As a kid, the learning process of a game's tutorial was a thrilling experience. I loved that slow-burning introduction to its wealth of mechanics, gradually confiding in me all the little quirks of its gameplay as the opening hours unfolded. Meticulously designed rules were told to me through text boxes and drawn-out character dialogue, which was always topped off by them blankly staring at me for 10 seconds as the disc chugged in the background. I bloody loved every second of it.
But now I'm old, perpetually knackered and suffering from a rapidly declining attention span. What once was a grand spectacle and the mark of an exciting new journey now fills me with a sense of dread. When did tutorials start to feel like an untraversable gulf? When did I begin having to bargain with myself every time a new game comes out, pointing at myself in the mirror and promising that I'd thank future me for dedicating at least an hour or two of my sparse evening to slowly suffering through an information dump?
They're somewhat of a necessary evil, tutorials. Ever tried to do a board game night with your pals where none of you know the rules and you decide to forgo the carefully written leaflet enclosed and wing it? Pro tip: don't, it'll be an absolute disaster. It's the exact same for videogames—there are transferrable skills for long-time gamers, sure. If you hand me a random FPS game I can more than likely figure out the shoot, reload, crouch and sprint keys with minimal effort. But what about everything else? Will I ever get to appreciate the full experience of Unknown Random FPS if I don't first let someone ramble onto me about its rules and restrictions first? Probably not. Finding the balance between explaining the more complex aspects of your game while trusting the player is tough, and it's a balance that many games still don't manage to nail.
My problem with modern tutorials—and this is perhaps the old and tired bit coming into play again—is that as games have grown, their way of conveying information hasn't. So many tutorials are long, bloated, and text-heavy, and can be really offputting when I'm trying to unwind at the end of a long day. If your game forces me into a tutorial-specific zone when the learning process could have been integrated into an actual level, it's straight to jail for you. You are spared if your tutorial is a separate option in the menu and circumventable on subsequent playthroughs. If you're halting gameplay every two seconds to throw a screen-consuming text box bloated with wordage then, again, it's straight to jail! I'm sorry, I don't make the rules. You do, and my brain is too skittish to comprehend them.
Bad tutorials have almost stopped me from powering through what have eventually become some of my favourite games. The most recent villainous tutorial to make me question my hobby was Honkai: Star Rail. Two months in, it's become one of my favourite games, and one I'm playing every day. Perhaps too much, if you ask my poor boyfriend who rolls his eyes when I boot up the game for the fourth time that day. But hoo boy, the first hour with its prologue has some awful pacing.
It tries to integrate its tutorial into the story, but the entire prologue was so overwhelming that I hardly remember taking any of it in. I had no perception of where I was, who the characters I was controlling were, or what I was doing in any of it. Reams of text and unskippable cutscenes are rife. Random nonsense lore words are footnoted by equally random nonsense words. Oh, a Stellaron is The Cancer of All Worlds? Cool, I totally understand it now. Couple that with the whole thing taking at least an hour before the rest of the game opens up, and I found myself feeling pretty fatigued by the time it was over. And if you're one of those gacha gods who spends days rerolling for the perfect starter team, good luck surviving the endless torture on tutorial island!
It's certainly not the worst tutorial by any means, but it really did get me thinking about how many times I've persevered through a subpar explanation in the hopes that what awaited me beyond that was worth my time—particularly as a JRPG lover, whose tutorials often feel like hours-long lectures that have me nodding off by its third text box popup. Final Fantasy 13 is a game that I love despite its divisive nature, yet almost an entire third of that game is a mind-numbingly slow introduction to its various mechanics. It's awful! I reckon people would've been far kinder to it had it squeezed all of that into its first two hours and opened up its world and combat far sooner.
Even Nier: Automata, a game whose tutorial I remember really loving, is lowkey a nightmare. While it does a fantastic job of equipping you with the knowledge of all three of its perspectives—top-down shooting, 2D side-scrolling and the bulk of its 3D action—it's a near 45-minute gauntlet of challenging gameplay with zero checkpointing. Die at the surprisingly tough boss battle? Oops, straight back to the beginning for you.
A well-crafted tutorial is an art form in itself, and there are some genuinely fantastic tutorials out there. The Half-Life games are regularly regarded as one of the best examples of good tutorials. They take the "show, don't tell" approach, subtly clueing you in on what you should be doing and ways you can utilise your toolkit. Half-Life 2's Ravenholm level in particular is well-praised for showing how to use the Grav Gun/saw combo to slice through zombies. It certainly helps that Half-Life 2 is linear with few complex mechanics to explain, but it's a great way of holding your hand without you even knowing.
That's the crux of it, really. A good tutorial shouldn't feel like a chore. That's a more difficult ask in 2023 than it was 20 years ago, and it's definitely a pain trying to concisely explain your game to all knowledge levels. We've seen time and time again that it can be done, though. Just please, fewer text boxes and more action that's relevant to the story. My easily-distracted brain will thank you.