In the beginning…

Beginnings are hard.

It’s a change from nothingness to… something.
Beginnings set the tone of what is to come, but they must also be interesting enough to justify continuing.
Specifically I’m talking about ‘works’ (as in ‘works of art’, ‘works of literature’, ‘works of music’, ‘works of imagination’, etc…) *.

Different media forms provide different opportunities and impose different constraints on how the viewer/reader/actor will begin to access the work. Readers must pick up the book and read,  film goers have to go the the cinema/turn on the dvd player and watch while gamers have to turn on the pc, start up the game, select a difficulty/load a save game wait for the loading screen and then play. I just want to talk about what happens once the film starts, the reader is on the first page or the player has started the game and not all the steps necessary to get to that stage. Even though arguably they are just as important, if not more so.

With written works, I was always told that I needed to “start with a bang” in order to draw the reader in. And if you pick up most recent popular books you’ll see that a lot of authors rely on this approach. Some kind of action sequence which gets the reader interested. This seems to especially be the case for shorter – plot driven – books where getting the plot rolling quickly is a must. Looking back over the years you’ll see that books seemed to start with a more gentle introduction to the character and setting before launching into the story proper. There was a more leisurely pace to it all. For example, the start to the adventures of Robinson Crusoe which goes through the main characters family history and motivation for travelling. Perhaps because books were expensive and there was relatively less competition for the readers attention so that the author could assume that the reader would devote the time to follow through.

Films and television shows are similar in their need to grab your attention. Films because they have only a little time to tell their story and so they’ve got to get into scene setting or exposition as quickly as possible. I’ve seen analysis of the start of Star Wars IV describing it as the perfect opening shot (the scrolling text notwithstanding). This tiny rebel ship trying to escape from the overpowering, oversized star destroyer. In one shot you’ve got the whole plot set up explained. That text is good background but entirely unnecessary to understand the film as it unfolds. Actually you know what, go and look at that star wars review and come back here after. Not only is it bang on the money, it’s absolutely hilarious (NSFW)

Television is even more extreme. It’s got to be immediately arresting or you’re going to change channels. And this goes on throughout the show (with some exceptions where the producers expect you to put in the effort to follow along). Any time there’s a ‘cliffhanger’ ending before a break they’re just trying to make sure you come back. It’s even more ridiculous if you’re watching an ad free DVD or download. Most T.V. is designed assuming that you can’t remember what happened 30 minutes ago, never mind last week, that you’ve got a short attention span and that there’s a hyperactive monkey holding the remote. This is not entirely incorrect given the majority of T.V. viewers.

Going back to oral societies they had their stories as well. Stories which provide a structure and history to a society. Hero myths espousing idealised behaviour and setting enemies,  creation myths explaining how reality came into being and why the world is as it is.

Creation myths are the archetypical beginning. Describing the ground on which all other stories must be based. The vary from the declarative patriarchal authoritarianism of Genesis “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” to the enigmatic mysticism of the Rig Veda “not the non-existent existed, nor did the existent exist then”. Personally I’m more of a fan of the Enûma Eliš type myth where there is an existing chaos which is tamed for life to take root. It’s got that nice, “we all came from chaos, and eventually that’s where we will return” vibe.

And games. They start don’t they?
At some point the player goes from “not playing” to “playing”. More than that what’s it like the very first time you start the game? In general the way games start suck. They either throw too much information at the player or too little and they are almost always entirely unrepresentative of the rest of the game.

There is the GTA4\Saints Row 2 type game with a cinematic exposition of the backstory and a tutorial in the basic skills? Half-Life blew people away with it’s train intro with at least 20 minutes spent setting the scene before there was any action. This sort of build up was just completely unknown at the time (and it was continued in Half-Life2). Before that there was the Star Wars approach of dumping a whole load of explanatory text to the screen and hoping that the player absorbed it before getting into the actual game.

At the other extreme you get the “you wake up in a strange room and you don’t know who you are”. If you were to try the crude “amnesia-victim” approach in any other media you’d get ripped to shreds by the critics (see the film Memento as a good example of how to do amnesia right). It’s a lazy cop-out by a developer who doesn’t have the skill to explain a complex situation easily. Of course there are exceptions where it is appropriate.

Of course all of these approaches are dependent on the type of game you have. If it’s a short-form game with an emphasis on mechanics and gameplay (e.g. Tetris, Pong, Breakout, Peggle, Angry Birds, Canalbalt) then the only intro you need is an explanation of win/lose conditions and the controls. Even though those last two examples have plotlines. Angry Birds is motivated by birds seeking to retrieve their stolen eggs back from the evil green pigs while Canalbalt is about trying to escape an alien invasion which unfolds mainly in the background but eventually impinges on the actual gameplay. None of these games need a plot as the core mechanics is enough to drive gameplay but done well, a good plot/background can engage the player better.

If you’ve got a longer form game where the core mechanic doesn’t really change as you play then you need some kind of plot to keep the player interested. If you think of most shooters the only interaction you have with the world is shooting. Adding new weapons alters the gameplay as they’re you’re only way of interacting with the world. So new weapon type = new gameplay. Most of these games will have somewhere between 10~20 different weapons with variances but with a few exceptions, a gun is a gun is a gun.

Then you have the plot driven games (mainly roleplaying games/action games set in fantasy/sci-fi/alternate universes).  These do have backstories/plots which are important to the gameplay and use any and all of the above approaches to describe them. Again you’ll have a set of possible interactions pull/push/look/move etc… and once you’ve worked your way through this the entertainment is provided either by puzzles (zork, tomb raider, the curse of monkey island) and/or unravelling a plot.

For either any game where you do actually need some semblance of a plot/backstory to move the game along the beginning is vital. From the crap amnesia approach to the fully fledged backstory explanation, it’s got to be tackled. And as 90% of players won’t play beyond the first level (rectal statistic alert) it’s pretty clear that game makers aren’t getting it right.

God this is a bit of an incoherent rant.

What I actually wanted to talk about was beginning of strategy games. You know in Civ you’ve got the soothing voice over, a little blurb telling you you’re the leader of this tribe and knowledge of a tiny little portion of the world. I always find myself thinking, ever so briefly… wouldn’t this tribe, who were originally nomadic, be aware of the major mountain ranges and bodies of water nearby? More than just that few squares? Wouldn’t they already have contact with major tribes and have a developed form of worship? Surely there would be some communal knowledge from when they used to wander from sea to the mountains? I know it’s a crude simulation for entertainment purposes and I click through all that in a matter of minutes anyway but it still bugs me.

This is more apparent in the Total War games (particularily Empire: Total War with it’s preset alliances). You’re dropped in this world with a set of resources and antagonists and told to “make you own way”. Well, you can’t really. You’ve got to go the way you’ve set up. And usually there is a fairly preset path if you want to succeed. As I described, if you’re the Ottoman empire you will have a task list A,B,C and if you don’t hit all of those notes well you’re screwed. It’s just an exercise in following a predetermined script to allow you to access bigger and better units for use in the battles. Don’t get me started on real RTS’s where you literally have a build ladder and once you start playing you’d better know your endgame plan or you’ve no chance of winning (no, I’m not very good at RTS’s or any other planning/micromanaging type games).

I’d like a game where the first segment is creating the world and the second is playing in it. Civ is close but as I’ll talk about later even here you have the same “build tree” type progression and almost inevitable slowdown in mid/late game action. In my next post I plan to ramble incoherently about mid-game sections and the post after that is all about things coming to an end.

(Appropriately enough, I struggled with the beginning of this post for at least 4 days and I’m still not happy with it)

*Apologies for the pretentious language but I couldn’t think of anything suitably descriptive without getting over verbose.

Image from flickr user txomsy

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