This is a write-up of how I designed the intro bits of Anodyne (vote for Anodyne on Greenlight!), and the successes and failures of the final design decisions.
One of the earliest decisions was to limit the game to two items, a jump and a broom. The mechanics in dungeons could replace the need for multiple items, and act as things the broom can do – so reducing the flow-breaking process switching items inherent in Zeldas, but still giving the nice feeling of discovering new dungeon mechanics.
This meant I could finally make the tutorial, one of the most delicate and important things for games, because it lets the player learn the rules of the game universe, and begin to immerse themselves.
So what needs to be taught in Anodyne’s tutorial? A few things, including: fighting, interacting with NPCs, exploring, and later, jumping (though we won’t go into jumping, which I feel I taught poorly, maybe I’ll cover that another time). I consider these to mechanics be axioms of Anodyne, in that they are thought of as basic as possible (an axiom can be thought of as a rule or idea we take for granted, in order to see what truths we can find when accepting the axioms as true – this is most notable in mathematics – so the analogue is, if I can attack and jump, then what else can we do? )
Other less explicit axioms are things that frequent gamers take for actions – pressing keys, moving, talking, death condition…so those are taught as well.
Anodyne’s tutorial, in my mind, spans a few areas: the white area, the nexus area, then the street dungeon, although tutorial-like elements are strewn throughout the rest of the game, those are more of “theorems” (in mathematics, theorems are truths that are reasoned about and proven through the assumption of axioms – which forms nice analogues with game mechanics), in that you can see interaction of the mechanics with other mechanics (e.g., riding dust on water, using dust to block things, pushing enemies around, etc).
Although the game says you need to press C to continue (in order to reinforce the notion that you will be pressing ‘C’ a lot later), most people never really bothered reading that. So more than one key works in the title – but we wanted to limit this to one in-game, so in the first text box, the little arrow icon says ‘C’ until you press ‘C’ a few times, then it turns into the arrow. I aesthetically prefer the arrow, but it was still confusing for some to not have a reminder, so that’s why the ‘C’ was chosen to appear for a bit.
Note that people can rebind the controls at will, so that to deal with this, I allow “ESC” to pull up the controls-rebinding menu at the title screen, in case one forgets the controls – though it would have been ideal to outline this somewhere, it’s not stated in the README or anything…
So, great, the person knows that C advances dialogue, and if they read it, C can be used to interact. Now they stand across from a portal. The dialogue mentioned that you use the arrow keys to move. There is no visual indication to that in the first screen, though it is arguable that it might have been a good reminder, but I never had a playtester that didn’t figure out the arrow keys moved – in any case, only people very, very new to games wouldn’t be able to know to press the arrow keys, and they’d probably be more likely to read the intro text that tells them to do so – as you can see, it’s a bit hard to come up with perfect solutions to all of these choices, but the choices here usually make this part okay 99% of the time.
Player has no choice but to walk into the portal.
Anyways, making it through that portal, now you have to move up and down to progress to the next screen.
INTERACTING WITH THINGS
Here, you learn about interacting with objects, to teach how to talk, and eventually enter portals and open treasure boxes. This is told in the dialogue, but even if it is skipped, the flashing of the screens is naturally attractive, and the player only knows one input, C, which is the required one to flip the computers and open the block gates.
The only thing to do here is interact with the computers.
REGRETS WITH THE HUD
On the next screen is a bit of a negative. It tells the player to use ENTER to open the menu. It’s arguable that it’s better of this comes here, rather than later, as we want to break the 4th wall with controls as little as possible – but many people would open the menu early and be a bit confused as the current area has no map…in any case, it at least puts into the player’s mind that you do have a menu, and there’s a constant reminder of it in the top left corner.
Which brings me to my next point, the issue of the HUD being there too early. The Menu, health, and keys are totally irrelevant information, and in fact, it probably would have been a good idea to restrict the key text to appearing ONLY in dungeons (it appears everywhere, though keys only show up in 7 of the areas in the game). The menu = ENTER…we should have figured out some way to make it change based on your current key, but it seemed like too much work, plus no one probably reads it, and even fewer people even rebind the key, so it was deemed a relative non-issue. Call this technique “justifying laziness”…
The HUD elements were brought in a bit early, and the early bringing up of the menu can be confusing.
In any case, you enter the portal, and begin the game! Here, we begin to teach exploration and more interaction. You can talk to the rock, or the statue behind Sage. Even multiple times, if you desire…
We allow the player to move in the 4 directions from the Sage room. Left is the direction they are told to go (in order to progress to the Street tutorial dungeon), but you can go up (which is blocked by gates), or right (which is also blocked by gates). This was done after watching too many people wander aimlessly in the Nexus area. A benefit of giving this choice is that people feel a little freer, and also see that the game world is fairly large, with each portal leading to a new area.
Allowing the player to explore the hub a bit (without getting lost) shows that the game world is large
Anyways, the player again has to use C to interact with the active nexus portal to enter the Street dungeon.
TUTORIAL DUNGEON – Teaching the basics
So here is the street dungeon, which is intended to equip the player with the necessary set of basic skills to get them through everything the game will throw in their path. The dungeon’s design was iterated upon many times, and is nearly overdesigned, far more than other areas in the game. The reasoning behind this is that finishing the tutorial gives you a set of “axioms” as you play through it, allowing you to figure out the rest of the game, and that the more “hands-off” we are (with very few words), the more likely someone is to absorb these skills.
If the player missed the checkpoint in the Nexus, they’re forced to walk across this one, so that they KNOW they need to use them in order to save their game (or if the player explores the menu, they can save through there, but almost no one does that)…of course, if the player doesn’t read, they still don’t exactly know what to do, but I think it’s a natural instinct to stand on something, hear a sound, see it flash, and then press the only key you know does something (the C key!)
You are forced to step over this checkpoint.
From there, the only direction you can walk is up, which leads you to a crossroad. You can’t go north – walking into the block and interacting tells you it is a locked door. Heading left are some enemies, which you can’t kill yet – so the player will just leave the room, or walk into them and die. Again, reinforcing the notion of exploration, and further that not all paths are always open.
Again, choice to emphasize exploration, but the only feasible way to progress ends up being going to the right.
You can die by walking into those slimes. Most “gamers” intuitively know those red icons in the HUD are health, but it can be reasoned that when you touch an enemy, there’s a hurt noise, and then one disappears, that those represent SOMETHING, and if the player really has no clue, then when they all disappear, you get a Game Over screen.
The only other way is now to go to the right, through an empty screen, then pressing a button to open a gate – which is to show the cause (pressing buttons) which makes an effect (opening this obstacle, a gate). In the next screen are more slimes, and then a treasure box. Hopefully the box attracts the player, who then goes up to it and presses C, getting the broom – which tells you to use C to attack, but it doesn’t really matter if you read it, since C is the only key you know, which conveniently also attacks. at that point, the only logical thing to do is to attack the slimes, and killing them opens the gate.
Buttons can unlock gates. This is the simplest version of this idea.
To teach fighting, I limited the actions in this room to attacking the slimes with your broom.
So hooray! Now, the player has seen that pressing buttons opens doors, as does killing enemies. These are the ways that progress in dungeons is hindered. The only thing left to do is to travel back to the 3-slime room on the left end of the dungeon, kill the enemies, and take the treasure – which is conveniently a small key. Which can then be used on that door in the middle of the dungeon, since there’s nowhere else to go!
In the screen north of the locked door, there is a slime and a gate. Just a reminder that sometimes, all the enemies need to be eliminated to open a door.
3-Slime room, which leads to a chest with a key.
The “reminder” room, for killing enemies and opening gates.
The whole tutorial is a street, which leads north, giving a feeling of “oh, I need to go THIS way…” The music is also fairly hands-off, fitting the feel of the unknown, slightly creepy street….then in the underpass area where the music goes off, there’s a creepy zombie. People always wonder “what is this?”, and, well, it doesn’t come back in the game, but like a lot of things it’s more of a symbol of themes in the game, so I’ll leave it to you to decide (sorry!). Moreover, it lets you know that not everything in dungeons necessarily is an enemy…though for the most part, things are enemies 🙂
There is a minimap in this area, which was added per suggestion at TIGSource – and a good idea, it helps make local navigation easier, though there is a full map in the menu (which not a lot of people use)…
You go through the under pass, go through another screen, then are confronted with dust. Most people are likely to attack, which gives you a dialogue that you can pick up and place dust. We decided this had to be verbal, because there wasn’t a necessarily intuitive way to teach that you can pick up and place (though we could have done something like make a little “C” key pop up when you have dust, for the first time, but oh well – I guess in a way it’s nice to limit your wall-breaking to the dialogue popups).
And, the next room, the dungeon ends.
So through all of that, the player learned actually a lot of things, whether they realized it or not – progressing through text, interacting with objects, movement, the concept of doors, talking to NPCs being optional, the necessity of exploration, the scale of the game, checkpointing and saving, the concept of dying, how to open locked doors, exploring a dungeon, fighting enemies to open gates, pressing buttons to open gates, and that the game has a dream-feel to it.
All said with not too many words! If you’re making a tutorial, I encourage you to use as few words as possible – if you can teach things well without words, it’s far more likely to stick with the player.
That’s all for now, maybe more design posts later.
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The final “Street” tutorial dungeon (entrance at bottom)