Man, I really meant to do these more than every one and a half years. XD
Anyway, welcome back to Make or Break, where I analyze a particular aspect of gaming, with good and/or bad examples. Last time way back when was Sound Repetition, a rather lovely topic that spun around several games like Madworld, International Superstar Soccer 98 and King of Fighters, discussing how the abuse of sound and voice can be okay in some cases and not in others. This time, I’m going to dig into the tutorial aspect of games. Let me begin with what inspired me to write this in the first place.
I really want to love Zelda: Skyward Sword. It does a lot of things beautifully. It looks incredible, has some astoundingly good music, the motion controls are mostly solid and fun to play around with, and the dungeons and bosses are up to the usual Zelda standard, if not more so in some situations. However, it suffers from a particularly fatal flaw in that it truly must think that the player is a fucking idiot. Fi, a fascinating character design with moments of awesomeness, unfortunately gets saddled with being the most overbearing nuisance of a guiding figure I’ve experienced in a long time. Her computer-styled personality does not aid her in this regard. She has a nasty habit of overexplaining the obvious, offering advice when it really wasn’t necessary, and, through her ability to allow Link to dowse for items and people, forces the player to mandatory open the dowsing menu whenever she creates a new one, even if the location is clearly somewhere the player can get to without the dowsing (i.e. getting to Lanrayu Desert). She could have been a contender for coolest assistant, but Midna continues to wear that crown.
Beyond Fi, though, it boggles me to no end that Nintendo must sincerely suppose their Zelda fanbase has forgotten how the franchise works, or that they need constant refreshers on common items, because it takes the pleasant “you found a ‘item’” messaging to the extreme in Skyward Sword. In Twilight Princess, it wasn’t too bad getting the occasional 20+ rupee notice, but did they take it to fucking 11 here with the consistent stopping of the game to prattle off whatever crap you picked up each and every time you start the game up. I don’t need to be reminded about the Jelly Blob all the time, and I certainly do not need to be shown where it is in the damn menu EVERY startup. It really makes the game drag in short playthroughs, which is what I’m able to do right now. It’s truly a shame, because that one quibble is enough to ruin what is otherwise exceptional gaming joy. The game just can’t stop tutoring the player.
Another example of tutorial done wrong is the lengthy Oblivion intro. It seems I find myself attracted to nitpicking Oblivion in these articles, and it’s not anything deliberate (despite my belief it’s the weakest of the four I’ve played in the Elder Scrolls series), but let me explain my grief and maybe you’ll see why I’m attacking it again. Oblivion begins with Uriel Septim marching into your jail cell (as a sidenote, why are you always a criminal when you begin these games?), which features a hidden passage. He’s under attack from Morag Bal’s minions, and the Blades, his bodyguards, believe this is the safest route out of the castle. Septim chats you up for a while, which always the player to determine their class, race and facial features, and then the group march off. Since you’re not an fool, you follow behind in order to escape yourself. Well, this is all well and good, but this soiree becomes a 20+ minute dungeon crawl that forces the player to experiment with gear and quickly learn the ropes in a confined, anti-Elder Scrolls fashion. You see, the beauty of this franchise is to be able to create a hero or heroine (or villain or villainess, or anything in between, really) and let them be exactly what you think they ought to be. This tutorial breaks that mold. It drags on and on and on, forcing you into situations you may not want to do (like getting face-to-face with goblins, say), and requires use of items or weapons you may not care to use (the bow, for one). I was very pleased Skyrim ditched this approach and allowed for a shorter, more engaging introduction to its world, and it gave the player the chance to determine what they yearned to be and act upon it.
For a tutorial done right, it may surprise you to learn that I consider Dead Space Extraction to be one of the finest tutorials ever implemented in a game. It’s unobtrusive, popping up if it feels the player needs some guidance, isn’t backed by some annoying buzzer or garishly large font (it’s tucked under the RIG bars dead center), and it doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the game. It’s the ideal system – helping when it needs to, and leaving the player along if they don’t. Even the later Dead Space 2 didn’t quite master Extraction’s smooth tutorial explanations, preferring to go a more or less Skyward Sword route with pop-ups that block chunks of the screen that force the action to grind to a sudden halt. They at least don’t occur in battle often.
In conclusion, I feel that the aiding of players to understand mechanics needs to be more than an afterthought and done in a way that it doesn’t hinder the overall experience. The ability to shut off tutorials and hints would be a good place to start, as would following Extraction’s example of detecting the player’s ability and giving appropriate response (or lack thereof, if they seemingly have got the game’s controls and abilities down). Perhaps making the tutorial a completely separate level that can be bypassed (a la Half Life or Perfect Dark) by expert players or those just wanting to get their feet wet would also be a good plan. Tutorials can be beneficial, but only if they treat the player with the proper respect. Don’t drag it out, don’t belittle the gamer’s intelligence, and don’t make it mandatory (at least for replays).
I may expand this down the road, but as of right now I’m pretty pleased with it and feel it expresses what I want it to.