Friday, April 23, 2010

History, Mystery, Story: The Cinematic as Game Opening

In this article, freelance games writer Leanne C. Taylor takes a look at cinematics in the context of game openings. She identifies three ways in which cinematics can be used to create a bond between the game and players: History, Mystery, and Story.

Games are like movies, or so some would have us believe. With their ever-increasing budgets and graphical realism, they're certainly heading down that path. In movies, there's something that's colloquially known as the 10 minute rule. The idea is that, after 10 minutes, the viewer will generally have a good idea of whether they'll enjoy the rest of the movie or not. In games, which are exponential in terms of cost and time-cost for the audience when compared to movies, where does the 10 minute rule lie?

In the same way that the Call to Adventure comes at around 10 minutes in movies, to convince viewers they want to keep watching, games need a hook to convince the player to actually start playing. This can come in the trailers, before the game is released. In earlier days, when advertising for video games was all but unknown, it had to come from within the game itself.

This was where cinematics came in – they told the player the story, linked the gameplay to something the player could relate to, understand, or wonder about. Far apart from the gameplay, they gave the player a reason to keep playing.

But the opening cinematic of a game must do much more than simply tell the player the story or provide a hook. It has to convince the player that they have spent their money wisely. And because games are so much more expensive for the player in terms of time and money than movies are, it has to do so quickly.

The best and most memorable games that I recall from the past 20 years have managed to do this: to hook the player with their opening cinematics. But what made them so compelling? Why did they succeed where so many others have failed?

My theory is this: for original IP, your hook must be some form of a history or a mystery, probably combined. For second forays into a world, you can start to rely on story. It's easy to discover what kind of hook a certain game has by asking which one of these three things the player will be wondering about by the end of the intro cinematic:
  • What has happened? (History)
  • What's happening now? (Mystery)
  • What's going to happen? (Story)
To illustrate my point, let's look at games from the three Big Bs – Blizzard, Black Isle/BioWare and Bethesda.

Mystery is the largest category – for first-run IPs, this seems to be the preferred method of getting and keeping players. In this category, we have games such as WarCraft 1, StarCraft 1, Diablo 1, Baldur's Gate 1, Planescape: Torment, Morrowind and, oddly enough, WarCraft 3. Despite our lone contender at the end, you'll notice most of those games have a one after their names. Sequels generally being a sign of success, we can assume these games did well.

The reason WarCraft 3 fits into the Mystery category is simple: since there were 6 years between the last released WarCraft title and when WarCraft 3 came out, Blizzard figured they would be attempting to sell their product to a new and broader range of gamers, and treated the IP as original. They developed a mystery in line with their lore, and met the Mystery and Story categories in a single two-minute cinematic. The result is something short, compelling, and lucrative.

History, by comparison, is the smallest category. These games usually have also either a Mystery or a Story to back them up, as History by itself is not especially conducive to gameplay. In this category, we have games such as WarCraft 2 and Diablo 2. They tell of the events that came before, and are most effective when applied to the player's previous actions. In WarCraft 2, you're continuing your battle. In Diablo 2, you're discovering the path of the Wanderer – your own character from the first game. History is more compelling with a personal context for the player.

This leaves us with Story. In this category we have games such as WarCraft 3: Frozen Throne, StarCraft: Broodwar, Baldur's Gate 2 and Oblivion. The question in these introductions is not What has happened? or What's happening now?, as these things are usually explained. Prior knowledge is used to propel the player into discovery, to lend the unmistakable allure of history in the making.

This, I would argue, is the most difficult way of creating a hook, simply because it relies on previous worldbuilding and play experiences to generate interest. These games often throw in a motive, such as revenge (Baldur's Gate 2) or Mystery (Oblivion) to give the story more shape, but their underlying message is: Come and play a part in what's about to happen. Come and create the future.

If we look at these categories from another angle, we can see a different way of trying to decide what draws the player in – is it discovering the past, understanding the present, or shaping the future? What experience do you want your player to have? How can you make it more personal?

Know all this, and you will know what the first 10 minutes of your game should be. You will have your hook. Know that, and you will know your audience. Know your audience, and they will love you for it.

Leanne C. Taylor is a freelance games writer currently lecturing in Interactive Narrative at Qantm College, Brisbane. Her most recent achievement is writing a lecture on the narrative structure of Kick Ass using Sleep Is Death as a delivery medium.


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