This is the third post in my series of gamedev/historical analysis articles.
In this article, I want to discuss effective openings for games. The beginning of a game satisfies several roles, the most important of which is drawing in the player. Here are some of those roles:
Opening as tutorial
This is true for all games, of course. For parser games, though, the opening of the game can serve as a tutorial for the entire field of interactive fiction.
This tutorial role can be fulfilled in two ways: placing the player in constrained situations (frequently employed by Andrew Plotkin and Adam Cadre), and explicit tutorials (which many of Emily Short’s and Jon Ingold’s games use).
The tutorial method is more straightforward, and one which I have used several times. In the tutorial method, you directly tell the player what steps they can take next. Counterfeit Monkey employs greyed-out text, while Make It Good has a side window giving suggestions.
The constrained method is more tricky. You have to implement enough to give people an idea of the game while not making it overwhelming. Photopia (starting in a car) and Spider and Web (starting in a blind alleyway) both have good constrained opening scenes.
It’s easy to place the player in too tight a situation or too open a situation. The second trap is very common (just sample parser games with low ratings on IFDB; many of them fail to provide guidance early on). I fell into the first trap with Absence of Law, where the first scene only lets you LOOK. This wouldn’t be a problem if the whole game was that way, but it gave people a false idea of the game, and many people strongly disliked it. This leads me into my next role of the opening:
Opening as expectations-setter
A good opening helps indicate both length and style of game.
The time it takes you to hit the first significant milestone in a game corresponds roughly to the length of the entire game. In the short games Lime Ergot and The Horrible Pyramid, the first tasks can be completed very quickly. Counterfeit Monkey and Spider and Web both take some more thought and time to pass the ‘intro’ period. And it can take quite some time to pass through the openings of Zork and Adventure.
Most authors actually do pretty good with this, especially with parser games, since the authors can ‘see’ how big the intro is based on room size. But choice-based authors often struggle a great deal with this. I’ve played through many twine games that are absolutely huge (50000+ words) but have the same kind of opening as a 5000-word game. I personally find this very frustrating.
The intro also sets the style of the game. The bad examples are easier to discuss here. Many, many parser authors want to write a game where it is set up like one style/genre of parser game and then suddenly, with no clue ahead of time, it switches to a different kind of game.
These authors are almost always highly disappointed by player reaction. They usually pick a ‘boring’ opening to contrast with their ‘cool real game’. But in a field filled with high-quality free games, there is very little motivation to play a boring game. This leads to my final role:
Opening as attention-getter
A good opening needs to be cool. Counterfeit Monkey has a bizarre situation: you have been fused with someone else! Anchorhead’s opening just oozes with character. Plotkin’s epic game So Far, the game Slouching Towards Bedlam, and the classic Infocom game Spellbreaker all start with scripted scenes full of compelling dialog/acting.
This brings me to my current work-in-progress, Sherlock Indomitable.
I have had a great deal of trouble with this. The essential idea of Sherlock Indomitable is 'Arthur Conan Doyle story ported directly to Inform). But the openings of these stories lead to very linear openings.
So I added a different opening, where you start in Holmes’s mind with several distinct rooms. But that was so wide open, people still bounced off the opening hard, especially because it looked wide while being constrained (violating all of the points I gave earlier).
So I decided to listen to players’ feedback. Everyone wanted more ‘Holmes’-ness. Not even the Holmes of the stories, but the Holmes that has been created by a million interpretations in popular culture. Everyone wants to examine stuff minutely and make crazy deductions. They also wanted more original Holmes’s contact.
So I went through and created an original cover story. You start constrained. You are a very old Sherlock Holmes on his deathbed. Because the environment is constrained, I was able to implement absolutely every object in the room so that Holmes can make brilliant deductions about them. Watson visits the player, leaving a book of your cases which will transport you in memory back to the past (where the main part of the game happens).
By setting up the main part of the game as a giant flashback, it is my hope that the linear-ness of the stories will be more acceptable and more expected. The old Watson/old Sherlock segment is more dramatic and thus gets more attention (especially since I incorporated some of Doyle’s most dramatic dialog). Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but it was my attempt to satisfy the above requirements.
A good opening is fundamental to getting players to play your game (along with a good blurb and cover art). By using it to signal the length, genre, and play-style of your game, and by being cool, you can improve player retention and enjoyment.
p.s. Check out the Jason Devlin game Gris et Jaune. Although the full game is a bit unfinished/unpolished, the opening is absolutely fantastic.