I can headshot a guy from thirty feet in the air while flying a jetpack. “Boba Fett! Where?!” indeed. Any hand-eye coordination I possess I credit entirely to video games. Why then, in 2011, do many titles still insist upon stopping everything to tell me that I can press “A” if I want to jump?
I know — not everyone started playing NES in the womb. However, my mom’s favorite pregnancy pastime was Super Mario Bros. 3. My girlfriend is a Tetris master. The elderly play Wii Sports in nursing homes. Video-game tutorials are akin to that automated voice that explains how to leave a voicemail. Thanks, but I don’t need instructions on how to sit and wait for the beep.
This game definitely needs a tutorial.
Nothing in any other entertainment medium is analogous to video-game tutorials. Imagine, if you would, that the first three pages of a novel were instructions from the author on how to turn pages, or the beginning of a film offered tips on how to sit and watch. The reason for video-game tutorials is not simply the complexity of the participation required by the player. I think we take for granted the fact that we’re able to make sense of these peculiar symbols we call letters or that the sudden juxtaposition of unlike images in a film doesn’t render us twitching messes.
Tutorials are a necessary evil. You can’t just throw someone into Gears of War without explaining, however briefly, how to use the cover mechanic or the active reload system. They’d hurl the disc against the wall after five minutes. Hell, I still suck at that game. And my Ezio Auditore executes parkour moves like an intoxicated chimpanzee. It may be that the complexity of game controls is evolving at a rate faster than we can adjust ourselves to.
Not as complicated as it looks.
But games like Dante’s Inferno — an unfortunate title that I’m singling out simply because it’s in my recent memory — have no excuse. In a game that you can complete more or less by jamming up on the left analog stick and spamming a button or two to the point of absurdity, there’s no reason to interrupt the first few crucial moments of the game by halting the action dead in its tracks with helpful pop-ups letting me know that I can attack with X. GTA 4, a game that I liked well enough but can’t seem to stop criticizing, is cruel enough that when you finally drag your way through the initial credits and you’re in the game engine itself, it actually freezes the action and tells you how to walk around.
Sadly, those are just examples of how some tutorials are mechanically redundant. Narrative redundancy in tutorials is (Literary Deities forgive me for this pun) an entirely different story. The narrative tropes routinely used to explain your lack of experience and knowledge at the beginning of a game are innumerable: military boot camp, temporary amnesia, evil sorcerer’s curse, somebody stole your magic sword, you just got busted out of prison, you got shot in the head, you’re getting old.
Pretty much as complicated as it looks.
Still, some games get it right. Fallout 3 shows you the birth of your protagonist, an effective manner as any for getting you to sympathize with them. You kick your legs and arms and crawl around in your play room. Mechanics that determine skill points are cleverly disguised as high school aptitude tests. You learn the lore of the world and you even get a sweet birthday party. When you finally bust out of that vault and behold the barren wasteland before you, not only are you ready to spend 100+ hours with the character you’ve created, but you actually care if the poor guy finds his dad. At least, I did.
I’m not going to argue against the necessity of tutorials. That would be ludicrous. Every game is different. The old constant of a screen and a controller (or keyboard) isn’t necessarily true anymore. For some games, the “Select” button, like eyes on a mole, is good for nothing. It brings up the map, at best. In Mass Effect, inexplicably, it throws grenades. These things might be important to know. For better or worse, at least until games have become as established as other mediums, we need those in-game tutorials. We’re not just stomping turtles and smashing bricks, anymore. After all, no one’s going to read the manual.