The beginning of a game is crucial. Not only does it introduce the characters and setting, and establish the tone for what's to come, but it also must teach the player how the game works — the controls, the core mechanics, the types of interaction that will be encouraged or discouraged, the nature of the conflicts ahead, and so on.
It's little wonder, then, that many games struggle to nail the execution of the introductory sequence. Some go overboard with explicit tutorials for absolutely everything. Others swing to the opposite extreme and assume that players will intuitively grok the controls and systems, or just splash a button layout on the loading screen. Man simply start too slowly — they do a fine job of teaching the systems, but forget to establish a reason for the player to bother learning them.
First levels are hard. That's why we reached out to a number of developers to ask for examples of games that do them well. The following seven games all strike that balance between helping players learn how to play and setting mood and expectations for the hours ahead.
1) Super Mario 64's safe space
Nintendo has a special knack for accessible game design, and its flagship series is one of the very best at providing lessons through play. In the original Super Mario Bros, players quickly stumbled onto the core mechanics in the first few seconds through experimentation — the d-pad makes Mario move, colliding with enemies kills him, jumping on their heads kills them. The Nintendo 64 game had an extra pickle to contend with, though: it was likely to be the first polygonal 3D game that most people had ever played, and as such they had to learn how to manipulate the camera. And it was essentially an open world, so they could do whatever they wanted.
Nintendo's solution was simple: "[Mario 64] gives you a safe, fun space to play around with the controls outside the castle," says David D'Angelo of Yacht Club Games. He also notes that the Bob-omb battlefield is "an amazing test of all the platforming elements you need to get through the entire game." In its carefully-crafted open-world fashion, this early stage also guides the player step by step through every mechanic and design concept they need to know in order to complete the game. "Beyond that," continues D'Angelo, "the castle, the gardens, the paintings, etc, all create a magical sense of wonder."
Takeaway: If your game has core mechanics that many players may struggle to master quickly, it can be helpful to start them in a safe space within your game world — where threats are minimal and there's ample time to explore and test and re-test acquired knowledge.
2) Resident Evil 4's bloodthirsty villagers
D'Angelo believes that it's Resident Evil 4's opening level that elevated it above other entries in the survival horror series. He says it grabs players "hook, line, and sinker, right from the start." A five-minute, non-interactive cinematic, narrated by the main character (who seems to know barely more than you do), leads directly into a mission.
With scarce details, and with only a knife and a pistol with limited rounds for defense, the player must enter a dark cabin, whereupon they're attacked unexpectedly by the occupant (after briefly chatting to him), and then assaulted on all sides by villagers armed with pointy farming equipment and hell-bent on using it to kill the player's character. They must then survive a treacherous trek through the village.
"It couldn't be more engaging, fun, scary, delightful, surprising, and simply a blast to play," says D'Angelo. And, crucially, as tense as it is, the player is allowed plenty of time on the outskirts of the village to acclimatize to the idiosyncrasies of how a Resident Evil game — and this game in particular — works.
Takeaway: Just because a player needs some time to learn the mechanics doesn't mean you have to hold their hands. If your game's about survival and tension, especially, consider pushing them towards the fire sooner rather than later. But still give them opportunities to regroup.
3) War, slavery, and cool mech suits in Final Fantasy VI
"The one thing it does that so many other games don't is start off with an action sequence," says Tom Happ, creator of Axiom Verge. Most role-playing games, in particular, will spend the first few hours gradually easing the player into the world with low-stakes quests, exploration and shopping around town, and idle chatter with the locals. But Final Fantasy VI threw them straight into the evil, more-powerful side of a war. "You start off in these uber- powerful mech suits kicking butt," Happ continues. " You don't actually get to the walking-around-town-shopping until AFTER you've fought a boss and had another big battle with Moogles."
The player gets to learn the core mechanics while in control of the mechs, switch sides to a thief-cum-resistance-fighter, then master the basic battle system while fleeing the evil empire's forces with the injured slave girl who was in one of those mechs. Straight away, it sets up the tone, the story, two of the central characters, and the moral complexity of the game. "I always thought it was a lot like James Bond or Indiana Jones, where it starts off at the climax of some previous journey so you're not snoozing waiting until you can pick up the first sword or whatever," Happ concludes. (David D'Angelo makes similar points about Final Fantasy VII, which also throws the player straight into a mission that sets up story intrigue, teaches the new battle system, and makes the player feel like a veteran rather than a novice.)
Takeaway: Sometimes it's easier to relate to the story when you play as the bad guys first, often it's easier to learn mechanics when you have room to fail without a game over screen, and usually a story is more interesting if it begins with the climax of some previous journey its characters have been on.
4) Mega Man X's subtle conditioning
The Mega Man games have always been fantastic at teaching players new concepts as they go. Each game shows the player, through strong level design, how things work, then tests their understanding, then ramps up the challenge. But Mega Man X, the Super Nintendo spin-off of the main series, is a particularly good example. It's more complex than its predecessors, yet it manages to teach the player nearly everything they need to know in the first few minutes.
Once the player figures out how to move, they find that they can only go to the right (because of natural obstacles), then they're hit by a fast-rolling spike (that doesn't take much health off) — unless they jump over it, which is required to not be killed by the next foe (who shoots stuff). This foe is too big to jump over, but it can be shot, and the player knows Mega Man can shoot stuff because he did that when they pressed a button on the title screen to begin the game. And so it goes on, teaching the player everything they need to know (bosses, wall sliding/jumping, enemy hot spots, the fact that Mega Man needs to grow more powerful to defeat the big villain, etc) in the first level — not with prompts or tutorials but with subtle conditioning and a level design that allows for experimentation.
D'Angelo recommends watching YouTuber Egoraptor's video comparing the original series with Mega Man X for a deeper breakdown (discussion of the introductory level begins at the six-minute mark).
Takeaway: You can enable players to teach themselves all of your mechanics, and make the first level function as a tutorial without any explicit tutorializing, simply by crafting a world that provides clear visual/auditory feedback and shows that something is possible shortly before the player needs to learn it.
5) Thumper's simple difficulty
Robin Hunicke of Funomena says she's a fan of Thumper's onboarding. The recently-released self-described "rhythm violence game" puts the player in control of a glowing space beetle travelling an intergalactic road through neon-lit rhythm hell. Its first level eases the player into the one-stick, one-button control scheme with a gently-accelerating rhythm and on-screen button prompts at the first few gems, corners, walls, and barriers (each of which requires a different button and stick combo).
The pulse-pounding rhythms echo back in a kind of call-and-response/Simon Says flow — hear the sounds, then press the buttons in time as you hear them again — and here, at the beginning, they're less layered and frantic so as to teach the systems without overwhelming. "It is smooth, simple, and yet not super easy," explains Hunicke. "So for a game that focuses on difficulty and execution/timing, it does a great job of letting you know exactly what you are in for."
Takeaway: When the core gameplay loop relies on high challenge levels, it's fine to make things tough right from the beginning. But keep the first stage's design straightforward so that they can soak in the theme and know to focus on the things that matter.
6) Metroid/Super Metroid's convention-defying open-world platforming
Both Metroid and Super Metroid came out at a time when most console games were action-heavy platformers that scrolled left-to-right (and maybe top-to-bottom) and were broken into distinct levels. But their designers wanted to subvert these conventions, to make a game that scrolls in all directions, has rooms in a contiguous world (rather than levels), and prizes exploration and frequent backtracking. Their opening stages had a lot of responsibility, then, to show that Metroid is not like Mario, or even a shoot-'em-up like Contra.
They stumble on some nitty-gritty details, but for the most part both games succeed. From a gameplay perspective, their beginnings are about establishing familiarity with an unfamiliar set of systems. In terms of story, they're about setting the isolationist tone of the game. "Similar to Resident Evil 4," D'Angelo says, "[they're each] just perfect at letting you understand from the get-go what this game is about." Dead bodies that were alive moments earlier show something has gone wrong, while lots of platforms encourage the player to learn the jump physics, and even subtler level design elements force mastery of running, ducking, and shooting. (And the first enemy is a boss fight, followed an escape sequence.)
Takeaway: If you're making a game that breaks from convention, set that expectation early and show the player — force them to understand — through level design how yours differs, but also note that some players won't want to cooperate and will need to be subtly prodded back on track.
7) Communicative, language-free design in Circles
In Circles, Jeroen Wimmer's abstract puzzle game included in the Experimental Gameplay Workshop last March, every level builds upon or playfully subverts the lessons of the previous one. And this expectation is set right from the beginning, with the earliest set of levels containing only a few circles of two different colors that move or change size in response to the player's mouse movements. The game explains nothing, but immediately it becomes clear that this is a game in which the mouse moves one circle, which has some sort of well-defined impact on the others.
Robin Hunicke praises the way this difficulty ramps intuitively, purely through communicative design. "Each new gameplay element is very clearly introduced without language in a cool puzzle," she says.
Takeaway: Good design is communication all on its own. Players can quickly ascertain causal relationships, thematics, and mechanics if they are encouraged to explore the possibility space and given clear feedback — no words needed.
Great introductory levels need not tutorialize
The one commonality between all of these games, and the others that devs mentioned (Portal, Zelda series, Katamari Damacy), is that they don't begin with explicit tutorials. They start with the game itself, and if they have tutorial text it's non-invasive and easily ignored — and also, with the possible exception of Thumper, completely replicated in level design.
They encourage early experimentation, and they test, reinforce, and build on knowledge at the earliest opportunity. And they do all this while simultaneously establishing the theme and style of the game. They define a possibility space that later levels can then prod at.
So next time you start to design a detailed, hand-holding tutorial, consider: is this necessary? Or can I convey this same information passively, through the first level's design?