Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Integrating the manual into the game

It seems that folk are finally cottoning onto the fact that having to wade through a block of text before playing a game isn't the best way to impart information. I'd like to begin looking at a few flash games, looking at how they integrated the tutorial into the game.

Solitair Hop

Solitaire Hop is a puzzle game testing both luck and skill. Level design is largely random, with the game resting upon its rules system.

Its rules seem complex, thanks to their unfamiliarity, but are presented all at once, in the form of 3 screens of text and diagrams before games begin. As these rules govern our basic potential moves and reactions, there was no easy alternative - they just have to be read before you begin.

And if you're conditioned to skip past instructions, you won't last long.

Most games' rules can be broken down more easily though.

Dropple is an abstracted platform-jumping, coin-collecting game.

Basic rules are exceedingly simple - it's the behaviour of the bouncing ball, various platform types and level design that provides any enjoyment you may glean.

So unlike Solitaire Drop, it becomes a simple matter to provide a new instruction before each level, adding an element at a time and ensuring no-one is confused.

The worst thing to do would have been to simply detail all the elements at the start - confusing and possibly alienating potential players - something that some flash games surprisingly do!

You Have to Burn the Rope

YHTBTR is a game completable within 2 minutes, that became an internet phenomenon thanks to its brevity despite the pomp. If you haven't already, I suggest you play it before reading on. Spoilers ahead.

Movement is controlled by the arrow keys. Torches are picked up automatically and weapons are fired with shift. None of this is detailed - the audience is expected to be familiar with games and so the arrow keys are surely expected to be the first thing tested. As weapons are almost irrelevant, a corridor to travel through and a ledge that must be jumped upon is all the 'tutorial' deemed necessary.

However, whilst walking through the corridor, we see large text foreshadowing the titular activity. Without this foreshadowing, the game would 'merely' be a laughably short game. With it, it becomes an anticlimax of astonishing proportions.

What's interesting to me is the way this preamble is presented. Had it been an unskippable sequence, displaying the text at the rate its currently revealed, I would have been frustrated, itching to begin the actual game. With a skippable screen of text, it would have been skipped by some others. Currently, though we only need to hold one button for almost all the time we move down that corridor, we feel as if we've been handed control and are already playing. To our impatient minds, that makes all the difference despite the lack of meaningful decisions present.


Shift is a game with a unique mechanic and simple 'puzzles'.

In the background of each level lies text, which - over the first 4 levels - spells out the basic rules and controls of the game, whilst the level exits are placed to ensure the information is understood.

Thanks to Shift's unique mechanic, instructions are vital and so showing them on the same screen as they are first used seems a simple and elegant solution.

Having rules present on the same screen as the game-world can break the 4th wall, reaffirming its abstract game-like qualities (not that most Flash games actually evoke much of an atmosphere, or shy away from abstraction) but Shift copies Portal's method of having the rules told' to us by a watchful computer.


Perhaps it sounds as if out-of-game instructions are a relic that deserves to be put by the wayside? This game confirms otherwise.

Metro.Siberia is a 'helicopter game' clone with fixed levels and nice graphics. Upon starting a level, an instruction to press space appears, with a typewriter effect. Whilst this catches the eye, by the time it has been read you may be already dead (as I was).

It seems that instructions can only be given in a safe environment. Whether that's before a level, in a corridor or during a level that allows you to stand still whilst reading.

The clear message is that being taught in a safe environment can be fun. Being punished before a relevant instruction has time to be understood is simply a turn-off.

Mr. Bounce

Mr. Bounce is a bat 'n' ball game, with a few twists including guidelines, height control and bullet-time-type-slowdown.

Though mostly familiar, a few introductions are necessary. With textual instructions, we'd still need to play with the mechanics in the first level - something that could lead to aggravation thanks to lost lives.

Thankfully, the 'tutorial' gives us a safe environment to practise. Relaying the bare minimum of information, a meter accompanies each instruction, which fills up as we press the buttons instructed. Once it reaches 100% we'll have surely seen its effect and the next instruction pops up.

Seeing this in effect simply reaffirms my belief that every game able should offer a safe environment for learning, whatever form that takes.

With a uniquely interactive medium, why not let us learn by doing?

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