Where Do You Start Your Video Game?

One of the problems with Yes, Your Grace’s beginning has been percolating in my head for a while. The game starts in media res with a decision concerning a major battle that you fight at the end, then flashes back to show how you got there. You’re able to re-do the decision when you catch up with the climax, which is good, because you don’t really have enough information to make a good decision there, but the opening still feels like you’re totally unprepared for the decision.

I have three suspicions about why this opening was added. First, it might’ve just been that the developer thought that it was cool. With games made by small teams or one guy, it’s always possible that a specific decision boiled down to “I thought it was neat.” It’s also possible that the creator was worried that the first major battle in the game would come across as climactic enough that the game would feel like it should be over now, when in fact there is an entire second half of the game preparing for a second battle to get to. The in media res opening of the game is explicitly one full year after the game’s true start, and the current week is tracked as part of the game mechanics, so you know when the first major battle is coming up about six months after the beginning that this is only the midpoint.

The third possibility is the one I want to talk about in detail, though: The opening of the game might have been intended to give the game some energy and momentum to hopefully get players over the slow beginning. Because the beginning is slow, and if the opening was supposed to fix this, it failed. The only reason I got as deep into Yes, Your Grace as I did is because I’ve recently assembled a huge list of games I’d like to play more thoroughly than I have, and now all new games (like Yes, Your Grace, which was part of a Humble Choice) go on that list unless I have no intention of playing them (for example, if they’re packaged with a Humble Bundle that I bought only for other games). Then all games go from that list to either the “Complete” list when I’ve beaten (or, in some cases, 100%’d) them, or they go onto the “Regrets” list if I decide that actually they are bad. This means that Yes, Your Grace didn’t have to convince me to play it instead of any of the other ~180 games on my Incomplete list, because that kind of aimless nibbling is exactly the kind of gameplaying I’ve decided I’m not satisfied with and want to do less of. Yes, Your Grace only had to convince me it wasn’t bad enough to go into Regrets.

Most people, of course, aren’t playing games like this, so I expect a lot of people bounced off the slow start of Yes, Your Grace, and I probably would’ve been one of them if not for the way I’m now playing games. The opening didn’t help with this. The problem with the start isn’t that it wasn’t explosive enough. The problem with the start is that I want to answer some goddamn petitions, and instead I keep getting dragged off to talk to my oldest daughter about how she doesn’t like having been betrothed to a neighboring prince. This plotline ends up being really compelling, but at the beginning I just want to play the game, and instead I am constantly having tons of plot dumped on me.

Which leads me to the answer to the question in the post title: When do you start your video game? Because the answer is very different from when you start your book or movie! Yes, Your Grace’s problem is that it starts where a book or movie would want to start, on the cusp of the marriage that serves as the inciting incident to the game’s events.

But you generally want to start your video game a little bit earlier. You want your video game to start with a lot of gameplay, not just the five minute snippet that Yes, Your Grace gives you before long (but well-written and necessary!) uninteractive conversations get dropped on you. Your game’s opening should probably be at least twenty or thirty minutes long, and possibly as much as two hours, before any amount of plot that can’t be communicated as banter during a sword fight (or whatever your main gamplay is). This is about the length of a player’s first play session, and you should dedicate most of it to showing that the game is fun, with the inciting incident that sets off the plot being the climax of the first gameplay segment, not the setup to it.

Spending the first chapter of a book or first episode of a TV show just showing a regular day in the life of the main character, even if that life is spectacular and fantastical, would be wasteful – you could spend that time doing spectacular and fantastical things in service to the plot. For a video game, though, I want to play goddammit. Focus on setting the player loose to play the game as fast as possible, and get the story started after they’ve had some time to do that.

People following this blog chronologically rather than hopping through the archives will probably guess, correctly, that this was brought on by Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s four prologues as much as by Yes, Your Grace’s one, but I wanted to use Yes, Your Grace as an example because it deserves whatever extra attention I’m able to direct towards it and also because it isn’t a cavalcade of mistakes that makes any one error get lost in the noise. Yes, Your Grace is a good game with a slow opening, which gets a very different response than the same problem in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, where the reaction may well be “of course AC:Unity is bad, what did you expect?”

But I think Unity (and others, like II and III) provides an example of a type of plot that you should avoid as much as possible in a video game: A plot about becoming the cool fantastical thing. Funny enough, the first Assassin’s Creed got this right, but apparently didn’t even realize it because they fucked it up immediately in AC2. Altair is already an assassin when the game begins, which means the game does not need to take extra time to give him a training montage. The game still has way too much prologue as it immediately dumps a bunch of plot onto you and then forces you through a tutorial before finally giving you an assassination mission and a city to parkour around in, but you wouldn’t have to drastically overhaul the plot to change that.

If you wanted to fix AC1, you’d open it with Altair receiving an assassination mission targeting the guy he fails to assassinate in the opening cut scene, moving that cut scene to an hour-ish in after you’ve been running around Jerusalem fighting Saladin’s guards and eavesdropping on Templar agents for a while. The tutorial would be optional, or better yet, blended into that first city, with side missions that serve as stealth tutorials for the type of mission they are. Then, after you embark on the first assassination mission, follow the Templars underground, and botch the assassination in a cut scene (we can take the sting out of this by having Altair’s target be someone else who he successfully kills, and then as part of his hubris arc he gets greedy and tries and fails to kill the Templar leader on top of it), and the game’s plot can proceed as normal, with one of the later Templar assassinations removed to make space (the first game’s main plot missions are very episodic, with only a few being critical to the overarching plot, so removing one of them should be very easy).

But you couldn’t apply a fix that easy for AC2. Instead, you’d have to cut the first few episodes of the game completely. No palling around with Leonardo da Vinci before your family gets killed, no escape from Florence after, no training montage with Uncle Mario, start the game in Sam Gimignano hunting down Vieri, the little Templar brat who brags about being part of the conspiracy that killed your family. This means that we kill Vieri without really having any idea who he is or why Ezio hates him so much, which isn’t good. You can establish Ezio’s stake in the plot during his and Mario’s conversation over Vieri’s body, but it retroactively gives the first assassination much higher emotional stakes that we didn’t tell the player about until it was over.

The AC1 rewrite is neat and clean because Altair is an assassin who assassinates people as a profession (not as a mercenary, mind you, but it’s what he does). He has no personal connection to most of his targets, and the emotional stakes that begin the game have to do with how Altair’s botched assassination affects his fellow assassins, something which makes perfect sense to establish only when the assassination actually happens at the end of the all the side quests and free running leading up to it, rather than the beginning.

A video game protagonist should already be good at the game’s fundamental gameplay when the game begins (even if they pick up additional tricks over the course of the game), and the game should let you do that for at least half an hour before dropping the inciting incident onto you.

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