Creating an intro sequence needs writing, design, art, and code. A few weeks ago I outlined the importance of setting mood, foreshadowing themes, and hooking players with the writing. I brushed over the game design, but that’s equally vital to a good player experience.
There are similarities between introductions in books, plays, films, and games — but games have an additional hurdle: interaction. Other media requires simple, everyday skills: a level of reading literacy, or basic sight and sound senses. There are exceptions to this, of course, and many advances have been made in accessibility across the media spectrum, but for an independent playwright, thinking about audience cognizance isn’t her first priority.
I want players to get lost in my game — to think of actions and choices rather than controls. This eventually leads to players conflating the main character’s actions with their own — i.e.: “I need to jump here!”, rather than “I need to press A to have Mario jump here!” This mental shift is what makes games unique. It’s that responsibility placed on your own actions — timing a jump in Super Mario Bros., or choosing which character to save in The Walking Dead. It’s never a permanent state (no player walks away from the game thinking they’re actually Mario) but even that temporary projection can lead to heightened emotions, like anger or joy, and even emotional states impossible for other media, like guilt or remorse.
If I want my players in that state as soon as possible, I need to teach the controls quickly — in the introduction.
But Get Out of My Way!
Some games have complex interactions — evolving an empire across centuries, or creating and maintaining a city and its infrastructure. These games require more explanation of their controls, and usually those explanations are large pop-ups full of text. While I understand the necessity of this approach, I don’t like it. Taking players away from the experience breaks any sense of flow. It reminds them they’re playing a game. It pulls them further from the state we want them in.
There have been many analyses of the introduction to Super Mario Bros. — how it teaches players to jump, attack, collect coins, and use power-ups, without any direct communication from the designer to the player. Similarly, the original Halo is praised for actually changing its controls based on how players interact with its introduction. These games succeed because they start the immersion immediately and don’t break it. Players learn while in the world.
My game has fairly simple interactions. I bet I can do the same.
How Are You Doing It?
Players in my game read a passage of story, then click options to progress. These options have three types:
- Continue, where players have no choice, but must click a button to see a new passage
- Descriptive, which simply add detail but don’t continue the story
- Choice, where players need to make a decision that might branch the story
Players quickly understand the Continue option, but the difference between Descriptive and Choice options has been more difficult to communicate. Players had always recognized the visual distinction, but they remained unsure of the gameplay difference (“Oh I didn’t pick [the Descriptive Option] because I thought it would advance the story”). I was worried I might need a pop-up to explain the difference, but, with testing, a more elegant solution emerged: if players first encounter options in a certain order, they understand the difference for the remainder of the game.
I needed to tweak the script for my introduction, but not by much. Now, the first three passages of my game progress like so:
- A passage with only a Continue option
- A passage with two Descriptive options and a Continue option
- A passage with two Choice options
The first passage is simple. It has only a Continue option that players find and click without difficulty.
On the second passage, players recognize the Continue button, but are intrigued by the Descriptive options. They select one of them, which shows them a bit more text. But then they see that the second Descriptive option is still available, and they select that as well. They understand that choosing the first option still allowed them to select the second option. Then they click the Continue option to progress the story.
Upon seeing the third passage, they don’t see a Continue option, but two new options that look different and are at odds with one another (“Do Action” or “Don’t Do Action”). They select one option and the other option disappears. Players understand that they’ve just made a choice.
Though the lesson was subtle, it sticks around for the rest of the game: Descriptive options have no consequence, but Choice options are permanent decisions. It perfectly captures my interactions without explicit communication through pop-ups. It took some iteration, but it works well now, teaching the players while immersing them inside the world.