The Art of the Game Opening

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By Mike DeVillar on December 30th, 2020

Sitting down and booting up a new game is something that comes with a lot of anticipation. From the second we turn on a console and get it started, there are expectations, wants, hopes, fears, and other things that come together to a kind of flame of excitement that is either going to be stoked or quenched by the game as it goes on. 

Developers are wise to how important those first moments are, and so the opening acts of a game are often designed to not just teach players about the game, but get them hooked on it as well. In many cases even before we hit the start button, or any button depending on the game, a video may play to entice and excite players even further. Some of these cinematics may even go on to be truly memorable parts of the game, sticking out as one of the reasons for it to be a title worth remembering.

But what makes a great opening video? What qualities do they possess that make them truly memorable?

Well, there isn’t quite enough time to go over every single thing these kinds of openings do and to entice people in, but by taking a look at a few examples, we can see a few of those qualities, and maybe better understand what it was that made these games so instantly memorable to us.

Analyzing Amazement

Something that is common between them, great game openings keep the focus of the game at their core. How they do this is always going to be dependent on the game in question, but showcasing what is central to that experience is always an important part of their presentation, whether it is a gameplay showcase, or something a bit more thematic. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few that stand out among the crowd.

Final Fantasy VIII

Coming off the colossal success of Final Fantasy VII, and released during a golden age for then company Squaresoft (now Square Enix), Final Fantasy VIII was a game that helped solidify the series as a blockbuster franchise the world over. Though the game has become a bit of a contentious entry over time, on its release, it was a powerhouse title that served as another reminder of Squaresoft’s monolithic status. 

It’s opening was no exception either.

Featuring the iconic Liberi Fatali overlaid at the time peerless visuals, the opening to Final Fantasy VIII sets a dramatic stage centered around the game’s two main protagonists, Squall and Rinoa, as well as its antagonists, Edea and Seifer. 

But it’s not just about that conflict, the opening also puts the focus directly on Squall and Rinoa’s relationship, one of the central pillars of Final Fantasy VIII’s strange, twisting narrative. By using several shots that are both in the game and unique unto itself, the opening promises a story of love, conflict, sword fighting with swords that are also guns, and a sweeping tale across numerous locales.

Even today, the cinematic is something to behold. Though obvious strides have been made regarding polygon counts, animation, and visual effects, the peerless composition of Nobuo Uematsu is on full display with the music, and the editing and artistry is on display with the visuals. It all swirls together into its own complete package that, whether you love the game or not, stands up as a memorable kickoff to a game. One that sets a central focus on the story, specifically that of its main players.

Warcraft III

Blizzard Entertainment has developed a kind of reputation over the years for having great cinematics. Always having cutting edge technology at their disposal and a stunning art team to bring their worlds to life, Blizzard has pushed the boundaries of what cinematics and cutscenes are capable of in games. They have been honing that cinematic edge for decades now, sharpening it into masterful storytelling through their short films.

Back in 2002, Warcraft III took the world by storm, setting sales records and generally redefining what was possible in the real time strategy genre. It also showcased stunning cinematics that on top of being intensely moody and dramatic, were cutting edge for their time, and still beautiful even today. 

Its opening however, is a little more subdued, but absolutely ingenious in how it establishes the game’s central thrust.

Opening on a field of battle, we see two warriors, orc and human, fighting in a pitched battle with no clear victor in sight. These two are not anyone in particular, but for those familiar with Warcraft’s lore and story, this conflict makes up the central thrust of the first two games. Orcs invaded Azeroth, and humans fight them off to try and secure their kingdoms.

Cut with shots of grassy fields and a brewing storm, the overlaid narration eventually leads to a new entrant into the fight, a massive, stony creature composed of blazing green flame called an Infernal slams into the ground and rises up, mightier than both warriors. After a bellowing roar, the shot cuts to black, then fades in on both warriors’ hands, blood mixing with water as they are implied to be dead, or dying.

With that one video, roughly two minutes in length, Blizzard establishes that this isn’t the Warcraft of yore. The story, and the setting, are going in new directions, and ones that may spell doom for both factions if something doesn’t change. The status quo of Orcs vs. Humans is going away, at least until World of Warcraft releases in 2004.

It isn’t subtle, but then again, Warcraft has never been about subtlety, and this hammer to the face is one that signals front and center to expect the unexpected. It focuses on the changing scale of the narrative and the introduction of a new, central villain, something that both in the gameplay and story changed the franchise forever.

Phantasy Star Online

The Phantasy Star franchise is one of those oft talked about, much loved series of games that never quite found a solid base in the west compared to other monolithic franchises. Coupled with the decline in Sega’s console popularity, the science fantasy franchise seems doomed to a life of semi-obscurity.

It’s tangentially related spinoff, Phantasy Star Online, however, is a game that refuses to go away. The revolutionary online action MMORPG is one that has spawned two sequels, and has private servers for the original that exist in numerous forms going on to this day.

This game resonated with people in 2000, and it continues to do so twenty years later in defiance of its increasingly dated gameplay.

It’s opening is also different from the prior two we’ve talked about in that it doesn’t feature or focus on people, but instead its own setting. The opening talks about the Pioneer expedition to find a new home for humanity, and the hopes that the planet Ragol will be sustainable. Featuring shots of the planet and select locales, the enormous hub ship of Pioneer 2, and text crawls detailing the game’s general plotline. 

Ending with a mysterious explosion on the planet’s surface that severs all contact with the first wave of people that made landing on Ragol, and the game ends on its logo.

Set alongside a steadily building, sweeping epic of a song that echoes Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the opening isn’t just getting you excited about the game, it’s inviting you to partake in the adventure that is Phantasy Star Online. It wants you to get in and solve the mystery of what happened to Pioneer 1.

Phantasy Star Online was never a story heavy kind of game. But the tidbits of information and bits of narrative it has evoke a sense of something greater being at play, right up through the end. The opening trailer manages

Silent Hill 2

It would be foolish to not talk about at least one of the Silent Hill games in this article. Konami’s legendary, though troubled horror series set benchmarks for both frightening atmospheres and engaging, layered stories that have kept people entertained and talking about them for decades.

Silent Hill 2 in particular is a game that needs no introduction. The game is a towering achievement not just in horror gaming, but in the medium in general. It is not a bold statement to make to say that it is one of, if not the most important horror game ever made. It is a spellbinding game that is emotional and devastating, dealing with issues of trauma, abuse, and many other themes with a skill that while playing it feels effortless.

Its opening is one of those places. Starting with a gentle, unnerving part of an in-game cinematic, the gentle percussion and guitar of master composer Akira Yamaoka slide their way in building up into a rock ballad that plays over scenes and dialog from the game. 

Silent Hill games are always about the characters more than just the spooky sights, and have drawn a lot of inspiration from film, but Silent Hill 2’s opening plays off like a trailer for a new season of a television show. The trailer has its own swells and dives, touching on the game’s characters and conflicts, ending on a line of dialog that is integral to the game’s narrative that on repeat plays has new meaning.

This is additionally helped by the use of vignette shots that, while having little to do with the game directly, help to further set the tone or show hints of imagery that will appear during gameplay.

Much like the rest of the game, this intro cinematic is a masterclass of tone, character showcasing, and just establishing some sort of foundation for the game ahead. Like the Phantasy Star Online opening, it invites you to unravel the mystery ahead, and dive into the world Team Silent created.

First Impressions Make Lasting Memories

You only get to make a first impression once. It’s a statement that pops up every so often but it’s true, and for many that can also apply to the media they consume. As time went on, and games continued to evolve, the need for a sizzle reel of a cinematic at the first boot up of a game has become less important.

However, it’s important to remember the power that they have. In many ways these videos have become the mold by which a lot of game trailers have evolved from, just as those opening videos evolved from arcade game attract modes. 

So next time you boot up a game, give it a second. Let that first video play, or wait on the start menu until it kicks off. If you’re replaying an old favorite, maybe you’ll be reminded of something you loved about the game, and if you’re new, you might just see something that will pique your curiosity even further.

Mike DeVillar is a writer/editor that's stumbled his way into the games industry, as well as a lot of places he shouldn't be getting into in general.

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