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Instructive Level Design

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The very beginning of Super Mario Bros, with all the basic elements of the game displayed.

"Mega Man X on the other hand, has so much to offer, and it teaches you all of it in the first level, no, in the first fuckin' seconds of the game. It's nuts!"

This is a supertrope for any way that designers communicate things to players using level design. This is Show, Don't Tell style stuff, techniques you can use to inform players without having to bore them with text.

Often, instructive level design is about teaching the player controls, basic rules, or patterns in a game. E.g.: The first scene of Super Mario Bros. can teach you "Mario will be hurt by goombas, Mario can get things out of question blocks by hitting them from below, Mario can grow big by getting a mushroom, etc." Obviously you'll find that kind of instructive level design at the beginning of a game.

You can use instructive level design for things other than teaching basic rules, though. In Portal, for example, test chamber 10 (around half an hour into the game) teaches you the "fling" tactic. The "fling" is not a basic rule of the game, but is a useful tool that is constructed out of a combination of basic rules (the basic rules that get combined are "you fall with some acceleration" and "portals can change your direction").


Contrast this with Tutorial Level, where the designers sit you down and explicitly inform you about the game's mechanics rather than let you learn through experimentation.


  • Antepiece: When a number of "challenges" involve related ideas, but initial ones are a much lesser challenge. They exist purely to expose some concepts that will be needed later.
  • Broken Bridge: As a designer, you put your player in a room that they can't get out of without working out the new thing you're trying to teach them. That way, the player can't go forward without figuring out more about your game.
  • Camera Tricks: Devs want to make things very clear in these situations, so they'll often use camera techniques. They might, for example, avoid confusion about locations by trying to get it so that every relevant object will be on the screen at the same time.
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  • Equipment-Based Progression: Devs may place initial limitations on the player's abilities, and lay out the game in such a way that you only need *this* thing for *that* part. This avoids a bit of confusion for a player thinking about what they should use in a given place.
  • Foreshadowing: Sometimes a level designer will give you the opportunity to have a good look at the area of a level you're about to go before you go there, allowing you to asses the situation. This happens for the "energy ball room" in Half Life 2: Episode 1 and for many shooting arenas in FEAR.
  • The Law of Conservation of Detail: There are things you'll do in a level that don't seem like such a big deal; certainly they're not very challenging. But they might be teaching you certain controls in a subtle way.
  • Minimalism: Designers want the player to focus on learning something that could potentially be important. So instructive level-bits will often contain a small number of elements. They don't want you to be distracted by the nice way the light shines through the trees; they want you to focus on how to play.
  • New Weapon Target Range: Designers give the player a new tool, and set up the next area in such a way that it perfectly suits the tool's use so a player can learn how it works.
  • No Sidepaths, No Exploration, No Freedom: Constraining the player means that you can make sure that they get introduced to the exact ideas you want to introduce to them.
  • Teaching Through Accident: When designers encourages players to do something that may not actually help them, but allows them to discover something new regardless.
  • Videogame Difficulty Tropes: There might be dynamic difficulty adjustment used in this kind of level design, or just generally less aggressive enemies or something like that.
  • Video Game Rewards: To hammer home that you've learned something specific, it's good to give the player some kind of small, short-term reward. Not a "you've won the game" reward, or a "you've done something HUGE AND DIFFICULT" reward. Just a "you've shown some cleverness" reward.

Related Tropes:

  • Training Dummy: Something you can practice on without any consequence.


  • Super Mario Bros.'s 1-1 is considered one of the most well-crafted levels in gaming for successfully making use of almost all the above subtropes within the first few seconds of gameplay to teach all its mechanics. Series creators Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka break it down themselves here. It has also been analyzed on Anna Anthropy's blog, here.
  • Metroid uses a few different teaching techniques.
    • Many of the series entries begin with you having a choice about whether to go left or right. Most games are about going right, so there's a good chance that players expecting Metroid games to be normal games will go right. However, going right in the original game takes you to a dead end, communicating two things to the player: firstly, that this game is not a normal game, and secondly that this is a game about exploring, where you have multiple options about where to go.
    • In the second room of Super Metroid, there's a small step you have to jump up on, in contrast to the many stairs in the rest of the area. This forces you to jump at least once and get a basic understanding of how the jump mechanics work, before you're pressed by time in the escape out of the area. You also meet Ridley there in a mock Boss Battle to test out your shooting skills.
  • The original Prince of Persia subtly introduces several mechanics during the first few screens.
    • In the very first room (the cell you're thrown into) there's nothing of interest apart from two dead-end platforms, above and below you. Dropping onto the lower platform makes one part of the floor shake; a curious player will investigate and run onto it, making it fall, thus telling that shaky floor parts are Temporary Platforms. Now, a first-time player will probably fall clumsily through the newly-made hole into a two-storey drop, further telling that falling too high will damage you.
    • Now, to the left is a corridor with a closed gate at the opposite end, an easy pit to jump over, and a slightly raised floor tile between them. Jumping over the pit onto the tile reveals it as a switch that makes the gate slowly raise open. Slightly later there's a similar situation where the switch is easily placed directly before the gate, but there's a harder-to-see second switch between them that closes the gate. Walking onto it forces the player to go and press the first switch again, but now they should know that there's two kinds of gate switches.
  • World of Warcraft has kinda gotten into this a bit in recent raids, even though you also get an ingame journal explaining the encounter mechanics. For example, before you fight Nazgrim in the Siege of Ogrimmar, you fight through groups of the same soldiers he calls in during the fight, so you'll already know what they do. Getting to Siegecrafter Blackfuse requires you to jump into pipes (and the enemies you fight are seen emerging from them) before the actual fight requires at least a few players using another set of pipes. Said enemies also use a number of abilities that appear in the fight proper as well.
  • Mega Man X is famous for its intro level intuitively teaching players many elements of basic game strategy. Different enemies will move and attack differently, variably milling about, standing in place, or trying to come at X. These include enemies with different attacks that require different strategies to avoid getting hit and enemies that are composed of multiple parts that can be destroyed separately. The level also features enemies that can destroy the ground and parts of the ground that collapse when stepped on, showing off the more dynamic layout of stages that wasn't present in the Classic series. When the miniboss is destroyed, it drops players into a deep pit, forcing them to learn X's Wall Jump to escape; they are rewarded for their knowledge with a health refill in an adjacent pit, positioned to ensure they will see it on their way out. The stage ends with a Hopeless Boss Fight against Vile wearing Ride Armor before Zero saves X, showing off the Dash and Charge Shot — Ride Armor and the Dash command are in Chill Penguin's stage, the first stage most walkthroughs advise, and you can figure out how to do the Charge Shot there. In terms of story the stage sets up Vile as a general of Sigma that overpowers X and Zero as X's friend who is able to chase him off, setting up a character arc for X to realize his potential and grow stronger.
  • Shovel Knight teaches you all of its crucial mechanics through the first level's design. Piles of dirt are placed on the ground, encouraging you to figure out how to use the shovel right before you encounter your first enemy. Raised platforms require you to jump, and a breakable block that must be struck from above to proceed teaches you that you can strike down with the shovel. Right after this the downward strike must be used to bounce off a bubble to get to a higher platform and a gem located to the side of an area where the downward strike must be used teaches you that this move can be cancelled with the regular shovel hit. To beat the level you also have to pass through two breakable walls, one of which is marked and one of which isn't, teaching you about hidden rooms.
  • The Sensibel Software game Wizkid opens with a training level ("Wizkid Training Camp") in which a character called B.D. Snail talks you through the main gameplay elements of the main action mode - moving into bricks to dislodge them into the path of baddies, collecting bubbles to assemble tunes, and the occasional 'special' bubbles. It doesn't cover the object-manipulation adventure elements or (understandably) the two secret levels, though.
  • Most Kirby games have a raised platform near the start of the first level that's too high to jump over and requires Kirby to fly to get over.
  • The opening segment of NieR: Automata has small windows that appear periodically to tell you what button does what and that's it. Everything else you learn about the combat is taught without you even realizing it. In fact, the very first segment that's an arcade style Shoot 'em up teaches you EVERYTHING about the basics of the game's combat mechanics you need to know: That shooting with the R1 button lets you destroy pink bullets, that melee strikes let you destroy purple ones, that you can choose between close and long range fighting and you'll need to strategize accordingly. By the time you reach the first on-foot section, you already know the controls, because they're exactly the same as the flight sections. The only things new that you learn in the on-foot combat is how to read when an enemy is about to attack (their eyes flash red before they strike), and practice dodging melee attacks. Nier: Automata is also notable in how stiff a gatekeeper it is. To go from the first shooting section to the first boss takes about 30 minutes, and there are NO save points until you beat the boss. You die, you start from the beginning. The unspoken message is clear: you are NOT moving forward until you prove to the game you have all the skills you need down cold.
  • This video here talks about how (the remixed) Flying Battery Zone in Sonic Mania teaches the player how the level's unique mechanics work in a much better way than the original's. In both versions, the foot-boosters are the first things encountered, which boost the player into an area that allows them to enter and run around the mesh pipes to know how they work. Unlike S3&K's Flying Battery Zone, the first hazardous mechanic is shown to the player in a relatively safe environment where the player's grabs onto a hang bar that takes them near but out of range of a flamethrower trap, instead of S3&K's where it is very easy to run straight into the first flamethrower trap due to it being initially offscreen until you run towards it.
  • Donkey Kong Country has no tutorial or HUD (other than the number of bananas you have), so it relies purely on visual clues and player instinct to instruct instead:
    • Before you even press start, the games introduction shows Cranky throwing a barrel at DK, which is a move you'll frequently use throughout the game. The select screen with the multiplayer options hints to the player that you can control Diddy as well as Donkey, as well as the fact that you can switch between the two when you have them together.
    • When you start the first level, the very first thing you see is DK rolling out of his treehouse, which clues in the player that this is one of his attacks — and a Gnawty is directly ahead and will kill you in one hit on collision, so the player either has to jump or roll to attack, and will likely try out the latter, which may also clue in the player that the game has a run button. A player will also learn from this that rolling into enemies can cause you to gain momentum from hitting them, especially if you roll into rows of enemies at once later in it. Doing a traditional Goomba Stomp on enemies will help a player take notice of items lurking around the palmtrees, telling the player that they can explore off the beaten path. Grabbing a barrel and throwing it also gives you Diddy, and getting hit causes you to lose him, tipping off the player that your partner works as an extra hit point. The level also anticipates that you'll hop right onto Rambi and start running ahead, which will lead to the player ramming through a wall and discovering the first of many bonus areas in the game. This is meant to tip off the player that the game has many more secrets to find. In fact, as soon as you complete the first bonus room, Rambi will fall right on the ground and reveal a secret hidden in a patch of dirt the ground, giving the player a hint that not only will there be more than one secret room in the level, but that there's another secret room right next to that spot you fell on.


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