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In the Beginning

Sean Sands | 3 May 2009 13:00
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When I think of videogame beginnings, I think about riding a tram. As subdued, subtle and un-in-your-face as a beginning can get, Half Life's slow decent into Black Mesa is the place where I thought differently about how videogames could draw us into a world forever.

To me, where I begin is a game is far more important than where I end it - again supported by Half Life. A first impression can sustain me through a long, elaborate, complicated and difficult endeavor, and without that buy-in to a universe or a concept offered by the developer, I can become quickly disenchanted or entirely distracted.

The best way to make me stop playing your game is to botch the first five minutes of my experience.

In truth, I loathe the opinion that says, "sure game X sucks for the first five hours, but it's totally worth it to get to the rest of the game." That is as succinct a description of a game I never want to play as any. I don't mean to mark myself down as particularly special, but I have run out of both the time and inclination to be patient with games as they meander to a point. Even if narrative or design pressures demand that your entire game not be an orgy of explosive violence, you still have to give me something to believe in.

What is it that makes a beginning great? There's clearly no formula, no master plan, but I think among the many qualities the idea of creating a sense of a fleshed and complete world must be near the top. Black Mesa doesn't just feel real, it feels like it's been real for a very long time. That's a difficult but important distinction.

It's the difference between walking into a model home and a home that has been lived in for a decade. Functionally speaking it's 99% the same, all chairs and beds and fireplaces and doorbells. That 1% is where great beginnings are built. The family photo on the mantle place taken on the front porch. The worn walkway through the carpet leading to the sofa. The imperfections that create atmosphere and place. It's all there, part of a first impression that creates a reality I can believe in, because it makes me subconsciously think there have long been others here who subscribe to that same reality.

When I think about the most recent games that get a sense of immediate and grand place right, I think BioShock. I admit that the longer I ponder the many and great successes of BioShock, the more I come up with to be impressed by. I have drunk the Kool-aid. BioShock's underwater city of Rapture isn't just a beautiful and fully-realized environment, but it is aching with a sense of countless events already transpired. It hits you in the face when you first step off the bathysphere into a hallway filled with toppled luggage and grand views, to say nothing of the grandiose vista of Rapture, whales swimming among skyscrapers, moments before.

And there, we see that place is really a part of a grander need in opening your game. Providing a sense of the epic. For me, at least, part of the need for an established world is the need to be committed to something grand. If that's unapproachable and seemingly insurmountable in the first moments of the game, that's fine, just give me the sense that the payoff will be worth the time invested.

When I think of the games that grabbed me in this way over the decades, I personally think of the broken Statue of Liberty at the start of Deus Ex, the overwhelming isolation of the Wasteland in Fallout, the beautifully artistic mortuary that opens Planescape: Torment, the battle with the Colossus across Rhodes in God of War 2.

I ache for more developers to invest their time and resources into grand strategies for opening their games. These games are a lesson, perhaps hard learned, for developers, but a crucial one.

As I look at the games that linger on my hard drive and don't get traded back to GameStop for a pittance, I see titles that launched from their cases and pushed me into a world that demanded my attention. The marriage of creating the grand and enticing a player into imaginary realms is where great game design lies too often slumbering.

Perhaps it is simply a function of how few games I fully complete, or increasingly how few games even seem to truly end, but as I look back over a generation of gameplay it is the beginnings that stay with me far longer.

Sean Sands is a blogger, professional writer, husband, father and gamer, often all at once.

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