The First Few Hours

We've all heard it before, these common complaints: Games are terrible at storytelling. Modern games take way too long to get going. Why am I forced to sit through this cutscene again?

Many narrative-driven games are having an identity crisis. Are they a game first or a story first? That's a topic that can be discussed ad nauseum. But I'd like to talk about a facet I think is really central to this identity crisis: a game's first few hours.

The importance of a game's first few hours cannot be understated. For many games, their first twenty minutes make or break a player's interest. A game must prove many things in a very short period of time: what it's about, why it's fun, what the player does, all the while simultaneously teaching the player how to play it. That's a tall order. It makes sense some games only take one of these things and drive it home, hoping it's enough to keep players engaged.

There are two distinct techniques for introducing a game: a gameplay-first approach and story-first approach. In the gameplay-first approach, games throw the player directly into the action, explaining the story (if any) later. They bank on capturing the player's attention with mechanics to keep them engaged. Games with strong gameplay take this approach frequently, and for good reason. The alternate to this is a story-first approach. The goal here is to sweep the player up in the game's story and make entice them to discover more.

Both of these are completely valid, and when executed well, work. Super Mario 64 is a fantastic example of gameplay-first. The player can move almost immediately, and has free access to their entire moveset from the onset of the game. From the first minute, a player can start experimenting with platforming mechanics and get excited for the opportunity to use them. On the other hand, a great example of story-first is Metal Gear Solid 2. It starts with a swift opening cinematic beginning in media res, quickly setting up the story, characters and goals with just enough information for the player to go on while leaving enough out for the player to seek more. And then it quickly jumps into gameplay. It's important to note MGS2 sets up the characters and their motivations immediately.

Both of these work so well because they commit to their techniques, execute flawlessly, and then get right into the game. Notice in both of these examples, the game is introduced and doesn't really start until the introduction is over. In Mario, you are free to experiment with gameplay, but you don't really do anything until you reach your first actual level. With MGS2, you are watching an intro cutscene to get things going. The game officially starts after that cutscene ends.

And I think that's the key here: commit to the introduction, really sell what the game is about, and then get right into the game. Players want to feel agency as soon as possible. They also want to get excited for the story as soon as possible.

So where do games frequently fail? The biggest, most egregious way is opening cutscene exposition dumps. We've all seen these. You start up the game, a 10-minute cutscene plays explaining the world and circumstances around it. There's frequently no plot here, just lore, or backstory. Some games can get away with this on charm alone (Zelda is a clear candidate, but even that uses fairy tales and folklore tropes to tell the backstory), but most fall flat. After the exposition dump, we're treated to gameplay. However, if the story is big enough, or integral enough, we frequently are bombarded with even more exposition dump. But what purpose does this serve? It sets up the story so that there can be purpose for the main characters actions and also primes the plot to create the central conflict. RPGs are fond of this technique, because it's an easy way to set up the context of the story while still retaining some semblance of gameplay.

If film can teach us anything it's that we can interest players with even the most small taste of a larger plot. We don't have to divulge all aspects of the plot or the world or the existing conflicts, we can introduce those more naturally and at a pace the player can keep up with. A major lesson we can learn from film is that the audiences doesn't care about story nearly as much as they care about the characters. Introducing characters and their relationships with each other and the world around them is much, much more compelling than introducing a grand backstory for the world. After all, why should I, the player, care about a world where I don't know or care about any of the people living in it?

It seems that frequently, in order to strike a balance between storytelling and gameplay, many games sacrifice them both for one another. They quickly dump exposition to set things up, jump to some gameplay, then jump back to exposition. For a gamer who has little patience, this is a jarring move, leaving them required to have faith that the game will pick up: that the story will suddenly get interesting, or that the gameplay will suddenly become more engaging. This, after all, is because sacrifices were made to both in order to have the two exist. I think the better strategy is commit to their strategy for capturing the player's attention and knock it out of the park.