Tutorials in fighting games are usually an afterthought, seemingly designed as a kind of Captcha. Can you walk forward and backward? Throw a punch? Lovely stuff – you're clearly a human, and are now free to be torn apart by frame-data mathematicians via the power of the Internet. It’s maddening, especially in the online era (The Mortal Kombat 11 couchplay options have been significantly reduced in favour of it: Happily, the netcode has come on significantly since the series' last entry). Gone are the days when you’d get trounced by someone standing or sitting directly beside you, before turning to them and demand they teach you what buttons they're pressing to bounce your Baraka around in the corner like an ugly tennis ball.
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Fighting games are tense, delicate matches of speed-chess. If we're teaching newcomers to simply take their knight and bash it around the board until the opponent's pieces clatter to the floor, they might have five seconds of fun – against a savvier foe, they'll be at a loss as to how they've been bested, and won't return to repeat the humiliation.
Points to Mortal Kombat 11 for effort, then. Its tutorial system means well, and goes some distance towards challenging Skullgirls' for one of the most involved digital dojos in the genre. Not that the basic lessons do much to educate. There's the usual business of movement, blocking and throws. Then, a glimmer of hope. "Your opponents will attempt to mix low and overhead attacks to get past your defense," the tutorial explains. We expect to see something like Skullgirls, where we must block combo strings to prove we’ve mastered the concept. Instead, we can progress by blocking attacks one at a time until we total five. Then we're told to "use what [we've] learned to defeat Sub Zero", who fights like a heavily sedated bag of sausages. The lesson ends, and we've learned nothing.
Spoils of war
In more advanced lessons, hidden among menus, explanations arrive – when to avoid projectiles and when to block them, or the damage benefits of mixing up specials – alongside two useful methods of teaching combo timing. But the first impression, which will no doubt be the only thing the majority sees, does little to prepare us for online play.
So what’s the solution? There’s a fine idea in Mortal Kombat 11 locking certain rewards behind tutorial completion: you’ll need to run them all if you want the Shao Khan announcer voice, and each section you clear grants ten Time Krystals (although the game’s stinginess with this purchasable currency is perhaps holding players to ransom rather than encouraging a desire to learn).
Something drastic and more interactive has to happen – perhaps introducing another experienced human player in the tutorial via some kind of sherpa system, with the veteran being rewarded handsomely for taking part. We'd love to see tutorial updates as balancing changes the meta. With the advent of tech such as machine learning, maybe there’s even a future in which a tutorial adapts to and commentates on fights, and you can hit a button to pause the action and be told why you've just been hit in the face. Indeed, there are the beginnings of this in Mortal Kombat 11, with pop-ups heralding a 'punish' or a 'breakaway'.
Still, tutorials are expensive enough to build as it is, which is why they plummet to the bottom of devs' priority lists. But without adequate in-game tutorials, we're more likely to lose the next generation of enthusiasts. Nobody's likely to make a one-size-fits-all tutorial, every game's rules being different. One of Mortal Kombat 11's tutorials teaches us jump-in attacks, blasphemy in Street Fighter, and while zoning gets its due, Mortal Kombat's structural issues mean 'footsies' (throwing out less risky attacks to judge space) can't be taught, as it barely exists here. One thing's certain: there's no replacement for a human sensei, and the more fighting-game tutorials can do to incorporate them, the better.