Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 22, 2013
Maybe I should blame Star Wars.
I mean, perhaps the biggest hit movie of its time, and it opens with… text. A big wall of text. Literally, a crawl text. I mean, what is this, a silent film? Well, not exactly… but George Lucas borrowed it directly from the old film serials of his youth, like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. In those serials, there was a little ‘wall of text’ at the beginning of each episode summing up the events of the previous episodes, so that first-time viewers (or those who missed a few episodes) could get caught up to speed. Later, television serials wised up and showed ‘previously on’ summaries that using actual show footage to tell an abbreviated version of the story. But back in the old days of the film serials, you’d get stuff like this:
“A mysterious world that came hurtling from the skies, threatening to destroy the earth, forced Flash Gordon and Dale Arden into a rocket plane with Doctor Zarkov, in a mad attempt to reach the planet and divert it from its course. Hurled through boundless space, they land on the onrushing planet and fall into the clutches of the merciless Emperor Ming, who promptly imprisons Zarkov in his laboratory and then, determined to win the beautiful Dale as his bride, condemns Flash to fight huge ape-like man killers in the arena.”
And that was it. Two (large) sentences, and new viewers were brought up to speed with all the backstory they needed to know. It was minimal, but then again the stories weren’t exactly Inception. Lucas wanted Star Wars to feel like those old Saturday film serials, and even went so far as to make it feel like it was in the middle of a series. The opening crawl, which looks pretty dense on the screen, isn’t much larger than the Flash Gordon introduction:
“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”
It is actually pretty short. According to one report, Lucas originally had problems with editing these down to reasonable size as well. It takes a lot of skill and effort to tell a story in a concise manner.
But now we have a generation of aspiring game developers who think, perhaps because of Star Wars, that it’s perfectly awesome to start a game with a dense wall of exposition. Maybe not all text-based (though I’ve seen that too), but narrating dense exposition isn’t an improvement. Even with pictures and 3D backgrounds.
I’m not going to mention the particular offense that inspired this blog, especially when I know the developers worked so hard on it. But let’s just say that in that critical first five minutes of gameplay, you still wouldn’t be to the ‘play’ part of things.
The Final Fantasy that might have put the “Final” in the series for me was an offender – Final Fantasy XII. I am hazy on the details by now, but it seemed like it had as many intros as Peter Jackson’s Return of the King had endings. At least one was interactive (a tutorial), but I wasn’t too impressed overall.
So here are my general guidelines – as a fan of quality indie RPGs – for handling a proper game introduction.
#1 – The player is there to play.
This is the cardinal rule. While it’s okay to take a little while out in your menu screens and introductory cut-scene or what have you to try and get the player ready and hyped to play the game, the focus must always be on playing. Thirty seconds of intro is cutting into thirty seconds of play-time. If you have only five minutes to make an impression. Is this thirty seconds worth the trade? Maybe. But if not, then the intro should be cut down. Think “Opportunity Cost” here. You are cutting into their game time, so be very sure of what you are doing.
My favorite “bad example” in recent years is Dragon Age: Origins. The intro video is well-done, but it’s basically a 3.5 minute info-dump. It’s not fun to re-watch. The entire background could have been summarized in three sentences, and even then most of the information could have been more interesting if discovered by the player through, you know, playing. Seeing the Gray Wardens mocked behind their back, learning that there are very few left and that the evil they were meant to fight is long gone, and then discovering first-hand that the evil is back with a vengeance.
#2 – Address the the Four W’s soon, but not necessarily before gameplay starts.
The “Four Ws” are questions in the players mind about the story. These should be answered soon, but not necessarily in the intro cutscene. The four W’s are:
Who am I? (Or “Who is the main character?)
Where am I?
What am I supposed to be doing?
Why should I care?
In the Flash Gordon example: It’s pretty obvious by the name of the show that the focus is on Flash. Where? A mysterious planet, in the clutches of Merciless Emperor Ming. What to do? Well, obviously, he’s in trouble and his friends are in trouble, so he’s got to help them all escape. Why should I care? Well, friends in danger is important, and the Earth is in danger, and typically friendships and our home is important to the viewer. It’s not much, but it’s enough to go on until they become more invested in the characters.
In Star Wars: Who is still a little up in the air, but it’s clear that Rebels are the good guys, and Princess Leia is mentioned by name. Where? Somewhere in space, with the whole galaxy as the setting, where an evil Galactic Empire rules. What’s the goal? To restore freedom to the galaxy, of course, probably having something to do with the secret plans to the DEATH STAR. Why should we care? Once again, a planet-killing space station sounds like Bad News, as we’re kinda fond of our own planet, and freedom tends to be pretty high on folks’ list of Good Things to Restore. It’s not much, but it’s enough to get started until we’ve gotten more emotionally invested in the story and characters.
These aren’t detailed responses to the questions, nor should they be. We don’t know (or care) who Princess Leia’s parents are (and at this point, it would be meaningless to try and explain it to us). We’re not even introduced to Darth Vader, the main bad guy of the show. Likewise, we have very little information about Emperor Ming’s planet hurtling towards the earth, or his plans (beyond marrying Dale and offing Flash). They aren’t critical to our understanding of what’s about to happen. If it’s important, it’ll be explained later.
#3 – The intro is a promise and a tease
The introduction is a chance to get the player excited about what they are about to play, to tease them a little bit about what’s going to be in store, and to give them enough hints about the plot to pique their curiosity. The player has an entire game to play in which to obtain background information. The introductory cutscene needs do little else than point them in the direction of the gameplay and sell them on the prospect of playing.
Again, drawing on Star Wars – what happens immediately after the crawl? Space. A planet. Two ships battling it out, one desperately trying to escape a clearly GIANT starship. Lots of lasers and explosions. This is as much a part of the introduction as the opening crawl. This is the promise, the tease. We’re going to be in for an action-packed adventure on a scale clearly larger than life. Booyah!
Compare this to some games (I won’t mention names) where the opening sequence – a promise of what is supposed to come next – sounds like somebody reciting from the Book of Chronicles in the Old Testament. All that promises is boredom and unpronounceable names that the player won’t remember five seconds after they are uttered.
As a final bit – something many mainstream games miss – the intro should be directly related to the game. Having a cool CGI movie at the beginning of the game is fine, but not if it looks like it could be used as the intro to a dozen other games just as easily. It doesn’t have to be about the main character, but it should focus on the actual story – maybe introducing the bad guy, or the setting (an ‘establishing shot’), or a mystery. Final Fantasy VII provides a pretty good example here. Also, the original Diablo.
#4 – Don’t be vague!
Vagueness kills interest. Again – look at the sample crawls from the movies. While they introduce more questions than they answer (deliberately!), they name specifics. Names. Ape-like “man killers.” The Arena. The Death Star is mentioned by name, as well as its key features (armored, capable of destroying an entire planet). The hidden rebel base is left a little vague, but it’s revealed by the end of the movie.
Compare this to some intros for (particularly indie) RPGs that speak vaguely of prophesies, evil, great heroes, struggle against a dark force, blah blah blah. Measured in power of putting the player to sleep, this is second only to describing the lineage of the main character back four generations. The player should receive concrete details, but without elaboration. Flash Gordon was fighting killer ape creatures in an arena? Holy crap, that sounds awesome! This is much better than “Flash had to fight monsters.” But I don’t need to know how the ape-like creatures were genetically engineered by Ming’s great-great-great grandfather to create a slave race that proved too dangerous, and they rebelled, and when the rebellion was quelled in the year 182 of Ming reckoning (calculated by… etc. etc. etc.). It has enough details to give it flavor, and that’s all.
So, indies: Avoid the temptation to tell the player all about your world before he’s or she has even gotten a chance to do more than click “Start.” Good story-telling starts with the introductory sequence, and it’s arguably the most important part. So make it TIGHT.
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