Good games teach without teaching

Do you like education games? No, of course not! Nobody does. No one like learning things while you’re playing a game. I’m kidding, of course. Some people enjoy them, but very few people enjoy a game withholding the fun from them while it tries to explain itself. You’ve probably been there. The unskippable tutorial that never ends, or text boxes that keep going and going and going. That’s why it’s such good design when a game can teach you about its mechanics without telling you a single thing. Thus for today’s episode of Good Game Design, we’re going to talk about the teaching without teaching principle.

There are lots of games out there that do a good job of this, but most recently, I’ve been astonished at how well Shovel Knight executed this principle. If you somehow still haven’t played Shovel Knight, what’s wrong with you? Seriously, this game is great. It’s gorgeous, has awesome music, and the game play is out of this world. The game is really good at taking an over-done level trope and keeping it fresh with something new. This is a standard lava level, but it’s also the green, bouncy goo level. Here’s a typical snow level, except it’s also the rainbow, pukey bridge level. The true beauty in Shovel Knight’s design, however, lies in the very first stage, the plains. Everything you need to know about Shovel Knight is presented to you in this intro level, and it’s done through game play, instead of text or cut-scenes. It starts basic, showing you a pile of treasure to dig up, followed by an enemy to dispatch by the same method. Your path is blocked by a wall of dirt, so you learn that you have to dig it away to continue. The next screen is a stroke of genius. You can’t dig dirt below you by striking to the side, but you need to break through to progress. Obviously, you need to down-strike the dirt by pressing down in the air, but let’s say you have no idea that that’s an ability you have.

The developers at Yacht Club Games made a super-smart design choice to have our hero lock into a down-strike, even if you just briefly press down on the joystick. This way, if the player had no idea what to do, and in frustration did this, Shovel Knight would eventually lock into the down-strike position and break the dirt below him. This also makes the motion of your character so much easier to control. You can just barely press down in the air to bounce on something, then keep moving in a direction because they included this locking ability. The very next screen teaches you that you can bounce on things to reach new heights by having you ricochet off this bubble that reappears if you miss. Next to introduce is mini-bosses to you. The entire background goes black, which aesthetically makes sense, because it looks like you’re entering a cave, but it also makes sure nothing else distracts you from this new foe you have to take down. All the bigger baddies look beautiful, by the way. This might be the first time the game makes your jaw drop with how good it looks.

“No dialogue, no menus. There’s not even a pause screen. You just press start and it goes from there.”

Next up, it teaches you about hidden walls. You have to break through this wall to proceed, so it teaches you that walls with certain markings can be destructible, an then up above it shows you that some of these hidden walls will have enemies hidden inside them. What’s on the very next screen? Your first secret wall that you can spot pretty easily. It rewards you with a music note if you find it. Later in the level, there’s another hidden wall with a skeleton waiting to pounce on you hidden inside. It introduces an idea, and then lets you test it out in the field yourself. In fact, Shovel Knight is really good at giving you a small taste of something early on that you’ll need to perfect by the end of the game.

I love this section. Check it out. Remember how I said you lock into the down-strike position when you press down? You only break out of this position if you touch solid ground, or if you attack with the shovel in midair. The placement of this gem in the alcove gives you incentive to break the dirt in the wall after you bounce, which teaches you that you stop bouncing when you do this. All the game did was place some gold for you to get, but its position on the screen allowed you to teach yourself without ever even knowing it.

The level finishes off with a difficult boss fight, but its health is lower than other bosses, so it’s not too hard. This sets a precedent for a boss battle at the end of each level.

Shovel Knight is obviously influenced by Mega Man, but they decided to make a simple change from those games that ended up making a huge difference in how this indie gem plays: progressive levels. In Mega Man, you can pick any of the starting eight levels all from the beginning, so each of those levels had to be relatively close in difficulty. Otherwise, the player might quit if they happened to pick the level that was too hard. Instead, Shovel Knight decided to unlock a few levels at a time. This led to better game feel, where the challenge rose as you got better at the game.

For example, this is the opening screen in propeller knight stage. By the time you reach this level, you know that you need to bounce on these jellyfish to reach the ladder, but what if this was the very first level in the game? You might try to whack them with your shovel or jump past them. This made sense as an obstacle for a later level. Take treasure knight stage. This level is one of the hardest in the game, in my opinion. There’s a lot of instant death spikes and treacherous platforming with the underwater mechanics. The hardest part to me though, was this section with the giant angler fish. It’s really easy to get knocked off and die here. Can you imagine if this was a player’s first experience with the game? Most people would quit altogether. I think opening some of the levels at a time was a really good choice by the developers, because it felt like you were progressing on a journey instead of just completing a random set of levels.

What happens when you take this concept of teaching without teaching and take it to its limits? Let’s take a quick look at the game 140. I talk a lot about this game on my channel, but 140 takes simple game play and crafts it into a masterpiece. Even in its game design, this game has stripped away anything that is unimportant. No dialogue, no menus. There’s not even a pause screen. You just press start and it goes from there. As far as game design goes, every single element in the game is taught to you before you’re tested with it. Each node you collect will generally add a new challenge or obstacle to the level and built on the earlier concepts to create a fun and meaningful experience.

A few examples: You pick up this triangle, but what does it do? Oh, it triggers a laser shot before you get a chance to start the boss fight, so you know what you have to do first. Oh, okay, it looks like these squares are going to try and kill me and I didn’t even have to move to find that out. Now it shows me that the top squares will go first, followed by the bottom squares. Then it gives me a few challenges with this new knowledge. There’s a checkpoint after every obstacle, so the goal of the game isn’t to beat it all in one life. It’s like the game is saying, “Good job. Now try this next challenge.” The end of every level will have some final exam that combines all the pieces of the level together into a really hard section. It all feels fluid and like you’re teaching yourself.

Whether it’s Shovel Knight’s platforming design, or 140’s formation of obstacles, games have the power to tell us their goals through experience rather than hearing or reading them. Maybe you’ve played a game where it does a good job of teaching you through game-play rather than explanation. If you can think of one, tell me about it in the comments below. I’d like to hear it. That wraps it up for this episode of Good Game Design. I’m Snoman, and I hope you enjoyed this quick look at how some games operate.