Games are best when they ignore you

Tutorials are a lot like first dates. They’re awkward but necessary, can be a total waste of time, and sometimes there’s a lot more hand-holding than you’d like. It would be best for everyone if we just skipped all that uncomfortable small talk and went straight to the middle part. The good part. Unfortunately, you can’t have a good relationship without getting to know someone first, and you can’t have fun with a game if you don’t understand how to play it.

Or can you?

Astroneer is a lovely little toybox of a game, somewhere in-between Minecraft and No Man’s Sky – a game about exploration and crafting, finding and seeking, discovery and adventure. It’s a game where you land on a planet with no idea where you are, or what you might find, and what better way to introduce the player to that feeling than to make them feel it themselves?

And so, I have to say, Astroneer’s tutorial is bad. It neglects to tell you vitally important things, like how to build oxygen-providing tethers that will allow you to explore the alien environment, how to build research plants and gigantic 3D printers and why you might want to do that in the first place. It tells you that you have to use your cool terraforming gun to harvest materials from the planet, but not that doing so will pockmark the planet with potholes that you’ll regret later on as your second rover of the game goes cartwheeling into them, never to be seen again.

It tells you next to nothing in advance, like an examination you know you need to bring a pencil to, but not what the subject is, or how to be good at it. For the first half an hour or so, this was maddening. What’s the objective? Where do I go? How do I get there? And then, because I had nothing else to do, I explored – and that’s where the game opened itself up to me.

Astroneer’s world design is a passive thing, procedurally sculpted into a honeycomb of underground caves, hillocks and valleys that hint at rivers long dried up. It is not there to push you into exploring, but to pull you gently this way and that with its tantalising horizons and interestingly foreign flora. Minecraft has objectives: kill the Ender Dragon, survive, get the diamonds, find the Netherworld – but it also lets you just explore and build, if you want to.

Minecraft’s Creative Mode is similar to Astroneer, with its procedural worlds generating the sort of inviting topography that begs to be spelunked and plundered, but where Minecraft is limited by its predictability (skeletons and bats lurk underground; Creepers come out at night), Astroneer continues to surprise and unnerve you in the way only an alien landscape can.

Caves contain strange, glass-like plants that bulge and curl, emitting noxious fumes and firing spikes in your direction. The plains are studded with tall, toy-like trees that you can dig out and fell to harvest their fruits. The land is hostile and you are there to manipulate it to your will, carving out paths and marking a glowing blue trail of tethers behind you, a tenuous and easily breakable connection to life.

Each new cave provides new dangers, none of which the game prepares you for. Even as you figure out things like how to carefully excavate a dangerous plant, something else will jump out and murder you, leaving your sad, space-suited corpse behind for you to find later. It is a game that expects you to fail, a game that lets you fail. Failure is part of the discovery and there is no real penalty for death, except having to traipse back to the bit where you died to regain your materials.

And then there’s the storms. The first time a storm happened in my game, I thought it was just an interesting bit of dynamic weather, and I carried on with my important harvesting work. The second time a storm happened, I was struck in the head by a large cube, and died immediately. That’s how I learned that storms are Not Good, and that any signs of a coming storm are your cue to get inside ASAP.

A lot of work has obviously gone into Astroneer’s design to make this hands-off approach to guiding players possible, from the clarity of its interface, the relative simplicity of its crafting recipes, the way it physically represents the different concepts players need to infer through play. This approach is not the same as an absence of design, which would likely only lead to frustration for players, but about a lack of explicit guidance.

Astroneer reminds me a lot of two other games that give you as little information as possible: Orchids to Dusk and Mu Cartographer. Both are very similar aesthetically, albeit in different ways, and both have that vague spacey/other feeling that Astroneer has. Orchids to Dusk takes its hands off the wheel completely, letting you figure out your own objective, and Mu Cartographer gives you a panel of obscure controls and waits for you to figure out something. Both games expect nothing of you; they don’t exist to test you or to challenge you, but to make you think. They provide you with autonomy but no goal, unlike so many games which seem to do the opposite.

What happens when a game gives you no goal? Freedom. You are bound by the restrictions of the game, the same as you are bound by restrictions in real life, but the point of the game is to be free. Suddenly, when you are free, you aren’t just being told what to do anymore – you are being asked what you want to do. The self-directed experiences you have as a result are much more memorable and meaningful.

Games don’t usually expect a reply from their player. Games are often a one-way conversation. You are being told something: how to hack, how to drive, how to shoot. You are not asked how you would like to do these things. Games that seem like they’re ignoring you – like Astroneer, and like Orchids to Dusk and Mu Cartographer – are actually just waiting for you to talk back.

36 Comments

  1. Wormerine says:

    I liked how Prison Architect did tutorial. I don’t think it has any real tutorial, but the Grants give you a sense of direction, showing you what you can, and should do. Whenever you decide to do something is up to you, but the game does show you what you CAN do. While tutorials are often frustrating, I don’t like when I have to go outside a game and read on how to play.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      IIRC, it does have a tutorial (at least it does now – it might not have when you first played it), and it’s jarringly dark and morbid.

      • caff says:

        So dark, it turned me off playing the game. I suppose I should have known it wouldn’t exactly be cheeryville happytimes.

        • ButteringSundays says:

          Maybe not cheeryville happy times but that intro tutorial doesn’t set the mood well at all, I think it was a bad choice for the sake of adding drama to the experience, which isn’t needed.

          You don’t have to kill your inmates in the proper game, fortunately.

      • ButteringSundays says:

        Yup it’s had a tutorial since day 1, so not a good example. Since before the player had access to the chair, even.

  2. Forgoroe says:

    This post read my thoughts and feelings while watching a stream of the game being played. I actually felt quite delighted with how I noticed the game being better and more interesting by having no tutorial whatsoever.

  3. Hyena Grin says:

    I tend to enjoy the building-game approach. Game mechanics are gated by progress.

    Think of Cities Skylines. When you start, all you can do is build a few roads, residential, commercial, and industrial zones, and some power/water infrastructure. The real bare necessities of a city. It’s possible to fail at this stage (run out of money, basically), but it’s difficult to fail forward, where new mechanics are introduced before you have gotten a handle on the mechanics already presented.

    Because you need a certain population before new mechanics are opened up, you basically have to master the basic skills at each ‘tier’ before moving on to the next.

    But importantly, these tiers are also the sensible path anyone might want to take through the initial stages of the game. It doesn’t necessarily feel like an arbitrary tutorial roadblock. You don’t need to build a hospital yet because your city isn’t large enough to require it. A new player may not realize that, and if the option was available, they may plop one down and wonder where all their money is going. An experienced player would know better than to build a hospital before it was needed, so not having the option available until later isn’t a problem (for most players).

    This is very much in contrast to most tutorials I can think of, where game mechanics are gated but not necessarily to understanding/skill with those mechanics, but rather to rote accomplishment of some simple task. I don’t know how many times I’ve played a tutorial and had the tutorial run ahead on me before I felt comfortable with some new mechanic.

    Obviously it’s a balancing act for devs; they don’t want to spend too much time on a tutorial or risk boring players, but rushing ahead can leave new players feeling overwhelmed or inexperienced.

    Building a tutorial naturally into the flow of success in a game is easier in some genres than others, but it’s a tried and true system. People never talk about the Cities Skylines ‘tutorial’ because it is so built into the fundamentals of the game that it doesn’t feel like a tutorial at all. It just feels like the natural flow of the game. But it’s teaching you at the same time.

    • ButteringSundays says:

      Interesting example!

      I’d actually much prefer a traditional tutorial with Cities Skylines, as I find the gating to be an artificial and frustrating barrier to my creativity. The best example being that you have to start your build with a basic road, which in 99% of cases you could immediately delete and replace with a better road, that you now only have access to because you built the first.

      That’s not how civil engineering works :)

      But then the freely creative mode lacks purpose, direction etc. I’ve struggled with the game because of that, actually, both modes leave me feeling hollow, but the tools themselves and the simulation is amazing.

    • Rainshine says:

      I like Cities Skylines. But it doesn’t teach you about traffic congestion or how to orient your city and roadbuilding to avoid it, and if your roads are badly placed, you pretty much have to rip down sections of your city later once it starts going. I wouldn’t call it unforgiving, but I would say that it fails to clue you in that this is kindof a huge deal, bigger than in similar titles even.

  4. Silarn says:

    I find the contrast to modern Minecraft amusing, because there were no real goals when Minecraft first became a thing – beyond perhaps ‘find all the things there are to find and make all the stuff’ which doesn’t sound all that different from this game. The main difference here is that the depths of the game haven’t been plumbed so there are still surprises to be had.

    Ultimately ‘lack of a tutorial’ is, I think, a boon to a specific type of game in this style. Death is not a massive setback and as such is a teaching experience as much as a penalty.

    There are other games where understanding the basic mechanics is really central to even being able to play. And even in these games, usually new concepts are introduced gradually to allow you to master each on your own terms well past the initial basic mechanics tutorials.

    That being said, I don’t necessarily like things to be completely hidden. I was never a big fan of Minecraft’s throw -your-ever-increasing-variety-of-materials-at-a-wall-until-you-make-something-new-or-just-google-it style of discovery.

    The game should at least provide you some basic mechanic to help you gradually discover all the things there are to do in the game – at least, those that aren’t revealed by doing enough exploration. “You can google it” is a bad excuse.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      This is why I never understood the “but what do you DOOOO?” brigade for NMS. Because countless games before had no “objective”, MineCraft is not a Survival game… it is not a crafting game… it is an exploration and building game. People given a set of colouring pencils and a blank page need not ask “but what do I colour in”, instead decide what to draw.

      (However NMS did fail to deliver on it’s description/promises/advertising, but it did deliver on actual procedural book cover generator)

      • Kiytan says:

        My problem with NMS (and several other “exploration” games) is that it tells you to do whatever you like…but then tells you that you can’t do that, or you have to do something else first.

        “you want to explore all these cool planets? go ahead”.WAIT. stop and refuel, and refill your life support, ok, now carry on exploring.WAIT. kill this sentinel that decided to attack you. now carry on. if it’s an exploration game, let me exlore.

  5. Bbqpizza says:

    This is shaping up to be my Jan game purchase

  6. Premium User Badge

    AceJohnny says:

    I understand and somewhat agree with the thesis, I think (“games are best when they don’t break the fourth wall [with a tutorial]”), but I disagree with using Astroneer as an example, for a simple reason:

    Astroneer is early-access. It’s incomplete. Not only that, but the devs have provided no roadmap. We don’t know if the lack of tutorial is a design decision or just something that’s missing at this stage!

    Granted, Astroneer does go out of its way to be non-verbal and integrate its UI in its world, which is great, but I can’t be the only one who was frustrated at the beginning before I understood the energy and oxygen deposits around the world, before I understood the point of tethers, before I understood quite how solar panels and wind vanes worked and where I could place them, before etc…

    I like discovery, but I also like knowing what tools I have at my disposal, and Astroneer is not a good example for making discovery fun rather than frustrating.

    There are different kinds of gamers, and I for one was never able to get into Dwarf Fortress.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ericusson says:

      Good post really.

      The number of articles praying Astroneer based on zero information on its future and direction but the liking of the alpha available is now noticeable, I find the hype building overrated.

      Also, pretty much all the gamers on this site will agree that basic tutorials are useless, this is not news, you wrote plenty about it, now it feels RPS is kinda stuttering and as Ace wrote.

      I feel laying this on top of Astroneer is just projection of the writer on … a very early alpha (seriously you still can not delete saves in the menu of Astroneer or remove nodes etc.).

      And as Geldonyeich points down in a further comment, not all gamers are in awe in front of sandbox games with no narratives. It was fine as a novelty thing but feels pointless to me as a gamer.

      And the VERY limited crafting and world elements of Astroneer (seriously what does kill you beside the cloud of gas, storm or gravity) does not satisfy my gaming fiber as the game is now.

  7. Chiron says:

    Being left alone is great, I love it.

    How many FPS must I have played in my life, or RTS games… I don’t need yet another hand holding 3 levels explaining that this is how you jump, or this is how you build a Barracks.

    I get it, part of the fun is learning on my own guys. I like going in deep and seeing if I sink or swim.

    Tutorials need to get out of the main game and plot, I hate being eased into the game like that unless its something insane like Command Modern Air/Naval Combat.

    Part of the reason I didn’t bother with Assassins Creed is because the second one spent half the game trying to teach me how to play and I got fed the fuck up with it. I’ve just killed half of Florence why is my uncle teaching me to fight? WHY? (there are other reasons as well)

    • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

      “How many FPS must I have played in my life, or RTS games… I don’t need yet another hand holding 3 levels explaining that this is how you jump, or this is how you build a Barracks.”

      Everyone plays their first game at some point. Designers have no way of knowing whether their game will be it, and little reason to assume it won’t.

      I don’t know why games have (mostly) moved away from the most obvious and elegant solution: Put “Tutorial” under “New Game” on the main menu. It’s not as though anyone is fooled by attempts to hide tutorials in the opening exposition. It always results in the main character being treated as if they just awoke in a cave after a thousand-year coma and needing to be reminded how basic tools work.

      • Kitsunin says:

        It’s because for some god-forsaken reason if you give players an option to skip the tutorial, they will do so even if they have no idea how to play, then get frustrated and on average have a worse experience than a forced tutorial would create.

        Time and again the testing suggests people are too bloody stupid to manage their own experiences.

        • hungrycookpot says:

          Ok… Well you can’t fix stupid. If someone is determined to have a terrible time, that’s on them. I think optional tutorials are the best option.

        • geerad says:

          Not only that, but when forced to play the tutorial, players will say “I know how to play games, already, geez!” and ignore all of the instructions. Then they get to a point where they’re stuck or confused because they didn’t learn a thing, call the game stupid, and quit.

          And that’s why so many tutorials lock you in a room and repeat the instructions every 10 seconds until you successfully jump.

  8. geldonyetich says:

    These days, I want my sandboxes to have goals.

    Because freedom is only the first impression. Giddy with the lack of boundaries, you quickly set out to make this virtual world your own. You build mighty castles. You collect priceless treasures. You neuter the once-impossible seeming hostiles. You reach the pinnacle…

    …and absolutely nothing happens. The game doesn’t care. There was no goal. Congratulations, freedom boy, you’ve conquered a world that the gods themselves had no idea what to do with. Enjoy your utterly meaningless existance.

    No, you’re basically going to log out and curse yourself for wasting your time. Maybe install some mods in hopes of rekindling that original wonderment you felt. It won’t.

    In extreme cases, maybe you’ll experiment in seeing if you can add a genuine purpose to a sandbox. Then you’re me.

    Astroneer looks fun. Hoping they don’t cop out like all the others. It’s in early access, I’ve got it on near the top of my wish list, and I wait to see what thet come up with.

  9. rochrist says:

    Considering they make a big point that the game is in a pre-Alpha state, it doesn’t seem fair to really get on them for not having a great tutorial.

    • thedosbox says:

      it doesn’t seem fair to really get on them for not having a great tutorial.

      I’m not sure that’s the argument being made. Initial impressions may be poor (understandable given it is in Early Access), but the design of the game seems to encourage exploration and experimentation without a real need for a tutorial.

      That lack of hand holding may not be for everyone of course.

      Anyhow, Pip’s video piqued my interest in this game, but I promised myself to wait until it got out of Early Access. This piece (and many of the comments) are challenging that.

  10. GlasWolf says:

    “What happens when a game gives you no goal? Freedom.”

    Or, in my case, a complete lack of motivation. Like geldonyetich says, without goals I find there is no sense of purpose, progression or achievement. It’s probably a fairly fundamental character trait that defines whether someone is happy to make their own goals then strive to reach them, rather than be given an objective and have to work out the best way to reach it.

    Guess I just don’t do sandboxes.

    • Someoldguy says:

      You’re definitely not the only one. I enjoyed SimCity style games best in the early days when they included scenarios of increasing difficulty alongside their sandbox. Can you fix this city’s problems in 20 years? By the time I’d done their tutorial about how to start a basic city then mastered the early scenarios I was ready to then consider finding out just how much of a city I could construct on a blank map consisiting mostly of mountain, but not before.

      You don’t have to look too far back in the RPS catalog of articles to find people expressing dissatisfaction at games that left them without vital information about how to proceed. Or games that had no meat on their sandbox bones. Planet Coaster immediately springs to mind. Challenge-free park building that leaves you free to design any park you like because money is never a problem may be heaven to some, but it is a purposeless hell to others who wanted something closer to new version of Bullfrog’s classic Theme Park.

      I’ve come into computer gaming from board wargames and paper RPGs so I’m conditioned to want there to be rules. Rules that can be explained in advance so you can make a plan. I like to know that when my Wizard reaches level 9 he can choose to get a teleport or fire storm spell, no be told “oh wait and see, just go out into the wilderness and do stuff and add points any way you feel like when you get them, it’ll work itself out because it’s your adventure and any choice you make is the right choice for you.” It’s fine if the game itself doesn’t vomit those rules at you, provided there’s a game manual somewhere that explains them properly. In the old days that was a satisfyingly thick and well indexed manual. These days I’m happy to rely on a wiki as long as it’s well integrated into the game, not something that you tab out to only for your game to lock up in the background.

      Semi-realistic exploration and survival games don’t need tutorials if they are done well. In the back of your head you already have a bunch of knowledge about things that might be good to try so it doesn’t have to spell them all out. Puzzle and FPS games can fudge it by introducing more advanced challenges as you go through levels without explicitly stopping the game to give you a lecture when you find them. Other game types absolutely do need tutorials or manuals, otherwise you’re like a bunch of six year olds trying to play a game of football for the first time when the referee won’t explain anything but just blows the whistle and makes you start over when any of you breaks a rule.

    • Rainshine says:

      This is part of why I’m steering clear of Astroneer so far. Even if there isn’t a game over screen, having some feeling of progression beyond I have one of each building would be nice. In KSP, there’s more science to be done, more rockets to be launched. Don’t Starve adds stories and different challenges to be dumped into. The Sims had more expensive things and skill achievements and such later.

  11. RichUncleSkeleton says:

    The Witness is the gold standard of what a game ‘tutorial’ can be. It gradually and intuitively introduces new mechanics without bashing you over the head with them or awkwardly cordoning them off from the bulk of the experience. It’s the anti-Ubisoft game.

    • Throwback says:

      Yeah but isn’t that game a puzzler? I know portal did that too – but it’s an inherent trait of puzzle games. They have to introduce puzzle tools gradually or you would hate the game. That said, zelda games do the gradual introduction really well too. Maybe it is about each component having enough to it that it is fun on its own.

      • RichUncleSkeleton says:

        I don’t think that’s a very useful distinction here. Every game is technically a ‘puzzle’ that the player must solve in order to enjoy fully. If one genre (traditional Capital P Puzzle games) and one example of that genre in particular (The Witness, and Portal as well, definitely) does an especially good job of organically teaching its basic mechanics to players, that’s something that every developer can and should be able to learn from, regardless of the style of game they specialize in.

  12. buenaventura says:

    I think that the same applies to books as well – the best books are the ones where the story does not seem to follow any standard sequences/plot twists etc, but just seems totally natural and believable, like it didn’t care at all if anyone read it (because it is REALITY described, not a story). Some of Cormac McCarthy’s books, like Suttree and The Road, are like that.

    In The Road, you would not be surprised if the main characters just died a horrible death from pneumonia in the middle of the book, because that’s how bleak it is, and how little it seems to care about the reader’s expectations etc. Similar with Suttree – it could just end anytime, or take any direction. That is awesome.

    • Gwynor says:

      McCarthy is pure genius. Add Blood Meridian, Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men, and we have Nobel prize material.

  13. cpt_freakout says:

    I agree with others here in saying that grabbing an exploration game, let alone an early access one, to make the point is a bit too convenient.

    That said, I think there’s something at the heart of the discussion raised by RPS concerning tutorials, and that it’s a failure from the part of a lot of devs to understand that our first interaction with a game should either be taught by them (through the game itself) or self-taught by the player. Graham’s article makes the first point well, this one raises the second. However, not many are the devs that understand that teaching is an experience based on dialogue, and not an infodump. Perhaps even more importantly, many fail to see that learning is as much a pleasurable experience as an anxious one. The existentialist posters above saying freedom’s a condemnation highlight the anxieties involved in self-teaching – they’re right, but the difference between life and games is that devs can do something about it, and it’s a matter of finding a way to alleviate that anxiety. Infodumps and absolute directions are also ultimately anxious, whether it’s because there’s too many rules you don’t yet know how to apply or because you simply feel like the game could play itself and you’re just a spectator that clicks a button every now and then. One of them assumes you’re a computer, the other assumes you’re an idiot piece of meat. I don’t think it’s a balancing act between those two, either: it’s about pedagogy, about how best to entice a player to learn about your game.

    Basically, if your game is about treating the player like a computer or a piece of meat, then by all means go for it, but if it’s not about that at all, then please get someone that knows a bit about pedagogy and teaching to tell you what the best approach for having the player learn your game could be.

  14. DailyFrankPeter says:

    I remember trying to play Kerbal Space Program in early access and being thoroughly bewildered by it – both in the sense of ‘how much there is to discover’ and ‘how unlikely I was to’… there being no game tutorial or – in KSP’s case – a beginner’s astro- and aerodynamics course.
    So there was depth and there was the realism, but I only spent ~1000 hours with this game, that kinda *IGNORED* my will to learn it, thanks to Scott Manley’s awesome gaming-astrophysics-hacking-&-beer channel. But to this day no game can match this score for me.