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Don't Start With Story!

Blog posted by Ste Pickford on Fri, 14 Nov 2008

Ste Pickford

Right. A bit of a rant today. Why do so many games begin with cut scenes or story sequences? It's stupid!

I downloaded a couple of 360 demos from Live this week: Banjo Kazooie Nuts N Bolts, and Left 4 Dead. I've not got the fastest internet connection in the world, so they took bloomin' ages to download (I think they were both over a gig). I left the 360 chundering away in the background (keeping me warm as winter sets in), and carried on with some work, letting the anticipation of playing new games build up.

I don't think I'm alone in having this new game anticipation. Even for a free demo.

If you buy a new game in a bricks and mortar shop, you've got to carry the thing home with you before you play it. For me this is when the excitement builds up, as I read the manual on the bus home and plan my excuses to get out of jobs and chores at home for the rest of the evening, clearing time to play my shiny new game.

If I've ordered it online then I've got the long wait for the postman, the fretting over whether the game will be posted out to arrive before launch day, and finally the sweet sound of a fat brown package landing on the doormat (please don't be the missus' Next catalogue!).

If it's a download the wait is much shorter, but the excitement greater - I can be playing this game in minutes. Seconds even!

Then, whether I'm ripping open the bubble wrap envelope, stuffing the disk into the drive, or double clicking the installer, I know that at last I'm about the play the game I've heard so much about and been waiting for for so long. How will it feel? What will I be able to do? How easy will the controls be? How hard will the difficulty be?

Press the start button, and what invariably happens? A long, scene setting animation.


Let me play the stupid game first you stupid developers!

The very first thing I want to do with a new game is play it. I want to feel the controls, I want to know what I'm doing. I want to move an avatar or shoot something or make something happen on screen or in the game world. My hand is gripping the controller, my fingers are hovering over the buttons, and I want to interact. I want to play.

I don't want so sit back for 5 minutes and passively absorb some scene setting story.

So Left 4 Dead finished downloading first. There's a long scene setting cut scene at the beginning. I think it was skippable, but I knew absolutely nothing about this game, so didn't want to skip something if it was necessary. The cut scene was really nice. Really well made, well directed, scripted, animated etc. It was good stuff. But I wasn't playing it. I was passively watching, waiting for the moment the person who wrote this precious story deemed me, the player, important enough to become involved.

You could argue that this scene setting was necessary to explain the situation the characters were in before the game started, but I don't buy that. The developers were writing the story, so they could have easily written a story that began with me in control.

Anyway, the demo was great. The game seems like a lot of fun. The cut scene was great, but it shouldn't have been at the very beginning.

Then Banjo. Blimey! I must say first that I liked the first Banjo game on the N64, and recently enjoyed Viva Pinata (despite a diabolical user interface, incredibly annoying and intrusive 'tutorial', and unnecessarily high difficulty), so I'm not massively down on Rare. I'd heard some good things about this too, despite the rather ugly / confused art direction, so I was in a positive frame of mind.

I pressed start and was bombarded with cut scene, text, story, text, exposition, text, dialogue, text, explanations, text, instructions, text, 'humour', and more text. And all in a crappy, ugly, unreadable font.

It was utterly bewildering. I couldn't take any of it in. I just wanted to play for a bit, run around with my character(s) and get a feel for the controls. Then, and only then, would I be ready to take in a bit more information about the game world, and the mechanics, and my goals etc. It's impossible to take this information in before I even know how to move around in the world.

So after being forced to sit there passively for five minutes with the controller waiting idly in my hand, I finally get to move my character and already I've been given some menial task to perform (I couldn't take in the actual instructions, as I just wanted to get a feel for the controls first). The first NPC I walk up to insults me by telling me off for not doing what I was supposed to be doing, saying "it's not rocket science!" Blah. Quit. Delete. Switch off. I'll go back to Left 4 Dead later.

Does anybody at Rare consider the new user's initial experience? Does anybody at any developer consider it? So much game content seems to be designed for the player who already understands the game inside out, and has played it to death (the developer, basically). The brand new player needs to be eased in to a game, not bombarded with story and plot and instructions. Just let us play and experiment for a while first.

I feel a bit bad talking about Left 4 Dead, as it's not a particularly bad offender in this respect at all, it's just something that I played this week, and goes to show that even really good games get this first impression wrong.

Of course RPGs are the worst. I love RPGs, but hate so much about them. I've lost count of the number of times I've started a new one, dying to get on with my first battle, my first level-up, my first mess about with equipment and abilities, yet instead have to sit there as some awful story book opens and a ream of fantasy cliches are reeled out first.

Like so much that's wrong with video games, the root of this problem is developers blindly copying movies, rather than properly thinking about how games work. Movies are fundamentally passive, so sitting back watching the credits and a bit of scene setting is the perfect way to start a movie. Games are fundamentally about player input, player action, player experimentation and player interactivity, so that's what they should start with.

There's plenty of space in games for cut scenes, story and scene setting, but straight after the player first presses the start button is definitely not the right place.

If we're going to copy movies, then at least copy the right ones. Bond movies tend to start with a massive, stupid action sequence (almost like the end of a previous story), before settling down for the new story to begin. I'd love an RPG to do that. Give me every weapon, every ability, every item and spell, and throw me straight into a mad battle with a mega boss. It doesn't matter if I win or lose; I get to do some stuff straight away. Then, after 5 or 10 minutes of action and experimentation, I'll be ready for a little break. Show me the scene setting cut scene right then, and I'll be ready.

Banjo? Let me drive around in a mad vehicle as soon as I press start on the demo. Woo hoo! This is great. I'm loving it. After 5 minutes, smash it to little pieces, and leave me lying in a crumpled heap on the floor. Then I'll be ready to read all that text and learn all names of the locations in the world. I'll even be prepared to perform some menial tasks, as I know how fun the reward is going to be.

Left 4 Dead? Ah, I can't tell Valve how to make games. They're too good.


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