Removing the training wheels

Looking back over my own contributions to GameSpite Quarterly 3, I was struck by a recurring theme in several of my write-ups for Nintendo-developed games. A good deal of what I loved about the company’s 8- and 16-bit classics is the sense of discovery, of being given a world to explore and the means by which to go about it yet no explicit instructions how to apply those tools and abilities to complete the task at hand. I even name-dropped Metroid on (I think) last week’s 1UP podcast as an example of an organic in-game tutorial.

To reiterate, Metroid was designed with the knowledge that the people who were playing it in 1986 were new to side-scrolling action games (Super Mario Bros. having popularized them only a year prior), yet its creators wanted to break beyond the bounds of forced left-right side-scrolling. Rather than simply hope players would eventually come to understand, oh, you can and should move in all directions in this game, they instead put an object lesson in the opening area by creating a low passage in a room to the right of the starting point. This obstruction could only be cleared by ducking into a ball, for which you’d need the Maru-Mari power-up, which was slightly to the left of the starting point. They knew most people would automatically move right, because that’s how you started the game in Mario and Adventure Island even Pac-Land before them. The placement of this obstacle and the tool necessary to overcome it were a subtle way of saying, “Here are the rules of this game. They’re a little different than you’re accustomed to. You will need to understand how they work.” Speaking for myself and everyone else I’ve seen play Metroid for the first time, the game’s flow works the same for pretty much everyone: Players make their way right, learning to shoot (at falling foes) and jump (over enemies too low to be shot). Then they hit the wall, literally, and wonder why they can’t go on. Eventually, they begin to wander to the left and make their way back to the starting area. At this point, they’re starting to feel a little frustrated — all that progress wasted! — but then they notice you can move left from the starting blocks and, hey, one screen over is this new ability.

It’s great game design — even if the rest of Metroid was often maddeningly opaque — and what’s more is that it’s exactly the sort of design that was a hallmark of Nintendo in the olden days. Someone recently mentioned how Super Mario Bros. 3 does something similar in World 1-1: The first screen or two are awfully similar to the original Super Mario, so you get the basics down: Hop on or over a Goomba, hit a block to snag a power-up. But things immediately change from the previous game. The Mushroom power-up goes left instead of right like you’d expect after Mario’s previous outing, catching you off-guard and forcing you to rush to grab it. Soon after, you come across a power-up block on the ground, the first block ever that you’ve been unable to break by jumping. Kick a turtle shell into it and a Leaf pops out, which you can then use to fly by running along the subsequent straightaway — an ability hinted at by a trail of coins leading impossibly into the sky.

It’s little things like these that games seem to have lost sight of over the years. We talk about the complexity of modern games, but the NES era wasn’t exactly simple-minded. Some of the classics we recall so fondly were perfectly intricate, yet they managed to convey the proper application of their more advanced techniques with simple, thoughtful level design. I actually kind of blame Mario for setting things off-track, to be honest: Super Mario World is the first game I can recall with in-game hint boxes to explain how to use your abilities. Of course, you didn’t need to hit them, but the slippery slope had been breached nevertheless, and eventually those optional hint boxes mutated into stultifying hour-long tutorials. Now, plenty of developers rely entirely on in-game text or dialogue to explain how to go about things, obviating the need for level design that does the same thing. That’s a shame. I miss thoughtful level design.

I’m happy to see, at least, that Nintendo is pulling back from the precipice over which Twilight Princess plunged so tragically. Great game, but did it really need to hold your hand delicately for five hours before letting you actually play? New Super Mario Bros. Wii is encouraging: Rather than explain its new abilities with text, it puts them in places where they simply make sense, uses a quick pop-up icon over your character’s head to show what needs to be done to activate your new powers, and often even gives silent hints to your new potential by showing bad guys using similar powers.

Even Spirit Tracks gives players some credit for intelligence: The game’s second sub-weapon, the boomerang, has the newly-added power to spread ice and freeze water. This is never stated in the game, but both water and ice activation points are placed in such a way that you’re bound to activate the ability by accident shortly after picking up the weapon. It’s a nice return to a more “learn it for yourself approach” to the series.

Of course, most of the game’s puzzles are still explained with decontextualized hint blocks rather than, say, natural character dialogue, or intuitive design. But these days I’ll settle for any victory, however tiny.

24 thoughts on “Removing the training wheels

  1. There are some wonderful examples of this in Super Mario Galaxy as well. A for instance:

    A planetoid in one level has rocks that you pound to break and reveal coins, on the next planetoid are more of the rocks, but this time with underground moles surrounding it. Through your natural impulse of getting coins you reveal a new game mechanic, pounding the ground to pop the moles out of the ground in order to kill them. Later on this level you are tasked with mastering this mechanic to defeat the mole boss.

    This sort of thing is a subtle part of game design that many developers over look, but the greats have mastered.

  2. Nice analysis. Do you think Portal might be a good example of the old ways done in the modern time? If you play through the game with commentary on, it really comes to light how they used level design to make players realize things without being told outright by GLaDOS; for example, the first portal you go through is oriented so that you can see yourself through it, emphasizing that these portals don’t go to different worlds, but just different places in the same room…

  3. Sure — in fact, I’d say one of the most crucial differences between a good game and a genuinely great one is how well each employs these principles.

  4. I would say that Portal is the perfect example of a modern game that uses level design to instruct players.

  5. It goes without saying that Super Metroid is the pinnacle to this approach – heck, the first time I played it I didn’t know you needed to shoot multiple missles to open a missle door, but the first room with one had enemies that kept dropping missle refills, leading to the natural conclusion. And, of course, there’s the whole wall jumping animals thing.

    Very nice write up. Developers giving us the benefit of the doubt is certainly something the industry as a whole is missing these days.

  6. I’m one of those games that needs the hints laid pretty thickly down. So I guess they’re catering to me and my ilk these days. Sorry for dropping the ball, guys :(

    Though actually Portal was one game that I did manage to beat based purely off level-based learning. Or ‘learning by doing’, whatever. That was a pretty amazing experience for someone who otherwise gives up in frustration or turns to an FAQ, but not many games perfect the natural teaching quite as well. Certainly Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night are in controller-throwing territory for me.

  7. It is also true in education that the most useful way of learning something is rarely by being lectured at about it.

  8. I can relate to that a little bit, Pombar – especially the first Metroid, which frustrates me to no end. In an RPG, it’s a little different – while you’re running around a dungeon, figuring out what the hell to do, you still fight battles and gain experience. You end up back where you started, but at least your characters went up a few levels. I think I would like the Metroid and Zelda series much more if they offered some sort of experience system, but that’s probably blasphemy to the Nintendo-fan around here. Just a personal thing, I guess.

    Then again, if a game is truly intuitive, it doesn’t matter. A game like Portal would normally frustrate me, at least a little, but it was so pitch-perfect, I enjoyed it even when I was stuck.

    You make a good point, though, Parish. Developers are forgetting about making more natural level design/puzzles, I suppose, but fans/journalists/critics are forgetting even more, it seems. Which is why I really enjoy your writing, Parish, because it always prompts a different perspective, for myself at least. Your Metroid write-up a few days ago inspired me to revisit those games, at least.

  9. Just a small thing to point out: the mushroom’s direction in SMB3 is governed by what side you hit the block on. If you are off to the left, it goes right, and vice versa.

  10. Let me see if I can post my thoughts in an understandable manner…

    After your Metroid write up, I went back and played Super Metroid again for few hours and noticed that whenever you pick a new ability, the game pops up a text box that instead of giving you a detailed write up of what you can do with the powerup, it often just shows you a drawing. For the Powerbomb, it showed Samus –> Morph Ball and then press attack button. Very simple and effective.

    I then went and played Metroid Zero Mission again and was bothered by the fact that when you pick a new powerup, it changes to the menu screen and gives you TWO text boxes of explanations. Two text boxes for something Super Metroid explained to you in 1 line. Not only that, but it took you out of the action screen for that.

    As for the players going first to the Right in the original Metroid. Maybe it’s because I played Blaster Master before Metroid, but in games, I tend to go the opposite direction of wherever the game wants me to go. So the first time I played Metroid I went to the left. When I played Zelda, I DIDN’T go into the door. Maybe I do it because I don’t want to miss anything and I tend to go first where I’m not supposed to go. Just in case I can’t go back.

    I wish the next Zelda would skip the long town tutorial searching for the sword & shield and instead dropped us in an action scene or an easy mini dungeon. That’s all the tutorial anyone needs.

  11. Oh, another thing. A while ago I played that PC WaterMetroidvania called Aquaria, and even though the game is not that great, I liked the fact that instead of making you read a five minute intro or tutorial, the game just explained it to you as you moved around and advanced in the empty starting areas. I wish more games did that.

    Two things RPGs should do more: Automatically kill enemies once you are powerful enough (like Earthbound) and allow the player to skip or walk away from a dialogue with non important NPCs (like Chrono Trigger).

  12. Rey –

    1. A Zelda that starts in media res would be a nice change.

    2. Speaking of tutorials, sometimes a game is just different enough to warrant one. OK, so Portal had a simple but unique system that any other developer might have used a tutorial for… but that’s Portal, and that’s why it rocks. In my opinion, if you MUST, an entertaining tutorial goes a long way. Like that foul-mouthed trainer in Baroque, or Bruce Campbell in Spider-man The Movie, or Stephen Fry in LittleBigPlanet. That game was so broken, in fact, that Stephen Fry was probably my favorite part.

    Or remember MGS2? “So all I have to do is press the triangle button? Why didn’t you just say that?” “Well, when you put it that way…”

    3. Automatic kills in RPGs? A lot of people don’t appreciate it, but FFXII kinda did that. Not exactly automatic, but if you played your gambits right, it was close enough. If you don’t have a similar system, your battle system better be damn fast. It’s part of what makes me appreciate, say, FFX a little bit more, and what makes the PS1 FFs (FFIX in particular) really unbearable.

  13. “As for the players going first to the Right in the original Metroid. Maybe it’s because I played Blaster Master before Metroid, but in games, I tend to go the opposite direction of wherever the game wants me to go.”

    OK, sure, but Metroid was designed before there were many (if any?) scrolling platformers which gave you that option. I was referring to how the game gently introduced the idea that, hey, it’s OK to go left.

  14. Shadow of the Colossus was a nice partial credit example. I mean, yeah, they give you a few pop up tips (which is only fair with the somewhat unorthodox control scheme), but the climb up to the first colossus is a nice discreet training session on the real fundamentals of scrambling from kneecap to kneecap, and they’re extremely discreet about cluing you in to the crazy set piece tricks needed for a few of them. Smashing scenery, or steering you right up to those interconnected hobbit holes on your way in.

    Portal could be argued as one of the best examples in recent years, but on the other hand, 90% of Portal’s gameplay is really one long tutorial, and even presented as such in-game, technically.

  15. I remember thinking when I first played Super Mario World, “Hey, that’s nice of them to put instructions in the game… I didn’t really feel like reading the manual anyway.” And that’s basically what it was; acknowledging that no one really sat down to read a manual before playing, they put some pertinent excerpts IN the game.

    Time was, manuals would contain all the backstory and instructions, and the game was just the game. Nowadays the manuals are more like a cheatsheet in case you forget how to perform some function or use some item, although for weapons you don’t get access to straight away, a manual has to kind of be a bit vague lest it provide spoilers…

  16. I think one reason designers have gone so literal minded and dull with their in-game instruction is that so many modern gamers are, for some reason, mortified of failing. It’s okay to die, as long as you try to learn something from it. Is it really such an imposition to have to redo a couple of minutes of play, especially if there’s a good chance you could pick up on a better way to overcome the level or discover a new secret by playing it more than once? How can you ever going to get any better if you’re never put in a position to need to, you know?

    Yes, many game designers have gotten lazy, but so have the players. So many of us have lost that drive to explore over the last few generations. People need to be more willing to fail and experiment and test the limits of a game without being explicitly told to do so.

  17. “In games, I tend to go the opposite direction of wherever the game wants me to go. Maybe I do it because I don’t want to miss anything and I tend to go first where I’m not supposed to go. Just in case I can’t go back.” I also hate missing things and not being able to go back to get them later. It can be very frustrating.

    “I think one reason designers have gone so literal minded and dull with their in-game instruction is that so many modern gamers are, for some reason, mortified of failing.” Maybe that’s because the players don’t want to lose lots of progress because (depending on the game) they can only save at “checkpoints”.

  18. I seem to recall that Halo CE used game design/gameplay to instruct the player. For example, the first time you are given the chance to get in a Warthog, the level is open and quite large, giving you plenty of room to master the mechanics of driving. The first level on the Pillar of Autumn had a quick tutorial to get the x- and y-axis control scheme right, then after that I feel like it forced the player to learn by doing. Didn’t seem to hold your hand.

  19. I’ve observed this as well, but it seems to apply more to certain genres than others. In the FPS genre, I often find the reverse to be true — they assume a lot of knowledge of the player, which of course can also be frustrating.

    For example, there’s a moment in Killzone 2 where you are supposed to find cover from an air strike. But what qualifies as good cover? It’s totally not clear, and I died a few times cracking that code.

  20. Regarding Zelda: Twilight Princess, I have a co-worker who hasn’t played a 3D Zelda, or a Zelda since the original NES title. He bought it because he wanted games for his Wii.

    With that said, he need every instruction given to him to start that game and it took him up to 20 hours what you and I did in about 4. Its easy to laugh at that, but he wasn’t complaining…and he wouldn’t have gotten that far any other way. I’m not sure he’s gotten that far in a game in 20 years.

    So while I hated the hand holding, he loved it. It doesn’t just tell you what to do, it slows the game down for you. I see a lot of merit in this. Maybe if there was an option when you start to say you are a first time user (or just put in the Super Guide!!!)

  21. I just remembered that Braid is another example of a modern game that teaches through level design really well. It’s an especially impressive feat for that game, since so many of it’s mechanics are really tough to wrap your head around.

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