Tutorials are essential to every game experience. In that time we learn the game mechanics, the key players, and of course the main quest. The first few hours of a game can easily make or break our opinion of it.
So what makes a great tutorial? Beyond just explaining the controls, what do some games do that hook you at the start and keep you coming back?
A bad tutorial can be boring, it can be tedious and repetitive. But a good tutorial can be funny, insightful, entertaining, and give you a great first impression of the world youre going to spend hours in.
From the Cemetery of Ash in Dark Souls 3 to Vault 101 in Fallout 3, here are some great tutorial levels and the archetypes that hold them together.
The Wise Mentor
The first tutorial archetype uses a "safe space" with a narrative figure (often older) who knows the world, the mechanics and the player quest, they teach you what you need to know before sending you on your way (spoiler: they often sacrifice themselves so that you can continue on your quest).
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a great example of this archetype. In Horizon we begin the game as a childhood version of Aloy, being raised by her guardian and protector Rost. Through the tutorial area you learn the fundamentals of surviving in the game world, hunting the machines, crafting healing items and of course the all-important stealth system.
To complete the tutorial area you need to pass The Proving a narrative gateway to being an adult, but also a mechanical test of all the things you learned thus far. Once you pass The Proving, youve officially finished the tutorial zone, youre let out into the wild world, but Aloy has also become an adult and knows how to survive outside the walls.
The Wise Mentor archetype finds a balance between easing you into the game mechanics and easing you into the story.
There are hundreds of examples of games with the Wise Mentor tutorial style, and really its derived from classic storytelling tropes. We see it all the time in cinema as well, just think about Ben Kenobi, Gandalf or Morpheus. These are all wise figures who teach the young hero about the ways of the world before giving them control over the story.
For another gaming example, Fallout 3 takes one of the most literal interpretations of this archetype. As you begin your journey in Vault 101 youre born, learn to walk, learn to shoot a BB gun and take a test to determine your starting stats. It really is about gamifying childhood.
The Wise Mentor archetype finds a balance between easing you into the game mechanics and easing you into the story. It puts you into the protagonists shoes in a vulnerable time in their lives and guides you through the first few hours in the gameworld piece by piece.
The Trial By Fire
At the complete other end of the spectrum is a group of game tutorials that would rather watch you burn than hold your hand.
These games create a challenge for you, then push you to complete it using the skills and wits at your disposal, no hand-holding in sight.
Dark Souls is my favourite example of this, but the structure itself is much older, going back to games like Metroid, Castlevania, Gauntlet and even Dungeons & Dragons. These games create a challenge for you, then push you to complete it using the skills and wits at your disposal, no hand-holding in sight.
Looking at Dark Souls 3, after character creation you find yourself in the Cemetery of Ash, with basic equipment and a health bar comparable to the shallow end of the kiddy pool. From there it throws a collection of different enemies at you, forcing you to react and respond to fast enemies, heavy enemies and archers one after another. This pushes you to learn the mechanics as you go, and persevere either through curiosity or determination.
Finally you fight Iudex Gundyr, a boss that crucially uses bits and pieces of the moves youve seen so far. At times hell charge, use wide swings, use grabs and attack from a distance and you need to use what youve learnt to take him down. When IGN spoke to Hidetaka Miyazaki about the development of the Souls series in 2015, he said that it was his studies of psychology and sociology that led to the Souls series. So its no surprise that this tutorial style mirrors how we so often learn as a child - through perseverance.
Who remembers a parent or sibling saying keep practicing and youll get better, well then, its no wonder that Dark Souls wants us all to Git Gud.
The Drip Feed
Not all games give you the complete tutorial upfront, and not all games let the training wheels off once you pass the safe zone. Our third archetype were calling The Drip Feed. These are the games that start with core skills and continue to offer new challenges in the form of new abilities, puzzles or enemies from start to finish.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a game thats close to my heart, and its also one of the purest examples of a Drip Feed tutorial style. First you acquire your sword and shield, learn how to use those and gain enough knowledge to complete the Deku Tree dungeon and leave the forest. Then you get the bombs for Dodongos Cavern and the boomerang to pass through Jabu Jabus belly.
The great thing about the structure of Zelda games and the Drip Feed style in general is that it continually gives you new abilities, then gives you a challenge that focuses on that one skill before moving onto the next. So if you dont like the forest temple, you might like the water temple or the fire temple as theyre structured differently and focus on a new core skill.
Weve seen this style replicated in games like Darksiders which draws heavily on the Zelda structure and gives you dungeons and bosses centred around a new item or ability. But also games like Pokemon, that have areas gated off or dependent on a new ability, like the HMs Cut or Surf.
The Drip Feed tutorial gives you a core set of skills at the beginning, then tests those, before giving you a new skill and testing that, this cycle continues onwards in teaching and testing until the end of the title. It builds up and up in layers, like a mechanic lasagne.
The Game Within A Game
What about the games that know theyre games? Part of the fun of having rules and guiding principles is knowing when they can be bent and when they can be broken. Lets look at Far Cry: Blood Dragon, a game that has style and 80s flare dripping from every neon-soaked pixel.
Part of the fun of having rules and guiding principles is knowing when they can be bent and when they can be broken.
For a game that starts with an epic 80s sci-fi synth soundtrack and still shots of the main character diving out of a helicopter and arming himself like an action hero badass, it sure drops you into the run-of-the-mill tutorial pretty quickly.
The session is called military navigation for idiots, and features such one line quips as moving allows you to go in many exciting directions and running is like walking, only faster. All the while our hero Rex Power Colt is swearing his head off and cursing his partner Spider for overriding his AI and forcing him to jump through these infantile hoops. Its a tutorial that knows every game needs to start with one, but that doesnt mean it has to do so willingly. This tutorial is like a smart-arse kid at the back of the class who still manages to get straight As.
Far Cry: Blood Dragons tutorial gives you the necessary points to progress, without being too expositional or getting bogged down in hand-holding. By throwing the paint-by-numbers tutorial at you from the outset, and having you sit through Rexs murder-hungry sass, it says yes this is a game, but not quite what youre expecting.
Oh, and watch out for the laser spewing dinosaurs.
The Guiding Hand
Lastly, well look at games that take a hands-off approach to tutorialising; games that encourage you to explore and learn about the world at your own pace, and use environmental or character cues to lead you to uncover the next challenge.
These are often narrative focused games, puzzle games like the excellent Hitman Go or point-and-click adventures like the Monkey Island franchise or Stupid Invaders. These games let you discover the challenge on your own, and guide you to the solution, rather than testing gameplay skills.
Most recently, games like Journey have championed this form of hands-off tutorialising by pushing and guiding the player through the landscape, rather than putting a big, shiny objective marker that tells you where to go.
When you first enter Journey, a game without any vocalised narrative, youre given some very simple prompts about moving the camera and then youre let out into the desert to explore. You then learn to activate the billowing pieces of fabric throughout the world, and see how this increases your own power. From there you follow a strange group of fabric creatures deeper into the desert, and without words or signals they guide you to free their friends and continue on your path towards and then up the mountain in the distance. How you progress is ultimately up to you, but these guides give you a gentle nudge and tweak your curiosity enough to get you moving.
Beyond this, a puzzle game like 2016s The Witness gave you a selection of puzzles and challenges to complete, but not the order to complete them and only the basic set of skills required. Without giving away the secret, there is a whole suite of environmental puzzles in The Witness, and you can play through the entire game without finding and finishing them. Whether you uncover them comes down to how observant you are, and whether you follow the environmental cues that the game puts before you.
Games that follow the Guiding Hand style of tutorialising leave a lot of the heavy lifting up to the player, but those that stick with it either through curiosity or investment might find themselves wrapped up in a game that will stick with them for years to come.
So what makes a great tutorial? It all comes down to giving you the core skills that you need to get through the game, but also giving you the emotional ammo to get invested in the experience. Whether it gives you those tools upfront, feeds them to you throughout, or lets you uncover them on your own, it needs to make you as the player feel like a valuable part of the game world and the unfolding story.
What are your favourite tutorials? What other archetypes are there that people should experience? Let us know in the comments.
Nathanael Peacock is a freelance games journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Why not say hey onTwitter?
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What Makes a Great Tutorial? - IGN
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