Games leave a more lasting impression when gameplay and story compliment one another. Too often these aspects connect in only a vague manner, or worse, are kept separate.

Well executed narrative and interactive design begins, appropriately, at the beginning of the game. Assumptions are counterproductive when the audience has to be taught something, and a game’s tutorial is no different. For those of us familiar with couched gameplay tropes, relatively complex actions like damage, button press interaction, melee attacks or the standing state vs. the crouched state are routine. But a new player needs to be taught the basics: Walking, running, jumping and falling. The way these actions are communicated can make the difference in whether the player sticks with the game, or drops it.

Often game tutorials are unimaginative. A box pops up on screen, press forward the left stick to move forward, press the B button to crouch. Get it? Got it? Good. Now, go shoot stuff. Other times the player will be presented with obstacles which require experimentation with mechanics to learn actions, like jumping over or crouching under an immovable object. I appreciate this modicum of begrudging effort, but also believe there’s a better way.

Thomas Was Alone practically reads like a style guide for future designers. Created by Mike Bithell (who you can hear on Episode 81 of the Indie Haven Podcast) there’s never been a game that more perfectly synchronized gameplay and narrative. What’s more, it evokes feelings of mystery, tragedy, joy, frustration, and melancholy; all this from a game about differently proportioned quadrilaterals.

Pictured: The most memorable group of game characters in years.

Pictured: The most memorable group of game characters in years.

In Thomas Was Alone, the first block you’re introduced to is the titular Thomas, a small rectangular block that’s just gained sentience in a strange, polygonal world. All of the typical, boring tutorials are presented in the context of being discovered by Thomas; someone of relative intelligence, but no context for their abilities or the world they’re inhabiting, just like the player. Thomas and the player experiment, navigate through levels, solve puzzles and learn alongside one another. As a result, you begin to strongly associate Thomas with yourself.

Why’s that important? Because presentation is everything. A text box that reads ‘Press A to Jump’ tells me nothing about the game, the characters, or the world I’m inhabiting. It’s just a command: press A maggot! Now drop and give me 50 press B’s! Is it imperative that each basic action be given narrative synergy? No, but it’s more memorable.

Even after you’ve been taught these basic mechanics, reinforcing the player’s comprehension of story and gameplay should continue throughout the game. Gameplay for the mere sake of gameplay is all well and good, but it carries more weight when the player understands why they’re doing it. Why does this object react to player input in a certain way? Why does a character?

As different blocks with different abilities are introduced in Thomas Was Alone, you learn that Thomas is comparatively average. He can jump fine, but not as high as others, he’s small, but still a little too big for those hard to squeeze into spaces. He doesn’t have any special abilities, but he doesn’t have any disadvantages either. Later in the game he’s mostly relegated to the role of a stepping stone for other blocks, but the narrative accounts for that as well. Thomas is characterized as someone who enjoys being helpful; he really likes all his new friends, and just wants to pitch in where he can.

Say the player has to get a small square block that can’t jump very high up a ledge, what’s the most intuitive way to present this to them? Do you want them to think, ‘The small rectangular block is short enough that the square block can jump on top of it and reach the ledge,’ or ‘Chris may not be able to jump very high, but I’ll just have him hop on top of Thomas, and he’ll be up on that ledge in no time!’

None of this is technically necessary to provide an excellent gameplay experience, so why bother? There are plenty of great games which follow a routine ebb and flow: You play for a little while, you watch a little story, then you play a little more, and so on. It can be entertaining. I also imagine it’s fun to pause a movie every few minutes to fling glitter at the screen. Games are unique precisely because they’re interactive; if you’re going to railroad me, at least hide the tracks.

So how do you teach the player character and object interactivity without beating them over the head with it? Let’s take two of the blocks you get later in Thomas Was Alone, Chris and Laura. Chris is small, can’t jump very high and needs all the other blocks’ help to get up high ledges. Laura is just as short as Chris, but she’s wide and when the other blocks jump on top of her, they bounce off. After you get both of the Chris and Laura blocks, there are a lot of puzzles which require you to use the two in conjunction. Rather than just hoping you’ll figure this out through trial and error, the story communicates it to the player by telling them that Chris has become enamored with Laura, and wants to stay close to her all the time.

These kind of narrative based solutions have the quality of sticking in your head like a catchy song. In the critically acclaimed Portal, you had to carry a box through an entire level, but testers kept leaving it behind and having to go back for it. Someone at Valve had the bright idea to give the box pink accents and paint hearts on it, and eight years later some people still won’t shut up about their beloved Companion Cube.

Sending some mixed messages here...

Sending some mixed messages here…

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor was able to impart the basics of stealth mechanics by instructing the player to sneak up on their in-game wife, and press a button to give them a kiss on the cheek. It was clever, but when a couple of minutes later I repeated those same steps to violently eviscerate a howling orc, I couldn’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s an inspired teaching method from a mechanical standpoint, but narratively it’s clumsy. You’re taught that killing something and kissing someone are functionally the same. Yet while narrative dissonance shouldn’t be ignored, and should be discussed, it’s detrimental to focus solely on player perception to the disservice of innovation.

At the 2015 D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas, Electronic Arts chief creative officer Richard Hilleman told attendees he believed contemporary video games are too hard to learn. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor design director Michael de Plater added that he thought more games would adopt a familiar RPG mentality in the near future to encourage player retention. But should familiar, safe design with little to no pretensions toward innovation or risk be something to aspire to? The creators of Final Fantasy Fifteen certainly seem to think so.

Yet if the burgeoning independent game community is any indication, conventional design is anything but sacrosanct. You’ve got Brace Yourself Games making Crypt of the Necrodancer, a game that teaches players enemy attack patterns through the medium of sick beats; I’m not worried about things getting stale just yet.

There are still some questions I believe more designers should ask themselves: Why does my game work best as a game? Would it work better as something else? If so, what would make it work better as a game? Our entertainment medium is unique precisely because it challenges us, we should challenge it.