Writing a script for an opening scene or prologue of the game is a very tricky task. It’s easy to underestimate its significance and make it too short and meaningless or to bore the player with an extensive exposition. Before we dive into the analysis of games’ intros, let’s figure out what goals a good prologue strives to achieve. And, boy, there are plenty of goals!
I. Describe setting
First of all, the prologue must give the player brief information about where the action takes place. Not only about time or geographic location, but most importantly about culture, society and the general mood of this area, as well as cover key past events and personalities. It needn’t go into too many details and rehash ALL HISTORY of the world or lineage of each character. Of course, unless the author is as good at it as Tolkien.
II. Explain the protagonist’s high concept and flaws
Whether it’s Geralt of Rivia, Doomguy or Mario, the player needs to understand what role is given to him, so that he can immerse into it. To achieve it, a good intro helps to grasp at least the basic character concept - who is he, broadly speaking? A brutal and grim witcher, impatient and badass Doom Slayer or funny and tenacious plumber? Usually, such high concept is a mix of common behavior pattern and things at which the character is good (hunting monsters, kicking demons asses or jumping on the pipes).
Story-driven games should also give the player a hint on the protagonist’s flaw. We all know that nobody can be truly perfect, so if the character has an Achilles' heel it will ultimately make him more believable and less flat, thus engage the player into his story deeper.
III. Establish global conflict of the story
Apart from the main info about setting and a protagonist, prologue also should give the player a premise for the whole story: what this game will be about? Aliens’ invasion of the peaceful town? Humanity surviving in the radioactive wasteland? Cruel gangs confronting with each other? No matter what it is, only major conflicts may attract the player’s interest. ‘Cause it’s not real life - if everything is fine in this world then why should anybody strive to change something? Meh, that’d be boring.
IV. Give the player a clear global goal
Once the main conflict is established, the player needs to know what exactly his role is in all this. Sometimes it is obvious. In Mario, the story’s global conflict - struggles to save princess while confronting Koopas, coincides with the protagonist's goal, because, well, somehow he’s the only one who cares about the princess. But in games like Mass Effect, Skyrim, Dragon Age, the main character plays only some part in the global conflict. Commander Shepard is not the only one who stands against Reapers (at least I hope so). And he is not the admiral of the whole fleet. His goal is to eventually outsmart Reapers, find their weak spot while the rest of the Galaxy is just fighting with them head to head. And since there is an illusion of living world which is also taking some actions, we as players feel even more important once we’re given a specific and unique role in the game story.
V. Create an Inciting Incident
Just like in movies, prologue must “kickstart” the story and show why it begins right here, right now, and not two weeks earlier or five years later. Usually, something happens after which there is no way back for the protagonist. Think of Mass Effect 2. It wasn’t enough to just show us that Reapers are still out there in the opening scene. No, it needed a scene where the Reaper destroys Shepard's ship and kills his team, as well as Shepard himself. Then it’s purely clear - yep, the threat is REAL, and Shephard must do something ASAP (once he is resurrected, of course).
VI. Introduce the antagonist
For games that have a personalized antagonist, it’s usually a good move to at least give a hint about him in the very beginning. The existence of a powerful and mystical adversary makes the story’s conflict sharper and the player’s motivation clearer - obviously, eventually he will have to confront exactly this mighty bad guy. Thus, the player starts to anticipate this conflict beforehand.
Phew! It's quite a few things which need to be done in the prologue, don’t you think? It’s complicated by the fact that just like in movies, all this must be done under the first 15 minutes (ideally less)! Should the prologue be longer, the player will consider it excessive and boring, as it’ll look like the game is preventing him from, em, actually playing it.
So, how do developers approach this complex task? Well, since there is so much info to convey and so little time to do it, the most common solution is a voice-over narration. It’s simple, brief and effective - the game just tells the player everything he needs to know via monologue of some Narrator (or via dialogue between two characters at best), while a cool cut-scene plays in the background. Brilliant solution! Or not? To figure it out, let’s take a look at a pretty standard example of such prologue in Borderlands 2.
Borderlands 2 prologue
Borderlands 2 opening scene consists of two parts: the voice-over narration and an action scene. You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzZ8YtuiVD4
In the first part the narrator tells us the following:
So? You want to hear another story, huh? One where the fate of Pandora hangs in balance? If not, too bad! I’m telling you anyway. First, there was the Vault - an alien prison opened with a mystical key. To the warriors who opened it, the vault was just a container of tentacles and disappointment. They vanished into the wasteland, certain that the vault had held no treasure at all. They were wrong. The vaults opening triggered the growth of Iridium, a priceless alien element. Soon the rare and valuable mineral emerged all across Pandora.
In this part, we've learned about the setting and events of the previous game.
Its appearance attracted many, including the Hyperion Corporation… They came to Pandora to mine iridium and bring order to the savage planet. Through their excavations, Hyperion uncovered evidence of an even greater vault. Their leader vowed to find it, to use its power to civilize the borderlands, once and for all.
Here we find out the main conflict of the story - Hyperion vs. Pandora.
But Hyperion weren’t the only ones searching for the next vault’s alien power! The call of danger and loot is not so easily resisted… Certain warriors came to Pandora in droves to uncover it’s hidden secrets. Some would call them “adventurers” other call them fools, but I call them “Vault Hunters”. Our story begins with them, and with a man, named Handsome Jack…
And now we understand that we’ll take the role of new Vault Hunter, so our ultimate goal is to open another Vault. We were also given a hint about the villain named Handsome Jack.
Next, the action-scene starts.
We see a wandering skag gets lassoed by the buggy with lots of weird psychos. A few seconds later their car crashes into the passing train. At first glance, this moment might seem needless, but in fact, it tells us a lot about the mood of the Borderlands’ world: it’s crazy, brutal and it has a dark sense of humor.
After it, cool music starts playing and we see all protagonists in the train fighting with Hyperion soldiers. Each hero has his own style and uses unique abilities to kill enemies so this sequence’s purpose is to introduce main characters to us and show their strengths. We don’t see their flaws though, but the protagonist in Borderlands is not so well developed and it’s fine.
Finally, characters get into the last wagon that turns out to be a trap of Handsome Jack, full of explosives. The train blows up. This scene reintroduces the antagonist to us and creates an inciting incident - when our friends died, confrontation with Jack becomes very personal.
Thus, by the end of this intro, we know everything we need about the world, conflict, goal, protagonist, and villain. It’s very well written and perfectly directed opening scene. But despite the fact that I myself am a huge fan of Borderlands, it seems to me that the prologue is not as compelling as it possibly could be. Yes, it delivers all necessary information and looks astonishing, but we as players are not so much engaged in the story, especially during the first part of the video where the Narrator simply tells us the exposition. But could there possibly be a better way to do this task? I think - yes! And to prove my words, let’s analyze the prologue of arguably one of the best story-driven first-person shooter - Bioshock Infinite.
Bioshock Infinite prologue
You can watch the opening scene here: https://youtu.be/43muky6xe28
The prologue starts with a short conversation between man and women:
“Booker, are you afraid of God?”
“No, I’m afraid of you”
Then the following caption appears:
This doesn't give us any useful information, but serves two other important purposes instead:
It evokes our curiosity: what all this means and why is the man so afraid of the woman? Later, the game will use curiosity to encourage us to search actively for clues and hints.
This beginning also establishes a game theme - religion and mind games.
Then we find ourselves sitting in the boat with a couple having quite an odd dialogue about rowing.
Lady in the coat and hat passes us the box with the inscription on it:
We see it just for a few seconds, but we can learn the name of the protagonist as well as that he is a war hero.
The protagonist lowers down a box for a second and unsuccessfully tries to interrupt the conversation, which becomes weirder and weirder. It helps us get into character, as we, just like him, are struggling to understand at least something. It also sharpens our senses because we know that there is some mystery and we focus on searching answers.
Once the protagonist opens the box, we see a gun inside, which stresses his military past in case we might not have read the caption earlier. Thus we learn the strength of the protagonist.
Then we see a photo-card of a pretty girl and a sign on its flip side saying that we must bring her to New York. It instantly gives us clear global motivation: find and extract the girl. There is also an interesting refinement on the card: the protagonist must bring the girl “UNHARMED”, which obviously means that the main character, perhaps, can bring someone with force. So maybe he is a gangster? Or a detective? Or both?
The boat reaches the lighthouse and the game starts! We are now free to walk and have a little break in getting new info. When we reach the lighthouse we see a note pinned to the door with inscription:
DE WITT _ BRING US THE GIRL AND WIPE AWAY THE DEBT. THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE!
Just to be on the safe side it reminds us of the protagonist’s surname but most importantly - it shows us the main character's flaw (or "shadow"). Now we understand that he is doing all this against his will. But still, we don’t realize how bad everything is… Yet. We enter the lighthouse and see another caption right in front of us:
And the main character comments on it: “Good luck with that, pal”. We immediately recon that he is probably not a believer and very skeptical of religion. It’ll be important later.
Then we go upstairs. There are some more interesting details on our way, but the most noticeable - there is a guy shot dead on the chair with a plate: “DON’T DISAPPOINT US”. Alright, now we understand that the protagonist has REALLY big troubles.
Eventually, we go upstairs to the top of the lighthouse and solve a simple puzzle, which again gives us an opportunity to take a short break. Once it’s solved, skies flash with red while strange loud hum sounds (it doesn't give any info but looks cool anyway). The door opens and the protagonist gets inside the upper part of the lighthouse where he sits in the chair. This room turns out to be a small rocket that launches right in the sky! And it’s the inciting incident of the plot - it kickstarts the story both literally and figuratively.
The rocket rises higher and higher through the storm clouds until it ascends above the skies and comes down gently using the parachute. We see an enormously big picture of a man with the caption: “Father Comstock Our Prophet” on the building. That’s how the game gives us a hint about the antagonist.
Then the protagonist finds himself in a church, where thanks to the lots of captions it’s easy to understand that this world is a theocracy and everyone here is extremely religious. It’s also important that the protagonist chuckles when sees another religious statement. Again we understand that he doesn’t share this view of the world.
Finally, we reach a praying crowd. A priest says that to pass into the city, the protagonist must accept baptism and be cleaned in the water. Booker reluctantly agrees and the priest drowns the protagonist so badly that he loses his consciousness. That’s how the game shows us the story’s main conflict - through the act of aggressiveness from fanatics. We realize that they are not so peaceful. And taking into account everything we already know about Booker - he is not a religious man but he can stand for himself, it becomes obvious - the clash with these “pilgrims” is inevitable.
Next, we see Booker's hallucination: he is in his office, while someone is knocking at the door and demanding the protagonist to bring the girl and wipe away the debt. This is another reminder in case if we previously somehow missed the premise. Then Booker regains consciousness on the street of Columbia.
Though it’s just the beginning of the first mission, the actual prologue ends here.
It took 12 minutes to convey all the info, which is twice as long as the prologue of Borderlands 2. But keep in mind that there even were small gameplay parts. And what’s more important - we were fully engaged in the story. We almost can say that all this happened to us. We were completely immersed in this exposition rather than just watched a cool video. So, despite the fact that both Borderlands 2 and Bioshock Infinite are well written and achieved the same goals in their prologues, how comes that the opening scene in Bioshock is far more engaging? I think it happens due to a number of differences in their approaches:
1. Don’t show, let the player see
Rule “Show, don’t tell” is extremely important for movies. But Bioshock Infinite shows us, that it’s equivalent for games is closer to “Don’t show, let the player see” because exploration is in the very nature of games. So instead of simply throwing exposition in the face, Bioshock leaves important information all around and then just relies on the player's curiosity. But how one can be sure that player will give a crap about all these clues? This leads us to the second point:
2. “Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man's desire to understand.”
Unlike most games that are trying to give all the sufficient information to the player as soon as possible, Bioshock does the exact opposite thing. It specifically misleads the player so that in the beginning he understands completely NOTHING. What’s going on? Who is the protagonist? Where is he heading? Etc. There are dozens of questions in the player’s head and the game doesn’t hurry to answer them. Instead, it just teases the player. It makes him want to know, thus motivates to search for any available grain of information. Smart move. But what if the player for some reason won’t grasp some part of the plot? Will he irrevocably lag behind the story? No. The solution is:
3. Two clues are better than one
Each and every story hint in the intro is duplicated two or even three times. So if the player misses one of them - he probably will notice another. But they are not just identical clues repeated several times. All hints that give us similar information about the world or protagonist differ dramatically in details. So that if the player sees all clues, he still won’t be bored and he won't notice the repetitive nature, but rather will feel that the game encourages his curiosity. Okay, but such a big amount of different hints is quite a lot of information, and besides, it requires the player to think actively. Won’t he get tired of it fast? Nope, because:
4. Rest hard, play hard
The game regularly gives the player an opportunity to have a break from learning new story details by just letting him walk around and solve a simple puzzle, which activates another type of thinking. This simple alternating of activities allows making sure that the player won’t get bored or tired of such twisted and long exposition.
And that’s it! It wasn’t easy, but we’ve finally done with analyzing of prologues! In my opinion, following these principles made the Bioshock Infinite prologue so gripping and exciting (apart from brilliant world\character\story design, but that's a totally different topic). Anyway, please note that all of this is just my thoughts on this matter and I do not pretend to possess absolute knowledge. You’re welcome to express your opinion on what makes games intro spectacular.