In 2012, a new envisioning of Microsoft’s popular racing game series, Forza, appeared on the scene: Forza Horizon. Forza Horizon wasn’t simply a racing game, it was an open-world driving game that invited players to explore a vast world in a variety of cars and progress through a series of tasks and challenges. Even though I was only nominally familiar with the Forza series at the time, I tried my hand at Forza Horizon. It didn’t grab me, but I could certainly see the appeal. Being unleashed into a relatively expansive world solely as a car, so to speak, was something different, if not entirely new. (A few Need for Speed and Burnout games pre-date Forza Horizon.)
Thanks to all the snow we recently had here in the northeastern United States, last week I enjoyed a couple days at home. Between time spent on actual work-at-home work and real life concerns, I managed to allocate a few spare moments to gaming. One day I was in the mood for an action/adventure game, so I turned to my backlog and started up Assassin’s Creed III. Having not played any AC titles since the first one, I was happy to be reunited with Desmond Miles, that kidnapped soul who descended from the Assassin’s Order, and who was able to take on the lives of his ancestors through a device called the Animus.
ACIII had something of a mysterious start, but once the action began after the requisite tutorial, I was on my way to becoming a master assassin of America’s Early Republic. The first mission began with Desmond as his eighteenth century Templar ancestor, nobleman Haytham Kenway. I received some instructions and I walked. I walked faster. I sat. I listened. I climbed some stuff. I snuck around. I climbed some more stuff. I reached my target, whom I killed (except that I didn’t as it was part of a cut scene.). And then I walked and walked faster again. And then the mission was over. I sat there a moment, dismayed at the rather lackluster start to what’s supposed to be a rich and vibrant game. I don’t know what I was expected, but boredom wasn’t it.
I was told that it takes few missions before ACIII really picks up steam; and don’t worry, I plan to stick with it. But I haven’t picked up the controller since that first 30 minutes. It’s not that I don’t want to play, but generally, it takes me a longer to get into games that start off with menial missions, even when the reward is more than worth the sacrifice. This leads me to the question: just how important are a game’s first missions/levels/quest?
Pardon the weird segue, but I’m sure some of you have noticed that the first levels in any Mario game tend to be the least perilous. These “grass” levels, as they are sometimes named, are usually fun, bright, and colorful, with plenty to do and see. For me, these preliminary levels are usually the ones that I find myself replaying the most. There’s no slippery ice or spiky things – it’s just coin-collecting, goomba-stomping madness! And it works. These are the perfect (if a little deceptive) levels to get one started in Mario’s quest. And it’s not that they are “easy” levels – let’s face it, death waits around every corner in a Mario game – but they produce a very solid feeling of accomplishment, which one needs to maintain in order to get to Bowser.
Back to ACIII, that feeling of “yeah! I’ve done it!,” that’s what was missing from it’s very first mission. Now, I’m not saying that I needed to face off with some crazy hard assassination right off the bat, but do I want to replay that moment of Kenway and a lot of walking? Hardly. As impressive as opening cut scenes can be in any given game, that first mission or level is really what sets that stage. It’s where game design and development really matters, because if you can’t hook players (or maybe just me) within the first mission, level, and/or quest, then what’s to guarantee that they will want to continue?
Of course, some people are going to play through games, good and bad, simply because they must. And sometimes, lack of that initial hook is made up for in scale and story. Taking examples from my past plays, the first few missions in Skyrim, The Last Story, and Dragon Age II, weren’t anything to write home about. But their worlds and characters were just so intriguing that it would have been a shame not to continue with them.
So back to the question then: just how important are those first missions or levels in games? Can they really make or break a game? What game(s) left you completely bored or pleasantly surprised after the first quest?