What makes a good Intro?
The opening moments of any video game are much like the opening moments to a movie, it sets the tone for the rest of the experience. Unlike a movie however, a video game has to sell you on 10+ hours of content, it has a greater responsibility than a movie. A good introduction will give the player momentum to progress further into the game. Some of the best games of this past year demonstrated how an introduction should be done. I would like to examine what is it that makes a good introduction.
In some ways, the introduction is the most important part of a video game. It sets the bar, not just for the story but for gameplay. Any important mechanics from a cover system, to special abilities to controls need to be taught to the player. At the same time it must be more than just a tutorial. It can’t play like an interactive instruction manual, it needs to give the player something memorable. Above all else, an introduction should feel like any other level in the game.
I find it interesting that RPGs tend to do poorly in this area. The reasons why are because RPGs are limited by the player being at their weakest in the beginning of the game. There’s little empowerment to be found in being unable to access most of one’s abilities. RPGs have bad habit of being tutorial heavy and failing to be memorable. Fallout 3 is an exception in the latter but even then it has a very slow pace for the most part. Most RPGs don’t start with a sense of spectacle and that’s a problem for anyone who’s new to the genre.
In terms of sheer spectacle, the God of War games have perfected the introduction. Every God of War game starts with a bang and features a boss at the end of the level. By the time the player has reached this boss, they’ll know everything they need to beat the rest of the game. God of War 3 is probably one of the most explosive and entertaining introductions in gaming history. It features the Titans marching on an all-out assault on Mt. Olympus and a climactic encounter with Poseidon. This introduction commits the odd crime of being too good; it sets a tone that the rest of the game never quite reaches.
Another great introduction comes from the Uncharted games. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves interestingly enough, plays its biggest card early. Who could forget the opening moment of Nathan Drake hanging onto a train dangling over a cliff? For about 2/3 of the game, the player has something to look forward to and it helps that the level in which Drake reaches this precarious position is just as memorable. It’s great use of anticipation to motivate the player and because it’s looking back from a big set-piece moment, it avoids the trap, playing its best card too early, that God of War 3 fell into.
Introductions are more than just spectacle, it’s also important for them to teach the player key mechanics. There are many ways to accomplish this. A very common method is to slowly teach the player one mechanic at a time and only doing so when it’s relevant. This makes it easier for the player to retain what they’re being told. You’re less likely to remember three pages of controls and abilities if you learn them all at once. Portal uses this style of tutorial throughout the entire game and does so to perfection.
Another method of tutorials is a sort of “mini-level”, a tutorial that is essentially a stripped-down level that teaches the player base mechanics in a way that’s much easier than doing so in the rest of the game. Games in the stealth genre, such as Assassin’s Creed, Batman: Arkham City and Splinter Cell: Conviction tend to use this method. The first stealth-kill in Assassin’s Creed for example, is on a unsuspecting enemy with his back turned. It’s impossible to fail and it teaches the player the effectiveness of staying hidden. The mini-level usually doubles as prologue which has the added benefit of conveying key plot points. This is clever, as it takes advantage of the player being more attentive during a game’s opening moments.
The most powerful thing an introduction can do is set the tone for the narrative. Games that use this method have a tendency to ignore doing everything I’ve listed above. Some of them are hardly at all interactive, yet these are among the most powerful introductions. Dead Rising has a very underrated introduction. The player character, a photo journalist named Frank West, is on his way to a shopping mall via helicopter. The pilot takes the player on a brief tour of the city, which turns out to be infested with zombies.The player has the opportunity to take photos and several survivors can be spotted. It’s a very somber and somewhat tragic introduction to a wacky and hilarious game but it conveys a sense of mystique about the narrative. By showing the player so much but telling them so little, it makes them want answers. Best of all, the player can skip this sequence entirely which helps for a game that encourages multiple playthroughs.
The point of this introduction is that while it may be wacky game, it wishes the story to be taken seriously. This creates a more powerful game overall, because there’s a greater feeling of something being at stake. Compare this to Dead Rising 2, which opens with a zombie-killing game-show hosted by a downright offensively stereotypical black man. Yet this is a game that has the player searching for a cure for their infected daughter, which should be more emotional powerful than a photojournalist looking for a scoop. There’s more at stake in Dead Rising 2, but it doesn’t feel that way and the ridiculous introduction is partly to blame. As much as good introduction can benefit a game, a bad introduction can hinder it.
In terms of powerful introductions however, no game has ever hit the mark as well as The Last of Us. The game begins with the player controlling a teenage girl just before the first moments of a zombie outbreak. The sequence starts the player character in hei bedroom, one of the most comfortable locations any character can be in. The player unavoidably knows that there are zombies in this game but it ingeniously uses this knowledge against the them. You’re expecting a zombie to attack at any given moment and the player character has no way of defending herself, making you, the player, feel truly vulnerable. The tension in this sequence is spellbinding, even if only last for a few minutes. Afterwards the town seemingly descends into hell within minutes and it’s mad dash to escape the town. The opening moments of The Last of Us are downright terrifying and I imagine that very few games in the next year are going to surpass it.
What makes a good intro is that in some way it indicates what’s to come for the rest of the game. It should show the player the best the game has to offer. It can set up the narrative or set the tone but either way it needs to be memorable. It has the potential to hit the player with an emotional punch while they’re still paying attention. A well-executed introduction can make a good game feel great. The best games of any year share a great introduction, it’s true for games that have come out this past year and the best games of next year will be no exception.