Monday, June 04, 2018

Finding Balance in Game Tutorials & Story

My brother and I have recently begun playing through Persona 5. We were mentally exhausted by the somersaults of Final Fantasy XV, a game that feels so in love with itself that it can not provide a cohesive plot. After a few game-breaking glitches, we were ready for something else.

I haven't played Persona 5 but I have watched a few playthroughs. Though Atlus is still blocking streaming directly from the PS4, you can work around it - which is what we have been doing.

We're about 6 hours into this game and finally at the point where we've been given some free-reign to roam around and play it. There were still tutorials that popped up from Morgana, the non-cat cat who seems to understand a lot about your Persona powers. But we're finally playing the game without being interrupted by story/exposition every other minute. Virtually the opposite of what we've been experiencing in Final Fantasy XV. We went into FF15 knowing nothing (you can skip the tutorial). The game will prompt you at key points to teach you new mechanics, but they come and go so quickly it's difficult to fully absorb the information. As for the story, we paused at the 7th chapter. All we have been able to ascertain is that the main character, Noctis', is going to get married to an Oracle he knows. And his dad died. That's it. I'd issue a spoiler warning, but I think most people understand that much about the game. We've been playing the game for nearly 30 hours and that was all we could deduce from the story. There are more things going on, but we stopped caring when we had to focus so much on trying to figure out how the battle system worked (we still don't know how to fully upgrade weapons and gear - content noticeably absent in the tutorial).

In Persona 5 so much is focused on the story and building the gamer's relationship with the characters. We have clear lines on who's good, who's bad, and how we want to address the conflict. What we've been struggling with is being able to play the game. So much of the game we have experienced has been story, exposition, more story, and the occasional battle tutorial. It's 95% story, and 5% battle mechanics. Much of the earlier tutorials we experienced have now left our brains because we've been focused on the story. While it's nice to have a clear-cut idea of what's going on, there's a feeling that we're missing out on playing the game by having so many story interruptions.

Within the span of two games we have gone from one extreme to another. While I like the story of Persona 5 more, I do feel heavily restricted on playing the game. Right now it's more of a glorified visual novel than it is a game. I know the ability to play will increase from here on out, but should it have taken us 6+ hours to reach this point? On the other side, I appreciate what Final Fantasy XV is attempting to do. But I'm disinterested in the characters and the story. So little information is provided about the content of the game (and requires you to watch the movie first...which is always a bad sign when a game says "please read the supplemental material first"). I don't care what happens to the characters.


Trying to find a balance between teaching the user how to play the game and giving them access to the world uninhibited is a delicate task. One that is never easy. But developers need to determine the best system in order to keep the gamer invested. There are hundreds of thousands of games on the market right now. Gamers don't have the time to play them all. If you publish something, it needs to hold their attention quickly before they turn to another game.

I have found very few games are able to balance this load well on today's market. A number of RPG's, first person shooters, and action games are stuck in the 90's mentality. "It worked then, so it should work now." Which means they play the rules for tutorials hard and loose. You'll typically be thrown right into the action for a FPS, and expected to learn along the way while you dodge enemy fire. For RPG's it's endless amount of exposition and cutscenes before you have the ability to use your controller.

This method of "teaching" gamers no longer works. Not when video games have evolved and provide more connectivity through our mobile devices. People don't have time to wait, nor do they have the patience to be thrown into the fire without any story to provide context.

I've heard great things about how God of War 4 tackles this issue, I haven't played the game. So I'm going to use Horizon: Zero Dawn as an example. I think Guerrilla Games addresses the problem of story/tutorial balance quite nicely without it feeling like a waste of time to the gamer. The initial set-up is going to sound cheesy: you start out as kid Aloy and learn how to play through her. Your caretaker walks you through how to craft weapons, hunt mechanical beasts, and sneaking around. You also learn that Aloy's an outcast shunned by the village for not having a family. This is achieved through other characters: she stumbles upon other kids and they throw rocks at her - she saves a child pinned down by beasts, and adults rush him away with insults directed towards Aloy. You also learn that how you respond to the actions of the other characters will have longstanding consequences. Do you throw a rock back or dodge them? You can clear this section of the game in under an hour. But the wealth of information you receive about the plot, characters, and the game mechanics is more than enough to entice the gamer to stick around.

I know I'm going to enjoy Persona 5 now that we can play it. But was it necessary to have so much story to get to this point? I wonder how many gamers tuned out when they find that they couldn't play a significant portion of the game until much later?

What are some of your favorite game tutorials?

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