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Excessive Handholding: When Game Tutorials Go Wrong

You bought this game to play it? Nope. Let the computer show you the way. 

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Tutorials have become a staple of AAA game development. And it makes sense; as a publisher, you want to create a game that caters to as wide an audience as possible even if the game in question has a number attached to the end of it.

So, for newcomers, the easiest way to usher them into the universe you’ve built is through a little handholding to get them familiarized with your fictional world and the mechanics that rule it. It’s a practice that has become commonplace. But are the publishers and the developers working on these games taking the idea of a tutorial too far? Is incessant handholding detrimental to actual game development where a player actually wants to play the game they just bought?

The reason I started thinking about this is thanks to Ubisoft’s latest release, Assassin’s Creed III. Assassin’s Creed III features a tutorial that’s essentially the game’s first four/five hours. In one respect, I get it. The tutorial not only gets you comfortable with the controls of the game, but it also builds the world, establishes its characters and sets the stage for the main story thread of the title. From a storytelling perspective, the opening hours of AC3 provide some of the game’s most rewarding content.

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However, the gameplay is an absolute drag to play. And that should immediately register as a problem. As my co-worker Joey Davidson pointed out in his review, you are basically led from one cutscene to the next and only given control to walk a few feet at a time. Sure, you’ll get to participate in a street brawl or two, maybe even climb on and jump over a few buildings, but Ubisoft really doesn’t cut you loose to go out and explore the open world they’ve created until some time later. This also means you won’t see the “frontier” – a tentpole of this game’s open world design and a major talking point by the game’s PR team leading up to launch – until you’ve slogged through the linear, and oftentimes monotonous opening hours.

bioshock_lighthouseClearly the opening of Assassin’s Creed III is not made with me in mind. I’ve played all the previous AC titles. I know how to run up walls, counter and slice and dice enemies, and avoid detection when necessary. Newcomers interested in checking out the game’s Revolutionary War setting probably will not be in the know, hence showing them the ropes. But there’s no denying there probably was a middle ground Ubisoft could have found in order to truncate the game’s tutorial stages while still delivering the necessary plot beats.

For comparison’s sake, just look at something like BioShock. The buildup is slow and methodical, introducing the player to the world of Rapture, the terrifying splicers that haunt its halls, as well as how to use the game’s genetic alterations, plasmids. The difference between the openings of AC3 and BioShock, however, is that BioShock actually disguises its tutorial moments by feeding you necessary/interesting information to keep your mind off the fact you’re doing menial busy work in order to understand the game’s playground. Assassin’s Creed III, on the other hand, blatantly says, “hey guys, come get at this tutorial!” The result is something that’s not fun in the slightest.

And, in the long run, the need for a tutorial that doesn’t even attempt to mask itself hurts replayability considerably. I’ve finished Assassin’s Creed III’s story and enjoyed it immensely – not counting the Desmond bits. However, the thought of revisiting the game to re-experience the title’s grand story and having to “replay” the opening hours is beyond off-putting.

Now, I’ve been harping on Assassin’s Creed III specifically, but it’s not the only game that falls victim to excessive handholding when you first boot it up. The Legend of Zelda, for example, is another franchise that’s a severe offender of this. And while tutorials are a necessary evil in game development today – even Call of Duty has one with its gun range – developers need to find better ways to implement them as franchises get deeper and deeper. Because I’m looking forward to Assassin’s Creed IV, or whatever the next game in the series might be called, but the thought of another four-hour tutorial already has me cringing. 


Erik Norris is the Gaming Editor for CraveOnline. You can follow him on Twitter @Regular_Erik.