[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:
- The game’s opening must be judged on storytelling merits and not simply a “looks cool” factor.
- 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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.