Exposition Demolition: Just let us start playing the game

A challenge to game developers: let the first thing the player sees on starting a new game be the game itself. Let the player be immediately in control. And let them keep that control at least until it has at least become familiar.

I love gaming stories. Stories have always been my primary interest in playing games, from the first text adventures in the early 1980s, through the glorious adventure years of the ’90s, to the dynamic and impactful environmental storytelling of the 2000s, to today’s glorious open worlds packed with freely explorable plot. And interwoven throughout all these eras, the RPGs that have delivered their epic plots across space and time. I love stories. I am not, and would not, argue against the narrative aspects of gaming. I just, more than ever before, want to experience those stories while I’m playing.

Exposition is not a bad word. But it’s the means of communicating a narrative that’s most often abused, most frequently done badly. While we’ve all become annoyed at a game’s over-use of cutscenes at some point along the way, and while that’s still a primary sin of bad gaming storytelling, it’s a much broader issue than that. What was the last game that, after you’d waited for all 20GB to install, after you’d sat through the unskippable vanity cards of every company tangentially involved in its development, and after you’d been told at excruciating length not to switch off power to your house when this symbol is displayed, you were able to just start playing. You started jumping to the right, or running forward down the corridor, or walking from your house, or driving down the road, or placing units on the map, or… Chances are, you didn’t get to do those things. The chances are, you were required to have the game’s pre-history and establishing plot bellowed at you, against your will, while you sat there impotently stabbing at the Esc key or hammering on A, just wanting to bloody play the thing.

It obviously doesn’t help that so much of a game’s expository plot is, so often, empty banalities to the player who’s yet to start playing. “The seven queendoms of Balalatzar have worshipped the moon god Pittth for thousands of years, foretelling the coming of the Gooseborn…” It must mean so much to the development team who’ve spent three years embroiled in this world, entangled in this lore, that they’ve lost sight (and sound) of what it’s like to sit through for someone coming afresh. In fact, I cannot think of a better analogy than that from Cool Ghosts, where they compare it to having to listen to someone telling you about their dream. Yes! Yes, it’s precisely that.

But worse, when someone starts telling you about their dream you can at least walk off. Or hit them with a spoon until they stop. With a game you’ve just bought, you’re forced to sit there, putting up with it, hoping that at some point it’ll just shhhhhhhut up and let you play. “Oh, am I getting the controls now? Uh… Am I? No. No I’m not.” Again and again, until it’s done, belching its narrative burps directly into your face.

And that’s before it starts stopping every three steps to give you an unwanted tutorial in how to press A to jump.

Perhaps expository dumps are, if we’re being generous, a misguided attempt to get the player prepped for playing as quickly as possible. “If we just give them the core history and circumstances in these cutscenes/dialogue boxes/required NPC conversations, then they’ll have everything they need to get on straight away!” Except it’s not straight away. And it’s not embracing what gaming offers so majestically above and beyond that of other media: interaction.

But the reality is, it’s a dreary hurdle, and if anything, an emblem that the game itself has failed from the opening moment. It’s failed to be a game that can tell its own story, if it needs a movie, or a man holding up a series of flash cards, before you’re allowed to start playing it.

And who the heck is listening? So few people are in Listen To Exposition Mode when they load up a game. Because they want to play. They’ve finally found time in their day to sit down and enjoy themselves with a game, and as much as their primary intent might be to enjoy that game’s narrative, they want to be playing to get at it.

Pic by Richard H Kim

I find it so maddening that me – someone so sympathetic to gaming’s role as a storyteller, someone who would never skip key dialogue mid-game to get on with shooting bats or whatever – even I am hammering at Return or A or Esc, or entire hands simultaneously pressing every key on the keyboard, just to get past whatever this grim loredump thinks it’s trying to say. I want to experience the game’s story as game. And if it can’t tell me it as game, then my argument today is that it has messed up.

I want to be sympathetic. I understand, as I’ve said, that the games’ creators have been living every element of this thing for years of their lives, and communicating vital information to the player feels so essential. Perhaps they’ve even focus tested, and found that players weren’t picking up on who they were, or why they were there, or some key element of the plot, and to fix it the decision was made to just bloody scream it at the start. But even leaving aside the horrors of designing for focus testers, if key information isn’t being communicated as people play, then the mistake wasn’t made in the opening seconds, and the solution isn’t tying them to a chair, and pinning open their eyes Clockwork Orange-style.

The answer is figuring out how to naturally convey that information to the player as a consequence of playing those first moments of the game. And no, that’s not easy! This isn’t a “Why didn’t you press the multiplayer button?!” argument – this is an acknowledgement that conveying your game’s initial story through play, rather than a dump of text or video, is much, much harder. But goodness me, worth it.

Do you know what? There’s even a way around it. Let me play the game for a bit, get used to the controls, get familiar with things, and then have the magic porcupine walk up to me and blather on about the history of the Sparkle Children for ten minutes. At least I’ll be the tiniest bit invested in what I’m hearing at that point, rather than only annoyed to have this story being smeared all over my face.

It’s for the game’s greater good, too. Out-of-context (for the player, if not the developer) exposition is incredibly hard to take on board. Lore is a difficult meal at the best of times, but when you don’t know anyone or anything involved as it’s being told, in a moment when you thought you were about to start jumping, shooting, investigating or exploring, it’s like being force fed Jacobs crackers. If the motivation behind the up-front dump is a fear players won’t pick it up, it’s only making things worse.

Trust the players. Learning a game’s background, setting, and foreshadowing through play is not only enormously more satisfying, it’s a far more effective means of having that story taken in and understood. It’s meaningful at this point. And most of all, it means we can just start playing the game when the game starts, not sit there punching our keyboards in the hope that at some point, it’ll just shut up and let us play.

(And yes, it’s rubbish when Star Wars does it too.)


Top comments

  1. BooleanBob says:

    Goodness, the bristly brush of John Walker fury is rubbing me the right way for once.

    A suggested corollary: for the first five hours of your game, you can coin no more than five - count em - new proper nouns with which to build your universe. Use them however you want: one for your magicium (it can actually be magicium if you like). One for your space republic/royal lineage/whatever. One to cover the in-universe explanation for your bullet time mechanic. And so on and so on. But five is all you get.

    The trend of stories that begin with a golden shower of meaningless and un-contextualised fantasy proper nouns needs to stop. That goes double - nay, triple - for you, Japanese developers.
  1. Seafoam says:

    I sometimes feel the opposite.

    I hate when games just dump me in, you know the trope: “Oh no our peaceful settlement is being attacked now kill 60 robotic tardigrades or your whole family dies”.
    I hate those, usually I spend those parts fiddling with controls or trying get the graphics right. Then you try to play it and the struggle to get your bearings gives you a headache.

    Give me slow intro sequence anytime, atleast if I can slightly control it.
    I do agree on the point on the article wholeheartedly but sometimes I wish games would ease me in.

    • grrrz says:

      I agree with this, but the middle ground is probably to start the game slow with actual gameplay, not throw you in an epic battle sequence as an introduction, like a lot of games do nowadays. Also during the first ten minutes you are indeed getting familiar with the control/system and fiddling with the graphics, and it’s usually not the best time at all to do important exposition.

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    • JamesF0790 says:

      I agree whole heartedly with you here Seafoam. I’m not a big fan of the whole “Here’s the world, go figure it out.” approach. It can be done well I suppose but I’ve never seen it. I mean I like exploring for pieces of plot but I’ve just sat down and enjoyed so many intro videos and they’ve pulled me into the plot. They’ve made me want more. Dump me in and say “go find it” with nothing and I’m not as invested. I mean I’d like them to be skippable sure but I’d hate for them to be gotten rid of.

    • Syt says:

      *twitches of the memory of the “a dozen heavily armed orks attack a village” ‘tutorial’ of Gothic 3*

  2. Fox89 says:

    Although if you have good intro cinematics, that’s fine. If you’re Metal Gear Solid 1, 2 or 3, or Deus Ex, or Halo – keep doing what you’re doing. Just include a skip button.

    MGS1 is probably my favourite compromise as you have a very short cutscene to set the tone, a little tutorial area to play around in, and then the proper intro cutscene at the elevator.

    Same with new DOOM, surprisingly.

    • Sin Vega says:

      No it bloody isn’t! And even if it was, this point would be totally counter-productive because everyone thinks their intro is good.

      I mean, christ, MGS is one of the worst written series in the world, with the most obnoxiously long, idiotic, and intrusive cut scenes. If that’s your gold standard I give up.

      • Beefenstein says:

        “If that’s your gold standard I give up.”

        Give up on what? Because you have your standards and they have theirs, and that’s fine.

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        Aerothorn says:

        Metal Gear Solid is consistently brilliant. SORRY BUT THIS IS HOW I FEEL

        • Sin Vega says:

          Your feelings are wrong, bad, and possibly even wrongbad.

          • Pharaoh Nanjulian says:

            Or perhaps even Badong. What is the opposite of badong?

        • lylebot says:

          Many Metal Gear Solid games have consistently brilliant gameplay loops. Most do not have consistently brilliant storytelling. Most of them pull together a few decent cutscenes and leave the player with a good, memorable ending, but make them put up with a lot of terrible storytelling along the way.

          (Yes, I’m the guy that thinks MGS2 is great and MGS3 is much worse in every way apart from its ending.)

    • kwyjibo says:

      Are you fucking me?

      Have you played MGS 3? The cut scenes treat the player like an utter imbecile. Snake spends all the time asking stupid questions like, “what’s the cold war?” Metal Gear Solid is the opposite of “show, don’t tell”.

      • Massenstein says:

        Well, Snake is a dumb soldier. Good at what he does but the character’s never shown to be very intelligent or independent. He’s always just bouncing between other people’s machinations and reacting to what’s happening, perpetually confused and sad. (And I’m speaking as a huge Metal Gear fan.)

    • Traipse says:

      Once, many years ago, I had the chance to watch someone who wasn’t a hardcore gamer try to pick up Metal Gear Solid 2 and play it for a little while. He sat through the many long minutes of impressively rendered (for the time) intro cutscenes, beginning to get more and more fidgety. Then it devolved into endless radio conversations, which he initially read but then started paging through as quickly as possible once it went over his “holy shit, how could anyone possibly give a damn about all this plot” threshold. Then he got on the boat and started moving around, and every time he walked ten feet it would interrupt him with another interminably long radio conversation. Before long he gave up and just switched the PS2 off. I think he spent about an hour trying to play the game, and less than a quarter of that time was actual gameplay.

      I’m not entirely on board with John on this point — I think there’s a happy medium where a short, punchy intro can do a lot to intrigue players and set up the story — but the Metal Gear Solid games are the textbook example of how _not_ to tell a story in an interactive medium.

      • dylan says:

        Traipse, this has been my experience of every single MGS game (at least, the three I’ve tried).

        People tell me it’s their favourite series, and I just stare blankly.

        • welverin says:

          I am a Metal Gear fan and do believe they are great games, but they are not for everyone and I would never recommend them without reservations.

      • aoanla says:

        Yup, that’s basically my experience of MGS2 as well (I put it down when losing the first “boss battle” sequence started up the interminable cutscene introducing it again, and I realised just how unbearable this was going to become)

    • ffordesoon says:

      I am a huge MGS fan, but dear lord no. MGS should be no one’s gold standard for videogame introductions.

  3. napoleonic says:

    Prey is fantastic at this. Look in the mirror to pick your gender, and then you wake up and you’re playing the game.

    The worst game for this that I’ve played in recent years was Pillars of Eternity. So much tedious pablum to plough through when you have literally no idea what any of it means.

    • Ryos says:

      It’s almost like PoE is a very wordy game. almost like its forbears.

      • wraithgr says:

        Nope. Nope nope nnnnope. The games PoE was supposedly inspired by didn’t have anywhere close to the amount of tedious, jargon-ridden walls of text that infested PoE. The text heavy portions came long after you were invested in the story…

      • napoleonic says:

        I don’t mind PoE being wordy. I like lots of other wordy games. I even like books, and not just ones with pictures in!

        No, the problem is that the first thing that you are presented with upon starting PoE is a series of important choices about your background surrounded by acres of impenetrable prose that means zip to you until you’ve spent a few hours playing the game. It is the opposite of a good way to start a game.

    • MikoSquiz says:

      It’s an excruciatingly poorly written game, made all the more painful by coming so close to competence it just clips the edge.

      But “I’m sorry about the long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one” applies. Everything reads like a first draft, before the author sat down to think about what they were doing and trim off the 90% of the text that’s worthless fat.

    • Massenstein says:

      Prey set the bar very high in many places, gameplay-wise. I hope it doesn’t take too many years for other big developers to learn from that example.

    • Head Bob says:

      Gosh yes. I’m really enjoying Pillars right now, but I’m nearly at the end of Act 2 and still can’t make myself give a toss about the lore. There’s all these gods and cultures and history lessons and it’s just a jumble of nonsense words.

      • napoleonic says:

        I got to near the end of Act 2, put it down for a bit to let myself recharge, and never felt like going back. I’m nearly at the point where I’ve accepted that I’m never going to finish it.

  4. Imbecile says:

    Oh god, metal gear solid 5. I liked the game, but that opening level…

    • modzero says:

      …was fantastic, yes.

    • Imbecile says:

      It was terrible. You sat there while stuff got less blurry, and were then herded along a linear pathway at a literal crawl. I don’t think I got to actually control anything meaningful for what felt like an hour.

      • MikoSquiz says:

        Remarkably dire, yes. The only thing worse than a non-interactive expodump you can’t fast-forward or skip is a barely-interactive expodump you’re expected to “participate” in by occasionally pressing forward or A. (See also Half-Life style expodumps where two characters stand and deliver plot points at each other for ten minutes while you run around in circles and hop on the furniture out of sheer tedium-induced derangement.)

        • Sin Vega says:

          I got through the MGS5 intro by wrapping an elastic band round the controller and reading a book.

          Half-life 2 is where the phrase “Sim Cameraman” comes from. I can’t stand that nonsense, it’s exactly as you describe.

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      alison says:

      That first hour or so of MGS5 is one of my most epic gaming memories. I wish the whole game had just been like that section, because once you start playing the main game it becomes a really long, tedious plod.

      To me a game has got to get me invested from the outset. I think I sunk 30something hours into MGS5 based on the strength of its intro and the hope I would find similar experiences further in. I didn’t.

      I can understand that some people might feel exactly the opposite, but that’s why it’s good we have lots of different games to choose from. Personally, I will always choose a good story with limited or unusual interactivity over a poorly-paced story and access to a “full” set of interactive controls.

      • Imbecile says:

        I’m curious to know what you found so compelling about it? I guess I tend to view games main strength as agency, whether that be choosing what you say, the plot direction, or the way you play it. The opening of mgs 5 has very little interaction, so I tend to think I might as well be watching a film. (that requires tedious crawling periodically to get to the next bit)

        I’m fairly patient, and have time for a good cut scene or clever tutorial. The opening to mgs 5 felt like neither to me, and was why I quit the game on my first attempt.

        • shde2e says:

          It’s probably amazing if you’re engaged with the story, and contains quite a bit of visual spectacle (Flaming Sky Whales everyone!).

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          alison says:

          I’ve never played any Metal Gear games so I had no idea what to expect from the narrative. I had expected something that played it kind of straight, but instead I got an utterly ridiculous fantasy world that got more outrageous at every turn. It reminded me of Saints Row IV (gaming) or Sucker Punch (movie) – shamelessly stupid to the core.

          I found the lack of agency in character creation and being forced to crawl around completely hilarious. Perhaps that sort of thing just appeals to my taste or to my sense of humor, since I also enjoyed The Beginner’s Guide and games of a similar ilk.

          I found the rest of the game to be mechanically addictive (which is why I sunk so any hours in) but not anywhere near as funny or creative or bombastic as the intro, which is why I gave up eventually.

    • Massenstein says:

      Yeah that is the best and worst example of the thing John was talking about. So bad it could almost work as a parody of stupid unskippable cutscenes. It could have been more tolerable if you either had more actual control or if it allowed you to put the keyboard down and just sit back. This “interactive” nonsense is the worst of both worlds.

    • msterofthe says:

      V is the only MGS I have played, and I’ve played it through three times now. The very first time, that intro was epic, but the second and third times were like torture. I knew how the game works and I just wanted to get past that sequence but there was no quick way to do it.

      Games with their tutorial woven into their opening minutes often at least allow you to “speedrun” through that part if you know that you can press space bar to jump etc. Imagine if any other game had an hour of forced tutorial regardless of your experience as a gamer or your past playthroughs of that particular game.

  5. BooleanBob says:

    Goodness, the bristly brush of John Walker fury is rubbing me the right way for once.

    A suggested corollary: for the first five hours of your game, you can coin no more than five – count em – new proper nouns with which to build your universe. Use them however you want: one for your magicium (it can actually be magicium if you like). One for your space republic/royal lineage/whatever. One to cover the in-universe explanation for your bullet time mechanic. And so on and so on. But five is all you get.

    The trend of stories that begin with a golden shower of meaningless and un-contextualised fantasy proper nouns needs to stop. That goes double – nay, triple – for you, Japanese developers.

  6. LewdPenguin says:

    In part I think the Elder Scrolls games have the right sort of take on lore infodumping. Yes the linear tutorial dungeon/initial quest can be frustrating when you know there’s a whole huge world to go off and start meandering around whilst thwacking things in, but it’s at least interactive and introduces you to the basic controls whilst providing that initial starter on who you are and why things are going so badly tits up that you’re desperately needed to save everyone.
    And although I know many people hate them, and in the greater scheme of writing much of it’s fair tripe, but ES also has the decency to put the majority of the huge globs of lore and backstory available into entirely optional books within the world that you can simply never bother reading if you don’t care about it, rather than force you to click through eleven billion hours of NPCs telling you all that stuff at moments the developers decided were totally ideal for the player to be told about stuff that happened eons ago, and is not actually relevant at all to many/most players ongoing goal of finding new things to thwack and more shinies to loot.

    • Sin Vega says:

      They’d still be enormously improved by simply asking the player upfront what they’d prefer. “Hey criminal scum! Do you want a 20 minute beating before your execution, or do you just want to get on with it?”

      or whatever.

      • LewdPenguin says:

        Oh yeah that’s definitely the best possible option.
        Sadly I think I’ve probably only encountered 2 or 3 games ever (and no I don’t remember which ones specifically) that, upon clicking New Game gave you a dialogue box where you could chose from (to paraphrase slightly):
        -I’ve never played [Genre] before, how the hell does everything work???
        -I’ve played this sort of stuff a bunch, just give me the specifics of this game asap
        -This isn’t my first playthrough, skip me to the end of Tutorial Quest please
        which is I think what we’d all like to see at the start of every game in an ideal world, sadly it requires slightly more effort during final crunch time to implement and you naturally get some people skipping everything then whining loudly all over the intertubes that [Game] is so unfair because it doesn’t even tell you how to change spoons!

    • SimonSays says:

      Bethesda was decent up to and including Morrowind. In fact Morrowind had the best intro – it is literally over with in 5 minutes and you are playing the whole time – if it takes longer it is only because you are deliberating over your skill set.

      The first Deus Ex has the best introduction – the tutorial mission is 100% skippable and other than a short and skippable intro movie you are right into the action. The narrative mostly coming in through overheard conversations, reading notes or newspapers and simply by playing the game and making choices. A lot of respect is given to the player right from the get go – really expecting you to know the mechanics already (space bar to jump, etc. etc.). Not only that you are severely under-powered to start and though the threat level is manageable you are expected to learn your limits as well as read the situation and make choices on your own. Most games don’t give that type of control until you are a good ways into the game – if ever.

      I think the worst offender for unskippable intros that are extremely boring and patience testing is the first Half-Life. That tram sequence is awful – it goes right to the teetering point of do I care enough to continue. I mean thankfully it got interesting after that – but even at the time I was like, get on with it.

      Especially considering around the same time – System Shock 2 came out, there was a game that again respected the players intelligence and other than a brief skippable movie you were right into the game and were even allowed to bypass that tutorial sections to start the game proper.

      I guess the point is – a few developers got it right from about the late 90s to the very early millennium. What’s funny is at the time – I never questioned my understanding of the games I was playing and never had any trouble knowing how to control them. I was a bit baffled when the trend became teach the player the basic controls through an intro action sequence. I mean I get that you have to design for the lowest common denominator – but surely everybody knows how to look up and down on a controller or with a mouse by now… right?

    • shde2e says:

      Of course, that didn’t stop Skyrim from making it’s first ten or so minutes an “interactive” loredump anyway.

  7. Ghostwise says:

    And who the heck is listening?

    Me. If the people who made the game think a little infodump at the start is useful, then sure. I’m a polite bloke, and it’s not like I’m some sort of wealthy, influential, famous VIP whose every second is more important than their work.

    • Sin Vega says:

      Politeness also means not wasting people’s time. If you’re an immortal, good for you, but the rest of us will one day be dead.

      • Beefenstein says:

        “Politeness also means not wasting people’s time.”

        This seems to be impossible considering that being polite actually takes time.

        • Minglefingler says:

          I respectfully disagree.

        • gunny1993 says:

          I have read your opinion and weighed it based on the merits that lay within, after due consideration I have decided that despite many logical thoughts that your argument does not hold my attention.


          You make some good points but I still disagree.

          Words are valuable, don’t waste them.

    • modzero says:

      As a corollary, I also listen to it when people tell me their dreams, and generally try to even pay attention, because usually I like those people. I also watch credits sometimes, but not always, because I’m not _that_ great.

  8. grrrz says:

    also while we’re on the subject a note to devs: I HATE it when a game doesn’t provide neither a pause button or a way to save or quit during a cinematic (for “action” games) or dialogues (for adventure / RPG). Maybe someone is calling on the phone, or maybe I just have to go do something else this instant, and if my only option is to do a whole section again or miss an important plot point I’m gonna be pissed. This is also very annoying in point and clicks when there is sometimes a twenty minutes dialogue section with cutscenes where you can’t pause, save, or even quit whitout going through all the sequence. I don’t want to have to choose between burning my food or missing an important part of a game (or screwing it and starting a whole sequence over again). screw this.

  9. Jason Moyer says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. Obsidian are one of my favorite active studios (probably 1B with Arkane being 1A) but they also have serious issues with slow-paced introductions usually featuring massive lore dumps. Basically every time a new Obsidian game comes out I’ll buy it day one, play for an hour or two, and put it aside for a few months. Actually, another of my favorite studios, Nihon Falcom is even worse in that regards. It’s not uncommon for a Ys or Legend Of Heroes game to have an hour or two of story before you sniff the good stuff.

    On the other hand, there’s a reason those studios are my favorites. Unlike most games that front-load the good bits relatively close to the beginning (presumably for the sake of first impressions and also with the knowledge that most people don’t finish most games), an Obsidian game tends to get better and better the further you get into it. Characters reveal more of themselves, plots bend and twist onto and into each other, stakes are raised and choices are increasingly impactful. But it usually takes some serious effort to get to that point.

  10. PikaBot says:

    I find the ‘play for a little bit, and then the Magical Porcupine or whatever comes rolling up and explains the world’ scenario infinitely more annoying than an opening cutscene. It’s interrupting the play experience rather than serving as a prelude to it.

    One size doesn’t fit all for game design. There are plenty of games where dumping you straight into gameplay is appropriate…and others where it isn’t. Let’s try to be a bit less prescriptivist.

  11. Deano2099 says:

    I don’t know. I kind of need something. Else who am I? What’s my motivation? Why am I blowing this stuff up. It could be argued you would know that from the back of the box, or the description on the store page, or from a trailer or a review. But I bristle even more at that being required reading. Games overdo it, sure, but you need to set some context if the play is to be at all meaningful.

    • Beefenstein says:

      You are SLAP MCGUFFIN and you are the LAST SPACEMAN on the PLANET JEMIMAH after a BRUTAL ATTACK by SIMON COWELL and his band of CHEESY POP ACTS.

      The year is 20XX and the president is SENTIENT BEEF and the controls are ARROW KEYS and you must MOVE so that the BALLS go into HOLES.

      Your mother is WORRIED and your dinner is GROWING COLD and this piece of SOFTWARE EXCELLENCE comes to you from the BUDGET LABEL of WETWIPE GAMES.

  12. MrBehemoth says:

    I agree with everything John said, but the important bit is that the story is got across through game mechanics and actual playing. If that doesn’t happen (with a nice invisible tutorial too) then an exposition dump is preferable, otherwise what we’ll get is games with no story at all.

    Now what does frustrate me is when a game goes straight into play mode or unskippable cutscene mode without first giving me a chance to fiddle with settings, especially with a real-time in-engine menu backdrop to see those settings on, otherwise I guarantee I’ll be seeing the opening moments at least twice.

    • Baines says:

      Oh yes. It is always so lovely when you have to spend five minutes watching cutscenes and/or playing an intro area before you are allowed to access the settings menu.

      Because I really want to watch fuzzy video due to the default resolution being wrong, or play the game in a postage stamp sized window, or suffer a black screen because screen settings are wrong, or deal with stuttering and frame skipping due to settings being too high when playing on a potato, or missing dialogue because you aren’t allowed to turn on subtitles yet, or be stuck with a bad or incorrect default control setting, or…

  13. golochuk says:

    I think game developers have long known that first impressions are really important and have concluded, based on something more like evidence than anecdote, that dumping new players in the game with no setup produces many bad impressions.

  14. TheButler83 says:

    Agree with the sentiment in this article. I wish devs would play their games and jus ask themselves is this annoying or stupid.

    Two ends of the spectrum in two games I just got round to playing. The Indie game Stacking is the worst offender of wrestling away control for a simple puzzle game in its opening I have ever seen.

    And on the other end of the spectrum Zelda Breath of the Wild, great game but whose opening tells me how time critical my mission is but then the Old Man won’t give me the paraglider and just dumps me in this huge world. Why have a story that is about how immediate the danger is but allows you to spend weeks hunting boar!

    • modzero says:

      Immediate compared to 100 years. It’s made pretty clear that Link was kinda annoyed with the old guy, the in-game reason why the old guy did that (i.e. he was being obnoxious), why you shouldn’t (but are welcome to) just go straight to the final fight, and generally yeah, it’s all there if you don’t fall asleep on the “X” button.

      The out-of-game reason is, of course, “people skip tutorials and then go bother our support and/or refund because they don’t _actually_ know how to jump,” but whatever, let’s just be terrible to the people who wrote the game. Not the companies, the actual people.

      • TheButler83 says:

        I’m not being terrible to the people who wrote the game. I even said it was a great game. But even in the context of being a game of the year, it’s opening is just full of poor story telling and hand wavering nonsense. Maybe I am being a little harsh sorry if I offended.

  15. JamesF0790 says:

    I’m all for skippable but I’m not a fan of being just dropped in for the most part. I mean I’m sure it can be done well but personally I haven’t experienced it. Give me a hook. I want me first thought when I have control to be “This is cool, I want to know more.” not “What the hell is going on here? Who is that? Who am I? What am I doing?”

  16. Zenicetus says:

    A game that I think uses the magic porcupine dribble of info badly, is AC Origins. After a brief scene setting, it throws you right into a cut scene assassination with absolutely no context. You just know that Bayek is really pissed off about something.

    Then it throws you into a combat sequence tutorial, and then you’re out in the game world. You don’t find out what actually happened — the main driver for the entire plot, for cryin’ out loud — until a few hours into the game, with cut-scene flashbacks about Bayek’s motivation.

    I’m enjoying the game, but that sure could have been handled better. I spent too many hours in the early game, wondering exactly what Bayek’s beef was.

  17. nitric22 says:

    I played the first few hours of Quantum Break a few days past. It was fairly quick to jump into actually game play at the outset so this isn’t entirely in line with John’s grumble. But that 20 minute television episode after the first act? I did not see that one coming! Now that I’m expecting it I’ll be ready for a few more episodes of live action “we now interrupt you from playing the game” and I’ll go along for the ride. Such cinematic detours can be rather jarring though if are just in the, say, I’m going to play for 20 minutes mindset.

  18. Turkey says:

    Did Okami HD inspire this article? Holy hell… that intro, man…

    • DeadCanDance says:

      Huh? Just press F1. Anyway, if you can’t stand some relaxed time with this game you aren’t going to enjoy it. It is peaceful as a spa.

  19. Aubrey says:

    Yo John Walker! I Agree. I made a game just like this in 2017 called Trackless. Some cool people said nice things about it. Maybe worth checking out?

  20. Hyena Grin says:

    Didn’t Prey start this way? You launch the game and after selecting your character, you immediately wake up in your little apartment? There’s a moment where you aren’t in control (as you turn off the alarm and stand up) but I don’t think that qualifies for the sort of invasion of exposition you’re getting at here. In any case, I don’t recall any kind of opening cinematic.

    It’s a pretty good opening, it gives you limited control (in a safe space) and then you can explore your apartment and look at things and read things and get some sense of what’s going on in the world – or not, if you just want to get on with it.

    There are also hybrids of this, such as in Half-Life where you technically can move around, but only within a very confined space, while the world moves past you and provides context.

    I have mixed feelings about the article in general though; I have never in my life wanted to skip a cutscene (opening or otherwise) that I haven’t already witnessed, because I actually don’t have a problem with cutscenes in general. I don’t feel strongly that games should strive to always put the maximum amount of control into the hands of the player at all times. This strikes me a bit as ‘a game can’t be engaging unless you are in control’ which makes me look at movies and television like, ‘but.. what about those things?’

    Sure, games allow us control, and that’s what makes them special and different, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t borrow from other mediums.

    I will agree that opening cinematics and long-winded expository dialogue can, when abused, be frustrating. I think the most egregious examples are the ‘false starts’ where you are momentarily given control only to be drawn into more length exposition. I’ve played some games where this happened multiple times before I was actually able to play the game in a meaningful way, and it absolutely felt like terrible pacing.

    So I guess what I’m saying is; opening cinematics are fine, expository dialogue is fine, as long as you get the overall pacing right.

    • Martijn says:

      Prey is excellent. Some narrative games released this year did this really well too: no long intro sequences for Night in the Woods or Tacoma; you find out the backstory while playing the game.

  21. Mi-24 says:


    don’t insult Jacobs crackers with your slanderous attempts to compare them to unnecessary exposition.

  22. Premium User Badge

    Neurotic says:

    I had this most recently with Horizon: Zero Dawn on the PS4. It was the first game I played having just bought the two things in a bundle, and my God, does it ever tease you to death with its intro. You get control in several 20-30-second blocks before it yoinks it away to hit you with more ‘Look at me! Look at me!’

  23. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    May I stick a tangential rant on the end of this excellent article? Whatever, doing it anyway. One thing that’s been irritating me in recent years is the tendency of games to use one of their trailers as the game’s intro. I get it, prerendered cinematics aren’t cheap and this is a way of getting twice the value, but it just rather spoils the magic of first starting up a game if it’s immediately something you’ve seen before.

    However (and this is the bit that is related to John’s article) what really pisses me off is if the intro is an old trailer AND they do that thing of the intro being unskippable the first time you watch it. If I’ve bought the game there’s a fair chance I’ll have done my research including watching some trailers to work out what’s what, so forcing me to sit through it again is just bloody stupid.

  24. Premium User Badge

    wozmir says:

    I’m still surprised nobody mentioned Torment: Tides of Numenera yet. Yikes, let’s bombard the player with no 5 but 55 new words describing something you cannot identify with at all.

    • Esin12 says:

      Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. Really wanted to get into the universe and lore of the game, but it started off so heavy-handedly that it pretty much burnt me out immediately.

  25. Premium User Badge

    syllopsium says:

    Have to say I pretty much am in ‘listen to exposition’ mode when I start a game as I want to know what’s going on. The trick is not to make the intro too long.

    Sure there are ‘instant play’ exceptions, but off the top of my head they’re pretty much all the ‘who am I’ sort of games : Planescape:Torment, KOTOR, Morrowind, etc.

    Tutorials are the same – they’re irritating when unskipable , too long, or difficult (looking at your stealth section, Deus Ex – unforgivably bad), but better than games that sling you into a tense situation with complex controls.

    Technology has moved on, but taking Ultima Underworld 2 as a for instance, removing the (short) intro scene in favour of ‘show don’t tell’ would have required considerable engine changes to show outside the castle being encased in blackrock. Modern games aren’t immune to this either, and it’s not unreasonable for the player to sit through a minute of intro, especially if the game is an indie one and a tailored ‘non intro intro’ would have blown the budget.

    What annoys me far, far more than an intro is the modern trend for fully spoken games. Frankly it’s a waste of money (and my time) when I can read far faster than the characters can speak. I still think targeted speech works far better than fully spoken games.

  26. diji says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the intro of Tyranny

    • Ryos says:

      I mean the conquest bit was a bit dull to be sure, but at least tyranny had an always-on dictionary for anything and everything you might forget.

      • onodera says:

        Conquest was great for the first iteration of the mechanic.

        And the lore tooltips were just brilliant.

  27. Szhival says:

    Don’t even get me started on Pokemon Moon. I played since Red and can’t bring myself to sit down with this one longer then an hour. Five and a half hours into the game and it’s still an unskipabble experaince of cutscenes, turtorials and inlore explanation to the turtorials. I just want to catch some firesock rats and beat up other peoples dripping combs for some spare change.

  28. Premium User Badge

    zapatapon says:

    I suggest it would be useful also to give some positive examples — of games that do it right.

    Off the top of my head, I’d think of the first part of KOTOR2 (I played it long ago, so my memory might be glossing over flaws). There’s the usual 3-paragraph star wars intro space text which tells you absolutely nothing, next there’s a short tutorial in which you try to repair a space ship in seriously bad shape without being given much context, but which makes you care about the few passengers aboard. You wake up in a a space station were some things appear to have gone very wrong and before you can get any answers, the situation gets even worse and mysterious.

    The few first hours, when you don’t know jack about why you’re here or what the hell is happening, are particularly captivating and I remember them more vividly than the rest of the game. In a sense the whole goal of the entire game is to unpick the mysteries of these first moments. It relies a little to much on the good old amnesia trope, but is used effectively.

    Another gripping beginning I can remember of is VtM: Bloodlines. Although the tutorial part itself is pretty awful, lore-wise it is very light and the game makes you understand very quickly that everyone will try to manipulate you, which gives you a strong motivation for looking for information for yourself.

    In both cases there is an excellent narrative structure because (a) you have a strong motivation to acquire more lore, and (b) you are given a good illusion of agency (i.e. that you lift the mysteries by playing the game)

    • Premium User Badge

      Nauallis says:

      I agree that the setup for the first playthrough is great for KotOR 1 & 2, but also I disagree with you, in that KotOR 1 & 2 are hugely offensive to replays. It’s not possible to skip the “learn how to play in the intro to the story!” progression of the first 30-120 minutes of the game. KotOR 1 is bad about this, but not terrible – you wake up on a Republic cruiser, and your job is LEAVE. After that your story is basically on rails for a little while, until you LEAVE Taris. Then the game gives actual freedom of choice.

      KotOR2 is arguably worse, since it’s the game that is actually worth replaying because there’s so much more role-play and choice available (and also janky engine and game-breaking bugs, but…). The intro section is “repair your ship and gather your crew and LEAVE” but you cannot skip any of it, and there’s no “I’ve already played this I know what I’m doing” option available.

  29. Misha says:

    John Walker at his very best!

    Bravo, Sir! And a Happy New Year too!

  30. Kasjer says:

    I fully agree with what this article is saying. Recently I’ve tried to give Okami another go and was once again bored to death by intro sequence. So I have launched another gem of a game instead, Enslaved: Oddyssey to the west. Played it for the first time and let me tell, you, this one is very fine example off how storytelling can be handled without being annoying and intrusive. I starts with a short intro and is followed by action packed tutorial which is technically one long corridor, but manages to get you interested and involved. Game also doesn’t treat you like an idiot, as it is fully aware that you may know already that WASD keys or left analog on gamepad is used for moving around. Another game I loved for how it told a story was BioShock Infinite, where parts when you were without control were short, but almost always meaningful and game did a good job of sliping parts of the story on loading screens.

    But long intros is something I can get over with usually. Worse thing is when game gives you control for 10 seconds only to take it back to explain something trivial and self-explanatory (I.E. HEAVY ATTACKS WORK BETTER THAN LIGHT ONES ON ARMORED ENEMIES). Or when devs are absolutely rubbish at design of environmental hints and guiding player to correct path and constantly takes away control to show where you need to go using camera. It’s one thing to use it from time to time or give option to ignore it (Crysis 2 for example gave you prompts “Press X to look” to show you important setpiece but you were free to ignore them). Also heavy use of scripts, how much I hate this. This is why I think CoD and BF single player parts are just rubbish – the action is controlled in so heavy-handed manner I feel more like a spectator than a player. There is literally zero freedom in approaching gunfights, even point of entry in to new area is forced by stupidity of “follow sgt. Genericgrunt” where you just walk after AI character to a door which miraculously can be opened now but couldn’t be blown open with grenade launcher 5 seconds ago.

  31. DrazharLn says:

    I quite like very short intros, like a flashcard to orientate me at the start of the game

    House of the Dying Sun has a pretty good intro:

    *BONG* The Emperor is dead *BONG* The Royal Guard has been scattered *BONG* And a false king sits upon the throne *BONG* Execute the Emperor’s final edict: *BONG* Hunt the traitor lords *BONG* And bring ruin to their people

    The whole thing takes about 20 seconds and tells me everything I need to know.

  32. twixter says:

    If done well, I prefer to have an opening cutscene that gives some backstory. It’s a replacement for the old days when I’d buy a physical copy of a game and on the way home read the introduction section in the manual. It gives context for my character’s motivations and helps to draw me into the world the designers have built.

  33. Arglebargle says:

    While interminable interruptions or intros can be irritating, the bad writing, lore, acting, etc, that game developers often seem to thing is just wonderful, that’s my real issue. Most game designers think they are great writers. Sadly, they too are subject to Sturgeon’s Law.

  34. Bing_oh says:

    It’s now going on 20 years since Half-Life made a proper “intro” and dumped cutscenes entirely, being lauded in the process for giving a story to the player without using what were considered “necessary” story-telling components. And yet, in 2018, we still have games with exposition dumps and too many cutscenes.

    The reality is, it’s not going to change. It’s easier to have a narrator read the player a story (even in pretty cutscenes…especially since those can be used in advertising to sell the game) than it is to build the world.

    • Baines says:

      Half-Life? Half-Life is one of the offenders.

      No, it doesn’t start with a thirteen minute info dump, but it does start with the functional equivalent of a thirteen minute cut scene. The only thing that stops it from being an info dump is that it doesn’t really deliver that much information over that thirteen minute span.

      0:00-5:00 – Tram ride, where all you can do is look around
      5:00-5:30 – Waiting for the tram door to be opened
      5:30~13:00 – Walking around
      13:00- Game actually starts

      • Premium User Badge

        alison says:

        It’s so odd how this is experienced differently by different people. I thought the Half-Life intro was awesome, like nothing I had ever played before (at the time). Then after the accident happens and you have to start killing things I felt it lost everything that made the game unique and cool. I got bored and never finished it in the end, but I’ll always think back fondly on that futuristic train ride to a new job and what could have been.

        • BooleanBob says:

          I loved everything that came after it, but I agree Half Life’s intro was basically a game unto itself – a sort of proto walking simulator.

      • Spacewalk says:

        Was Gordon Freeman late because he slept in or was he late because he had to take the Black Mesa tram?

      • Premium User Badge

        phuzz says:

        By today’s standards yes, the start of Half-Life is a bit tedious. Back when it was released though it was game changing.
        I remember going round to a friends house, and him playing me the intro, before blowing my mind by moving the mouse, showing me that it wasn’t a scripted cut scene, but part of the game proper.

        Oh, and speed runners have got minutes 5-13 down to just four minutes.

        • wraithgr says:

          Oh, that’s great no wait, I’m not a speedrunner so why would I care? ;-)

      • Bing_oh says:

        The beginning of Half-Life gives an amazing amount of information without force-feeding it to you in a cutscene. You find out that you’re a scientist involved in an advanced government/military experiment, you get a feel for the scope of Black Mesa, you get character introductions, and you get a chance to play with the basic controls all without being “told” any of it…it just happens in the world around you. It’s a great early example of giving a player information by building the world around them instead of having a narrator read it from a script.

        • Baines says:

          My argument is that the first thirteen minutes *are* functionally a cut scene. The tram ride quite literally takes you along for a five-minute showing. Even when the tram stops and you can start walking around at your leisure, you are still effectively handling a cut scene. You have to progress through that thirteen or so minutes of “story” before you reach the real start of the game’s “gameplay”.

          BooleanBob is right in calling it a proto-walking simulator.

  35. MikoSquiz says:

    When a game opens with a long text crawl or cinematic, I find it helpful to go and fix a snack or tune my guitars or something and then come back and see if the game’s started yet.

  36. TheSplund says:

    I’ve not long finished Wolfenstein: The new Colossus and loved it, though I have to admit to being very negative about the game when I started ‘playing’ it for the above same reasons.
    And as for that last MGS – I did housework for most of the hour long intro whilst occasionally pressing the odd button to progress – whatever backstory the dev had for me was pretty well wasted.

  37. Arithon says:

    I was going to buy the new Wolfenstein game, as I’d liked the first one, but the demo totally killed it for me.
    I was a full TEN minutes watching an un-skipable film with zero interaction before I terminated the “game” and quit. Films are to be watched, games are to be PLAYED and ten minutes of no playable game made me delete the demo and not buy the game.
    One of the reasons I dropped Assassins Creed games was the whole “5 mins cut-scene, run, stab & another 5 minutes cut-scene” cycle. That and the appalling UPlay.
    Developers need to do two things. 1, Stop kidding themselves they are Hollywood and just make games, not films. 2, stop wasting money on (1) so that the “AAA” budget is spent on making a good game, not a pointless exposition.

  38. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    What about doing it backwards? Virginia starts off with a five minute long unskippable (as far as I could tell) credit sequence, telling me the name of everyone who’d worked on this game I wasn’t being allowed to play.

  39. Marclev says:

    It may be years old, but the original Half Life should still be the golden standard for how to do an intro. It just dumped you on a train for the first day of your job, and let you work out where to go and what to do. Your actions triggered the story to happen around you.

    And in terms of how not to do it, I’ve started playing Okami HD based on this site’s recommendation. The intro to that should be taken out the back and shot. 30 minutes of slow scrolling text with looped sound clips of a bunch of people loudly mumbling, instead of proper voice acting, to drive you loopy. I was about ready to throw the keyboard out of the window by the end of it.

    It then proceeds to interrupt you playing as much as possible by dumping yet more exposition on you every few minutes. If it wasn’t for the fact it’s really good when it does let you play, I’d have rage-refunded it on Steam.

  40. wraithgr says:

    I’ve been known to drop a game before playing because of its unskippable intro, so yeah–agree with the article 100%

    Also cannot fathom why any company would, in this day and age, plague us with unskippable splash screens. If anything, all it does is make me annoyed at your company for doing this to me every time I start your game. Especially when it lengthens my loading time.

  41. Malcolm says:

    I’m generally in agreement with John on this one, although as a related anecdote I tried playing Hyper Light Drifter over the weekend. No idea what’s going on there. There are a few minutes of wordless intro where some disaster occurs and then you get dumped into to some Zelda type gameplay with no context at all. Maybe it would have made sense after a while but the deliberately difficult “Souls-like” combat made me grumpy enough to reach for the refund button. Bah.

  42. draglikepull says:

    The game that’s probably most responsible for this trend is Final Fantasy 7, which ushered in the CG cutscene era, and yet the intro to FF7 is actually a great example of how to do an opening that isn’t drawn out and dull! There’s a short CG clip that gives you a strong sense of the setting, and then it immediately drops you into a cool dungeon where the story moves at a brisk pace.

  43. Premium User Badge

    Waznei says:

    Hollow Knight does exactly what you want. It let you play, and then, some hours into it, starts to introduce the story, thru subtle, excellent, video-gamey storytelling.

    Just saying!

  44. gorte says:

    I think the reason why I never cared for Firaxis XCOM was the horrid opening. It’s more of a tutorial than exposition, but you have to spend what feels like 30 minutes staring at the screen while talking heads tell you exactly where to click. I don’t know why but not getting any options to even poke around the UI made me so angry that I ended up shutting the game down before I ever got to the real beginning.

    • poliovaccine says:

      On repeat playthroughs I totally get that, and more than once it’s killed the momentum my enthusiasm had built up going in, to the point where at least once or twice before I’ve just muscled through it quick so I could take a break (which it makes me want to do, which is annoying) and start off from the first proper mission when I’d got my enthusiasm for the game back and eventually returned. There’s a lot of tutorials or first missions which have that effect. Much as I love New Vegas, these days any new run needs an Alternate Start mod, and that’s even if I just want to play as vanilla Courier Six, cus at least it expedites the process. Fallout 2 was an even worse offender, but especially for a non-melee build, to the extent that I always put more points into melee than I ever would in any such RPG otherwise.

      In defense of XCOM though, I really needed that refresher, I hadn’t played X-hyphen-COM since I was like fourteen. But it should still be *optional.*

  45. poliovaccine says:

    Gotta pretty much completely agree with every word here, and that’s in spite of my broader sense (and complaint) that the whole world, not just my generation but even my parents’, is losing its overall attention span. Because it’s really not about that – it’s about using the medium effectively, the same way you don’t want a movie giving you paragraphs of text to read.*

    *Incidentally, I never did understand why Star Wars got such a pass on that.. I mean obviously the whole rest of the movie is tons of fun but it was like three viewings before I even fully absorbed that intro spiel – which also goes to show just how much its content was told through context anyway, and therefore how much the whole thing is unnecessary.. though I guess it’s aesthetically effective at framing it like a real epic, in a sort of literary way, which was maybe the only point of it for all I know.

    Whatever. I hope John Walker knows he has at least one outright fan on this site, because dammit, he is a critic among men.

    • Sin Vega says:

      Star Wars gets bonus points for being pointlessly awkward to read because of the stupid font and angle combination. I’ve not seen the new ones but I assume they kept it, mostly because it’s a meme.

      It’s a bit like when people today make “old school” games that reproduce the same flaws of old games instead of just the good parts.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      Star Wars got a pass because they were recreating the intro to Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers serials.

  46. left1000 says:

    I don’t mind introduction cutscenes that tell a story. What I do mind is disabling the standard game feature of making esc button skip it all. Let me mash esc and let it work. Why do we mash esc? It’s not because we’re insane it’s because a decade or two ago it ALWAYS WORKED!

    I still some games from 1994 where not only does hitting esc cancel the cutscene but clicking the mouse skips the entire introduction as well. If I actually like these games, guess what? I’ll close the game, reopen it, and sit there and watch your movie. If I don’t like the game, I won’t. If I run out of patience before the game starts though? The odds I’ll like the game go down 99%. Also, heck, what about replayability? Even if your boss has forced you to make that movie unskippable, at least toggle a flag in the settings whereby after I watch it once, I can at least skip it NEXT TIME! (VN’s for example are amazingly good at this style of skipping).

  47. Cederic says:

    John Walker in defense of gameplay? At last ;)

    A happy new year indeed.

  48. skyturnedred says:

    No Time To Explain had the perfect intro.

    Hint: the clue is in the title

  49. baud001 says:

    I think that’s a strength of licensed games, for example Star Wars, Batman or Shadow of Mordor. You just have to explain where in the universe the events are happening. Imagine having to explain the force, lightsabers, jedi and Sith at the start of KOTOR? A masked justicier dressed as a bat beating up thugs be and Joker and the Arkham asylum at the start of Arkham asylum?