Blast From the Past - Pt 2

 Let's talk tutorials, shall we?

The old man says, "Back in my day we didn't have tutorials. You'd put the game in the system, turn it on (which immediately brought up the game, by the way), and there you'd be at the title screen, often with the first level already in the background. You'd hit one button, and you'd be in the game. None of this signing on with certain profiles, or making all sorts of adjustments to the controller or volumes or whatever. Title screen, and hit a button. That was it, and then you were in the game and you had to figure it out. No on-screen prompts. No "non-playable characters" telling you in some maybe-clever-maybe-not way what to do. Nope. Your character was there, a goomba was walking directly towards him, and you'd better figure out how to use that d-pad and those two buttons or the height-challenged plumber was toast. And as for the purpose of the game, the goal, whatever you want to call it, there was no need for a stinking tutorial. Your character was on the left of the screen, enemies were coming from the right, and there was a counter. Obviously you need to go right and reach some sort of goal before the timer runs out. We didn't need some snarky voice-acted polygonal "NPC" to tell us anything so utterly obvious. Tutorials...good grief."

Obviously video games have gotten more complex over the years, and with that complexity most would argue has come the need for tutorials. (Although there were some games back in the day that could have benefited from some sort of tutorial...I'm looking at you NES Rambo.) Objectives aren't always as obvious as they were back in the day. And certainly we have more buttons to deal with.

It seems to me that there's one thing a tutorial absolutely must do, and two things it really needs to do. It must actually show the player how to play the game. If it doesn't do that, then whatever it may be, it isn't, by definition, a tutorial. And it really needs to 1) be entertaining, and 2) not take the player out of the game narrative (if said game has one).

Game developers, in my experience, tend to do pretty well with the "show the player how to play the game" bit. But the other two elements...well, those seem more hit and miss. And I can see why. The mechanics of a game may be great fun in the game proper, but that's no guarantee that they'll be fun when being explained for the first time. Pushing Z to target an enemy, and then hopping around it before making a deadly strike is fun when out on the field. But if the enemy is just a block, and the environment is just an empty room, then hey, listen, it isn't so enjoyable. Making the tutorial fun requires some creativity. And preventing it from taking the player out of the game requires even more. Unless it's a zany, slapstick, fourth-wall breaking, tongue-in-cheek kind of game (I'm looking at you Mario RPGs, save the first one, I'm not looking at you, you can go about your business), you can't just have a character say "Push the A button to jump, Lara." That wouldn't make any sense to her. A button? She doesn't have an A button? And it's not like she's never jumped before in her life. Why is he deciding now that she needs to have basic movements like jumping, running, and opening doors explained to her? What is he talking about? Is he referring to her rear end in some way? That's it, she's got to get to the bottom of this. "What do you mean, push my A button?? No, I'm serious. What did you mean by that??" And the tutorial is derailed, with game characters suddenly talking about suing each other for harassment.

So in my first real Blast from the Past article, I'm going to offer a few observations on how I think Ubisoft did with the tutorial for Assassin's Creed, as well as some general comments on the game so far.

One thing that's clever about Assassin's Creed, and it really helps with the challenges of tutorial making, is that it's sort of a game within a game. Granted the Animus is not presented as a game system, per se. But you know what I mean. By having most of the game take place within the virtual world of Desmond's genetic memories, certain limitations of video games can be dealt with in an in-universe way. For example, in the first level you eventually make your way to the assassins' fortress. On your way to talk with the boss man you pass a tall tower. At the end of the level the tower comes into play, as you climb up it, and dive off a platform. But the game designers don't want you doing that when you're first going into the fortress. Rather than just placing an inexplicable invisible wall between the player and the platform, or having some random obstinate NPC standing in front of the tower and telling you that you can't go up, you need to talk to the boss, the game designers have the off-limits area become glitchy and hazy, as though for some reason the Animus is unable to allow Desmond to access that portion of the memory. Even the staple of gaming, the health meter, gets an in-universe explanation (the sync bar).

Applying such possibilities to the tutorial only makes sense, but this doesn't make the results any less enjoyable. When playing through the tutorial, I couldn't help but think about the tutorial in Metroid: Other M, as it's arguably the most modern core game I've played up until now. So I'll be referencing it for comparison here.

So how do you smoothly, in a way that makes sense from a story standpoint, introduce a tutorial? If the character is doing something he/she has never done before, the task is a bit easier, as both the gamer and the game character are doing something new. If the actions are supposed to be old hat, it gets more tricky. Other M falls into the latter category, and the designers dealt with the issue by having Samus test out her suit to make sure everything is working after her big battle with Mother Brain (who, oddly, didn't sound like Audrey II). Assassin's Creed is in the first category. Desmond has never been in an Animus before, so from a story standpoint a tutorial (the doctor and the Animus itself even call it that) makes perfect sense. Again, the game within a game set-up helps.

There is still deluge about pushing certain buttons to accomplish certain tasks, and I don't recall seeing buttons on the Animus. But at least the buttons are referred to in ways that make sense in-game (left hand button, as opposed to X button or square button).

In terms of the fun factor of the tutorial, both AC and Other M use the in-game technology the game characters are themselves using to make things more interesting that they otherwise would be. With Other M, it's the fact that Samus is in a training room with some holodeck tech in it. Virtual enemies are made to appear, giving her a chance to test the power suit. In AC it's our first look at the virtual world created by the Animus, with the blue, hazy, computer-y (that's a word) backdrop and the faceless people Desmond gently pushes, shoves, and assassinates. In both cases, art style (visual and aural) are integral.

It terms of effectiveness, both tutorials serve their function, although I had a bit more difficulty with the AC tutorial. However, that's probably more due to my playing it on the PC. I'm using an XBOX 360 controller, but the game's default button mapping doesn't correspond to what the HUD makes you expect. So it says use the head button to look around, and yet what should be the head button doesn't do jack. It took me a minute to figure out what was happening. But then the process of remapping the buttons is frustrated by the fact that the computer doesn't i.d. the buttons with their face names (X, B, L, etc.), but with totally non-descriptive numbers. But that was a minor issue that was fairly easily remedied.

One last thing. How long should a tutorial be? It's not something you can put a number on, but when one is too short or too long, you can feel it. I've found that for me the best tutorials are the ones that give me a firm grasp of the basics, but leave some moves to be explained later. The tutorial in Assassin's Creed does this well, I think. I wasn't sick of the tutorial when it ended. But I wasn't also like, "Come back! I need you!" About the only thing it didn't cover that I wish it had was the parkour stuff. But that's a minor quibble.

Well, there it is, my take on the tutorial from Assassin's Creed. See you tomorrow to talk about some about the ethical dimension of the beginning of the game.

Still trying to access my own memories, let alone some ancestor, I remain,
 - Nic

Posted on January 2, 2013 .