One of the most important parts of any videogame is the intro. Now, originally this article was about one specific videogame, but I discovered that a few years back someone else had made a video about this particular game, and their script was nearly identical to the one I’d written — at least as the bullet points went. So, instead of just putting this story out there and potentially being accused of plagiarism, I decided to broaden the scope of this script into one more generally about good videogame intros, why they’re important, and how to execute them well. It’s more frustrating that this is actually the second time this has happened. I had been sitting on a script for a video about PREY’s GLOO Canon that I was going to release for the anniversary of the game, but then Gamemaker’s Toolkit swooped in with a video that was beat for beat all the same points in my script. Great minds, or something.
But I’m off track. I’m sure by now some of you are thinking, “Why are you calling them ‘videogame intros’ and not ‘tutorials’?” Well, as videogames have matured, the traditional “tutorial level” has become something of a relic, with games spreading out or obfuscating their learning materials rather than condensing them all into one obviously curated learning space. As certain control schemes have become more-or-less standardized across many games and many genres, developers have had less of a need to hold player’s hands as much as they did in the earliest days of videogame development. I can’t recall the last time a first-person-shooter told me which button I’d need to press to shoot my gun. I mean, maybe there’s some recent examples out there, but I certainly haven’t played them or noticed them. With this familiarity, developers have been able to create more creative tutorial environments, especially as many games have begun to incorporate more in-depth narratives, where no longer do developers just have to convey the necessary controls and mechanics a player should be familiar with, but also the story beats they’ll need to understand as the game begins.
And as any regular player of videogames knows, there is not a “one size fits all” style of videogame tutorial or introduction. The right method of introduction is entirely dependent on the type of game in question. With that in mind we’ll be looking primarily at three games: Campo Santo’s Firewatch, Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter, and iD’s 2016 DOOM — as each have distinctly different but equally effective ways of going about delivering their necessary controls and exposition.
First let’s look at Firewatch, a game where, in the description for the Let’s Play my buddy and I did for the game’s release, I wrote “The first 15 minutes of this game are like the first 10 minutes of Up”. Unlike the other two example games we’ll talk about, Firewatch delivers it’s opening moments in an entirely different format than anything else in the game. Where Hyper Light and DOOM rely on cutscenes and scripted events, Firewatch begins as not as a 3D exploration game, but as a choose-your-own-adventure game. The game’s 3D world is introduced in the moments between decisions. As necessary exposition and character development is revealed within the text-driven choose-your-own-adventure format, you’ll walk down — literally and figuratively — the path leading you to the secluded fire lookout tower that will serve as your hub during the main events of the game. Here is where the game introduces the mechanical systems you’ll become familiar with — things like movement (obviously), item collection, and traversing obstructions.
Now why is this form of tutorial effective? The control tutorial is straightforward, elegant — it gets what needs to be done done, quickly. The unique aspect here is in the narrative introduction. Unlike the other examples we’ll discuss, the intro of Firewatch gives you a say in its outcome — kind of. The main beats are there, regardless of your answers, but the little bits of choice you’re provided allow for you to more directly place yourself in the situation of Henry’s — the protagonist’s — life. By allowing the player choice in the introductory narrative, they’re able to more easily empathize with Henry’s plight — since it feels like the player’s plight as well. We understand the choices that brought him to his isolation, because they’re choices we made — even if we didn’t like the options.
By the time you arrive at the fire lookout tower, you’re already fully committed to Henry’s journey, and if you were anything like me you were compelled to continue it.
The intro to Firewatch serves not only to draw you further into its narrative, and commit you to its characters through your own choices, but also to familiarize the player with the kind of game Firewatch is going to be: a game of choices. Sure, there is a lot of walking through the woods, but the primary mechanic of the game, and the primary method of story delivery, are your conversations with Delilah, the sole occupant of the other fire lookout tower across the valley. She’ll give you a prompt, and you’re given a choice in how to respond.
Now on the opposite end of the narrative spectrum is the intro for Hyper Light Drifter, which is completely wordless, and only relies on its imagery to convey it’s story. The mechanical tutorial section is straightforward enough that I won’t dwell on it much more than I already have within this sentence. The more important part of Hyper Light’s opening is the introduction to the narrative.
The opening cutscene is captivating not only because of its wordlessness but also because of its haunting visuals. Unlike the opening scenes of Firewatch and DOOM, Hyper Light’s opening moments are not an entirely literal telling of the events of that world. A hauntingly beautiful score by Disasterpeace underscores images of sprawling pixelated vistas, nightmarish behemoths, and our plagued hero: the Drifter. We learn of the destruction of the old world by some undetermined but undeniably apocalyptic event. Echoes of this can be seen in Hyper Light’s playable environments, implying that of everything in Hyper Light’s opening scene, this is real. But it’s the rest that’s open to interpretation.
In the wake of Hyper Light’s apocalypse we’re introduced to the Drifter, who appears within a sanguine sea of bodies, and coughs their own blood into the already ankle high crimson pool. And much in the same way the Drifter first appeared, these bodies flicker out of existence, and the Drifter’s expelled blood darkens and coalesces into a billowing, black behemoth — which, though seemingly slain by the Drifter in a preemptive strike, reforms into an even more massive and monolithic foe. This enemy appears at various points throughout the rest of the game, but always in the context of the Drifter’s sickness, and never in the same physical plane as the rest of the world’s playable areas. We get the idea from the opening cutscene that the Drifter is familiar with the creature, as they’re seemingly aware enough of its intentions to try to kill it before it fully forms — but it also raises the question of the literal existence of the monster.
Hyper Light Drifter creator Alx Preston has stated in numerous interviews that the story and world of Hyper Light are loosely autobiographical, as Alx himself has long struggled with congenital heart disease — amongst other ailments. Alx and the Drifter both suffer from chronic ailments, and though they’ve spent a lifetime searching for cures, are haunted by the illness they can’t escape. And this is the key takeaway the opening scene of Hyper Light so skillfully and wordlessly conveys, the inescapability of the Drifter’s illness, as shown by the monstrous creature that has pursued the Drifter all this time.
Now, somewhere in the middle of Hyper Light’s subtle and Firewatch’s explicit storytelling is DOOM (2016), which features a near flawless tutorial section.
The first thing you hear after DOOM’s opening loading screen fades to black are these words:
“They are Rage, Brutal. But you… you will be worse. Rip and Tear, until it is done.”
What do we learn from this dialogue? Well, amidst the poetic nature of the description, we can infer that our character — who we’ll learn is called “The Doomslayer” — is feared by someone, or something; and they’re capable of great violence. Rip and tear are not delicate verbs. They are verbs for someone worse than rage and brutality.
But these words are but a prelude to the actual intro of the Doomslayer, who awakens on a stone slab surrounded by dead bodies and nightmarish demons. Through sheer strength the Doomslayer bursts from their shackles and crushes a nearby demon’s bloody skull against your stone prison. Collecting a pistol from the floor, the Doomslayer continues on through the facility, every part of which is equally coated in human viscera and demonic imagery.
The game introduces you to the pistol and the shotgun, and the behaviors of the introductory demons. It dumps you into an arena to familiarize you with the style of DOOM’s most prolific combat spaces. But what this introductory area also does, despite John Carmack’s famous adage that story in a Doom game is like story in a pornographic film, is introduce you to DOOM’s narrative and characters. We learn that Doomguy has no patience for bureaucracy, and we learn that all this is the UAC’s fault.
For example, when you finally begin your ascent out of the opening arena, Dr. Samuel Hayden, who you so rudely hung up on moments earlier, patches his voice into the elevator. As Dr. Hayden speaks and exposits more detail about the UAC’s interest in Hell — that is was for the “betterment of humanity” — the camera (from the Doomslayer’s perspective) tilts down to the body of a dead UAC employee. In that moment we learn everything we need to know about the UAC’s real motivations for exploring Hell, and how we should feel about it.
So, these are three intros I think best exemplify how to onboard a player to a modern videogame. They key philosophies at player here are to:
- If the game has a narrative, determine what they need to know at the start and reveal it in as elegant a way as possible
- Introduce game mechanics organically as the player traverses the introductory level.
What modern games do you think have a great player onboarding experience? Let me know below!