I’m working on a game that has a fairly dramatic inciting incident to kickstart your adventure, but I have a problem whereby I need to introduce the situation and characters before that incident happens, so that the player actually gives a crap about the participants and has a direct stake in the consequences.
In order to ease my mind about the ideal sequence of events, I’ve been reviewing the openings of my favourite games, from the time I click the icon to the start of what you might call the first act or main gameplay. Here is what I’ve discovered…
Dragon Age Origins
A voiceover introduces the concept and origin of the darkspawn. You then go into character creation, which describes a bit about who you are in the world (ie Dalish elf vs City elf). The actual Origins start out in a fairly leisurely fashion, introducing your life and friends and giving you some tutorial tasks, and then Something Big Happens where you demonstrate your quick thinking and combat skill, and Duncan rescues you by recruiting you into the Grey Wardens. Then the game really begins (or ends if you do what a lot of people did and just play all the origins).
Dragon Age 2
DA2 starts with Cassandra interrogating Varric, but the player is very quickly dropped into combat with the Hawke family running from the Darkspawn in Varric’s retelling. After Varric’s intentionally exaggerated story, where the player is given advanced skills they won’t actually unlock until late game, Cassandra delivers her famous “BULLSHIT!” line and then the player starts again at level one, dirty and desperate and squabbling with their family for the most basic survival.
Dragon Age Inquisition
Inquisition starts with an explosion right on the menu screen as soon as you hit New Game (which I still think is pretty freaking cool), then a shadowy figure is seen escaping the Veil monsters. The figure stands and you are then in character creator for the next five hours. The game proper begins with the player character being interrogated by Cassandra and Leliana, who helpfully exposit the crime you’ve been accused of and overall game plot, and Cass takes you out to the crime scene for a spot of tutorial.
Arkane’s Prey opens in a leisurely, not especially creepy way – you wake up, say hi to the repair lady as you head out to see your bro, do a few tasks for your staff… and THEN you get your inciting incident, and it’s revealed that your attractive modern environment is quite different to what you’ve experienced. Up until The Incident the game is fairly quiet and chill, but the Big Reveal is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a game, and the arc from uneventful morning to HOLY FUCK WHAT HAPPENED TO MY STAFF is almost 90 degrees.
The Witcher 3
The Witcher 3 opens with not one, but TWO (thankfully skippable) cinematics – the first, a brimstone-laden sermon from the Church of the Eternal Fire, condemning witchers and urging men to repent in the face of the abominations plaguing the world. THEN it opens again with a battlefield sequence featuring Yennefer of Vengerburg, switching between her maneuverings and flash-forwards to Geralt and Vesimir searching for evidence of her flight. Then it flashes back to Ciri’s childhood in Kaer Morhen for you to do some tutorial stuff and meet your bros. TW3 is an 80+ hour game, so has a bit more time to fuck around, and your relationships with Ciri, Vesimir and your fellow Witchers are vital to the emotional core of the game.
The examples above suggest I probably do have a little bit of playtime before I start shanking characters right and left (whoops, spoilers!). Still, a voiced-over cinematic seems to hide a multitude of sins….