I am just your average gamer with aspirations to enter the gaming industry. I live in Australia and as such get raped by technological pricing and policies by the idiots who run the country and various other backwards thinking organizations. So yeah...I have to buy a lot of lube...
on a lighter note, why is this not Australia's National flag?
Anyway, my favouritest thing in all the world is good design. Not just in video games but in the real world as well. It baffles me in so many ways how badly some things are designed and how so many people will overlook/ignore these problems. This is probably why i am deeply cynical in regards to the human race and spend so much time in escapism. However, good design just kicks ass.
The combat in The Wonderful 101 is an odd beast. It combines the drawing mechanic of Okami, the move complexity of fighters, the peon management of Pikmin and wraps it all up in the framework of a classic beat-em-up. These are all very niche types of play and combining them forms something even more alien, so how does a game designer go about teaching the player these mechanics?
The Tutorial Stage:
A modern staple of game design is to always have the first level of the game devoted to teaching the player the controls. The Wonderful 101 uses this technique but masks it with an action packed scenario. This gives the level a sense of urgency and purpose that most tutorial levels sorely lack. The reason why this is important is because most tutorial levels feel like a roadblock to the actual gameplay. For seasoned gamers, tutorial levels feel like trudging through mud as the game forces them to do arbitrary tasks. Having the player hit the ground running into a situation that feels more frantic conveys to them that they are actually playing the game and not waiting for the game itself to approve of their ability to control it.
Setting the Scene
The level starts you off in a train compartment (Yes i know it’s actually a bus in the game but really, it’s a train for all intents and purposes) with a neighboring compartment on fire. The interface shows text with the player’s current objective and a stylised HELP! appearing above the students. A small light also surrounds the students, alluding to the fact that the player needs to interact with this object. The previous cutscene showed the player that the character they are controlling is the teacher of those students. The game, through both narrative and visuals, is telling the player that they have dominion over these students and that it is their job to rescue them. The player moves the teacher character over to the students and upon doing so a number of things happen that reinforce to the player that they are doing the correct thing.
Firstly, a small enlightening sound plays, the light surrounding that student disappears and they jump in the air to then follow the player character. Lastly, a number that appears at the bottom right corner that goes from 0/20 to 1/20. The last part is important, as it marks the player’s progress through this section of the level. At a glance, they know exactly how many kids are left to round up. In this first compartment there are only 10 students. When they are all collected, the stylised HELP! disappears from view but the counter is only registering at 10/20. The player is forced to come to the conclusion that there are more students on the train, but where could they be? Being in a train, there are only two directions to go. The way back is on fire, so the player must move toward the top/left of the screen and lo and behold, there are more students.
From a player guidance perspective, the choice to start the game on a train is rather brilliant. It automatically cuts down on the number of directions the player can move and by having an obstacle in one of those directions, the player always knows where they need to travel to complete the mission. There is no ambiguity in terms of movement, allowing the player to concentrate 100% on the core mechanics that the game is trying to teach them. The first of these we have just gone through: the player can gather up scattered teammates by walking to them.
You Must be This High to Pass
After the next cutscene the game begins to expand the player’s arsenal of skills. The player runs into a situation where they need to jump to progress forward. Nowhere does the game tell you how to jump i.e. (press B to jump) so the player, if they don't already know how to, will have to begin randomly pressing buttons. One of these will be the jump button and once pressed, their character will jump, visually confirming to the player the correct button press. This section and indeed the previous section somewhat rely on the player already knowing how to jump and move respectively. There are two reasons why it is totally fine to not directly teach the player these two controls.
Moving a character around the screen has more or less become a standard. The left analogue stick is the conventional means when it comes to movement and as such it does not need to be explicitly taught. Jumping however is not necessarily standard so it would seem that a tutorial should convey that button press to the player. However the pressing of the jump button results in immediate visual feedback which goes equally for movement with the analogue stick. Showing the button for jumping then becomes unnecessary as the player will end up pressing it through experimentation somewhere before this point or be forced to do it here. This road block then essentially boils down to a test, rather than a lesson. The game needs to ensure that the player knows how to jump, as it is required many times later on and in a real level, there are consequences for failing. Here though there are no punishments; just a lack of progress until the player correctly jumps.
Once they have tackled this obstacle, the game is confident enough that they have learned how to jump that it immediately lays down the next skill. This is done less subtly with the game opening a little window showing the player what to press in order to dash. They see that they need to press Y in conjunction with a direction to dash. They are already familiar with using the joystick to move so all they need to do is hit that Y button. The really cool thing here is that the game at this point zooms right in on the player. It does this to ensure that they witness exactly what happens when they press Y. The immediate surroundings are also free of any other obstacles and threats, essentially being an extended length of road where the player can get used to the sights and sounds of dashing.
Focusing on What is Important
The very next section is a little bit weird. The player character ends up going back into the train car and is introduced to the game’s bottom tier enemy but at this point in the tutorial, the player doesn't have any attacks. Their only option is to run, but this doesn’t serve to teach the player anything. With all the fights being very beat-em-up-esque, there is no running from combat at any point in the game. So it’s a bit odd for the tutorial to introduce the enemy at this point, and not later on when the player is able to fight. My thought is that since the sections right after involve a lot of cutscenes, the developers may have decided that it would be better to space the scenes out and place the initial reveal here. It could also be conceivable that the developers wanted the players to feel the difference between the empowerment of the Wonderful Ones compared to the relative helplessness of regular human beings in this universe. However, I think the cutscenes and mechanic of “recruiting” helpless civilians does a good enough job of conveying that feeling.
Anyway, after the cutscene, the player is greeted with that beat-em-up flavour. Enemies spawn and the level becomes a closed off arena. Another window is shown telling the player that to attack they need to press A. The camera zooms in again to focus on the action and the changing states of the enemies and that of the player character when attacking and taking damage. Again, the compact nature of the location limits what the player needs to think about. Later on in the game the combat arenas open up and the player has to manage and prioritise enemies not all of which may be visible on the screen at once. At this point though, the player shouldn't worry about any of that strategy nonsense and the tiny arena focuses their attention on what is important. Like the previous lesson, what’s important is that the player sees and hears all of the things that happen when they press that button.
Learning through… Quick Time Events?
On the surface, the Unite Morphs are not conventional control mechanics. Drawing a shape and then a button press to execute an attack is going to be foreign to most players. Because of this, there’s no way to rely on the player’s past experience like you can with the movement or the jump controls. Purely using the button windows doesn’t really work either because they are really only suited for conveying simple correlations between button presses and actions. Especially since they are now appearing in combat, you want all of the information they contain to be consumed at a quick glance. Hence why introducing and explaining the functionality of Unite Morphs purely in these little windows doesn't work; you have very little real estate to convey that information.
The way it’s actually introduced and explained is through exposition and a quick-time-event...Booooo! Now, now kids, calm down! The QTEs in The Wonderful 101 actually work in the context of the game and I’ll explain why. These QTEs take the form of the action the player takes to execute those moves normally in combat. For instance, The above screenshot shows Wonder Red announcing his move of “Unite Hand”, the QTE requires the player to successfully execute the combination of drawing a circle and then pressing the A button to progress. This is exactly what is required of the player when they want to do a Unite Morph in actual combat which means there isn’t any disparity between what is happening in the cut scene and normal gameplay.
Another difference between these quick-time-events and those found in other games is that there’s no psychological link we as the player have with the Unite Morph ability and the real world. So for us, Unite morphs are always associated with that particular pattern of, for example, circle + A button. In other games, quick-time-events take the form of “press X to dodge this boulder” or “press X to swing your sword”. These actions in our minds aren't generally associated with those button presses (which also change from game to game and QTE to QTE) and so the game world breaks apart a little bit because of the displacement between what the game is telling us narratively, what it’s telling us mechanically and our own experiences.
The quick-time-events used throughout The Wonderful 101 give the player a chance to practice their Unite Morph drawing skills. Each one allows ample time to complete the required pattern and there is little to no consequence for failing (small health loss and restarting the QTE). The benefit for the player is that they are able to develop the muscle memory required to master the Unite Morphs in an environment free of the stress and confusion of actual combat.
Learning what the Team can do
After those quick-time-events are dealt with, the player enters their first real battle as a team. That familiar instructional window is back again but this time it alternates between telling the player to press A to Unite Attack and press X for a team attack. This lesson shows the player what the addition of the team members does to gameplay. The player gains the ability of the team attack which they can see some of the effects of in the fight. They also know now, that the addition of the team changes their regular attack to be a Unite Attack.
There is one more battle the player has to go through and the instructional windows in this latter fight switch between telling the player how to do a Unite Hand and a Unite Sword attack. This basically boils down to the player experimenting with the two available Unite Morphs. They are able to get a feel for not only how the two Unite Morphs differ in terms of damage and usage, but also how they affect what the player knows about pressing the A button.
The Progression of Complexity
Looking at the overall tutorial, it’s interesting to see the progression of complexity in the abilities the player learns. The first thing the player learns in terms of combat is that they can punch. The next is what happens to that punch when a team is added and the team’s use as it’s own attack. The last thing the player learns is that drawing a Unite Morph in combat changes the attack button to represent that particular Unite Morph. The attack button in the tutorial changes in scope with each lesson and the complexity of what the player needs in order to accomplish that scope increases as well.
The team attack is the only thing that sticks out here as it has nothing to do with pressing the A button. However it is one of the game’s core mechanics and is introduced in the perfect spot in terms of the progression of complexity. The designers placed it in the lesson where the player isn't learning anything new about the controls. The previous fight showed the introduction of the attack button and the following fight centers around the player drawing a pattern and then pressing attack to change the Unite Morph. Both of these fights are introducing something new the player has to execute. The team attack is placed in between these two where the only other instructional window is telling the player something they already know.
A Hiccup in the Lesson
The odd thing about these last two lessons is that the ordering is just a bit confusing given what the cutscene/QTE showed the player previously. Based purely on the instruction windows (as the fights themselves are identical), it would seem that the developers intended the first fight of the two to be focused on the player learning to use the team attack in conjunction with the regular attack. This makes a lot of sense in regards to the progression of complexity in what the player learns in this tutorial. However, the cutscene undermines this flow as it doesn’t show any of the benefits of the team attack, but does an excellent job of showing how awesome a Unite Morph is.
The cutscene makes the player immediately want to use the Unite Morphs in a fight. In combination with the quick-time-event, the cutscene flashes the player a really cool new ability and immediately teaches them how to use it. Like dangling a new toy in front of a child, the player’s first instinct is to play with the cool new shiny thing. The Unite Morph ability is also available immediately after that QTE, which further supports the player’s intent of trying it out. Having the lesson that takes place after the QTE centre around the team attack doesn’t seem consistent with what the player is shown or what they are going through psychologically.
The tricky thing with all of this is that there’s no clear way around this issue. Having the team attack be taught after the Unite Morph breaks that steady complexity progression the tutorial was on. Adding more or changing the cutscenes might have worked but could have seriously broken the flow of the level. The team attack has to be put in here somewhere and where it is still very good, but I just feel that it's a minor flaw in an otherwise well designed tutorial.
That pretty much wraps up what I wanted to analyse about how the game teaches the player the mechanics. There are other skills taught here but they aren’t as interesting to discuss as they more or less follow the structure of what came before them. Anything basic and necessary to complete the game is covered in either this tutorial stage or in a Unite Morph cutscene later on when the specific character with that Unite Morph appears in the storyline. Every single other intermediate to advanced technique is up to the player to discover and experiment with as they play the game.
Recalling what I said in part 1 of this design analysis, this method of teaching the player is very much in the vein of old school gaming. The tutorial level is a modern day necessity because of the death of the paper manuals that were the go to method of teaching the player the controls. The Wonderful 101 uses it in a sense but does everything it can to keep that retro feeling of reading a manual alive. The little instructional windows look like they could have been ripped right out of a manual and browsing purchasable and unlockable skills using the menu interface feels like taking a break from the game to look through one.
The game can be unforgiving in that retro way as it only explicitly shows the player the essentials and expects the player to discover and learn the rest of the game on their own. This can be especially frustrating as the game disapprovingly hands you consolation prizes at the end of each operation as you learn. Despite this, and probably even because of this, you strive on; playing the game hoping to get it’s approval eventually. The longer you persevere, the more you learn and discover the things it wasn’t telling you but have been hinted at and have been sitting just below the surface waiting for that mental leap to click. Eventually reaching that stage where you can kick it’s ass, replacing those consolation prizes with PURE PLATINUM trophies.