Big Picture Mode
Industry issues given the widescreen treatment
Nathan Brown laments the dying art of the intro in videogames
You need to start with a bang. As an editor, a thing I impress on writers is the importance of the humble intro. We can talk about tone, angle and flow later on, but if your first line doesn’t grab me then it’s not going to grab the reader, and we might as well all pack up and go home. It’s a dying art, the intro, especially online, thanks to Google’s tacit insistence that opening paragraphs should be tailored to search algorithms first, and reader engagement second. The opener is one of print’s few remaining luxuries. It’s vital we get it right.
This is a universal principle across all forms of entertainment. There is a reason, for instance, that Bond flicks start with an action sequence. It’s critical that games get it right, too, or so you’d think. But even at the cutting edge of interactive entertainment, a strong opening is less common than it really ought to be. The first couple of hours of
Marvel’s Spider-Man, which we reviewed last month, seem to be setting the stage for an absolute stinker, suggesting a generic openworld game terrified to stray from the genre template and hoping the star power of the chap on the box will carry it over the line regardless. It is Spidey, yes, but a Spidey confined to open-world busywork, Pipe
Mania puzzles and Arkham fisticuffs. This month I made it perhaps ten minutes into Shadow Of The Tomb Raider before switching it off for the night and, most likely, for good, after pushing up on the stick for a bit and mashing out a few QTEs before being told to walk very slowly through a marketplace. Assassin’s Creed Origins took an aeon to get into gear, God Of War needs a good few hours before it shows its true colours… on and on it goes. When was the last time a game grabbed you in the first five minutes, and refused to let you go?
There are benefits to burying the lede, certainly. Grand Theft Auto V quite purposefully set its opening in a very different place to the sun-parched Los Angeles remake that everyone bought the game to do murders in. This month’s cover star pulls a similar trick, too. But there’s a purpose to that, a subversion of player expectations that only builds anticipation for the magic moment where the developer pulls back the curtain to reveal the game proper. I don’t think Tomb Raider, with its stodgy marketplace stroll, or Spider-Man, with its currencies and starchy lab coat, can pretend to be doing that. God Of War remains near the top of my pile of shame, but the constant cries of ‘it really opens up after five or six hours’ mean the disc never quite finds its way into the tray. Can’t it do that straight off?
The only plausible answer for why this is such a recurring theme is that games are just too big. In the era of games as services where everything is an RPG – the new Assassin’s
Creed’s 100-hour runtime is supposed to be an incentive, I think, rather than a deterrent – maybe it’s understandable that intros have taken a back seat. Developers are thinking about what we’ll be doing in hour 90, and as a result have perhaps taken their eyes off the ball when it comes to hour one. But there has to be a balance: the problem with playing for extra time and penalties is that you might concede a goal in the first five minutes. Perhaps your game is brilliant after 50 hours, but if it’s rubbish after 15 minutes all your good work has been for nought, because I’m playing Destiny again instead.
This, admittedly, comes from someone with the luxury of not needing a return on my investment, because I get most of my games for free. If you’ve ponied up £50 for a 100-hour game, you’re more than likely to be prepared to push on through a poor beginning. But I was struck by the initial reception to Spider-Man on the forums I frequent; for the first day or so after launch all I saw was complaints about how bogstandard the whole thing felt. That changed after a couple of days, but how many potential day-one purchasers were put off?
For once, I’m not entirely sure what the answer is, and I think it may just be a reflection of where the medium as a whole – or at least the big-budget end of it – is at right now. If your focus as a developer is on giving the player a means to express themselves freely in a vast, non-linear game, you are by definition abandoning the concept of pacing. But the one area developers retain absolute control over is the very start of the game, where every player is at a common ground zero. I hope things improve soon. If things continue as they are, I’m afraid we’re going to have to start talking about a kill fee.
When was the last time a game grabbed you in the first five minutes, and refused to let you go?