In The Matrix, Neo’s first experience “jacking in” to the titular worldwide computer program is a memorable one. He is led to the bridge of the Nebuchadnezzar to a bank of ominous chairs that look more suited to a torture-porn dungeon than a hovercraft. He has no idea what exactly will happen in that chair, but by God his ass is going in it.
Just as Neo settles in to the chair and thinks “this isn’t so bad,” Morpheus unceremoniously plugs him in through the jack in the back of his neck. Instantly Neo’s pupils dilate, his skin tingles and his nerve endings all seem to fire at once. He is inundated and overloaded and panic sets in. He wants out.
This will feel…a little weird.
Jumping into a new videogame can elicit a similar effect on the player. It can be very easy to feel utterly overwhelmed by HUD displays and onscreen inputs; like Neo, we can feel sensory overload and want out. The Matrix is often compared to a videogame, and the similarities actually run deeper than you would think. Both the Matrix and videogames are designed to represent an artificial world as convincingly as possible. They both have rules that must be followed. They both also present a disconnect between user input and outcome. Like Neo wondering how the hell he’s going to learn Jiu Jitsu, a first time videogame player might look at the action on-screen and wonder how this funny little controller makes that happen.
In a videogame, this moment of initial inundation is absolutely crucial. It is this moment when the developers decide how it is that you will overcome this initial feeling of being overwhelmed, and how quickly. Thus, the tutorial.
The tutorial is an awkward little bastard spawn, to say the least – a huge splash of proto-ludomechanical nonsense that has to pretend to play nice with the story. Honestly, some of the reasons developers have written in to explain why hardened soldiers and mercenaries need basic movement training all of a sudden are painful.
From a technical standpoint, the clash between the tutorial and the rest of the game is jarring. Tutorials, by their very nature, speak directly to the player – not the player character, but the player. The sudden use of language such as “buttons” and “analogue sticks” and “save points” is so out of place it would be comical, if it wasn’t such a necessity. And yet is it a necessity?
Tutorials today feel awkward, but only because today’s games seem hell bent on making them as patronizing as possible. But think back to some of the earliest games. Tutorials were brief to the point of being terse (indeed, if you were lucky enough to find one at all). Developers then seemed to think that the best way to learn a game was just to play it. Trial and error was our teacher then, and death, failure and frustration were constant. We justplayed, and either met with success or plummeted to the depths of failure and the inevitable “Game Over” screen. Compared to the extended teaching experiences of today, these earlier learning curves seem punishing.
In contrast, let’s look to another man who quickly had to learn how to fight – Ezio from the Assassin’s Creed series. As an assassin, Ezio has an extensive repertoire of techniques that players must learn, and ultimately they contribute to him emerging as a highly developed badass. Yet not only does the game outline the techniques for you, it marches you through them on rails, giving each new ability or weapon its own tutorialmission to thoroughly ingrain it in our heads. By the end of the fourth or fifth one of these the game experience has shifted from exploratory and full of possibilities to tedious and restrictive. We don’t feel more free, we feel more than ever like we’re following someone else’s plan.
I understand that as games and their control schemes become more complicated we may need some help figuring things out but today’s tutorials suck the challenge (and by extension reward) out of our games. If Morpheus had just told Neo how to free his mind, do you think it would have actually been freed?
Stop trying to hit me and hit me.
Neo had been jacked into the Matrix for mere minutes before he found himself in a Kung Fu sparring match with Morpheus. Not knowing the rules of the game or even the controls he was able to ultimately best Morpheus – because whether or not he was aware of it, he already knew everything he needed to know to win. Morpheus didn’t sit him down and explain step-by-step how to perform each technique in a drawn out tutorial session. He dumped him into a situation where he would have to plug in and engage in order to win – and because Neo had the tools and the desire, he was successful.
Something happened to Neo while he was sparring against Morpheus. It’s the exact same thing that happens to us when we play videogames: we flow. We are fully immersed in the task at hand, and what was once an overwhelming challenge is just another source of information for us. As we gain momentum, we are constantly performing at the peak of our ability – we always feel as though failure is imminent, and yet as we stave off failure and continue to progress further we come to understand the game more and more. Like Neo, we simply lay back in the chair and allowed ourselves to sink into the Matrix. We have plugged in.
It is when we have immersed ourselves in this flow that we derive the greatest joy from our games. There is a feeling of accomplishment, not scripted but personal, that comes from flowing through a game that strictly guided tutorials are incapable of delivering. We want our games to make us feel badass – not because we reached the appropriate part of the script where it’s supposed to happen, but because we genuinely have achieved mastery and become badass. Not only does this feeling come in spite of a game’s difficulty, it is directly because of it. In alleviating the initial feeling of drowning, tutorials are removing the key part of that equation – the sense of real challenge. We are no longer the badass, we are just part of the audience.
Like the Matrix, videogames need not walk us through at every step. All that’s required is that our games give us the tools and then the ability to just plug in and establish our own momentum on the constant edge of success and failure. Then, like Neo, we too reach a point where we can see the code.
Originall published on Pixels or Death