The retro-excursion that I took last week in to the weird world of Overblood left me with a lingering thought about the game’s opening. At first glance the level of instant threat seems absurd; the protagonist wakes up and the player is immediatly faced with the prospect of seeing them freeze to death unless they manage to work out all the controls, find the auxiliary heating power supply, and the stylish (but laughably small) shiny gilet to keep warm. I could just chalk it up to poor game design, dropping the player in to instant life or death peril isn’t what we’re used to in the current age of gaming, but compared to its contemporaries, Overblood isn’t the only title of this era to pull this trick.
When I revisited the Men in Black PS1 game a little while back, I was reminded that it kicks things off in a similar way; player enters an apartment and if they don’t act quickly then a bomb, cunningly hidden in the shadows, will take out most of the buiolding and thankfully the voice acting of whoever they employed to do a Will Smith impression. Maybe these aren’t the finest examples of the ‘3D Action/Adventure’ genre for PS1, but even some of the system’s greats make similar moves. During my epic exploration of Resident Evil 2 last year, I rambled about how tough the opening of the game is; the dramatic intro leaving the player abandoned in a street, several zombies approaching them. I doubt new players would even have managed to work out what the aim button is before taking a chomping. Even though the opening of Metal Gear Solid doesn’t put the player in immediate danger, acting as a playground of sorts, it still presents what most would consider to be the core gameplay in its entirety. I’ve noted in the past that MGS has only six areas where the classic sneaky gameplay is showcased and, as the player undertakes this area unarmed and under-equipped, the ‘dock’ represents one of the trickier regions that the player has to work their way through all whilst the opening credits are still running.
So there is some evidence that on the PS1, dropping the player in to the action and just letting them get on with it was considered a valid option for a game’s opening. That is compared to current gaming trends where we expect a tutorial section to ease us in to the controls and the core concepts. Heck, Portal managed to use up about half of the game doing this, if you want a more direct comparison, take a look at the opening of last year’s Resident Evil 2 Remake. Sure Capcom kept the ‘abandon the player in zombie infested streets’ aesthetic, but they preceded it with a short introductory sequence at the gas station allowing the player to get a grip on moving and combat without too much immediate pressure. As a sequence it’s well put together and serves to build tension, but also highlights how twenty-years on, Capcom are no longer comfortable setting the player loose on an impending zombie threat without a warm-up and some stretches.
…and I’m not here to bash tutorials. A well crafted tutorial acclimatises the player to the game and helps improve accessibility to players who maybe don’t game, or at the very least don’t play a particular genre of game. In the age of instant refunds, developers can’t afford to alienate their players in the first thirty-seconds with insta-deaths.
… that being said, I kind of wish some games would wind it in a bit. I don’t even want to think of how many times I’ve played tutorials of a 2D platformer with such classic moves like “press left or right to move the character” and “try jumping over this box”…
I guess it could also be argued that the surge in digital downloads and corresponding fall in physical media (including game manuals) certainly didn’t hinder the rise of the tutorial section, but games were heading down this path before digital distribution was widespread.
So, what made the PS1 ‘hard opening’ a valid choice for designers? and is there any merit in dumping the player out straight in to the action? As with so many things in history, it makes much more sense in context.
Sitting as the undisputed powerhouse of the fifth gaming generation, Sony’s original PlayStation was the first really successful CD based console. Developers had been toying with CD’s as game storage media for some time, but it was this little grey cuboid that tapped in to the maturing gamer audience and built up a library of titles that moved beyond the gimmicky earlier efforts of CD based systems. With bigger storage came the ability for more complex game mechanics, or even games with more than one style of play. By comparison games of the 16-bit era in the previous generation were often simple (run, jump, shoot was the order of the day). The Sega MegaDrive standard controller only has three action buttons and a certain spiky blue hedgehog used all three to do one solitary action. Jump. You could just as easily play Sonic the Hedgehog on an Atari 2600 controller. The point is that the PlayStation was launched during a time when games were often simpler and, aside from a quick note in the manual telling the player what each button does, they could essentially just drop the player right in to the fray. Think about most 16-bit era platform games; is there anything that you need to do later on in the game that you don’t do in the first minute of play?
It’s with this patchwork backdrop; games that didn’t need an ingame tutorial, physical manuals covering the basics, and developers focusing on their core audience rather than inclusivity that made the PS1 ‘hard opening’ a possibility. Of course not all PS1 games throw away the tutorial entirely, and I’d guess that games released later in the console’s reign became more likely to hold the player’s hand for the first section; presumably developers realising that not everyone opens the manual and many games have moved beyond ‘Jump! Sonic, jump!’. Resident Evil 3 includes the manual as one of the ingame documents and I recently discovered that Tomb Raider has a separate option on the title screen which allows you get to grips with the controls as Lara runs and leaps around her stately home in what I assume is some kind of National Trust nightmare.
With tutorial now a staple feature of current games, part of me laments that designers don’t really have the option to put the player directly in to the action without that, often bizarrely linear, systematic introduction to different game elements. From a pacing point of view placing the player under immediate threat can be very effective at grabbing their attention and maintaining momentum from an action packed intro cinematic in to actual gameplay. The ‘dock’ opening to Metal Gear Solid would have been much less effective if the game had presented a sanitised and heavily guided linear sneaking section rather than the tense infiltration scene we were given (admittedly the Colonel tries to call every few seconds, but you can just ignore him). Likewise Resident Evil 2’s opening with burning zombies shambling out of the flames of the explosion you’ve just witnessed serves to immediately instil the threat within the city and set it apart from the original’s slower pacing.
At the time it would have been easy to see the threat of an early ‘Game Over’ as a cheap developer trick, but I’d argue that it’s the kindest place to put it. Throwing the player back to the title screen at the start has literally the lowest consequence compared to any other point in the game. Not only can the designer effectively introduce a very dramatic moment, setting the tone of the game and forcing the the player to scrape by on a wave of adrenaline, they also manufacture an early game relief moment when the player finally reaches some sort of sanctuary.
Of course, much of what I’ve said here is a big generalisation of a varied gaming landscape (both ‘then’ and ‘now’), and a hard opening is undoubtedly not the right choice for many games, but it was also very effective when done well and just occasionally I miss that feeling of “AAAAHHHHH! What am I doing!?!” right there at the start of a game.