First Impressions Series – Breath of Fire III

Summer’s on its way, which means – oh faithful 3 readers – I will be taking a hiatus during the busy months of my year. (Hooray for public library Summer Reading programs!) This means you can expect to see me back in business next September – though I’ll still have my GUG gig to tide you over if you really start having withdrawals.

For now, let’s end this season appropriately – with a post about beginnings. I haven’t mused on “First Impressions” for some time, and it’s time to throw a curveball, y’all.

See, kids, back in the day CAPCOM actually devised its own turn-based RPG series, and it had a pretty nifty concept: a people group who were/could transform into dragons. Books have explored this fantasy element, too (and oh my lands, so many romance novels…), but something about the culture and struggle of Breath of Fire’s “Brood” sparked my imagination when I played it growing up.

(Plus, this series’ world has weretigers. And how can you go wrong with weretigers?!)

But I digress. This isn’t a look at culture and world-building, but a dissection of a good intro! Which, incidentally, offers a subtle look into the world and its culture by natural plot progression. Watch what I mean here:

Ah, back in the days where games would throw you into the fray and expect you to work out the game controls yourself. No heavy tutorials here, but more importantly – this introduction doesn’t weigh heavy with exposition, either. The game shows you a dragon locked inside crystal in a mine, a miner remarks that you “see ones like this every so often”, and then – well – you see exactly what happens when a dragon is freed from containment:

All hell breaks loose.

Or rather than see, you control what happens. Though, to be fair, the game gives you little option on whether or not you should roast every antagonist standing in your way. (But as a poor, scared dragon whelp, would you do any different?)

So, what do we know from this introduction? Well, we know dragons are supposed to be long dead in this world; we know even the baby dragons are a force to be reckoned with; we know there are dragons who actually don’t want to cause violence. Was any of this blatantly announced? No. (Unless you watched the optional pre-title screen exposition as well. But did you need it to figure out what was going on? Also no.) We saw the shock from the miners when the dragon woke, we saw the charred bodies of anyone who threatened the dragon, and we saw when the spirit of a long-dead dragon demanded the little whelp stop his rampage.

The intrigue increases when the scene cuts after our dragon friend shakes himself free of the transport train. Did we follow the dragon and see exactly what happened to him when he fell down the mountainside? Nope, but we do see his cage lying open near this blue-haired boy. Players who are familiar with the series will know what happened to the dragon; players who are unfamiliar will either make an educated guess or wait to see the truth unfold.

This introduction gives a hook to keep the audience interested. First, the dragon is already an anomaly in this world; second, his existence isn’t answered and is in fact tucked away while the story develops in other directions. New characters like Rei add layers to the story, and now we want to know what his stake in everything will be.

I feel like this is my common crusade on this blog, but seriously – it’s BAD storytelling to reveal everything to your audience at every opportunity. Keep some mystery; let the reader/viewer/player put some of the pieces together on their own. Hand-holding does them no services.

Plus, roasting everything in your path is great motivation to understand the game and its mechanics. Who needs tutorials?

 

Breath of Fire III is the property of CAPCOM. It can be played via the PSP or Playstation Vita (or old school Playstation, if you can make it happen).

First Impressions Series – Super Mario Galaxy 2

Summer’s over, my life has some semblance of order, so I’m back in the saddle, baby! Let’s kick things off with another Series post!

We’ve looked at video game openings from a mostly technical point of view – grading them on how well they present their information to hook the audience from the get-go. So far, most of this has included what information has been presented in the opening, but now I’d like to look at how information can be presented to engage your audience.

For this entry in the “First Impressions” series, it’s aaaaall about appearances. So why not look to a completely gorgeous game?

I’m not above getting superficial.

The Galaxy entries in the Marioverse are straight up works of art: in detail, in setting, in music, in gameplay – man, don’t even get me started. They are such a package deal.

Now, on the story end of things…there’s not much to say. You know the drill: Bowser’s up to mischief, and it involves kidnapping Peach. Mario’s got to do his Mario thing and come to the rescue. The main appeal – I mean, aside from fun and challenging platforming – is in the worlds he traverses and not really in the development of the plot. HOWEVER. Super Mario Galaxy 2 in particular still manages to give us a clever treat at its intro.

Games introduce their stories in many ways. From throwing the player straight into the action to treating them to a Star Warsian text-scroll, it was often the capacities of the current console that dictated how the story could be told. Cinematics took root as soon as graphics processors could keep up, resulting in hybridized movie intros that made you perhaps forget you were, in fact, playing a game.

Remember when these graphics were the bee’s knees?

These days, games borrow from all aesthetics to introduce their stories’ premises. (It’s the wonder of the modern age!) In a world where it seems movies and FMVs rule all, though, Super Mario Galaxy 2 takes a different approach: it begins its story in an interactive literary format.

And that. Is. The freakin’. BEST.

Look, I have a bias, I admit. I run a storytime at my work, and I’m more than happy to gush over a wistful combination of children’s illustrations and sweet, simple text. There’s an art form to picture books that isn’t easy to accomplish (and isn’t appreciated nearly enough). Super Mario Galaxy 2, I think, does manage to capture that childhood magic – platforming with a healthy dash of library corner. It’s like my dream come true.

Do you see how everything comes together here? First, the Mario series has a large market with the younger crowd, so this intro’s whimsical appeal works there in its favor. Second, there’s also a nostalgic draw for the players who’ve seen the series through its many evolutions over the past three decades. The game employs a storytelling device that pulls us back into our own childhoods, where we picked up the controller and zoomed 8-bit Mario through 2D worlds of wonder.

Third, and to tie it all together, the game treats itself as artIt’s Mario, sure – it’s a game about a short, round Italian plumber who’s best known for stomping Goombas and eating mushrooms – but it knows its legacy. And here, in a pinnacle point of its franchise, it celebrates that history shows that yes, games can be creative expression, in multiple ways.

(Just listen to the soundtracks for the Galaxy games while reading this, and you’ll know what I mean.)

You begin the game fully immersed from the start – aesthetically and emotionally. It’s a story that knows its purpose and knows how to honor its audience for their dedication to the Marioverse. Model your introductions to accomplish the same.

 

Super Mario Galaxy are the property of Nintendo. You can play both on the Wii or Wii U.

First Impressions Series – Mega Man X

*This game’s opening has been covered in a similar manner by Egoraptor, focusing more on how the game seamlessly introduces its playability mechanics. (He also has problems with tutorials.) Language warning if you choose to watch. He’s funny, insightful…but also pretty vulgar.


[Currently listening to: Jake Kaufman, Jake Kaufman, and more Jake Kaufman.]

mega-man-x3

This month marks nearly 30 years of Mega Man greatness, and the Blue Bomber has certainly made an indelible mark on the gaming industry. Even if his company of origin has practically disowned him, his spirit continues on in games that emulate the innovations MM brought to the table: the rock-paper-scissors boss fights, gaining the abilities of your opponents, maneuvering through clever platform designs that keep you on your toes.

Of course, Mega Man isn’t absolutely dead as a franchise. Thankfully others are paying him his due respects. Who can forget his kick-butt introduction in Smash Bros.?

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Now, in terms of story, Mega Man is cut and dry: Dr. Wily uses robot masters to attempt world takeover, Mega Man busts them all and takes their powers, Wily flees to his castle, Mega Man busts up castle minions and corners Wily, Wily escapes and pretends to be someone else in the next game, which is definitely not obviously him from the very start.

The openings don’t break much of a mold either – particularly in the NES era. The games are all business, taking you straight to a boss select screen. But as soon as Mega Man hit the Super Nintendo, he took a little more interest in plot mechanics.

See, instead of dropping you straight into a select screen, Mega Man X gave you an intro stage, which already set it apart from its predecessors on the older console. More than that, though, it took a storyteller’s approach to the franchise. Not that Mega Man X deviates far from its tried-and-true methods, but when a company’s gotta reboot its franchise, it needs to show up with fresh ideas.

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Enter X, struttin’ the city streets and shootin’ at animate spiky wheels and giant bee mechs. He’s ready to show us what makes a gripping “first impression”, so let’s take a look right now:

Setting

You load up the menu, select game start, and without preamble you’re dropped right into a level. Immediately you have to take in your surroundings and assess the situation, which essentially emulates what your character (X) would have to do. From the broken roads and general carnage, you assume that this is some sort of “keep the peace” mission, and X has arrived to subdue the rampaging robots.

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The set-up is quick and to the point. No need for five overhead shots of the area, long dialogue from X specifying exactly what’s going on, or any sort of narration that takes away nuance a savvy human being should be able to detect. Instead, the setting relies on its own urgency and suddenness to set the right tone and connect you to X as a character. You don’t know what to expect, but you and the Blue Bomber are in this together.

Immediate Action

Just like Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Mega Man X veers away from starting you out with “How to Play” gimmicks. You learn as you go with intuitive stage design, which not only gives a less banal experience but also allows you to enjoy the new setting and the elements of the setting at your own pace.

Please take this lesson to heart, modern gaming. I realize that games are created with more complexity these days, but not everything needs to be spelled out to the player, and surely there’s a way to seamlessly incorporate learning moments into the natural flow of the game.

 Character Establishment

To a degree, a story needs to capture its characters’ basic essence at the get-go. There’s room for development throughout the tale, of course, but the opening is where you can catch the audience’s attention. Establishing the motives, abilities, and limitations of your characters is one way to do that.

Granted, we don’t learn much about X from jogging through the opening stage, except that he looks like a more stoic version of NES-style Mega Man, with the added ability to ascend walls. That’s a pretty cool upgrade in itself – but the REAL establishing moment comes when Zero enters the picture.

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This was a whole new character to fans of the Mega Man franchise, and boy did he know how to make an entrance. He’s powerful, he’s cool under pressure, and he seems to be some sort of mentor figure to X. That’s all we know at the end of the intro stage, and that’s all we need to know for the purpose of the game and story up to that point. He’s dynamic enough to hook us, but mysterious enough to keep us playing to learn more. Truly, Zero is a master of first impressions all on his own.


Mega Man, as a platformer, doesn’t need complexity to sell its story; yet it’s my opinion that the original Mega Man X sold its plot better than many in-depth RPGs are able to do in hours of playtime. It’s all in the delivery: do you drag your audience through your opening? Or do you give ’em a sucker punch with accessible setting, characters, and intrigue?

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The choice is up to you.

 

Mega Man X is the property of Capcom. You can purchase it to play via the Wii U virtual console.

First Impressions Series – Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

[Currently listening to: this smorgasbord of Mother/Earthbound music.]

I’ve got ALL these ideas for series posts; you have no idea how EXCITED I am to subject you to share them all with you.

We’re currently in the middle of a three-parter talking about the importance of dynamic character introductions, so I thought: What better time to assault you with what will be another on-going VG storytelling series?

(There probably is a better time, but never mind that.)

This series will not be as condensed as our summer trilogy and will – in all likelihood – randomly pop up in different months when I’ve got some serious writer’s block. So…look forward to that, I guess?

But on to the post itself: What do I mean by “First Impressions”? Contrary to what it sounds like, this won’t be a look at reactions to different video games upon first playing them. Actually, the focus here will be video game openings.

Think about your favorite stories – books, movies, tv shows, video games, anything. How did they grab you? Typically if a story doesn’t provide interest within the first 50 pages/30 minutes (you might be more generous than I), it’s not worth the long-term investment. These mediums have to find a way to prove – in a short amount of time – that their product is going to deliver! But how is it done well?

That’s what I hope to explore in this series. There are a couple criteria that must be met for each game, however, which I will list as follows:

  1. The game’s opening must be judged on storytelling merits and not simply a “looks cool” factor.
  2. Any story elements that take place before the start menu will be disregarded, as they are optional to view.

Otherwise, the playing field is pretty broad. We’ll be considering how the game sets the tone/atmosphere, how it brings the player straight into the story, how it creates intrigue, how it establishes characters – you name it! There are many ways a good story can draw you in from the start.

So let’s hurry on to talk about our first example of first impressions:

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The Zelda series rarely fails to deliver a great gaming experience, and it’s not too shabby with its openings, either. Let’s see what works in A Link to the Past:

  • Atmosphere

Why don’t we start with what this opening does best? On atmosphere alone I give LttP a 10/10. But before I get into the details, take a minute to watch for yourself:

(Start at 2:45 for opening. Video courtesy of Scott’s HD Walkthroughs.)

Notice how Zelda’s plea in the middle of the night immediately sets the tone of urgency. Link is startled awake by the call and soon afterward gets left alone in the dark house when his uncle goes to the rescue. There’s no music to start, only the sound of rain – which draws our focus to the omen of Zelda’s words and the question of what our hero will do next.

Once Link goes outside himself, the driving rain heightens the desperation. You can’t delay; even now you know that so much depends on you.

All these factors work to pull the player into the story. Now, I’m not saying that a calm opening can’t hook someone just as well, but there needs to be an active force of some kind that sparks the interest of the player/reader/viewer. Proper atmosphere is one excellent way to accomplish this.

  • Immediate Action

I don’t want to say we’re in the age of tutorials…but we’re kind of in the age of tutorials. Video games can get bogged down in “how-to-play” gimmicks, which also makes for sluggish intros.

I love this game, but dagnabit.
I love this game, but dagnabit.

Not so in Link to the Past. As soon as Link’s uncle heads out the door, you’re thrown head-first into the plot. Sure, you can go talk to soldiers guarding the perimeter and learn gameplay tips from them; but really – as a kid of the 90’s, playing this game for the first time, would you hunt down all those NPC’s and shoot the breeze with them?

Heck naw! You want to find the shortest distance to Hyrule Castle so you can learn more about Zelda’s plight, “how-to-play” tips be hanged! By motivation alone you figure out, okay, picking up weeds is a thing so let’s just look under them for a secret entrance into the palace…

Listen, when given enough incentive, you can figure out any ol’ game mechanics. Let ACTION be your tutorial.

  • Intrigue

Any Zelda fan by this time knows the franchise drill: get the Master Sword, beat the dungeons, battle some permutation of Ganon(dorf), rescue the princess. I’m of the mind that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; and that doesn’t have to mean you need to sacrifice story intrigue.

First off, you share in Link’s own boyish curiosity when he leaves the house after his uncle. You just have to know what’s going to happen to Zelda, and how this Aganihm character figures into the overarching Zelda motif.

Later, you’re shocked by the sudden death of Link’s uncle. The loss has little emotional weight (we knew him – what – for two minutes?), but it sets the tone that this rescue is no light matter.

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This sort of sacrifice can work to propel the narrative – get us interested in the action to follow. What’s going to come next? LttP wastes no time proving it’ll deliver twists and turns to keep you playing. I mean, remember that first time you found out about the Dark World? Maybe you’d never have made it to that amazing plot twist if it weren’t for the game gripping you from the start.


And so begins what I hope will be a fun series! There are plenty more intros to explore in the video game universe. If you have one you’d like to see dissected, feel free to suggest it in the comments below!

 

The Legend of Zelda franchise is the property of Nintendo. You can play Link to the Past on the Wii, Wii U, or Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console.