Games, like films and novels, have a limited period to make an impression on the player before he or she loses interested and moves on to another source of entertainment. This is especially true with the rise in both mobile gaming and digital downloads. Gone are the days when a hefty investment was made and a player was forced to stick with a game to its conclusion because it would be a long time before they had the money to invest in another. Steam sales, Humble Bundles and whole games for as little as a pound (or less in the case of freemium) have flooded the market with options.
Games then have to work hard to capture the player’s imagination in their opening hour. This is doubly true of RPGs, which have to convince someone to spend between ten and sixty hours with the game. Different titles handle this in different ways. Some successfully and others far less so. The following examples outline where these attempts have worked or failed to impress.
Good – Final Fantasy VII (Square Enix)
After a short but ground-breaking opening cinematic that establishes the tone and oppressive city setting of the game’s opening act you take control of Cloud Strife, who leaps nimbly down from the roof of a train and works with an anti-establishment terrorist group to blow up a reactor. It’s quickly established that the leader of the group doesn’t trust you, but together you travel deep into the heart of the reactor, destroy a giant mechanical scorpion and escape before the whole place blows. Your given scant information at this point, but enough to set the scene. Avalanche wants to stop the reactor because it’s draining the life force of the planet. The reactor is owned by a company called Shinra for whom you were an elite level warrior turned mercenary. You experience a strange memory that hints at plot yet to be uncovered and end the experience separated from the team and leaping onto the back of a second moving train to avoid capture in another cinematic moment. It’s topped and tailed perfectly and allows the player to learn the basics of movement and combat as well as setting up the promise of deeper systems to come when a piece of material is found mid-dungeon. The game went on to near-perfect critical acclaim and is remembered as the game to finally bring JRPGs into the western market.
Bad – Final Fantasy XIII (Square Enix)
Conversely the opening of the more recent Final Fantasy XIII is universally panned despite having several key elements in common with the above example. This too sees you start the game on a train, a former warrior for the establishment bent on fighting back against her once-employers. Lightning is a similarly gruff and moody antagonist, and over the course of the opening sequence fights both on a train, against a large mechanical monster, and gains an ally with which to complete the opening act. The major difference being that unlike FF7, which gives the player full control from the outset and the illusion of choice (you navigate the dungeon but there’s only really one correct way to go), you’re hampered with a limited version of the combat system that only wants you to auto-attack each turn and a 3D space used to generate a series of non-branching corridors that link encounters and FMV sequences. This puts the player on edge as you are very much on ‘training wheels’, and the game’s writers took the curious decision to start at this exciting point with no lead-in, relegating it to a series of flashback sequences later that leaves the player disconnected from on-screen events and confused by names and terminology made up for the world in which it is set but unexplained outside of a menu-based guidebook. Needless to say, fans and critics were much more divided on this entry into the series.
There are of course games that walk a fine line between a good and bad reception in their early stages. The first ‘Kingdom Hearts’ game used a dream-like opening scenario in which you explored a surreal landscape and fought mysterious enemies whilst being narrated by an unknown and all-knowing voice to build player interest before dropping gamers into an island scenario that acted as a series of tedious fetch-quests before finishing on a high note. The hefty down period forgiven in light of the eye-catching opening and exciting close and the shared sense of relief for both the player and characters when something exciting happens in their life. Many RPGs focus on the mundane and tranquil life of a character at their start before something happens to spur the adventure into action to show contrast and give a sense of loss/regret to what life used to be like for the character. This trope is mirrored frequently in novels, movies and forms a careful part of the ‘Hero’s Journey’.
Good – Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare)
With a title that literally references the concept of each character class and race coupling having its own ‘origin’ within the framework of the story, the opening hour of the original Dragon Age game is usually the most personal for a player. Always opening with an in-game cinematic that establishes the looming threat of the Blight and the function of a group of knights called Grey Wardens, the game then takes a dramatic shift to present a background unique to choices the player made in the character creation process. Should you be a Human Noble for example you will start in your family holdings and become acquainted with your family, doing a few thankless tasks such as killing rats (a WRPG staple) before events spin out of control and a coo sees your mother and father die before your eyes while you escape under the protection of a Grey Warden. These introductions reconnect when he takes you to a military camp, inducts you into the Wardens and you participate in a massive battle that sees the king slain. Over the course of this period your understanding of the world, its stakes and the culture from which your character originates is firmly set into place. The game launched to massive success and quickly a sequel was put into production.
Bad – Dragon Age II (BioWare)
Firstly, this game does not deserve the panning it received on launch, but it does deviate from the tablet set in place by its predecessor in that it gives the hero a name, voice and specific role in its story, robbing the player of choice in character creation but opening up more cinematic scope and allowing the writers to tell a more condensed, personal story. Dragon Age II also has a perfect framing device, a Dwarven Bard is being held hostage and interrogated by the Inquisition (who would make up the content of the third title in the series) and they want the real story of what happened with the Champion of Kirkwall. Initially the narrator tries to lie, engaging you in an overly macho scenario where you kill a slew of monsters in an almost ‘God of War’ style and fell a dragon. However when called on this romantacisation of events the truth is told. Your character flees ahead of the Blight from the first game, chased by monsters and trying to keep his family alive. Eventually running into a powerful witch and agreeing to smuggle an artefact for her if she can get you safely away. The story beats are all firmly in place and the hook is interesting, but combat has been simplified to button bashing at lower levels and the environment is a straight line to run through. Gameplay gives way to narrative device and players disliked this new turn for the series.
Whilst many games manage to showcase a great deal of their systems and structure in the early stages of a game, RPGs are largely about gradually unlocking systems and showing progress marked by narrative through gameplay progression. Some go as far as to lock whole sections of in-game menus until the character has learned about their functions in a story scene. This delicate balance means that it’s sometimes easy to miss the delicate balance between keeping the player invested in a story whilst giving them enough to do from a gameplay standpoint. The lack of a convincing first hour leading to players missing out on later-game experiences that are, by all accounts, well worth waiting for.