After pressing start: The Infinity Engine's coldest open
(After Pressing Start is a new series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guru Tom Auxier. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those stories influence the arcs of video games. A variety of games he’s totally never talked about before will be featured. This might be sarcasm. Previous entries have included this and that.)
Video game introductions frequently use the ideas of the cold open. Games like Darksiders, Nier, and Prototype begin with the player in media res, while nearly every game uses at least elements of the cold open. This type of opening throws us into the action faster, and that’s what designers want: for us to get to the fun bits faster.
The problem with these three games opens, though, is that while they get us to the action faster they then proceed to strip away all of our cool toys, our powers, and place us into tutorials. In effect these opens aren’t cold at all! They give us a taste of the good stuff, then they strip it away and make sure we know how to play the game. Hey game developers! We don’t want to move down the fun ladder when playing a game. We want there to be more fun, more intensity, more stuff to do.
You see, our motivations to continue playing a game can be described as three things. Tutorials were created to feed the most linear of progressions: our knowledge. The more we know about a game, the more we can do, and the higher obstacles we can climb. The second, and most misunderstood, is curiosity. We’ll find away around a brick wall if we’re curious enough to see what happens next. The prime non-Dark Souls example of this, the first Sniper Wolf fight in Metal Gear Solid, would no doubt be the subject of of a future series, “After Player for Five Hours”.
The third thing that keeps us playing a game is momentum. That’s what the cold open does: it gets us moving. Those first three examples toss us off a cliff and then give us a parachute: we flutter to the ground and the adrenaline wears off because we’re totally safe.
Really, though, a cold open’s supposed to work like Planescape: Torment. You wake up on a slab inside a mortuary, later revealed as The Mortuary, and the game does not stop to give you a parachute. Instead of slowing down, Torment lets us pick up speed and slam straight through the ground into more exciting challenges.
Torment deals with a very difficult problem: the information overload. It succeeds masterfully, in large part by dripping you information you need while you careen through the opening. The game sets you inside of Dungeons and Dragons most complicated (now canceled) setting, the Planes of existence, but Torment doesn’t expect you to have any foreknowledge. In fact, it prefers that you don’t. It prefers you to be a squealing newborn, unknowing of the many complexities of the Planes.
And it places you into a role, that of an immortal, amnesiac man, that personifies the player’s own state. You know nothing, you see nothing, and you are not afraid of death. A floating skull comes up to you, and he explains, with difficulty, who you are, but without complicating things. “You’re a deader who don’t stay dead for long,” the succinct explanation of an NPC right outside the Mortuary is pretty much all you know. You can’t die.
And you’re in scene, falling from a metaphorical cliff at terminal velocity. Any wall the game places in front of you, you’re going to scream through. Things are happening, and you want to pull the strings behind them. The game gives you just enough direction—find Pharod—and leaves you to your own devices, with a full head of steam behind you.
This start is quick and disorienting, but that’s okay. It does two things extremely well. The first is the speed: it’s pulling off the band-aid. You’re going to rocket out with all the momentum in the world, and you’re not going to stop until the game’s gotten you to another point where it can get its claws into you, when you meet Pharod and the plot begins. Second, it disorients you.
If a modern big-budget game disoriented its players we’d probably be confused. Games are supposed to be accessible, we’ve been told, so we need to have our hands held, things explained, and mechanics thoroughly described before we do anything. That’s why games like Darksiders strip away your powers and throw you back to training wheels: they don’t want to disorient you too much. Torment goes the exact opposite direction. It sacrifices a little bit of player knowledge for the sake of giving the player about as much momentum and curiosity as humanly possible. It throws them off the deep end and trusts that its mechanics have been designed clearly enough that neophytes will be able to get a grip on them naturally.
This disorientation is helpful, too. When we wake up disoriented in the Mortuary, we’re confused, helpless. When we finally open the front door and walk out into the overwhelming world of Sigil, we know that it’s alright to be confused. Our lack of foreknowledge isn’t a bad thing: rather, it’s just another small wall to be smashed through at a hundred miles per hour. We’re going that fast.
Torment shows us how a cold open should be done: fast, brutal, and without a parachute. Rather than putz about with detailed tutorials or easing us into the world, sometimes the best thing to do is just to throw the player off a cliff and leave them to wake up on a stone slab in a mortuary. By focusing on getting the player going as fast as possible, Torment ignores the difficulties of tutorials and training wheel openings by just letting the player play. It gives you the mystery and the fun as quickly as it can, and that efficiency of design should be applauded.