You could play Osmos with no more instruction: the imperative to grow will guide you naturally and inexorably. Despite its simplicity, Osmos does insist on spelling everything out in tutorial levels. I really enjoy early learning stages in games, especially the ones that teach you about the world, rather than the control scheme. I’m usually not pleased when English language words appear on the screen telling me to tap X rapidly or whatnot. Unless the appearance of language is consistent with the theme of the game, (like in Analogue, for example) this can be a real turn off. I’m going to go into some detail about the tutorial levels (there are two) because I think Osmos is an excellent example of how easily a great beginning can turn foul.
Starting a game with a quote by a physicist or philosopher is a great idea: it sets the stage, and fills my mind with well grounded ideas. No better way to quickly build a framework in which a player’s understanding of the theme and action can grow, than by analogy. Osmos begins with a quote by Newton that has acquired great cultural weight, and has as much meaning in ethics as it does in physics. Great first moment.
Then, fade in to a beautiful blue orb, pulsing and swimming with activity. What is this? Is this the universe? Is this life itself, or God? No, the game corrects us: “This is you”. Beautiful! OK! Now I know what kind of game this is and who I am, just give me a goal and I’m off!
Aiming for the home run, Osmos zooms out, and shows us what we need to do: “Propel yourself to the blue circle and come to a stop”. For me, a smooth introduction like this is the sweetest thing. I rarely play games to their conclusion, and I judge very quickly. Ambient music, soft blue colour-scheme, and simple direct instructions are exactly everything that I need. So, having been told what I am and where to go, naturally I start clicking.
Nothing… click, click, click! Wait what? But I thought every action had an equal and opposite reaction? Shouldn’t something happen when I click? Oh wait… I see what’s up. Osmos doesn’t care if I understand what I am and where I should go: it is too humble (or something) to anticipate that I could have understood by now just based on the theme and visuals. So, reluctantly, I press the spacebar one more time.
“Hey, listen! You navigate by aligning the cursor behind you and pressing the left mouse button”
Arglebargle!!! I love Osmos: great game. I’m just so, so, so disappointed when that little sprite shows up in every game I play to remind me of what I already know. I’ve never read a novel or watched a film that presumed the need to explain the medium: yet every second video game does this. Especially considering that Osmos was released for a platform with exactly one button — your finger — which can only be used to ‘tip-tap’… it is very sad that I’m not allowed to play until that vile spectre has made my means of agency explicit.
The rest of the instructions — that is, to absorb small motes and avoid big ones — are also unnecessary in the post katamari damaci world. Especially when the reds of warning are so vivid, and the peaceful blues so soft and attractive. Nothing in the world could be more evident, once you have understood that ‘this is you’. If that’s me, and that big red ball isn’t me, then there is no way I’m going anywhere near it. I’ll go chill with these little blue balls I can shove around. Oh shit I got bigger! Ha, and the red ball changed color! Time to win!
See: no need to instruct. Hey! Are you listening?