Arkham Knight – Or how Modern Games Don’t Know how to Teach Gamers to Play

It used to be that gaming was simple: move to the left and complete the level without dying. That’s not to say there weren’t times where gamers wished the developers had left more clues about how to play their games, but they weren’t full of extremely complex systems that absolutely required explanation. As games became more complex, developers got more tools to explain how their games worked, one of which being the tutorial. However, many developers – especially of AAA titles – forgot how teaching gamers to play their games can be intuitively done through gameplay. Most of the time developers over-explain, causing gameplay to slow down to a crawl. Rarely, a game will come along like Batman: Arkham Knight and won’t even bother trying to teach gamers its most fundamental systems in anyway, but will expect them to carry forth their knowledge from earlier games. Today, I’d like to look at how many modern games fail to teach gamers to how play in an effective manner, and how Arkham Knight fails in pretty much every regard to do so.

Please note that this article is not commenting on the general quality of Arkham Knight. It is merely highlighting a deficiency.

Physique of a bus driver … Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. Photograph: 20thCFox/Everett/

Gaming is an interactive medium. Scratch that. Gaming is THE interactive medium. As such, the core and fundamental aspect of a video game is the gameplay. There are games that try to blur the line between movie (The Order 1886) or book (anything from Telltale Games), but the distinguishing point between mediums is always the interactive component. Older games made use of this fundamental aspect of the medium better when teaching gamers how to play. The short of it is: don’t tell gamers how to play – teach them through gameplay. Here’s an example: in Castlevania III, you come across a weird-looking platform. If you jump on it, the platform will flip around and send you harmlessly to a lower platform. The next time you see such a platform, it is over a bottomless pit. Thus, the game showed you that you how the platform worked, then later expected you to carry forth that knowledge as it became a regular gameplay device.

169_zelda007_rTutorials are in many ways the opposite of intuitive game design. They force the player to slow completely down as the developer slowly explains everything. There is absolutely nothing more damaging to gameplay than stopping it so someone can explain concepts, especially simple ones. Probably the worst offender I’ve ever seen was Zelda: Twilight Princess. From a series that is known for intuitive integration of learning and gameplay, came an opening tutorial section so prolonged and unnecessary that I really haven’t been able to bother getting past it more than once. As a general rule, that’s a bad thing.

The least intrusive tutorials are either popups or optional ones that are found within your menu. Though these are certainly preferable to forced tutorial sections, they are still less effective than combining new mechanics or obstacles seamlessly into gameplay. The perfect scenario is that your game is intuitive enough that gamers are able to teach themselves how to play. Of course this isn’t always possible. Especially with RPGs that have complex or unintuitive systems, there needs to be some kind of tutorial. Few people would be able to grasp Final Fantasy VIII’s junction system without some sort of lesson, though I have to point out that the tutorial for that was shorter than the tutorial for basic movement in many modern games.

This brings us to Arkham Knight, a game that handles teaching gamers with the care of a baseball bat against a recently escaped thug’s face. Arkham Knight takes a very strange approach. It’s the third (fourth) game in developer Rocksteady’s trilogy and it opens up with Batman having access to most of the gadgets and abilities he had in Arkham City. Rocksteady, thus, decided not to teach gamers the fundamentals of the game, assuming everyone was familiar with the older ones. True, there are a few popups here and there, but Arkham Knight never actually tries to introduce you to the fundamental combat system or predator system, nor does it even bother to hint at how to get riddler trophies to appear on your map. While not explaining is good, the issue lies with the fact that you have a huge variety of tools at your disposal, yet Arkham Knight never seems to attempt to get you to use any of them. There is variation, but none of it is necessary. I forgot I even had the line launcher or remote battarang until much later in the game.

maxresdefaultIn some ways, I can get behind giving players a large number of tools and letting them figure out how to use them, thus foregoing any tutorial section, but that’s not what Arkham Knight does. There are constant, frustrating tutorials that try to teach you every single little new thing in the game. It gets especially bad when you get a new bat suit and a bunch of painfully boring tutorial VR sections pop up. Just in case you’re thinking about skipping them, they also reward ability points upon completion. It makes it patently obvious that Rocksteady is not foregoing tutorials in favour of freedom, but rather assumes that everyone playing went through the previous games. That’s a big assumption when the newest game is available on a completely different system than the older games.

There are batmobile sections that are handled a bit better. For example, the game hamfistedly gets you up a building after obtaining a tether for the car, and later expects you to know how to use it in conjunction with several parts. However, this aspect is inconsistent. Sometimes, you won’t know exactly what to do and have to figure it out. Other times, Batman will loudly proclaim every single time you need to use the tether to charge something up. In-game dialogue like this shouldn’t exist after gamers are given the tools that they need.

Some argue that tutorials are necessary in order to usher children through sometimes complicated paths. I balk at this assertion. Many gamers grew up with far less forgiving games, and, guess what, we figured it out. Tutorials serve as the lazy man’s tool. They are the use of narration in film instead of using the visual medium to show us events and emotions. In video games, we have interaction. Games should be able to teach gamers by doing, rather than by telling or explaining. Tutorials may be easy, but they’re also boring, and the last thing that any developer should want is to make a boring game.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer



2 thoughts on “Arkham Knight – Or how Modern Games Don’t Know how to Teach Gamers to Play

  1. Great post! I occasionally miss the days where I would boot up a game and just be thrown into it, no explanation or hand holding at all. It was always fun to spend the first 15 to 20 minutes after arriving home from Blockbuster just fooling around in the world trying to get it figured out. This would often mean just ignoring the way the game wanted me to play and instead just fooling around pressing every button I could and pushing the boundaries of the game’s rules.

    This would often result in my playing through games completely ‘wrong’ which could sometimes be cool. I’d run into a friend and find out I had been using certain mechanics entirely wrong, or not going through the game the ‘right’ way, and this was cool.

    I haven’t played Arkham Knight, so I can’t really comment on that, but here’s my outlook on modern tutorials. I think a tutorial should only exist if a game is introducing a new, or rarely used mechanic. I think Titanfall handled this well in part, however I don’t think the entire tutorial was necessary. Just introduce the mechanics, throw you into an open playground and let you choose when you’re ready to move on. That would be idea. Don’t force me to prove myself competent before moving on (Mortal Kombat X’s tutorial was so frustrating I almost quit the game entirely).

  2. Fantastic summary. It’s no coincidence that the game I’ve recently played that has the most intuitive and best design regarding “teaching the game’s mechanics” is a homage to games of the 90’s and 80’s. I spent an entire paragraph on my review of Volgarr the Viking, on my website, just praising how it seamlessly conveys to the players what they -can- do and what they -should- do, with no awkward prompts or deviations in the game’s main arc.

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