How Breath of the Wild Leverages Familiarity and Feedback to Avoid Explicit Tutorialisation

After winning countless game of the year awards, and receiving almost universal critical acclaim, it’s evident that there’s something very captivating about the latest Legend of Zelda. Whether it’s the open ended puzzle design or the sheer breath of exploration, there’s a lot to appreciate in Breath of the Wild. With this article I want to place emphasis Breath of the Wild’s opening hour, and how the game utilises various approaches cut down on the need for explicit tutorialisation — instead favouring to teach the player about its world and mechanics without forcing them to relinquish control.

The most overt, and one of the most common ways that games teach us how to play is through explicit tutorialisation. Almost all games feature some degree of instruction. These range from the briefest of instruction at the start of a mini-game on Wario Ware, to an in-depth, step by step tutorial at the start of X-COM 2. While, these tutorials can be effective in providing players an understanding of core gameplay systems, relying on explicit tutorialisation can come with a number of caveats. Here are just some of these:

  • Frequent tutorialisation risks overwhelming players. For instance, the opening hour of Monster Hunter World teaches the player about a myriad of different systems — functions of NPCs and storefronts that the player needs to remember in order to easily interact with these components later. This places a large demand on the players mental workload, as they are tasked to develop a model of understanding of all of these systems, and how they interlink. When overloaded, this often results in confusion or players missing key information altogether.
Another of Capcom’s games, Street Fighter V, features a similar approach, using full screen instructional panels to explain basic features of the interface
  • Players aren’t experiencing the core design intent while playing your tutorial. For instance, in a game like X-COM 2, a significant component of the game involves planning and preparing strategies, and then watching how these strategies play out. The feedback you get from correct or incorrect decision making is a significant component of the games design and core gameplay loop. However, during the tutorial, the player is forced to follow designated actions, and therefore doesn’t get to experience the flexibility that’s typically associated with the strategic component of the game.
X-Com 2’s linear tutorial is effective in teaching the core controls, but it arguably delays exposure to the design intent: consequential, tactical decision making
  • Explicit tutorialisation relies on memory. If you have to tell the player how to use your complex mechanic or unintuitive control scheme, there’s every possibility that that player will forget, resulting in them needing to reference your tutorial information again, or simply becoming stuck. For instance, the controls in Dues Ex: Mankind Divided appear needlessly counterintuitive — with common actions such as sprint, mapped to uncommon buttons such as triangle — and as a consequence, players are likely to need to reference on-screen prompts, or in-game instructions, more than they may otherwise need to. Of course, this type of complexity isn’t always a bad trait, if a memorisation mechanic is your intended source of challenge then it may make sense that players don’t develop immediate mastery (e.g. memorising complex combos in a fighting game).
Dues Ex: Mankind Divided’s controls are both unintuitive, and the naming convention almost suggests that players are playing the wrong way, should they choose to use any other setting

With these limitations in mind, developers often out seek out ways that they can reduce the amount of explicit instruction that players experience in the game. For instance, games like Minecraft, while appreciably complex, offer no tutorialisation that takes control from the player. More recently, the Legend of Zelda series has adopted a similar approach. While previous titles in the series have relied on more explicit tutorialisation — often teaching players about most of what they’re able to do in the game — Breath of the Wild makes an effort to empower player discovery and places the player in control of the experience very early on. This article intends to discuss various examples of how Breath of the Wild achieves this, and highlights how techniques like these may be leveraged to benefit other games.

Familiarity

One of the most basic examples of how Breath of the Wild relies on familiarity is it’s introduction to combat. Breath of the Wild doesn’t make an effort to teach the player what they can do with its myriad of weapons, and instead assumes that players will know what to do with items like a sword. Clear feedback on successful attacks supports this understanding, and enables players to quickly learn about the core combat controls without playing through large quantities of tutorial content.

Familiarity and clear feedback means Breath of the Wild can avoid tutorialising the basics

Breath of the Wild extends this to reliance on familiarity to encourage players to discover some of its more unexpected mechanics. Outside of video games, a sharp, bladed edge signifies something can be used to cut. Breath of the Wild’s leverages this familiarity to help the player organically discover ways in which they might be able to interact with the world. As well as attacking enemies, your sharp weapons can be used to cut down various objects, including trees, pots and grass.

The Axe inherently suggests it might be used for cutting trees

Crucially, these examples reinforce this application through feedback. The tree shows clear damage when Link performs the initial swing, and enemies react with hit feedback when struck. This feedback is essential to communicate to players that they’re doing something that’s having an effect, and as a consequence they’re likely to repeat it — until the tree falls, or the enemy dies. Further examples of interactions whose discoverability is reliant on familiarity with the real-world counterparts are plentiful; barrels of gunpowder explode when shot with fire arrows, metal weapons cause you to become electrocuted if taken out during a thunderstorm. The game consistently leverages familiarity in order introduce the player to its various, novel gameplay concepts.

Experimentation

Breath of the Wild also offers features are likely to be less familiar to players, but instead relies on experimentation for the player to figure out what works. For instance, while the player is explicitly told that they can cook, recipes are largely a mystery. Instead, the player, must try lots of different ingredients and simply see if they make something useful.

Again, crucial to this is providing effective feedback. While, the game encourages the player to experiment, it’s only by clearly expressing whether the recipe they’ve just used is useful or not, that players can learn what does and doesn’t work. Stick a few items into the cooking pot and the game provides immediate, unambiguous feedback on whether the recipe produces something that’s useful to the player.

Learning recipes is supported by clear feedback

The game offers a similar approach to combat and learning how to deal with their enemy attacks. Each enemy has their own attack pattern, for the player to experiment with and learn. While you may not be aware of everything the enemy can do within your first encounter, the game provides clear feedback when the player is hit, with animated feedback accompanied by a clearly visible depletion of health. This clear feedback on the effects of enemy attacks allows players to experiment to learn what the best combat strategies might be. Over time the player might learn which attacks are easily telegraphed, and therefore learn which they can evade in order to perform a parry attack.

The player gets clear feedback when they’ve nailed the correct timing

Tutorialisation & Instruction

Breath of the Wild does feature some explicit tutorialisation, though this takes a very minimal approach, with very brief instructional text appearing after the player obtains new abilities. While the controls are only presented with a single communication, it’s easy for the players to reference this at any time. Additionally, the game provides clear feedback when using your abilities, so as to communicate their effect. For instance with the Magnesis ability that the player unlocks in the animation below, the player can easily see when Magnesis is affecting an object because it glows bright yellow.

Explicit tutorialisation can be invaluable in supporting the players understanding of complex, novel mechanics

However, these tutorial instances are few and far between, and it’s likely that this hands off approach helps encourage the player to learn and discover on their own.

Complex Interactions and Empowering Discovery

These various approaches to teaching the player enable them to develop a gradual understanding of the games numerous systems. Allowing players to learn at their own pace, as they organically discover how each the games mechanics operate. This relatively hands off approach and particularly the aforementioned emphasis on experimentation both ensures that the player is never overloaded with information — as they are free to learn at their own pace.

The results of experimentation

The end result is the potential for emergent gameplay instances such as the example pictured above. It’s easy to look at this mechanic and consider it simply the result of the games flexibility, however; this would neglect the various means in which the game covertly supports players in getting here. By leveraging familiarity and encouraging experimentation through clear and consistent feedback, Breath of the Wild is able to empower the player to explore it’s systems, and achieves its design intent.