Zelda Breath of the Wild is a Case Study in Game Tutorials

Geruogod

You know what else The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild gets right that so many other open-world games miss? The tutorial.

I’ve heard very little mention of how the game’s initial area: The Great Plateau, does such a great job of being a thick tutorial without actually feeling like a tutorial. It’s worth comparing it to how a lot of other modern games, particularly open-world games.

People always complain about the lengthy tutorials in 3D Zelda games because they somewhat put players on a railroad where one character after another tells them what to do before they can get to the “real game” and start exploring. Starting a new game in Breath of the Wild drops you in the middle of a small area with a few shrines to complete, and a tower to climb, all dispersed throughout a varied set of environments. It’s basically a grab bag offering a taste of what you’ll experience in the full game. The key is it lets the player go completely free within the confines of that area from the minute they start — just like the main game.

Not only does Breath of the Wild bring back the free-roam tutorial area, but I’ve seen a lot of people say it has no tutorial when it actually does — because the tutorial flows with the same pace and structure as the main game. It’s basically the main game in miniature, which is what I think a lot more games need to be doing. I also really miss the free-roam tutorial area in general, I feel like games used to do it more commonly in years past.

Compare this to Skyrim and its tutorial. People hate the tutorial in Skyrim because it’s the polar opposite of the rest of the game. People who mod Skyrim usually either do it after the tutorial is done (because mods easily break it) or use a mod that replaces the tutorial with an alternate one. Why? Because it shares more in common with a scripted Call of Duty sequence than a sandbox game that allows you to define your own path. Every time you start a vanilla game you have to sit through an opening where you can’t move until you’re funneled down a tunnel before being able to start the “real game.” Fallout 4 does the same thing but in a worse way — creating an opening sequence that defines a lot about who your character is, in a game that’s supposed to be about players defining their own characters. I think Fallout 3 is slightly better about its tutorial because it isn’t a straight tunnel — you get to interact with a community of people, but it’s still seen as a pretty limiting and lengthy section before you enter the actual wasteland. I haven’t played Fallout New Vegas in a while but I think that game just lets you loose in a starting town with a couple optional quests to show you the controls.

Metal Gear Solid V has simultaneously the best and worst tutorial sequences for an open-world game.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes — the paid demo, is probably the best tutorial for the main piece, The Phantom Pain. It’s a medium-sized, open-ended zone in which you perform a variety of missions to familiarize yourself with the basic game systems. Phantom Pain on the other hand starts out with that hospital escape part where you have to sit motionless watching people say and do things, and then occasionally walk or crawl forward slowly for an hour to escape some enemies hunting you. Like Skyrim, it’s the polar opposite of what the main game is like. If someone started out Phantom Pain with no knowledge of what’s in store for them, the initial sequence wouldn’t make a good first impression at all. I think it should have let you freely move around the hospital from the very beginning, figuring out the controls as the enemies freely move about to hunt you down. The first real mission in Phantom Pain after the hospital offers a much better first impression.

The Witcher 3 is pretty good about this too. Sure there’s an initial linear sequence to teach the basic controls, but the first area — White Orchard, exists as a mini open-world containing a few quests. It serves to give players a sense of what they’ll experience in the main open world while also establishing the story’s setting.

But sandbox games aren’t the only type of game to benefit from this kind of tutorial though. Less open games should probably also have tutorials that follow the same loop as the main game, just look at all the Souls games.

Every Souls games starts players out in a small, somewhat linear isolated area that never stops them for slowly-delivered instructions. Each of these areas is built just like any other area of the game, just smaller and with somewhat weaker enemies. An especially smart move is how each of these games teaches the basics with messages written on the floor — preparing them for the messages other players leave in the main game.

Breath of the Wild however also reminds me something I see less commonly in today’s games — the open practice zone.

Think back to the very beginning of Super Mario 64 — the big green field in front of Mushroom Castle that offered plenty of space for players not yet used to 3D movement to run and jump without worrying about anything killing them. There were trees to climb and a moat in which to learn the swimming controls. I can think of a few games from the N64 era that did something like this. Banjo Kazooie had the Mushroom Castle front yard on steroids. Wave Race 64 had the training ring where you could practice the controls and the game’s tricks.  The original Perfect Dark had the Carrington Institute which served as a sort of home base which contained a firing range. Today, Mother Base in Phantom Pain serves the same purpose, letting you safely practice the controls and weapons. I think the “Combat Immersion” area in Call of Duty: Black Ops III serves the same general purpose too.

If there is any recent game that suffered from the lack of such a tutorial zone, it’s Resident Evil 6. A big reason people didn’t receive that game very well is because it didn’t really teach people how to play it properly. People had to figure that out and post their own guides about it. Somewhere there’s a quote from the producer or director, saying he wanted RE6 to have some kind of zone where players could freely practice all the different game mechanics.

I just hope “how to do tutorials” is one of the lessons other game developers start learning from Breath of the Wild.

BULLETS:

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