The first level of Hitman is a truly extraordinary example of teaching the player through just that, play. It frames itself as a training mission for the titular hitman, Agent 47, taking place inside some sort of secret base in a mountain, which presumably houses the rest of the shadowy organisation you’re working for. What they choose to do in the level is to essentially make a very small version of the sort of levels you’ll be experiencing later, condensing everything you can do mechanically in the game into one yacht-sized playground.
First of all, the level has a great aesthetic to it, taking place in a training sound-stage, full of actors, cardboard boats and my personal favourite touch, despite the tutorial being a mission that was meant to have taken place thirty years earlier, actors waiting for their cue can be seen messing around with their smartphone. It’s a stylistic choice that I like so much I sort of wish the rest of the game had it, rather than the beautifully rendered mansions, villas and castles of the game’s 6 other levels.
So first it makes you go through it while explicitly guiding you as with what to do. This is where most games would leave it, as far as teaching you how to play. This gives you the most basic ideas about the game. The objective is to kill a person. Killing people that are not that person is bad. You can use disguises to hide from people, but certain people will see through that disguise, so you need to avoid them. It gives you an idea of the core mechanics, enough to maybe fumble your way through the rest of the game.
Then the game pulls you away and says “Now do it again”. It won’t guide you as clearly, but now there are a collection of challenges to complete within the level, these begin to really teach you things about how things work within the game, asking you to experiment. It tells you that this is not the sort of game where you play all the levels once and you’re finished. It goes through all the ways to accomplish your objective, how a variety of the items work, all the outfits you can wear and who they work on. Completing all these challenges gives you an even better idea of what you’re doing and your options in each situation.
After this, you may think it’s done with this little level, but no. Let me introduce you to escalations. Escalations give you a new target within the map, and you have to dispatch of him in a certain way. This seems simple enough. You clear it, then you’re greeted with “Escalation 1/5 cleared!”. Then it boots you right back in, but now there are unavoidable cameras at both of the yacht’s entrances. As soon as you enter their view a countdown timer pops up and says that you need to delete the evidence within 4 minutes. So now you have to work through the whole yacht looking for where the security footage is kept and deleting that before doing what you did the previous time again, all without being seen. Then it asks you to do that again, but there is a second target who must be dealt with in a different way. You manage all of that again and so on and so forth.
Hitman teaches through repetition, allowing you to become familiar with this little area and letting you know every single way to approach the situations it presents to you. This is an amazing approach to learning within games but I’m not sure how many games it could work for besides Hitman, though I suppose that question is a whole other story. The point is that Hitman teaches its systems in the best way it possibly could, and it’s a shining example to all others in its field, to tell them that they should look really hard at their games and figure out how best to show their hand in the tutorial stage.