A tutorial option is Plan A. I'm putting it off until I'm got most of the mechanics in place, for fairly obvious reasons. It's a bit tricky, since integrating the tutorial into the current beginning of the game means dealing with different choices people have already made. Since players have a chance to buy stuff before "arrival", they need guidance through the "what to purchase" phase as well as the "what to do with it" phase. At this point, I'll probably do a tutorial "build": set all the difficulty toggles to easy, give the stage a set of standard equipment, including the various kinds of things the player should know about.
A separate tutorial that segues into the main game is an option, but the immediate lead-up to the game opening is travelling, not survival, so I'd have to set the tutorial in another time/place, which I'm not thrilled about. I suppose I could do a separate mini-game theoretically unrelated to the main game, but I really don't like that option - playing a game to get to another game just seems like work. Besides, I like built-in tutorials in other games.
Of course, not everyone is going to play the tutorial, even if I encourage them to do so. So there needs to be a readily accessible option for players that are in over their heads and don't want to restart, or for players who played the tutorial but can't remember the specific details.
Secondary to that is a universally accessible set of quick references: the player can type "HELP ON [something]". For verbs, that includes a description and quirks, the specific command structure to use it, and related topics the player might want to check.
Here's the entry for the climbing verb:
This part of the world is relatively flat, according to the survey maps you’ve seen. There’s a few boulders and maybe an old limestone cliff or two in the region, but there’s bound to be a path somewhere that doesn’t include risking life and limb.
If you’re really determined, you can always try CLIMB CLIFFS. If you’re feeling less adventurous, you can also CLIMB STAIRS. Related verbs: Go. Related topics: Injuries.In this case, the verb help is mostly a redirect - letting the player know that climbing isn't an important part of the game. (It's alpha text, in case you couldn't tell.)
Other help topics cover the major kinds of things and game concepts: a brief overview, followed by specific uses of the thing in question, or the rules governing it, and the commands for making or using it, with pointers to related topics or verbs used. The nice thing about this is that (theoretically!) the player can type the name of something she's having difficulty with, and get the proper command structure directly:
Bessie doesn't even budge.
Bessie doesn't even budge.
>HELP ON COW
[Other info, verbs here]
You can move a herd of animals, or a single animal, with MOVE [animal] TO [place]. You can also use the verb DRIVE instead of MOVE. You'll most often want to MOVE HERD TO BARN or DRIVE COW TO EAST PASTURE.
In this example, there's partly a failure on the part of the author, but there's also an easy recourse for the player - rather than playing too much guess the verb, she can skip ahead. Of course, if I forget to mention something in help, the player is screwed, but if I get it right, then the lack of mention means the player doesn't have to worry about it.
The major upside to doing this is that I'm finding it clarifies a lot of the details of verbs. I've had ideas for movement, but having to make it concrete, even in a alpha kind of way, helps other things fall into place. It's sort of like design documentation, but it has an in-game purpose, which makes it easier to write and follow.
Part of the difficulty I'm having is that I'd like to speak to the player-as-character as much as possible, so ideally I'd like both verbs and topics to be a sort of mental dialogue. I thought about separating verbs (which are clearly mechanics) from topics (which are actually things a character might think about) by using different commands for them, but immersion loses out over playability here. Also, by the time the player is asking for help, immersion is already gone; getting her back quickly is more important than pretending she's still there.
Ideally, this is available in a menu-based help system, for those that prefer it, but I'm not sure how feasible that is. (Also, I hate menus as both a player and an author, so I'm sure that bias factors in.) A separate, printable document with lists of help topics available might be just as useful.
The big thing is making sure the interlinkages are present; ideally I'd like to have a response to HELP that redirects the player to a few main topics, which send the player on to specific things. Sort of a tree thing. I can't quite come up with a good structure yet, so they're all currently individual (and mostly unfinished).
Plan C was gentle nudging messages; after failure of a certain verb or a certain number of tries at something. This is basically a redirect to the verb used, but I'm finding it incredibly intrusive and irritating, so it's been dropped for now.
Other helper type things: The character has a goal list for overarching projects, so if there's nothing to do, she can check her list and go work on a project.
I'm considering how feasible it would be to give the character a sort of "memory" to help prevent crisis. So if the animals haven't been fed all day, and the character tries to go to bed, she might remember suddenly that she forgot to feed the chickens. Some damage will have already been done, but not nearly as much as it would be later. I like this idea, since it's somewhat true to life, and would be easily toggleable for harder difficulties.