Teaching the player in your game

Teaching the player how to play your game without words is, in a certain sense, indicative that your game has signs of elegance. In this Gamasutra article, Max Pears says that it’s preferable to teach without words and not having to read paragraphs to understand how to play a video game, and I absolutely agree. 

I’ve written some time ago about elegance in game design, elegance means, basically, from one or two general mechanics, create a bunch of possible outcomes, situations, twists, etc… Think in games like Portal, or The Witness, where with little you create a lot.

The Witness teaching the player
In The Witness (2016) the main mechanic is to draw lines on boards and the environment, this mechanic is explored in more than 650 puzzles


He cites a Game Maker’s Toolkit video (suggested channel if you’re interested in Game Design) where it’s shown how Koichi Hayashida designed the levels from Super Mario 3D World in a way that new mechanics are introduced without the need of text. There’s a method that Koichi uses that’s called Kishōtenketsu, and it goes like this:

    1. Introduction: The mechanic is introduced on a simple manner in a safe environment, this way you can explore and understand the mechanic without risk
    2. Development: The mechanic is explored, introducing a variety of possible outcomes and situations.
    3. Twist: The mechanic is twisted in an interesting and challenging way.
    4. Conclusion: The mechanic is used as a means to reach a conclusion of the level.

Players like to have the control most of the time they’re playing, they do not want to be interrupted by a pop-up with text that steals the control from the player (unless, of course, there’s a conscious decision to do that as a designer.) One of the games that is great in this sense is Half-Life 2, the cinematics from that game are in real time, and you keep the control of the player while the cinematic is happening.

Anticipation v. Unpredictability

When teaching the player visually, anticipation is a really useful key, it’s one of the twelve principles of animation, yet here it’s not only applied to animation, but also to Level Design, let’s think on what anticipation means. Anticipation is knowing what will happen before it happens, we could translate this to time: “seeing from long ago” and to space “seeing from far away”, on the sense of space distribution (Level Design) you can distribute the elements in such a way that the player is safe on a starting position, while at the same time the player can see (anticipate) what’s going on in the level and how things will play out depending on what actions the player takes.

A great and simple example of anticipation is this clip from Inside, there’s a periodic shockwave, you’re forced to push a box in to the shockwave range, and the shockwave destroys the box, this way it’s clear that you should not get in the way of the shockwave, it’s explained quickly, in a simple manner, without text.

Contrary to anticipation, you can use unpredictability, which is most likely going to cause a sensation of unfairness to the player, yet games have become incredible famous mostly because of the abuse of this unpredictability, like the famous “hardest games ever” like “I Wanna Be The Guy.”

Associative Learning

We learn by imitation, repetition and association, let’s a talk a little bit about association, and if you’re interested you can do more research on your own, here’s a nice start.

A Skinner Box

Association happens when the player two or more behaviors or stimulus, this is how we relate events and we keep those associations in our mind to get rewards, or avoid pain, with simple examples:

If I wall down from a platform, I lose one live, I should not fall from platforms.

If I get 100 coins, I gain one live, I should try getting as many coins as possible.

If the enemy turns red, it’s going to shoot me, I should cover when the enemy turns red.

If I treat the blacksmith well, I could get a discount, I should treat the blacksmith well.

As you can see, it starts with an initial behavior, you get a response to that behavior, you associate the two, and then you reach a conclusion, or in the compact form: “if x, then y, therefore z.” In the blacksmith example, the response to the behavior is a “could happen”, and not necessarily “will happen.

Pavlov’s Dog experiment

We’re constantly doing associations, we have both our personal associations, from our own experiences, and cultural associations, from society (like red = bad), when designing tutorials, using cultural associations is a good way to avoid text, and instead using visuals, sounds and kinaesthetics to teach.

When teaching the player, remember to apply some of these principles, and if you have more ideas, please leave a comment.


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