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Friday, February 23, 2024

The Case for Video Game Tutorials

In my time on this earth I’ve pledged allegiance to many masters. Learned men and women: Buddhists, dissidents, Jedi. Their words—always measured—tend to echo at critical junctures. Whenever I face down an unforeseen attack, whenever my enemies reveal themselves, the sage advice of my betters bubbles up from my deepest brain fold, reminding me to press [square] to perform a quick attack.

Obviously, I need this information. I’m dead without it, and whatever game I’m playing is decidedly less fun if I have to die a dozen times for the knowledge. (Brilliant or not, Souls games offer the same allure as hot wax-on-nip.) Quick attack is not always [square]. Maybe for you, it’s [Y]. Maybe you’re playing a hospital sim and you just want to hire a nurse, no quick attacks necessary. Sure, you need to know which button to push, but also when to push it. You need the conditions, the use cases. You need a tutorial.

Video game tutorials, as a category, are neither good nor bad; they are wholly case-specific. They can be artful or demeaning. They function as a preface to fun, which makes them seem weirder than they are—as though every novel opened with a family tree, or every TV show employed a warm-up comic to remind the audience how to laugh and clap. At base, tutorials are just another stubborn convention in a maturing medium. Popular films and shows are propped up by all sorts of tropes. Like flashbacks, cliffhangers, and cold opens, tutorials endured through natural selection.

In arcade times, when a game’s immediate and ultimate objectives were fully aligned—destroy the space invaders, get Frogger across the road—instructive prompts were usually redundant. The lone joystick and one or two buttons worked as single-issue instruments; their roles literally felt intuitive. Most games ramped up the difficulty at linear rates across neatly divided levels, which meant that beating the first made you equipped for what followed. Gamers took responsibility for their own tutelage.

“Back then, nobody needed a prompt on the screen telling you how it works,” says Patrice Désilets, creator of the hit Ubisoft franchise Assassin’s Creed.

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Compared to that laissez-faire model, today’s tutorials can feel patronizing. There is a frankness in the steady advance of the space invaders, the ticking clock in Time Crisis, the way the ghosts always gain on Pac-Man. Rule sets govern these games, but they are fully represented on the screen at any given moment. Our immersion is immediate because there’s no additional context, let alone subtext: Just play.

What changed? Obviously, games got more sophisticated. Software makers added moves, hardware makers added buttons. And increasingly, narrative —humanity’s oldest convention—figured into things.

If you’ve ever played a game that featured a cut scene, a starship, or a weapon with a name, you might fairly reason that video game writing is responsible for the modern tutorial, which tees up as many narrative concepts as mechanic ones, and tends to traffic in pure, uncut exposition. Blame the writers!

But bad writing can’t explain the friction of a frustrating opening level—the disorienting lapse between wish and outcome, the way we stumble over the same rigid sequences into identical deaths. We start every game like a newborn giraffe struggling to stand; a well-designed tutorial mitigates the time wasted on unproductive stumbles. Tutorials don’t exist to sand down narrative edges—they exist to usher us into unfamiliar 3D spaces.

“The real story of a game is teaching how to play it,” says Désilets. “Everything else is noise.” It’s a stark assertion from the originator of one of the most baroque plots in gaming, and it suggests that while tutorials may jump-start the process, the best games provide a continuous learning curve. Progress powers gameplay. “We do story around it, we do character development and whatnot, but deep down, it's all about teaching people how to play with the mechanics inside of loops and inside of systems.”

These lessons can be inviting or alienating, drawing players into worlds for dozens of hours or triggering definitive rage-quits. To understand why some games succeed where others fail, we must consult the landmark philosophical treatise Being and Time.

Lessons From a 20th-Century Philosopher

Let’s pause here for a moment to consider the work of Martin Heidegger, author of Being and Time, who made important contributions to phenomenology and very much did support the Nazis. (Which is probably good to just caveat upfront.)

Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that suspends judgment about how the world really “is” in order to address how we experience it. For example, instead of trying to define the properties of a chair—as one does—phenomenology asks us to investigate the act of sitting. Heady stuff, I know, but bear with me, because I think iconic buddy cops Heidegger and phenomenology can help us understand what it is that tutorials really do, and why they remain so inescapable.

Heidegger’s most famous product is a word he invented called Dasein [pronounced DAH-zyne], which is usually translated as “being there.” In Being and Time, Heidegger grappled with what it means to be somewhere in a very visceral sense. Being in the world, according to Heidegger, was not primarily about noticing stuff and making abstract observations; it was much more about using objects and entities to achieve specific ends. The color and shape of a bicycle, for instance, are less relevant than the experience of peddling it. Heidegger argued that most human activity is this kind of absorbed, skillful engagement with our environments.

He offered a hammer by way of example: When we’re happily nailing in some picture hangers (having successfully lobbied the landlord, found the stud, and summoned the courage), we’re using the hammer in a way that transcends attention. We’re not concerned with the hammer or the nail so much as the act of hammering nails, and as long as we’re humming along, the act remains uncomplicated. It’s only when the hammer fails in some way that we start to really notice it: It’s too heavy or bulky or unbalanced. It makes the entire process of hammering nails more cumbersome. If it worked the way it should, it would fade into the background of our thinking.

The same could be said of gameplay. (We’re back; well done.) The systems that power smooth, satisfying gameplay are largely invisible. Only misfires announce themselves. When you’re saving the world from zombies or Reapers or Nazis—when duty calls—you don’t have time for a clunky mechanic or a stuttering frame rate. To paraphrase Lieutenant Aldo Raine, Brad Pitt’s character in Inglourious Basterds, you’re not in the troubleshooting business. You’re in the killing Nazis business.

Even problems rooted in your own ignorance, like not knowing how to open doors or change items, are enough to shatter the delicate illusion of modern gameplay. These squeaky wheels hijack the grease of our conscious thought, and they often ruin our experience in the process.

By the power vested in my undergraduate philosophy degree, I declare that you get my point. You see that the world of video games is remarkably similar to the world Martin Heidegger described: a world of absorbed, skillful engagement that’s vulnerable to disruption. You get why you can’t just go rifling through an options menu to figure out how to make Nathan Drake throw a grenade. Nathan Drake should know how to throw a grenade, and you are Nathan Drake. I cannot stress this enough: We are all Nathan Drake.

Désilets readily admits that this tension undermined the opening of Assassin’s Creed, in which players take the role of Desmond Miles, a present-day nobody who is coerced into reliving selected memories from the mind of one of his ancestors. Such memories, we learn, are encoded into our genetic makeup, and can be surfaced by a machine called the Animus in a sort of full-body VR affair.

It’s an elegant solution for early-game awkwardness—the block-and-tackle work of telling players which buttons to mash. At first, the Animus guides Desmond through a literal tutorial to familiarize him (and the player) with the simulation. But the memories it proceeds to conjure belong to a skilled assassin named Altaïr, and the gulf between what Altaïr can do in theory and what the player can do in practice is evident.

“It was kind of a mistake,” Désilets says. “How do I teach a master assassin to be an assassin? He's a master of it.” When his team began development on a sequel, they flipped the script, creating a new character whose journey into the dark underbelly of murder and political intrigue would mirror the player’s own. In Assassin’s Creed II, Desmond relives the memories of a different ancestor, beginning with his birth and making pit stops through his young adulthood. Players are treated to a gentler on-ramp. The first combat scenario is a fistfight. “You have to align players with characters,” Désilets says.

That sort of formal and thematic harmony—players learning at the same pace as the playable character—helps mask the dissonance at the heart of gaming. But all the narrative justification in the world won’t ease the burden of communicating button schemas. So at some point in a game, players are treated to a pop-up: push [R1] to throw your selected throwable item, or whatever. It’s embarrassing. It doesn’t spoil the mood so much as fire a warhead at the flimsiest fourth wall in contemporary entertainment. It insults our intelligence. How dare it!

Still, it’s better than the alternative. To fully appreciate why, we must once again invoke Heidegger’s made-up German word.

Dasein, the concept of “being there,” doesn’t apply to the fictional worlds of novels or theater or TV or film. We can read about Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage prospects in Pride and Prejudice without having to feel, in some way, as though we’re sipping port in a 19th-century drawing room. We can watch Mark Wahlberg yell at a guy without needing to orient ourselves towards him in 3D space. Stories ask for a willful suspension of disbelief, but they don’t demand our motor skills.

Only video games are fueled by something close to Dasein—the sense that you are really there. You know, phenomenologically. A great game makes you feel like you’re an agent in the gameworld. With the help of your controller, an infinite Swiss army knife, it conducts your will from thought to action. It submits to your manipulations.

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This is all classic Dasein stuff. And as crude as tutorials can be, they help us get to that place faster. They lay out the totality of ways we may engage with a game’s environment: Look for coins in clay pots; hide in these haystacks; time your jumps right. Just like someone once showed you how to use a hammer, tutorials show you how to use a game. Whether they accomplish this with style and aplomb is almost beside the point. You need the lesson.

Ironically, realism and characterization can get in the way. “Nintendo is still one of the best in the industry” when it comes to tutorials, according to Désilets, but the publisher enjoys a unique advantage. “I believe that it's a bit easier for them because—let's hope I won't be flamed for this—they have bland characters,” he says. “It's OK, because then you can as a player project yourself maybe a little bit more easily onto those characters. Because Mario is just a puppet.” Nintendo doesn’t shy away from signposting, either. “They always put every single button on the screen,” Désilets says.

For many mature gamers, that’s a turn-off, and it’s not hard to understand why. Nobody likes to set aside time for instruction; we want to get to the fun part, and we assume we know where that is. After all, we might be new to the gameworld, but we’re masters of our own. Right?

Except I haven’t put an unidentified object in my mouth since infancy. I have yet to operate a jackhammer. Every day I pass parks I’ve never entered, NPCs I’ve never spoken to. My world—even the world of my daily routine—remains largely unexamined, and the older I get, the less likely I am to engage with it in novel ways. I could use a prompt, a sign, an intervention. Something to grab me by the shoulders and throw me down a path I haven’t explored.

I could use a tutorial.

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