Friday, August 21, 2009

Teaching Us How To Play…over and over again

sleeping in class So you’ve just gotten home from GameStop, unwrapped the plastic on that hot new title you’ve been saving for, and popped the disc in the tray.  You’ve watched the customary developer/publisher slates and navigated the main menu.  But before you can play the game, you’ve got to learn how.

Tutorials are ubiquitous in modern gaming.  With more powerful technology came more powerful methods of interaction, which in turn required longer and denser strings of commands.  Just open up a Street Fighter FAQ and try to prevent your eyes from glazing over. 

Is there a way around this convention?  Or should we simply embrace climbing the learning curve every time we boot up a new game?

Long gone are the days when gamers could be expected to rely on their manuals for instruction.  Does anyone remember the manual for Super Mario Bros.?  Without it, how would any of us have known what that the Koopa were a “tribe of turtles famous for their black magic”?  Or that all of the Mushroom Kingdom’s citizens had been transformed into bricks?  On a more serious note, the manual was a necessity if the player had never touched a controller before.  Control schemes had no conventions.  If you didn’t spend time reading, you wouldn’t know what the game had to offer you.  Nowadays, console games couldn’t care less about their manuals.  Gamers have since been trained that the game will teach them everything they need to know.

And teaching players is something some games need.  You can’t be expected to boot up a strategy title like Starcraft or Civilization and figure out the minutiae through trial and error.  But Starcraft, and it seems like its sequel will do things similarly, does its best to integrate its training into early levels, stripped down to reveal key mechanics to the player.  Mission A teaches you how to build stuff.  Mission B teaches you how to destroy it.  It starts to get a little formulaic.

As the industry strives to produce games with more mature (not “adult”) narratives, it’s running headlong into a conflict with this tutorial convention.  UFC 2009 Undisputed needs hours of tutorial video because it’s a complicated sports title that toes the line of simulation  But AAA, story-driven titles buckle under the weight of tutorials.  Think back to the last Square RPG you played.  Do you recall fondly the ten minutes you spent watching a canned demonstration of whatever new battle system they’ve created?  I know I don’t.  It puts chinks in my immersion. 

I believe this issue is tied to problems of progression (an issue I’ve discussed before).  In many mainstream games, characters are expected to learn/acquire new skills or weapons as they progress through the story.  I wrote before (see above link) about how that’s spawned a game story cliché , that of a lone individual amassing great power and overcoming his foes.  With those powers come their learning curves.  Assassin’s Creed does a decent job dressing up its tutorial elements in a meta, “You’re playing as a dude controlling his ancestor with a machine” conceit.  It does reinforce, however, that players can’t be expected to wield their new weapons effectively without being told how. 

Or can they?  Braid constantly changes up how time functions, forcing players to let go of their assumptions about the game’s mechanics (which conveniently reinforces its themes of love and loss).  Most of Portal is disguised as a tutorial program designed to test the player’s abilities.  The opening tutorial of Red Faction: Guerrilla is less a structured lesson than an introduction to the game’s destruction-friendly sandbox of a world.

We can see tutorials as a gaming-specific analog to exposition.  Sure, game narratives need exposition as much as any novel or film might.  But games also hinge on proper explanation of mechanics, just as most plots hinge on clear background information.  Think of any time you’ve gotten frustrated trying to navigate a game, or when a friend hasn’t had as much fun as you in multiplayer because he just can’t get the hang of it.  People who saw G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra probably felt the same way.

There is, however, such a thing as too much exposition.  It gets boring and stale.  You can almost hear the plot idling in the parking lot while the exposition takes too long in the store picking out what kind of chips it wants.  That’s where Beckett and Pinter came in.  Figure it out for yourself, they said, we’re not answering your damn questions.  Unfortunately, a complete lack of exposition can prove frustrating for an audience, just as a complete lack of instruction can make some games unplayable. 

A balance must be struck between this need for exposition and the oppressive weight of a bloated tutorial.  Since it’s become almost expected that one can play a game without ever opening the manual, developers must anticipate this.  But they should be encouraged to make their instruction jive with the game’s fiction and narrative.  If they can pull it off, the first two hours of games will get a lot more engaging.