included). If I’m remembering correctly this is slightly more significant, as Valve actually bothered to dress the whole thing up as a workplace training course when they really didn’t need to.

The actual opening of Half-Life could largely be considered a tutorial too, as it takes things very slowly and gradually introduces the player to basic movement, the suit functions and then combat in a way that feels incredibly organic. Valve have pacing and environmental storytelling down to a fine art.

7. Alan Wake

I actually like Alan Wake quite a lot, but this opening is really silly and its presence on the list puzzles me. One of the game’s biggest problems was that one could never really tell whether it was trying to be outright scary or just atmospheric, and the tutorial really didn’t help. Tonally it’s all over the place. You don’t see it in the video, but there’s a guiding light thing leading you around this segment, and it speaks. It’s quite warm and friendly, actually, and it politely lets you know you’re dreaming. I think it was trying to make some kind of meta statement, but it didn’t work particularly well.

6. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

This is my favourite game in the series, but not because of the tutorial – that’s pretty standard. The video points out that it makes some sort of contextual sense, which it does, and adding a time component was a smart idea to encourage replays (I was one of those people who went through the course a handful of times to get the achievement). If you stayed there and refined your skills to the point you could run that thing in under 20 seconds, you were set for the whole game. It’s still very run-of-the-mill as far as tutorials go though.

(Note: I think it was a nice touch that speedrunning this opening tutorial essentially taught you everything you needed to be able to beat the epilogue mission in under a minute. Infinity Ward clearly knew what they were doing with that).

5. God of War 3

Again, this is a strange choice. If you look at this section of the game in terms of how it’s actually teaching the player, it’s literally just throwing instructions on screen for them to follow. It’s visually very impressive, but that stuff is really just set-dressing. I think it’s cool that this is a game which took the idea of an isolated tutorial and ran with it in the complete opposite direction though. Rather than keeping it away from the main content, it instead slots it right in the middle of a huge action scene. The initial test of whether you grasped the mechanics or not is an enormous, multi-stage boss fight. It isn’t tough at all, but it shouldn’t have to be – the boss’s job here is to make the player forget they’re being told how to play, which it does perfectly. If you’re invested in the story at this point this is also a really significant battle, too. I would never have considered God of War 3 as an example of good tutorial design, but it’s actually pretty damn effective.

4. Fallout 3

Ah, yes. This is one of the best examples of a tutorial I can think of – especially for an RPG. Having the player literally be born in the game was quite a genius touch, all things considered. Going through that whole “growing up” phase totally gives credence to the character having certain select skills. It doesn’t do any typecasting, and lets the player roll whatever style of character they like while managing to keep any permutation consistent with the game-world. Fallout 3 would go on to make a lot of narrative and design blunders as it progressed, but this opening was incredibly effective.

3. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

This works well for the exact same reasons God of War 3 works well: it uses visually stunning spectacle to disguise the fact it’s a tutorial. An interesting thing to note about this game is that it uses a sequence which actually occurs midway through as its opening moments, then transitions to the actual start of the story and shows how you got to that point. Naughty Dog were smart there; they knew exactly which part of the game would most effectively function as an introduction. I imagine the original idea was to start chronologically, but the “proper” opening is quite slow (in Uncharted terms) and using this scene was much more effective in the long run.

2. Portal 2

Well, Valve are at it again. This is a tremendous tutorial. It’s totally in keeping with the game’s established fiction, it teaches you the various mechanics gradually and organically, Stephen Merchant as Wheatley is a tremendous guide (and reintroduction to the game’s dark humour) and it even makes those cutesy references to Chell being a silent protagonist. I’m one of the few people who thinks Portal 2 was superior to Portal, and this opening shows the more sophisticated approach to storytelling and traditional game design which was a large part of why.

1. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

How fitting that the number one tutorial on the list is the one which openly mocks other tutorials. It is quite deserving of the top spot though – Blood Dragon is a great game (that’s coming from someone who was pretty much indifferent to Far Cry 3) and the video really doesn’t show how hilarious that opening section is. It’s not always smart for a game to mock the tropes its using, but in this case it didn’t really feel snide and hypocritical the way, say, Duke Nukem Forever did, but more like it was acknowledging the fact we all know these things are about as irritating as they are important. There’s no way tutorials could just disappear overnight, and there isn’t going to be a sudden renaissance which sees them all become superb. Blood Dragon points out rather succinctly that such sections are a necessary evil in game design, and it manages to do so while giving a tutorial. Coming to terms with the stupidity of something is often a great way of learning to live with it.

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