School’s In Session: Teaching Without Tutorials

As I sit at my desk, I look shamefully at my neglected Nintendo 3DS. It’s not neglected due to a lack of good games. Quite the opposite, actually. The 3DS has some amazing games, like the Pokemon games, Monster HunterBravely DefaultFire Emblem: Awakening, and Shin Megami Tensei IV. Actually, SMTIV is the game currently in the system right now, and the reason why my 3DS sits unplayed.

Specifically, the reason is this asshole:

This jerk.
This jerk.

The Minotaur is an extremely early boss in Shin Megami Tensei IV. On top of that, he’s insanely hard. I must have gone up against him at least 25 times, with god knows how many team compositions, and even with knowledge of the boss’s weakness (ice, by the way. You’re welcome) I still found the fight extremely difficult.

The Minotaur, I later realized, is weirdly the game’s version of a tutorial. Shin Megami Tensei IV has a tutorial for teaching mechanics and what buttons to press and whatever, but the Minotaur is a roadblock which requires a level of play demonstrating not only that you know how the combat system works, but how to properly utilize it.

In Shin Megami Tensei IV (a turn-based JRPG), every attack against a foe that they are weak to grants you an extra action, while any attack that the enemy resists instantly ends your turn. This goes both ways: the enemy can get bonus attacks by exploiting your weaknesses, and can have its turn ended by running into your resistances. The Minotaur is basically unbeatable if you’re only using 100% of your allotted turn. You need to maximize its weaknesses to get extra attacks and buffs in, and you need to try and structure your team such that you try and cut the Minotaur’s turn short. If you don’t do that, the Minotaur is unbeatable.

I must say, I really like the idea of this style of tutorial. Instead of having you ride around the block for 2 hours with training wheels before finally letting you loose, this tutorial style gives you a fixed-gear and pushes you down a hill until you make it to the bottom. The result is the same, you know how to ride a bicycle, but one makes you feel like you’re being limited and coddled, whereas the other feels like surmounting an obstacle.

Souls games do this more gradually, specifically Bloodborne. If you wanna leave the first areas of Bloodborne, the game forces you to surmount the challenges presented in the first areas, and if you can do that, then you can go to the rest of the game. You need to be able to handle large groups of enemies, larger enemies, death traps, dungeon navigation, and the two Souls boss paradigms: the giant monster, and the player parallel.

Father Guacamole: Reaper of Newbs
Father Guacamole: Reaper of Newbs

So, yeah, I think this is a pretty cool paradigm for teaching players. Instead of coddling adult players with patronizing tutorials, instead, give them the basic knowledge of the game mechanics, and section off the first area of the game for them to goof around and master these mechanics, gating the exit from that area with an extremely difficult challenge only passable if you’ve mastered the game systems. Granted, some players might find such a setup frustrating (“UGH. Why does the difficulty spike so hard here!”), but if the game systems are satisfying to learn, and there’s fun to be had in that learning area while you master the systems, I think it would work.

That’s where we loop back around to Shin Megami Tensei IV. In case you couldn’t tell from my wording, I did manage to beat the Minotaur. I unlocked another area of the dungeon, some extremely interesting story beats, aaaaaand are you kidding me I just finished the last one.

Behold, the face of destruction
Behold, the face of destruction

This is Medusa. Medusa is the boss right after the Minotaur, and she is even harder than the Minotaur. This, I really hate, and this is the reason why I haven’t picked that game back up recently. I feel like the game was treating me like an adult, forcing me to learn at my own pace, and when I proved to the game that I had learned, and that I understood how to play, it goes “That’s cute, you think you know how to play this game. Prove it to me again”. I already proved it to you!

I know from reading forum posts and watching YouTube videos that Minotaur and Medusa are not indicative of the difficulty of the rest of the game. So, while I understand the Minotaur as a gatekeeper to the rest of the game, but Medusa’s placement just feels like the game discrediting my achievements and my learning, and forcing me to prove myself to it again, like a snooty girlfriend.

So, while Shin Megami Tensei IV may not be perfect, it did introduce me to a new way to build a tutorial, in an era where gamers scoff at the idea of having their hand held through a level for babies. Instead, cut your players loose early, in a limited area, but with all of the mechanics and tools of the game at their disposal, and only let them into the rest of the game when they prove themselves. Once.

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