Tutorials in Video Games and in Film

Every now and then, I stumble across a blog that is doing work I find intrinsically fascinating, but that seems either relatively unknown or is covering a topic that is relatively untapped. I’m a fan of philosophy, and a fan of gaming, but rarely do the two meet. Someone recently linked to an article over at Ontological Geek, which simultaneously left me excited and concerned. After perusing the site, it’s been added to my list of blogs, because there are a lot of solid articles. It’s worth checking out.

But on to the point. The article I initially read suggested that tutorials are unique to gaming, and proceeded to detail a variety of ways games can introduce you to their basic mechanics. A video game, after all, is not the passive experience of a film or a book. You must act, and:

It is the responsibility of videogames to teach us how to play them.  Before the game can even really strut its stuff, it has to play the role of teacher, and show us what plastic-thingies do which murdery-kill-ma-bobs.

The author, Aaron Gotzon, goes on to list four ways games do tutorials: the manual (think old games, like the original Mario games), the overlay (Batman: Arkham Asylum/City, Dishonored), the fourth-wall breaking (Spyro, Starcraft II), and the integrated tutorial (Starcraft, Fallout 3). He prefers the last, and rightly so, since it tends to keep the game feeling like a game: characters treat you like you are new to what you are experiencing, because you–the character, that is–are actually new to it. In Starcraft, you are a brand new commander, while in Fallout 3, you are a toddler, and then a child, learning the mechanics of the games.

Video game tutorials however, as much as they do interest me, are not quite so unique as the author thinks.

It’s true: we don’t have instructions on the front of every book: “hold the book this way, turn the page when you finish reading the text on the page, when finished with the book, start over or loan it to a friend.” You don’t see a “how to sit properly” tutorial before a film, even if you do have the instruction to turn off your cell phone. We don’t have a way to learn the mechanics of reading a book or watching a film, primarily because we don’t need them. Maybe your parents taught you to read a book (how to hold it, which way the text goes, etc.), but it is likely you were never taught how to watch a movie (or how to watch someone play a video game, for that matter).

But films do have ‘tutorials’ of a kind, even if they aren’t quite so hands-on. A lot of movies provide a ‘tutorial’ situation, to teach us the consequences of behaving in a certain way within the world. In Looper, for instance (no spoiler here), we see a character suffer consequences for an action that ends up driving the plot of the film; if we hadn’t seen this, we wouldn’t have grasped the significance of the character’s later action. Likewise, consider The Matrix, where we have not just all sorts of explanatory prose, but scenes where Neo is learning the limitations of the world (much like a tutorial), and we are learning with him. It’s passive, and distinct from games in that sense, but it is still reminiscent of the tutorial levels we all love to hate (usually).

If you abstract further away from interaction with a world, introductions to books can function in a similar way. Our expectations for a book can shift when we leave the marketing and endorsements on the back cover and step into the author’s introduction. Here we not only get an outline, but perhaps a bit of an interpretative tool: the author tells us what he or she means by some of the more technical jargon, and gives us a scope for the work.

Descriptions are hard, though, and it is difficult to discern a distinction between an introduction and a tutorial. The latter implies some sort of hands-on experience, while the former, well, introduces you to characters and settings. If we consider tutorials in the context of games, they are all about the mechanisms of the game (press x to not die, press a to jump, etc.). Perhaps in a film, something that instructs us about the mechanics of a world–as opposed to just a setting or a character–could be called a tutorial (Looper‘s ‘tutorial’ could fit here).

Note that if we hold to this sort of view, we aren’t forced to include a ‘tutorial’ in every single film or book. If a movie operates on conditions similar to that of our own world, or within genres we already understand and can recognize without the need for world-specific-descriptions, then a tutorial becomes laborious at best. Likewise, this should apply in games. Tutorials in certain games are completely optional (Deus Ex is a good example here), even if the first mission still eases you into place. This is rarer, since you still need some sort of way to know which buttons do what, but that could conceivably be reduced in certain genres by standardizing controls (especially on PC games), at least by default.

All in all, a tutorial that does not take away from the experience is ideal, and films that have tutorials have done so in a seamless way, such that we hardly even notice the narrative tricks are there to teach us. I love when games embrace something unique and run with it, and hopefully games will only get more creative with their methods for teaching us how to play them.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

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  • http://tomgrey.wordpress.com TomGrey

    You make a reasonable, but quite obvious, point.

    What I hope is that games get more creative about teaching us how to better play in an exciting game whose good-play techniques are more relevant to real life.

    Tho I admit I prefer League of Legends to the Sims.