I wrote this editorial preemptively, shortly after finishing my Kyn review but before it’s published. My intention was to publish it side-by-side with the review, but my busy life being what it is, that obviously didn’t happen.
One of my major complaints with the game – a complaint that was addressed by the developers before I was able to even publish the article, for which the two-man crew over at Tangrin Entertainment should be commended – was the utter lack of a tutorial. But I’ve also seen games lauded for this, for not even seeming to tell the player how to play the game. I have heard the pejorative term “hand-holding” flung around in gaming circles for some time and gamers seem to have a stigma against any game that dares even tell them what button to push to shoot their gun.
Many of us grew up in the time of Mario Brothers and Sonic (lest I still have any bad blood from Sega fans from my last editorial), of Mega Man and Pitt and Samus and Simon Belmont and all sorts of other eight-bit icons, and the main thing we remember from games like these were their crippling difficulty. Seriously, if I have a fetish for throwing small plastic objects into the wall, it stems from my video game rage as a child. Many a controller was broken in frustration in my formative years.
As I mentioned in my Nintendo editorial, Mega Man 2, which is considered by some to be one of the most difficult entries in the series (I still consider the first game to be tops on the bullshit-o-meter), was one of the first games I beat from start to finish. I am no stranger to difficult video games and I do agree, many games today treat us like absolute ninnies that have never held (or hurled) a small plastic controller in our meaty digits. This can range from frustrating to downright infuriating, depending on how the game’s tutorials are handled, and it’s a sticking point with many who desire to return to a time when games were challenging. Because challenge is also rewarding.
But there is a line.
I want to impose upon you a little bit of homework. Go play a bit of Mega Man 2 (or any Mega Man game, really) and, when you’re done with that, go play a bit of the NES version of Kid Icarus. For added fun (and if you have no disregard for your liver), make a drinking game out of it and take a shot every time you ask “what the hell is even going on right now?”
You’ll probably make it through Mega Man alright, though you might have a bit of a buzz going by the end (you’re welcome) but I’ll probably rack up involuntary manslaughter charges after Kid Icarus. Because that game is bonkers.
(Disclaimer: Do not play this drinking game. You will die.)
None of Kid Icarus makes sense. You can pretty much figure out what your avatar is: a little winged boy. But everything else is like something out of a fevered, drug-induced nightmare. In the first level alone you have little squiggly snake guys, flying eyeballs, a spastic reaper thing that freaks out when he sees you, the landscape changes color and shape every few minutes, there are kinda birthday candles growing out of the ground here, you can Pac-Man your way from one side of the map to the other by running off the edges, sometimes you’ll go into a room with jars that you can shoot and get stuff out of except sometimes you can’t because reasons, sometimes you get attacked by, like, these Groucho Marx glasses…and unless you’re some kind of half man, half alcohol monstrosity, you black out before you even get to Eggplant Wizard.
Now of course part of this is the limitations of the era and the NES’ graphical capabilities. But even worse than the game’s messed up and confused visual themes and enemies is the fact that a lot of the game’s mechanics aren’t even explained. At no point are you told what the doorway rooms are or what you’re supposed to do in them. You’re never told that hearts are currency and what the different sizes mean. You’re never told that you can walk from one side of the screen to the next. And don’t even get me started on the dungeons, how to navigate them, what the hammers are for, etc.
The honest truth of the matter is that I imagine few people who picked up Kid Icarus ever beat it and it’s widely considered one of the most ridiculously difficult games on the NES to this very day according to a poll I just made up and my own half-remembered childhood experiences (I always just put in the code to get to the end of the game). But the problem with Kid Icarus’ difficulty is that none of it is intuitive. It’s all aggravating trial and error.
At no point should you fail at a game because you have no idea what’s going on.
Now, go play Mega Man, or even the Mario games. Watch very carefully. You’ll find that almost every single mechanical challenge in the game is introduced to you first in a relatively-safe environment. Part of it is that Kid Icarus tried to do too much with too limited of capabilities. Mega Man and Mario are simple. You go right, you shooting things or jump on things. You rescue the princess or defeat doctor Wily. It’s a simple story told simply. Kid Icarus has way too much going on and, with the limited capabilities of the time, they didn’t have the ability to properly introduce the player to its challenges.
One of the best examples of how to do this is in Mega Man 2. One of the most infamous sections of Mega Man 2 is the disappearing blocks section of Heat Man’s stage, but if you watch the stage closely, you’ll see that the earliest occurrences of these sections are with solid ground beneath your feet. Then, it has you tackle the same challenge but with enemies harrowing your steps. Each time you face those accursed blocks, they become harder and harder until you’re finally jumping across a seemingly-infinite river of lava. And the game is littered with instances of challenges like this.
By having you tackle the challenges in this way, you are well familiar with those challenge before the game actually asks you to do anything especially dangerous with it so if you mess up, you feel like it’s your fault, not the game’s. In a game with no tutorial, it’s all too easy to blame the game for being unfair, but tutorial doesn’t have to be boring text blocks and narration. It can be integrated into gameplay. It can be fun. Like it often used to be.
I should note that this topic is broached in much more depth (and more entertainingly) by two of my favorite game pundits, Egoraptor in his Mega Man Sequelitis video (strong language warning) and the Extra Credits design club episode of the first level of Super Mario Brothers. I strongly recommend you check them both out for great examples of how tutorials do not need to be boring (even if you’re not a fan of Egoraptor, his Sequelitus series is very insightful).
The latter in particular is an amazing look at the care that went into what appears to be one of the most mundane levels in video games, one that most of us just blow through without thinking and the Extra Credits folks actually did several videos on challenge in video games and the importance of tutorials and how to craft a good one.
So where am I going with this? Well, mostly I wanted to cut people off at the pass before they called me unkind names due to my complaints at a game not having a tutorial in Kyn (which no one did so…unnecessary, I suppose). But also, I see a lot of “hardcore” gamers turning their noses up at tutorials because the favorite games from their childhoods didn’t have them, right? Well, as we just discussed, that isn’t the case. Designers were just more creative with how their tutorials were presented (especially considering how unfamiliar the masses were with video games in general at the time).
A game that doesn’t give you the tools to succeed isn’t difficult. It’s just frustrating. We don’t expect people to learn the rules to baseball, football, or basketball in the middle of a game. So why should we expect gamers to go into the meat of a game without knowing how to face the challenges that game has to offer? I hate endless text blocks telling me how to jump and how falling down bottomless pits is a bad thing as much as the next guy, but you still need to be taught how to play the game. If this can be done through the natural flow of gameplay, all the better.
One of the best modern examples of this is Limbo which, if you haven’t played it, is really just a paragon in game design. It’s a puzzle game, but the puzzles are rewarding to complete because by the time you reach each individual one, you’ve been given every single tool you need to complete them. You’re introduced to each mechanic in the game slowly and carefully and nothing is hidden from you. Many games have done the tutorial-through-gameplay thing really, but for a real excellent modern look at the concept (as well as an excellent game), check out Limbo.
Even in (good) games that don’t seem to include boring text-block tutorials or in-game tutorials, a good game developers will still include hidden hints as to what to do. Don’t Starve, another one of my favorites (because apparently I hate being happy), jumps immediately to mind. On the surface, Don’t Starve appears to be a game without any sort of tutorial. You’re hurled into a dark, nightmarish world and expected to survive all by yourself without a single hint.
But Don’t Starve is a carefully-crafted experience and if you pay attention, you’re given all the tools you need to survive…though if you want to thrive, you’ll have to work a lot harder. There are many little things in the game that tell you how to do what you have to do. The crafting is simplistic and if you pick up something that completes a recipe, the game helpfully chimes (I never thought I’d use the word helpful with a game like Don’t Starve) and the appropriate category lights up, showing you just where you can find this new item.
But most of the “tutorial” in Don’t Starve comes from your character’s dialogue. You’re warned by your character when darkness is coming – subtly hinting that you should prepare and that you don’t want to be caught out at night because Something Bad ™ is coming. You’re warned by your character when the wolves are coming, not in so many words but certainly enough to warn you about the impending doom. You’re warned by your character when they’re hungry or hot or cold…these are subtle little nods that constitute all the tutorial you really need, particularly in a game that’s meant to be challenging.
Even Dark Souls, arguably one of the most well-crafted punishingly-difficult games of our time, teaches you how to move and attack and use your abilities. It shows you what you need to know and leaves the rest up to you to figure out.
I guess my ultimate point here is, before you go off the handle begging for a return to the crippling and controller-ruiningly frustrating difficulty of yesteryear, stop and think about what you’re asking, because a difficult game isn’t necessarily a good game. And difficulty done wrong is just punishing and frustrating. True difficulty comes from challenging the player to use the tools they’re given to achieve the game’s goals, not hiding those tools from the player just to create the illusion of difficulty. I would much rather fail because of my own incompetence than because the game refused to tell me how to play it.
Maybe it’s time we start asking for better tutorials.
What about you, challenging reader? Do you think games these days are too easy? Do you think tutorials should be withheld and players thrown to the wolves? Am I full of crap about old games including in-gameplay tutorials? Sound off in the comments below.