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.