Playing through the first few hours of Horizon Zero Dawn had me thinking about how games begin. The first hour of a game is so crucial: do you hook the player in? What about teaching game mechanics?
Most games attempt what I’ll call the ludo-narrative approach; teach game mechanics by integrating a story sequence that cleverly disguises a tutorial. This is what Horizon Zero Dawn (HZD) does.
However, I think I can say that other games do this in way that better captures player interest, because they simply integrate more interesting aspects of the story, or try something altogether unexpected. HZD’s attempt at this has you play the game as a child version of the character. Despite this, it is more or less similar to how many games handle their introductions.
Let’s examine the plot beats of HZD’s tutorial sequences:
1. As a child, you are taught movement controls in a cave you fall into. You are completely safe here. The cave demonstrates the apocalyptic world by showing abandoned ruined technology.
2. Later, you are brought to a hunt by your father figure. Mostly safe, both in tone and reality, until…
3. You decide to disobey and go into tall grass amongst hostile enemy robots. Suddenly the game enters a trial and error phase; you could actually fail this easily. It can get frustrating!
4. You learn to shoot your bow, in a mostly safe environment.
There are some cinematics, and then you are released to the open world (things are a bit gated, to allow some key story sequences to play).
For the most part, you are pretty safe, both in the game narrative (with the exception of plot beat #3) and in the actual game’s mechanics (again with the exception of beat #3). I think you want the latter (not being in much danger from the game rules just yet) but not really the former (it’s better to allow the player to experience something fun and dramatic for the introductory sequence, or at least something unique).
There is nothing particularly wrong with this setup! However, I think certain games really nail their opening sequences; making them feel like special experiences even while teaching the game mechanics.
Some examples of games that do this well are:
- Fallout 3. Very little danger and very little drama in the story… but you are a baby. That’s interesting!
- Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic. Not necessarily anything new – you are escaping a ship under attack, similar to the beginning of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. It’s familiar yet exciting.
- Resident Evil 4. A masterclass of tension. Driving up to the woods with those Spanish police officers and going up to that first cabin had to be one of the most pulse-pounding experiences I’ve ever experienced in games. Find it on youtube or play the game!
- Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Maybe my favorite intro sequence ever. Not only is the hospital scene dramatic and scary, it teaches you just about every key game play skill along the way.
The pattern I see in games that have incredible introductions seems to be the following:
- Be unique or different, OR…
- Be exciting (even if the player isn’t in a lot of danger of failure).
In my career, I’ve had instances when intro sequences were rushed into place, which is sure to get you something rather bland, so developers definitely need to plan to spend a lot of time on their introductions.