The Language of Games Pt. 1 – Tutorials

Recently, I played a few races on Mario Kart 8. My fiance, who had the chance to play before me, excitedly informed me how to control the kart when gliding. “Oh! Push down to pull up!” she explained, happy to offer a gem of information she gleamed after some trial and error. I nearly had a snarky reply, but I hesitated. While she’s played a few Super Nintendo titles, her understanding of games is limited. The controls of any sort of aircraft is ingrained in me, as is the controls of any other type of game. Why is that? Because, as a life long gamer, I’m fluent in the language of games.

Gliding in Mario Kart 8
Gliding in Mario Kart 8

Make no mistake, the language of games is a real thing. It’s how the game communicates to you. When done poorly, it’s painfully noticeable. Done correctly though, it shouldn’t be remotely apparent. For example, the best tutorial, or expression of its mechanics is the original Super Mario Bros. for the NES. It’s simplicity and design limitations communicated a rich experience that not only taught people how to play, but set the standard still prevalent in the industry today. Super Mario Bros. simplicity is the key. Experimentation becomes the only method to determine the controls. With limited button options on the controller, it is a quick process. The D-Pad moves Mario, A jumps, Start pauses, etc. But, where do you go? What is the goal? The screen ingenuously locks as it scrolls from left to right (likely a technical limitation), funneling you in the direction it wants you to proceed. Enemies are thrown at the player with increasing speed, slowly ramping up the difficult. The list goes on.

I’m sure reading that is just as frustrating for anyone whose played Mario before as it’s painfully obvious. But think about the converse. What if someone hasn’t played Mario, or anything before? Going back to my opening example, my fiance has never played Pilotwings, Starfox, or any other such flying game before, how was she to know how the glider controlled? Likely, through trial and error. Watching my children play, it’s frustrating seeing them crash into the water, not understanding gliding, or ram into a wall, the subtleties of banking lost on them. Some would get frustrated, quitting. My kids however, hasn’t. They are perfectly happy finishing the race, even in last place. Why? Because the games fun. How many games have you quit or seen abandoned because of ambiguous goals, obfuscated objects, or inadequate mechanics? Quitting due to frustration is a scary problem developers face. Why? Didn’t like game A? Then you’re less likely to purchase its sequel, another game they make, or worse case, any game, removing yourself from the market. How do they combat this? Tutorials.

From Penny Arcade
From Penny Arcade

Tutorials have become a trend for the past decade or so, often becoming the bane of gamers. How many times have you seen “Push forward on the analog stick to move forward” or some such? Honestly, I think by this point, if a person doesn’t understand that much, they’re likely in awe of the magic picture box before them. The problem with tutorials is complication. Less is more. Games don’t need to be complicated, and if they are, all the mechanics don’t need to be shoved down players throats at once.

From Too Human, this one's real
From Too Human, this one’s real

Games are best when trail and error is expected. The trick is, finding a balance, offering players low hanging fruit before increasing the challenge, something Nintendo excels at. Complicated games like CivilizationSkyrim, or Gran Turismo definitely have their place, but there’s a reason everything isn’t given to you at once. Unlockables not only give players a sense of accomplishment, but pace out the reveals, giving them time to learn.

Skyrim - This power is earned
Skyrim – This power is earned

The next time you play a game, pay attention to not only what it’s telling you, but how. If you’re forced through a simultaneously simplistic and complicated tutorial (Assassin’s Creed III, any mech game) ask yourself, if you’re having fun. Does failure fill you with frustration and an unwillingness to continue? Or does it propel you to learn, adapt, and try again? If it’s the former, you might be wasting your time. If it’s the latter, then the developer has done their job, making the game rewarding and fun, showing a mastery of the language of games.

What are the best tutorials you’ve experienced? Worst? What games have you failed at, but happily returned to? Comment below!

Tony writes for his own site,, about comics, video games, movies, TV and more, six days a week. You can follow his updates on Facebook or Twitter. Drop by and tell’em hi.

Look for part 2 eventually.