Challenge Accepted: Teaching patterns
From one perspective, there’s only one challenge in any given game, and that’s the last sequence. Every other portion is just there as training.
Obviously, the goal from a design standpoint is to have all of those intermediary challenges be just as fun. But they’re also there to train you for the final things, the real events, the big time. It’s the reason why games don’t start with the final boss fight, because you need to learn all of the elements that go into that fight. The first level in Super Mario Bros. introduces most of the major elements you’ll deal with through the game, and it does so in an environment wherein you can fairly easily learn how they work.
Every game is different, however, and there are lots of ways to teach players how to do things. So how do you teach players how to do the things they’ll have to do at the end of the game while still making the beginning of the game fun to play?
The most time-worn trick to do this, of course, is the tutorial. This is a sequence wherein you have to learn that you press X near an object to pick it up, so someone points to an object and asks you to get it, at which point the game pops up a prompt that screams “PRESS X TO PICK THIS UP.” It’s one of the things that people tend to pretend doesn’t exist in Half-Life 2 because the game never explicitly tells you that it’s going into a tutorial, even though you still have just as many moments wherein the gameplay arbitrarily stops and you have to learn how to use some new tool.
A tutorial teaches you how to do something, but it doesn’t teach you much of the context. That’s the core problem with them. A tutorial can tell you how to remove status effects in Final Fantasy XIV, but it can’t train you as a healer to watch out for important status effects and cleanse them off, or how to prioritize status effects compared to healing. What it can do is give you a series of dungeons wherein statuses are first rare, then more common, then important, each time letting you synthesize a bit more of the overall picture about when to cleanse and when to ignore.
This is what makes for a difficulty curve, but it’s also how the game teaches you about what comes next. When done right, it smoothly introduces you to concepts that you’ll later recognize put together. Here’s a boss where you have to dodge a thing floating through the room, here’s a boss where you have to time your jumps, here’s a boss that forces you to do both.
Megaman 7 is an excellent example of what can be done by layering complexities. In the beginning, you only have the most basic approaches to stages, challenges, and bosses. With each boss defeated, you have another weapon in your arsenal… but the stages also start opening up their secrets, which require more advanced use of your multiple weapons in concert. By the time that you’ve cleared all of the bosses, you have a much more complex setup than you did in the beginning, and you have to work through much more complicated patterns, secrets, and hidden bits.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stuff there that you can miss, because the game never actually teaches you to do any of it. While the game gives you the tools, it doesn’t tell you how they’re meant to work, it just lets you loose.
By contrast, too much teaching can be just as detrimental. One of the complaints about Final Fantasy XIII is that it spends a stunningly long portion of its run time more or less teaching you how to play, and while that does line up narratively with what the cast members experience, the net experience is that you have to be taught how to play the game long after most games would at least theoretically take the training wheels off. The game doesn’t feel like it actually starts while you’re still in what appears to be a tutorial.
Really, they’re all tutorials. The tutorial starts when you first encounter a jumping challenge and doesn’t end until you finish the last jumping challenge in the game. All of the work you do with spreading and making use of various surface gels in Portal 2 is leading up to the final boss encounter, which makes extensive use of those elements as part of puzzling your way to victory. But in the most restrictive tutorial, we chafe at the restrictions, and not simply because we have to sit through the same sequence again when replaying the game.
At the heart of it is a feeling of control, which is why so many players specifically hate tutorials that outright mark themselves as such. If you cannot fail, you can’t really succeed either; you can just go through the motions. But you can still feel that loss of control if you see that there’s another trick you don’t have yet which will factor into gameplay. Final Fantasy XIII is obviously going to allow you control over your party members eventually, but it takes a very long time until you get that degree of control over your play experience; by contrast, it takes a little while in Portal before you get your fully-powered portal gun, but you’ve got more of the game ahead of you than behind when it happens.
The earlier the game gives you all of the core pieces of gameplay, the sooner you feel that you’ve moved out of the tutorial and into the game proper. But in a larger sense it never stops teaching you so long as there’s more game to play; it just gets more subtle.
Next time around, I want to talk a bit more about spikes, curves, and making the difficulty level of a game work for what that specific game is trying to achieve. After that, I want to take a look at what makes a game easy or hard as an aggregate.