My heart skips a beat. I have completed my mission and slain my foe with two of the fiercest warriors I’ve ever known by my side. The warped, ancient trees surround me, piercing the gunmetal sky like the serpentine monuments of a long-forgotten maritime necropolis. But I know another creature is about to reveal itself to me, a creature more wickedly clever than any other I’ve encountered on this rock I’ve settled on. He appears like a whisper punctuating the fog-drenched air of the pestilential swamp.
For 146 hours and hundreds of in-game days, I have called this land “home.” I have explored her caves, climbed her mountains, and crossed her seas. And I would love nothing more than to say that I have uncovered her secrets all on my own. But in every success and failure, and on the occasional mundane Tuesday, just for funsies, one half of Odin’s mythological Wonder Twins, Hugin, has been there. Waiting with his freaking “tidings” to tell me what to do and where to go next.
Yes, I’m talking about Valheim again. But I’m also talking about much more than that. I’m talking about unskippable tutorials, the “mandatory fun” features that serve the sole purpose of taking you out of an adventure to tell you something that you may want to figure out on your own. If you can forgive my breathless hyperbole, I’d like to talk more about why forced tutorials are the interminable bane of my virtual existence.
Take my unlikely nemesis, Hugin. He spawns regularly with a bold highlighter yellow exclamation point to inform you of some sort of in-game piece of information he believes to be so critical that you must immediately stop playing in order to… well, to learn how to play. Ignoring him isn’t an option, because he will continue to spawn in front of you every 10 steps or so, assailing you with his “hails” and “tidings” with the unabashed zeal of a Rajneeshee disciple determined to lure you to their remote Oregonian compound. You cannot ignore, kill, or toggle him off — he is just there, ready to hold your hand through the game so you don’t have to exhaust yourself trying to figure it out by actually playing.
As my playtime with the game clearly indicates, I have enjoyed Valheim. I’ve even taken to lying to my family, telling them I’m playing so frequently because I have to “for work.” And bless their sweet credulous hearts, they believe me, or at least they did until now. So trust me when I tell you that the seething, blinding hatred I’m feeling for its bird is coming from a place of affection.
Unskippable content, particularly tutorials, is one of those persisting features that has been around for so long that many developers feel like it has to be included. And to be perfectly blunt, it drives me crazy. Not normal crazy, or slightly crazy, but aging ballerina crazy. Stubbornly running around for four in-game days trying to ignore the bird that only I can see because everyone else talked to him and moved on with their lives crazy. Repeatedly trying to murder a cluster of pixels on my computer via any weapon at my disposal rather than engage with him one more time crazy.
I want to run around my little slice of Valheim and figure out for myself what to do with this weird Wishbone thingy that I harvested from the belly of my enemy, but instead the ever-present raven is there to tell me — spoiler alert — that it’s specifically designed to help me find buried silver veins. And I have to read it. The lore of the game positions Valheim as a sort of purgatory where warriors prove their worth to Odin so he’ll let them enter Valhalla, and yet his little buddy is popping up every time I sneeze to make sure my progress towards this elysium is as smooth as possible.
Valheim presents far from the most egregious execution of mandatory tutorials, but this winged Norse pest just happens to be offensive to me on a visceral level due to some very dark memories tied to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. A decent chunk of Assassin’s Creed III was tutorial, while Final Fantasy XIII holds your hand for about 20 hours before trusting you enough to play the game yourself. Some RPGs go as far as to make you complete the tutorial for every character, in case being forced into it once wasn’t enough for you.
“Tell, don’t show” is one of those persistent tactics used to cover everything from exhaustively explaining gameplay to assaulting players with a made-for-TV holiday special type of narrative that is too unnecessarily convoluted to experience through gameplay — I’m looking at you, Metal Gear Solid.
This is not to say that all tutorials are inherently detrimental to players. I have no intention of gatekeeping the industry behind a “get good or get out” mentality and will die on the hill of defending optional tutorials. Tomb Raider has a fantastic execution of a tutorial by giving players a safe zone to explore in Croft Manor — if they want to. Otherwise, you can just be on your merry way to Peru, business as usual.
I simply believe that tutorials being a forced part of a game is frustrating to those of us who want to experience the world sans in-game parental supervision. There is an unmatched joy in experiencing the frustration of learning as you play. For many of us there is a victory beyond achievement hunting or 100%-ing a game that lies in the simplicity of figuring things out for yourself.
At the risk of showing my age, the games of my early childhood never thrust a tutorial on me. They tossed me on a bridge over a pit or in the cell of a Nazi-guarded castle with a gun in my hand and told me to figure it out. And I always did, eventually, after a whole lot of deaths that my brothers and I laugh about to this day.