YOUR INTRO SUCKS, CLEAN UP THAT MESS

About RPG intros, why they suck, and what you can do about it.

Your Intro Sucks, Clean Up That Mess
an RPGMaker article about crappy intros by Brickroad


RPGs are a story-driven genre and, like any good story, they often require a prologue. It's not practical in most cases to

just drop the player off in the game world and let them have at it; you have to start the story somewhere, and usually

that means getting the plot rolling before the player even has control of his heroes. Introduction scenes are necessary evils

in the RPG world, and this article will deal with making them as high-class as possible.

If you take nothing else from this article, let it be this: the best intro in a videogame is the closest thing to no intro

as possible
.


There's No Such Thing As A Good Intro

At least, not in videogames. Books get away with prologues and introductory chapters, movies get away with boring first acts

that serve only to set up the plot. So why can't videogames get away with the same things? Simply put, videogames are an

interactive medium. The player isn't called the player because he loaded his PS3 up with a 50 gigabyte graphic novel; he

intends to play a game. As a rule of thumb, any time the player is holding the controller uselessly as the game rolls

on by itself is time wasted.

Now, of course, we know that isn't true. After all, games have cutscenes and FMVs and other non-interactive portions that

manage to hold our interest. These things, however usually come after we've already been playing for a while. At that point,

we've already invested some time into playing the game portions of the game. If the game has done its job, we're now

interested in seeing how the story unfolds. Or, we've just hit a high note of fighting an enormous four-screen tall boss and

we view it as a treat to watch a 90-second movie of it crumbling satisfyingly into dust.

There is, however, one point in time where we dont need a break from playing the game, and don't particularly care about the

story (yet): the point right after we turn the game on. It's bad enough we generally have to sit through the console startup

screen, a separate splash screen for the game's producer and developer, the title screen, probably a main menu, and then a

loading screen on top of it all -- there comes a point when you just want to be done watching the game and start pressing the

buttons.


Anti-information

So you've waited through all the startup and loading screens and created a new save file. Then, the game starts rambling on

with slow-scrolling text (or a slow-scrolling voice-over) about a war a thousand years ago, and introducing a bunch of NPCs

who won't even be included in the game for at least five or six hours. Your eyes glaze over. You know you need to be

absorbing this information. You know that, later on, something won't make sense and you'll just have to re-watch the intro

anyway to refresh your memory. But you're just so excited to start playing the game for real that you can't help but skim the

dialogue and let the opening movie slide off your brain.

But still, the writers had to start with something. So, how does this problem pertain to RPGMaker, and how can we get around

it?

One successful trick is to give as little information in the intro as possible. It's tempting to fill the first

fifteen minutes of your game with unplayable cutscenes detailing every tidbit of background information about your game

world, but the player probably won't agree with how brilliant you think it is. Don't worry. An RPG is a marathon, not a

sprint. All that information can come later, handed out a piece at a time. Put into the proper context, the player will be

more involved with that 100-year-old-war or the kidnapped princess or the new government genetics project if they're invested

emotionally in the characterse those events affect.

So the idea is to leave out information, but still provide context. How? By leaving out specifics. If the game takes

place 100 years after a huge war, and that war is important to the story, that's something the player can quickly absorb and

retain. It isn't necessary to go into the details of the war, who fought it and why, and what plot-important species of

demons supposedly went extinct during it. Remember, the player doesn't have any context going in, so all that specific

information is just going into a black hole.

Leaving out proper nouns is an excellent way to provide context without information. The player knows there was a war, he

knows there was a princess, he knows there were some demons. Now he's good to go. The rest can be fleshed out later as the

war, princess and demons become more important to the story. Let's face it, the first quest is going to just be exterminating

rats or finding some mayor's hat anyway.


Hold the Pretention, Please

Here's a short list of things I've seen in RPGMaker intros that no sane commercial game would ever do: monologues in made-up

foreign languages, extremely long graphics-intensive scenes with absolutely no dialogue or plot information whatsoever, full

credits sequences, second title screens that sit there until an entire mp3 has finished playing, long cutscenes that have no

relevance whatsoever to anything in the playable portions of the demo, forced tutorials on basic gameplay systems... you get

the idea.

Guys, all that stuff is totally unnecessary.

I believe that a lot of this stuff is the product of people trying to be as professional as possible, without actually

stopping to consider how the pros do it
. There's nothing wrong with trying to present a professional product with your

game, but there are ways to pull it off and ways not to.

The long story-deprived graphics scenes? They exist in pro games, but they're generally skippable. (Example: Final Fantasy

XII opens with a long montage of in-game FMVs which make no sense in the context of the intro, but as soon as you push a

button it brings up the "New Game / Continue" menu.) The credits sequences? Some games have them, but they tend to be

skippable too. (Example: Metal Gear Solid 1-3 has a credits sequence during the intro and even credits the voice actors

onscreen when their characters first appear -- but these overlay the story sequence you're already watching and, in some

cases, the first gameplay scene.) The second title screen? One's enough guys. The tutorials? Make them optional. Not everyone

needs their hand held.

As easy it would be to code even in RM2k's wacky event-driven system, I'm baffled at how few RPGMaker intros aren't

skippable.


Solution #1: The Playable Intro

Don't worry, I'm not just here to rant about crappy RPG intros. (Although I did want to, a little, and I'm glad to have

gotten it off my chest.) I come bearing solutions! Let's examine some RPG intros that actually work pretty well, and what

they did right, and how you can emulate them in your RPGMaker project.

The two main functions of a videogame intro are: 1) introduce the player to the story and 2) introduce the player

to the gameplay
. Worst case scenario, a game gives you a big helping of the first in a non-interactive intro, then a huge

helping of the second in an unskippable tutorial scene. Best case scenario? The game combines those things into a

playable intro. In this kind of intro, the player is dropped directly into the game world and picks up playing right away.

I think the best possible example of this style intro is Final Fantasy VII. The game opens with a close-up on a pretty girl,

pans out over a huge industrial city, flashes the title, then zooms in on a train arriving. Then the hero pops out and the

player gets control. That's it.

Of course, that's not it. The intro isn't over. There are fight scenes. The player is told how to move, how to input

commands, and even participates in a quick timing minigame. Treasure is obtained. A few characters are introduced. The

important gameplay mechanic (Materia) is mentioned briefly, and it all tops off with a non-trivial boss fight and a timed

escape sequence. Wow!

Let's take a look at what isn't in the intro. First, there's not really much in the way of introduction at all. The

player doesn't even know the hero's name at first; he appears in the battle screens as "Ex-SOLDIER". It isn't until a few

minutes later when another character mentions the hero's name that the player gets that information. The game mentions

nothing of the hero's past, nothing of the setting, nothing of the Ancients or Meteor or SOLDIER (all very important plot

points later on). The player isn't even given the name of the city the characters are in, until one of the characters mention

it. When Materia is brought up, it's presented as a gameplay mechanic first and foremost; only later on is it explained

within the context of the story.

Time the player picks "New Game" off the menu to the time he gets to control his character: 20 seconds. Maybe 30. It's that

quick. Very little information is given at all throughout the intro, but there's plenty of context. We know the heroes

are terrorists of some kind. We know their goal is to blow up reactors. We know there is something called Materia which

grants magic powers. We know there is an organization called SOLDIER, and the hero was part of it. We know the hero is kind

of a badass that doesn't seem to care about the work outside of his payment. All the other plot points (and say what you want

about FF7, but there are a lot of them) are left out, intended to show up later during their natural places in the story.

This is definately something that can be done in an RPGMaker game. It works especially well in cases where the main character

has a direct involvement in the main plot right from the outset, as it puts the player into the thick of things, as it were.


Solution #2: Optional Absorbation

Sometimes a game has a lot of particularly relevant backstory, much of which the player needs to know before he can start

playing in earnest. How do we handle situations like this? By giving up the most important shreds of information up front,

and leaving the rest for the player to discover. If the first location in the game is, say, a huge town full of NPCs, all

that juicy backstory can be spread out over a large area which the player is going to explore anyway. And since he's actively

exploring and interacting with the game, he won't feel like he's being forced to sit through any unnecessary exposition. As

an added bonus, if it's the player's second or third time through the game, he can skip the exploration and jump right to the

good stuff as soon as he wants.

Possibly the best example of such an intro is the original Suikoden. The very first thing the player sees is a boy and his

father talking about the boy's new job in the Empire, and how proud he is. They go see the Emporer. Dialogue is exchanged

(some of which references events in the past, which aren't important to the game and therefore never mentioned again). The

player is right away slapped with the feeling of being dropped in the middle of an enormous impossible-to-understand world

with WAY too much information to absorb. But then, control is relinquished. The player is on his own in the middle of the

Imperial Capital.

Exploring the city (and that's what the player will do!) yeilds tons of useful and interesting backstory. Many

important characters who pop up later are in town, tucked away in houses or on street corners. NPCs give up all kinds of

handy information about the game world and the character's role in it. Some of this is important (or will become important

later), some is just flavor text. But none of it is shoved down the player's throat. The player either absorbs it or ignores

it, the game doesn't care either way.

This works exceptionally well in games where the player doesn't start in the "meat" of the plot. If there are a few

adventures between the game startup and the "real" plot, consider taking this route. In Suikoden, the game proper doesn't

really start for about five hours or so (sort of muddying up where the intro ends and where the game begins), but by the time

it does the player has a wealth of knowledge about what's going on and what he needs to be doing. You forego the sense of

urgency and involvement the FF7-style intro gives, but you allow the player to absorb as much or as little as he wants at his

own pace. And let's face it, not every game needs to start with a catastrophe.


Solution #3: Lay on the Intensity

Even bitter, jaded players like me can forgive a long intro if it's just plain good enough. A super-intense cutscene

that gets the player pumped can be an effective way to start a game, if pulled off correctly.

Example: Metal Gear Solid 3. The game opens with a mission briefing at 30,000 feet. The hero receives his orders and mission

directives while soaring through the sky over the jungle in which the game takes place, then, when the characters are sick of

talking, he drops out of the plane with a parachute. The music and visuals give a very cinematic experience and, as an added

little bonus, they superimpose the opening credits onto the scene. It works just like popping in a DVD to watch a movie.

Still, notice that a lot of information is left out of the intro. The hero is given his mission and is introduced to a couple

characters, and that's it. Some of the most important characters to the plot aren't even mentioned. No gameplay advice is

given. No backstory is involved. "Here's what you need to do. Go do it." The beauty is in the presentation, not the content.

The player goes into the game psyched but not overloaded.

I hesitate to give examples on how this could work in an RPGMaker game, because as a rule we don't have the tools required to

pull it off. Not to say it can't be done, just that the engine isn't generally suited to this type of thing. If you

have the tools to render an opening FMV or are just fantastic at molding cutscenes, more the better. Take note, though, that

even MGS3's super-cinematic intro offers a little interactivity: the player can hold a button down to see the game

through the hero's eyes instead of from an omnipresent camera. Also, the entire thing is skippable at the press of a button.

MGS3 knows what it's doing. People who want the full experience can get it, but people who just want the game (or have seen

the opening before) can get right to business. It's important to remember where the "movie" ends and the "game" begins.


The Story Grows In The Telling

The further you go in your plot, the deeper it will become. Again, it's a marathon, not a sprint. The player doesn't need a

history lesson right at first. He doesn't need to be bombarded with spinning pencil sketches or lighting effects. He doesn't

need a slow auto-scrolling monologue atop a panning world map. He doesn't even need to necessarily know any of the

characters' names, or even who they are. The golden rule, again, is: the best intro in a videogame is the closest thing to

no intro as possible
. Give the player precisely what is necessary and no more.

Posts

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slash
I didn't want to wake up 40 years old and working a job that I hate.
3891
Gah, this is still one of my favorite articles. Dead on.
Brilliant article! I was in the middle of my 'opening scene' creation of a new project I'm working on when I felt something was not right, as soon as I read this it all made sense eheheh =P
Thanks for such great contribution, I've learned quite a lot from it!! ^-^
chana
(Socrates would certainly not contadict me!)
1584
I like stories personaly, and I find that, in amateur rggs, one of the most polished and well done parts of the game (for the better ones) is often the intro,on the other hand, if after pressing enter "on" new game", I find myself nowheres, with a character that has no name , and no kind of consistence at all, normally in the worst (most inexperienced) games, having to immediately take control, I shut down the game definitely. This said, as for COMMERCIAL GAMES, I AGREE, but It would seem that those two types of games are basically different. (I happen to be rather bored by commercial games, while I enjoy enormously the very personal creativity I find in the best amongst amateur games.)
author=Desmo360
Come back to RMN and write more beast articles!

This is what I have wanted to see.


Regarding this article, I think of Forever's End. It shares a lot of the things described that make it hard to pick up the game.
Come back to RMN and write more beast articles!
Fantastic article.
I feel like I've learned something.
I wonder why Brandon Abley calls you a "fu!@#ing a@#hole"...It's not like you're personally ranting on an RM game. In fact, all of your comments on games in this article were complementing proffesional games. Nevermind...just a thought. Brandon Abley's games still own. It's too bad I haven't really seen any of yours though, Brickroad. Pretty much all of your games consist of all cutscenes... S:(
Nice guide! and thanks.
now i understand why my and my team's introscenes always seems to be screwed up, a week after we made them... because they were too full off unecessary plot info.
Good advice for the most part. I like it. Good show!
Wow, pretty good guide, I'm going to use some of the pointers in my rpg.
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