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Game Storyline – To Begin at the Beginning – Or Not

Recently I attended a lecture where the speaker stressed that for new projects, it was vital to “Begin at the beginning”. While this is an important notion for many industries and professions, it got me thinking about the implications of such a mentality in the game development world, and in creating an online game. Perhaps instead of beginning at the beginning, we should begin in the middle of the story, where the action already exists. Each time we decide to drop players into our virtual worlds, we have decisions to make about how we treat those players. Do we slowly and carefully lead them into storyline? Do we nurture their progress in the game with hand held tutorials, or throw them directly into the fire? Do we set them up for a roller-coaster ride, or present them with bountiful opportunities and an open road? One of the most important decisions you can make that ultimately decides how a visitor perceives your environment, is to decide how they make their entrance onto the stage. Does your player make a grand entry at the beginning of the show or do they tumble head first into the act, having to think on their feet in order to stay on track?

Each approach ultimately offers different (but valuable) assets to your players and truly shapes the mentality you begin to imprint on the impressionable mind of said new player. Typically when we are dropped into any situation, having to suddenly thing on our feet and make decisions quickly, we feel caught up and immersed instantly albeit usually quite confused and flustered. When we’re slowly led into the game, as if floating down a calm river to our final destination, we’re more often than not instilled with a somewhat contemplative mentality – we are more inclined to think that perhaps the road ahead of us is smooth. Both of these approaches not only instill certain impressions in the minds of players, but they allow you the developer to setup some exciting possibilities.

With our first example, players who are thrust into scenarios like a war at the onset of their gaming experience are being shown up front that the game is fast paced, and to “expect the unexpected” (pardon the cliche). This isn’t to say that games that lead you in slowly with a great bit of peace can’t hit or foreshadow darkness and chaos down the line – in many cases, scenarios where the game seem too calm often setup a “calm before the storm” feeling. In many cases, games that slowly wind up to climactic chaos and excitement convey a sense of seriousness and depth to many players, where games that suddenly thrust a user into chaos are sometimes apt to turn a gamer off.

I find that the more we delve into online gaming theory here, the more parallels we can draw to the movie industry, for in many ways a game is like a movie that you directly interact with. Composition, music, angles of view, storyline – all of those are important in both scenarios (not to mention dozens of other issues). In this case, the issue of how to begin your story parallels some differing opinions of how you should appropriately pull viewers into a movie. Do you start with an action scene, breaking the traditional conventions of storyline? Or do you follow the traditions, giving players necessary information and clues about the story, while slowly winding up to the climax of the game? Typically games that thrust you directly into the action follow a more standard “roller-coaster” strategy for game play, while games that wind up to the climax (usually determined by the player) are often sandbox games. This is *definitely* not to say that sandboxes always wind up, or that roller-coasters thrust players into action, but this is mostly what I have observed in games I’ve played. In most cases this is because thrusting players into action works well with a roller-coaster event path, and winding up to a predetermined or not so predetermined storyline works well with sandboxes. Food for thought.

Just as you would carefully consider the appropriate opening scenes of a film project, place a great deal of thought into how your game begins. Previously, we talked about the first ten minutes of your game, stating that first impression was vital. In many ways this topic echoes many of those thoughts, but takes that standpoint a bit farther. Not only is it important to wow your players and suck them in quickly, it is important to do so in such a way that makes sense for your game. If you begin a game that contains very little action throughout most of its plot, opening your first scene where you thrust your player into the fox holes of a gruesome war may be more than a bit misleading. Not to mention, if your opening scene is what intrigues a gamer and they find that little of that initial sentiment exists throughout the rest of the game, you’ll most likely lose yourself a player or two (not to mention bad reviews).

I have always been a big proponent of emphasizing your game’s strengths, not dressing up its weaknesses in a way that displays an image of what it is not (or what a player will not find in it). This is not to say that I disagree with improving your weaknesses, but it’s misleading to suggest and imply things that your game definitely is not – and in many ways, whether or not you’ve mislead a player initially can be seen in your opening shots/storyline. Throughout this post I’ve included some images from Guild Wars, a popular game I’ve enjoyed playing on and off. Guild Wars did a lot of good things, one of those being how they opened the game: you were thrust into a bustling city on the brink of war – but the war only came once the player decided on their own to approach the war aspect of the game. If the player wanted to putz around the tutorial for days, they could, and when they finally decided to breach the wall, action waited for them. This is an honest opening scene, as much of Guild Wars operates in this way: giving the player choices about where, and when the action begins, while still providing an intense amount of it once it does come.