When GoldenEye 007 hit the scene in 1997, gaming was already seeing the beginnings of a trend that continues in the industry: the tutorial. While tutorials have been a part of gaming for decades, they were far from being as ubiquitous as they are now in the late-1990's. It's become a meme that games have become too hand-holdy, and that the jarring, constant pop-ups that appear in games to repeat instructions are to the detriment of gaming aesthetic and design.
In many of today's games you have to spend the first hour or so being led around by your ear and forced to repeat instructions while still trying to pretend you're a soldier, space explorer, or ancient warrior. Sure, some games are sophisticated enough to warrant a steady stream of tutorials, but for the most part, modern gaming should take a cue from the first level in GoldenEye 007, one of the perfect tutorial levels in gaming.
The Perfect Level: GoldenEye 007 - Dam: The Perfect Tutorial
GoldenEye 007 released for the Nintendo 64 in 1997 and revolutionized console gaming. Before GoldenEye most FPS games you saw on consoles were either bad ports of good PC games, bad ports of lousy PC games, or bad original games. GoldenEye came along and blew every FPS available for console away, and a perfect example of why is the very first level, the Dam.
GoldenEye doesn't have any tutorials, period. There are no button prompts to open doors or activate objects, or little messages telling you to press Z to fire your gun. I assume most people played the game on Agent Difficulty the first time through, and if so, the Dam has only one objective: Bungee Jump From Platform.
It's obvious just how good the design language behind GoldenEye is if you think about how vague that mission objective is. We all made it through that level pretty easily, right? It's because this whole level is a tutorial for whatever difficulty you start it on. It doesn't mention that fact, and there's nothing obvious about the way it's preparing you for the rest of the game, but that's the real goal behind the Dam.
The Perfect Level: GoldenEye 007 - The Dam: Bungee Jump From Platform
When the camera zooms into James Bond's head and you take control for the first time is when the game starts teaching you how to play. You can only move forward a few steps before you encounter the first enemy, a Russian soldier to your left. Figuring out basic movement and how to fire your weapon is a literal life-or-death situation in GoldenEye 007, and you'll likely not get past the first area without being forced to learn those skills.
Once you take out the first guard, the second guard stands watch in the guard tower ahead. This teaches you about the verticality of the game, and as a bonus lets you in on a little secret about the game's AI. If a guard is at a different height than Bond during the game, they won't fire their weapon.This means you can take out enemies before they're able to run to the plane you're standing on without worrying about taking any damage. This section also shows you stairs and lets you know that levels will include areas of differing heights.
The next section is a long tunnel leading further towards the Dam proper. There are two guards here which likely have their back turned towards you by the time you get in firing position. If you took out the soldier in the guard tower, you'll have picked up a sniper rifle. At this point, you learn that guards don't automatically know of your presence, and optionally about taking out enemies at a distance.
The next area has more guards and includes the first switch of the game. You have to enter an area where when you press a switch, one door opens, and the other one closes. This switch is notable because it displays an obvious sign of whether it's been activated or not. When you use the action button and interact with the switch, it changes from red to green, which allows you to quickly learn that you can interact with objects (other ways than just shooting them) and which button you use to do so. In fact, since you have to press the second switch to close the first door and open the second, there's a bit of repetition to drive home this lesson.
The next area is a security checkpoint and includes more of the objects you'll see in the rest of the game. The first regular door is here, along with a gate. This area allows you to take one of two paths. You can either take the easy way and take out a guard and go through the chainlink gate at the left of the building or head into the building and fight a few extra guards. This shows you that there are multiple paths to the same location and that even though the levels are mostly linear, there are optional paths that may lead to an easier or harder way to the end.
At the end of the security checkpoint is a gate to the Dam proper that is secured via a padlock. This can't be opened via the interact button. Instead, you have to shoot it off. Auto-aim doesn't lock onto it, so you have to use manual targeting for the first time. Without figuring out that you can press and hold R to manually aim your weapon, you cannot get past this part of the Dam.
At this point of the level, you've learned all the basics of GoldenEye 007, and you did so with only having the game put you in positions where you have to naturally learn all the aspects of movement, interaction, and shooting. At this point, you can follow the curve of the damn and take the only exit to the left to complete the level. While at first, the "Bungie Jump From Platform" objective might seem obtuse, left is the only way off the Dam and there's only one platform in the direction no matter how far you travel.
The Perfect Level: GoldenEye 007 - The Dam: Learning the Secret to be 00
The objectives for The Dam in on Secret Agent and 00 Agent merely build on the knowledge learned in the Agent version of the level.
For Secret Agent, The Dam gets an additional objective to "Neutralize All Alarms." Your enemies are relatively dumb in Agent difficulty, so it's not essential to take out alarms in a level. They'll very rarely actually use them to call for backup. However, if an alarm does go off in GoldenEye 007, the results can be catastrophic. Alarms don't call just the guards that are initially placed in a level towards you; they start spawning wave after wave of guards to come after you that never ends, even if you shut the alarm off.
Since the enemies on Secret Agent difficulty will actually use alarms with some regularity, The Dam teaches you how to take them out. You run into the first one in the security checkpoint are just before the Dam proper, and it's a very, very obvious alarm. The look of alarms doesn't change the whole game either, so from then on if a mission wants you to take out alarms, you know exactly how they look.
There are two added objectives for 00 Agent difficulty that make The Dam more like a regular mission as opposed to a tutorial. However, it does introduce you to two types of objective you'll see more than once on 00 Agent. "Install Covert Modem," and "Intercept Data Backup," makes you think a bit. If you read the Q Branch memo in the briefing though, you'll know where to find both of these.
The satellite linkup you need to install the modem at is near the gate to the Dam with the padlock. It's the only satellite you can see in the level, and there's a conduit coming down the wall from it to let you know that you need to install the modem on the monitor.
The Q Branch memo also lets you know the computer system with the backup is in the dam itself. There's only one room in the dam that matches this description. Both of these objectives introduce you to the more complex goals in the game and also show you that the briefing has information that can be beneficial to you during the mission.
The Perfect Level: GoldenEye 007 - The Dam: Organic Gameplay
The result of The Dam being such a through, yet silent tutorial is that GoldenEye's pacing starts at a great clip and doesn't start until the end. So many games these days feel utterly lifeless for the first 20 minutes to an hour because you're not playing the game or making any decisions. You're just going through the paces and possibly learning a tidbit or two of info you didn't know.
It's entirely possible for almost every game outside of simulations and those with complicated controls to use the same type of design language as GoldenEye did. The Dark Souls series is a pretty good modern example of a game just throwing you under the bus and putting you in situations that make you figure out game systems on your own.
I wish more titles would take a note from GoldenEye and drop the incessant help text and forcing you to do things like aim at wooden targets and whatnot. The pacing would improve in a lot of titles without all that, and figuring out the basics by reacting to situations would make mastering gameplay feel much more rewarding.