Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman at international hobo. All replies are welcome.
Your post, “The Aesthetic Flaws of Games,” covers a flaw called “perplexity.” I think your first paragraph on the flaw sums it up well:
The final kind of aesthetic flaw I want to draw attention to here is of a slightly different nature, and relates to the Third Rule: no-one plays alone. The essence of this rule is that an artefactual reading of games, treating them as isolated objects, is an incomplete reading of a game, because every game that has ever been made, or ever will be made, is situated in a network of player practices that prepare the player for that experience. The clearest example is with the first person shooter, the control scheme for which is so ingrained among the majority of contemporary players that games using a modified form of this scheme can generate aesthetic displeasure. This is what I am calling perplexity, the experience of re-learning what has already been learned differently, or learning under conditions of insufficient information e.g. a bad tutorial.
This flaw gets at something the Angry Video Game Nerd often says. The Angry Video Game Nerd reviews a lot of games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and he frequently criticizes games that don’t follow the common two-button NES scheme ingrained into players via Super Mario Bros. and other pop games: “B” for attack and “A” for jump (and don’t get AVGN started when the “Select” button performs an attack or jump). Thinking about the NES also draws me to the last word in your paragraph above — tutorial.
The tutorial didn’t exist, to my knowledge, in any NES game. Instead, every game had a manual. The game manual was its own artform. You couldn’t advance in some NES games without using key information from a manual. Some manuals were more pleasurable to read than others. Some of them stood out more than others.
Just like the manual, the tutorial can be an attempt to sidestep the potential aesthetic flaw of perplexity. Unlike the manual, the tutorial often doesn’t stand by itself. Sometimes the tutorial is optional and even accessed from a menu rather than offered through an in-game prompt. But a lot of developers attempt to integrate tutorials into the actual game.
In my experience, the inclusion of an in-game tutorial can result in a significant aesthetic flaw. I’m not talking about a bad tutorial; a bad, uninformative tutorial ties into the flaw of perplexity. The aesthetic flaw I refer to exists because of the attempt to avoid perplexity.
I’d like to call the flaw tutorialization, but perhaps others would call it overtutorialization or something else. I can see this flaw in a couple of different forms. One form is in a game that lays the tutorializing or “help” messages on too thick or to a condescending degree. I immediately think of Life Is Strange Episode 1. For example, Life Is Strange has puzzles, but the protagonist, through a voice-over, tells you exactly how to solve them, defeating the point of the puzzle. Another offender is A Bird Story, which clutters the screens with arrows (as I point out in the penultimate paragraph of my review) even though it is obvious where you can travel.
Another form of this flaw is when the tutorial is pretty much the game for an extended period of time. It can be particularly unappealing, not to mention annoying, when a game tries to pass off tutorializing as part of the story. Shin Megami Tensei IV comes to mind. To start, Shin Megami Tensei IV puts you in a dungeon to train as part of the story. But it’s obvious you’re playing a tutorial, not the game, and the game takes too long saying what it needs to say. I quit playing Shin Megami Tensei before its tutorial ended.
There are a few in-game tutorials that I would call aesthetically pleasing. The best one is in Final Fantasy III on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. You reach the tutorial well after the game has established the story and the familiar turn-based combat system. The tutorial comes in the form of a school in the game’s first city, Narshe. (You could miss this tutorial if you don’t enter every building in Narshe.) When you enter the school, you see a bunch of nonplayable characters who all look the same. These characters look more scholarly than other characters. When you talk to these scholars, they share a unique brief lecture on features or tactics of the game. This in-game tutorial is fun, clever, informative, unobtrusive, and unpretentious. It adds to the aesthetic appeal of Final Fantasy III and to a sense of place in Narshe.
Having said that, I would like to see the game manual artform make a comeback (to please Digital Totalitarianists: if not in paper form, then as an out-of-game document). The tutorial has mainly been an eyesore and an earsore, a distraction from the non-tutorial (i.e., the important) aesthetics of games.