The Art of Beginning

Let me start today by giving a big thank-you to Jodi Meadows, who just last week graciously critiqued the entire manuscript of my novel, The Counterfeit Emperor. She donated her time as part of the Write Hope charity auction, which benefited the survivors of the Japanese earthquake. Thanks, Jodi!

One of her critique comments was that my opening moves too slowly. Beginnings are tricky things. You want to hook the reader’s interest right away, but you can’t be gimmicky about it – the rest of the story has to flow naturally from the hook. At the same time, since the reader knows nothing about your story, you have to very quickly orient them in your world – but it can’t feel like an orientation, because then you lose their interest.

So, yeah – beginnings on the mind lately. And it was in this beginningy mindset that I started playing The Longest Journey, a PC game that came out in 1999. Ever heard of this game?

The Longest Journey

It got wonderful reviews at the time, and as I play further, I’m starting to see its potential. But let me just say, having started last Sunday, it has a pretty awful beginning.

The story opens on a cutscene with an old woman in a chair, talking to two adults sitting by her on the floor. They’re begging her to tell a story – a “true” story, about her life. She agrees, and the scene ends, implying that what follows (the rest of the game) is the story itself.

This is not an inherently bad idea for an opening, but the two adults keep going on about what interesting stories she tells, which just makes me think: “Really? You open your game by raving about how interesting it is? That’s…not very interesting.” I mean, if the story’s so fascinating, shouldn’t you open with that? Also, the dialogue was unbearably awful, so there’s that.

Next you watch a video, something about a statue coming to life inside a tower. It’s got cool music, it’s dramatic, it’s pretty…and it makes very little sense. When it’s over, you get the feeling that big things are happening, but you don’t know what they are. And not in that intriguing, I-want-to-learn-more way, but in a I’m-lost-what’s-going-on way.

Next, you get a character to control – but she starts off in a dream sequence, which means we’ve made yet a third jump. The dream isn’t related in any clear way to the two preceding cutscenes, so not only am I even more lost, I’m also still not to the actual game yet. In the dream, I perform a few odd little tasks, fall off a cliff, and wake up in bed in a little studio apartment.

And with that, the game starts for real: I begin exploring the city, talking to people, etc.

Like I said, beginnings are tricky. Because I can tell you for sure that this kind of disjointed, confusing, slow-to-get-started opening does not work. Yet if the writers had started with my character waking up in an apartment, that’s not very interesting either, and I can understand their desire to give me something intriguing and cinematic at the outset, something that suggests the epic, fantastical feel of what the game will be.

I don’t know the best solution for this particular game (especially since I’m not far enough in yet to know what it’s about), but I think somehow a game needs to throw you straight into the story, give you a thread to follow from the very start. And books are the same way.

(See, I really can relate everything to writing.)

Played any good games lately?

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5 responses to “The Art of Beginning

  1. Not lately, but all the games I remember from my childhood (Warcraft and Myst especially) just kind of threw you in and left you to explore/figure things out on your own. Or did I just always skip the opening videos? Lol.

    • Yeah, I think Myst just dropped you in. Definitely more fun that way. If the world itself isn’t compelling enough to entice players onward, why are they playing at all?

      Myst…man, that brings back memories. Never got all that far in it, but it sure was a cool game…

  2. I got about 9-10 chapters in before being distracted. Someday I’ll come back to it… someday

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