How Video Games Introduce Their Mechanics

By Abhishek Iyer

Game designers embody a parade of personalities — they’re artists, programmers, writers, and musicians. But ultimately, game designers are teachers. Every game, from the simple Pong to the city-spanning Grand Theft Auto, is created with rule-sets and lessons in mind. Designers want the player to learn those rule-sets, interact with them in interesting ways, and master them without losing interest or succumbing to controller-throwing frustration along the way.  

This article explores some common design decisions in games that simplify the introduction of new game elements and give players the time and freedom to learn those elements in a balanced manner. 

Kid Gloves Sans Text

There’s a perilous tightrope that games have to walk when introducing players to a new mechanic, obstacle, or enemy. Throwing players right into the deep end without any guidance can lead to confusion. However, over-explaining every new thing on screen with flashing neon lights and blocks of text can also make players feel patronized. When an experienced player of first-person shooter games has to sit through nonskippable tutorials explaining basic mechanics over and over, they’re bound to get frustrated by the game’s mollycoddling. 

Keeping this balance in mind, the most effective introductions of new elements usually follow these tenets:

  1. Introduce new elements in isolation

  2. Show players instead of telling them

  3. Teach through repetition 

  4. Bonus: Tie teaching with themes

All good games don’t have to follow these tenets, of course. Dark Souls is famously obscure apart from trails of tutorial text left by the designers and fellow players, but that overwhelming feeling of ‘where the hell am I?’ is very core to that game’s experience. And there are some genre limitations at play here too. For instance, real-time strategy games like Civilization have to resort to text while teaching their mechanics. Civilization has a complex map, turn-based mechanics, and concepts like ‘science’ and ‘happiness’ which are assigned points. These mechanics can’t be taught without using text, but the nature of players’ interactions with games like Civilization makes text a good and necessary part of the teaching experience.

Introduce New Elements in Isolation

The Isolation Principle is used in web and physical design to lend items emphasis and demand the user’s attention. In game design, the Isolation Principle is often used to introduce new elements to players in a controlled environment without punishing the player too much for immediate failure. This doesn’t just happen in the first level of a game — whenever a new mechanic, environmental trap, or enemy is introduced, it’s imperative to give players a heads-up and not make them feel cheated by falling in a pit of spikes and thinking “I had no idea what I was supposed to do there.”

Let’s look at World 5-6 (Cakewalk Flip) of Super Mario 3D World. The main mechanic of the level is a set of blue-and-red platforms that flip over whenever Mario jumps. Here’s how the mechanic is introduced:

Fig 1: Jump and see the platforms in action

Mario has to jump to a higher ledge to start the level, and as soon as he jumps, the player can see the platforms flip over in the distance. Just in case it doesn’t click in the player’s head after the first jump, it definitely will once they jump on the Goomba and see the platforms flip over again. Here, the player is introduced to how the level will work before they even interact with the main mechanic. 

The kid gloves are kept on a bit longer. If the player gets on the platforms and mistimes a jump, they just fall a short distance to the level floor and can restart the section without any penalty. It’s okay for the player to take their time here, get used to how the platforms work, and then move forward. The designers can confidently include tougher versions of this mechanic in the rest of the level, safe in the knowledge that they’ve done their part to introduce the platforms in isolation. 

Fig 2: No correct jump, no foul

Show Players Instead of Telling Them

While text prompts are sometimes necessary to introduce the player to something they’ve never seen before (‘Press R3 to glory kill’ in Doom for the first time), they can often yank the player out of the game world and signpost the path forward without waiting for the player to figure it out themselves. It requires time and playtesting, but games should always try showing the player what they need to do through level design and enemy placement.

Let’s look at the Lich Yard level in Shovel Knight. A few rooms into the level, the player breaks open a health pickup only to find a sneaky bomb instead. In panic, the player is likely to swipe the bomb with their shovel, pushing it closer to one of the many breakable walls in the room. Now that the player knows about breakable walls, they can use other bombs (and even their shovel) to open up the rest of the room. A moment of panic upon seeing the bomb instead becomes a lesson in navigating the room.

Fig 3: When panic turns into a lesson

The ‘show, don’t tell’ trick works well while introducing new enemies as well. In level 4 of Volgarr The Viking, the player sees a menacing swordwielder that never misses arm day at the gym. The player jumps down to face the enemy in trepidation, without an inkling of what the enemy will do. Luckily (i.e. by design), the enemy jumps in a swirl of swords and falls into the fire pit. Now the player knows the enemy’s pattern and will be properly prepared to face them in more dangerous settings.   

Fig 4: Come on viking, light my fire

One of my favorite examples of ‘show, don’t tell’ is in Splasher, a colorful and devilishly tough 2D platformer. Right at the start of the first level, the player sees the ceiling enveloped in red paint and a person hanging off it, flailing for help. A few platforms hang in the air just below the ceiling.

Fig 5: A cry for help

Without a single word of text or flashing arrow, the game tells the player that objects stick to red paint in this world and they should try jumping towards the ceiling. And that’s what most players do, zipping across the ceiling and freeing the color-trapped prisoner. In one screen, Splasher has taught the player the main mechanic of this level (and many others), as well as one of the collectibles in the game (trapped prisoners).

Fig 6: Message received

Teach Through Repetition

The process of learning anything tends to follow a pattern. You perform an action for the first time, but that’s not enough to truly learn. You need to perform that action multiple times — both in the same setting and in new settings — to strengthen your muscle memory and have the activity become second nature for you. Think of it like learning chords in music or performing stepovers in soccer — even ‘fun’ activities sometimes have work behind them.

Games can solidify their teachings of new mechanics by having the player repeatedly interact with those mechanics. There are two cardinal rules to consider here:

  • The mechanics should be fun (there’s no point in repetition otherwise).

  • The settings and challenge level should vary. 

Let’s go back to the Lich Yard level of Shovel Knight. At the beginning of the level, the player is introduced to some bushes on the ground and a line of gems in the air directly above the bushes. The gems act as signifiers for what the player is supposed to do with the bushes (i.e. swipe them with the shovel and pogo-jump off them to higher ground). 

Fig 7: Introducing the mechanic

The temptation of gems coupled with innate curiosity means that most players will learn how to interact with bushes here. And it’s a good thing they do, because these bushes are going to crop up time and time again in the level. 

Fig 8: Learning the mechanic (for the first time)

Here’s where the repetition comes in. In the Lich Yard level, the player is required to perform this same action (swiping the bush and jumping off it) in increasingly skillful ways. First, the player needs to use the bush as a jumping-off point to reach a higher platform (Fig 9).

Fig 9: Jump Knight

A few rooms later, the player uses the bush to jump onto a moving platform. Trickier than the previous jump, but a smooth difficulty curve.

Fig 10: Jump++ Knight

Later on in the level, players can access a secret area by using two bushes in conjunction to reach a very high ledge. This might be too tricky for some lesser skilled players to pull off, but since it’s a secret area, it doesn’t impede progress for anyone while rewarding players who’ve truly learned the mechanic through repetition.

Fig 11: Pogo Knight

Learning Shovel Knight’s ‘pogo trick’ isn’t just limited to one level, either. The first room in the Flying Machine level has three floating jellyfish above a bottomless pit. If this were the first room in the entire game, players would be nonplussed. But they know by now — through repetition — that almost everything in Shovel Knight has an affordance of being jumped on with your shovel. So they clear the room by pogo-ing off the jellyfish, proving that they’ve learned what the game is all about.

Fig 12: As easy as 1-2-3

Tie Teaching with Themes

This is not a prerequisite by any means — games can coach players without having every system converging around a core theme — but games that pull off teaching while positively feeding into their narrative or gameplay themes make for some magical moments. For example, the tutorial in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a training bootcamp that the player takes before being dropped into battle. Since this is a game about soldiers, it ‘makes sense’ that there would be training bootcamps. The designers use this shared understanding of ‘what makes sense’ to teach players the basic mechanics of the game without screens of textual walkthroughs that can take the players out of the world they’re looking to inhabit. 

Let’s look at Celeste, a highly acclaimed platformer that takes an optimistic approach to game difficulty. Celeste can be a very punishing game, but the designers never mock you for the constant and inevitable deaths you’ll face in your playthrough. Instead, the game’s narrative, accessibility options, and quick checkpoints all have your back and encourage you to tap into the ability that you’ve always had. Celeste’s theme is optimism in the darkest of times.

It’s very apt, then, that Celeste’s dash mechanic is introduced to players like this:

Fig 13: Celeste’s optimistic dash introduction

The player races across a crumbling platform and makes a jump that’s doomed to fail. Everything suddenly freezes in place, a helpful bird lands by the player’s side, taps its beak sagely, and advises you to dash. Even though there’s a text prompt here, it dovetails perfectly with the game’s theme of overcoming obstacles together. 

Right after players learn dash for the first time, the screen pans out and reveals a message that’s at the very core of Celeste

Fig 14: What Celeste — and learning — are all about

And isn’t that what teaching and learning are all about? If games introduce their elements properly, encourage players to learn through application rather than exposition, and make players practice with interesting repetition, then players are sure to respond in kind by engaging with everything that’s being taught, getting better at the game, and believing that they can do it.

Abhishek Iyer likes playing and writing about games. Abhishek has written for Super Jump Magazine, UX Collective, The Startup, and Next Level Design. You can read his game design articles here and follow him on Twitter here.

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