September often feels like the year is winding down, but, if you’re anything like Sidequest’s editor in chief, it’s also one of the most exciting times of the year. No, not because pumpkin spice is here. No, it’s not even because Halloween is right around the corner and it’s the perfect time to pick up “seasonal decor” that just becomes year-round decor. It’s because it’s the beginning of the school year, and nothing fills us (okay, me) with joy like new pencils and books and a bunch of learning to do.
But we already did a back to school roundtable, so we’re not talking about school. We’re talking about beginnings. What makes a good beginning? What makes a bad beginning? Let’s find out.
What game has your favorite opening? What makes it so great?
Naseem Jamnia: I have to preface my comment by saying I’m discussing three different openings that all work for me, but for very different reasons.
I only got through a couple hours of the game before the bad writing made me put it down, but the opening to Final Fantasy X-2 is, in its own way, brilliant (even if it is a bit long). You go from the end of FFX which, depending on whether you see the cutscene after the credits, is either bittersweet but hopeful or potentially peaceful but maybe undermining, to a concert by a gun-wielding, treasure-hunting, pop star who was very different last time we saw her. What a way for players to be super confused but also like, yes, live your best life in this AU?? (You can hear the editors talk all about our feelings about the end and more in our 20th anniversary FFX episode for free on our Patreon! Also, Missy is the one who called FFX-2 an AU, so no credit on my end.)
More seriously, I guess one mode for a game opening that works well is subversion—I’m thinking, for example, of how the first Last of Us does an excellent job of hooking players both thematically and emotionally by opening with Sarah and, more importantly, by making her controllable. It makes the end of the prologue viscerally violent and horrific in a way that lets players know exactly the type of game they’re in for. I wonder if this works better than the Persona 5/Royal method of in media res, if I look at it objectively and not as my favorite game. On one hand, the opening is flashy and fun and dramatic; it’s a major moment, foreshadowing what the story is building towards as well as establishing the frame narrative, and gives players a flavor of the tone, story, characters, and aesthetics that make Persona 5/Royal so iconic. On the other, it’s a touch unnecessary to include gameplay this early because the game teaches you very well how to play, and because it’s a short break at the beginning when soon the player is going into a lot of cutscenes. (Also, the frame narrative gets old real fast, but that feels like a separate issue.) Arguably, too, the consequences of the opening may not hit emotionally as hard for a new player, but it is so satisfying when the main story catches up with the frame.
Sara Davis: One of my favorite gaming experiences of all time was playing Oxenfree with a friend. It’s not a two-player game, but the well-written dialogue and characters make for a compelling viewing experience even when you’re not holding the controller. So there we were: two friends having some wine and cooing over our awkward teenage children as they set out on their ill-advised boat trip to Edwards Island, when our blue-haired avatar accidentally tuned into a haunted radio frequency. The eerie music, the sensation of turning the radio dials to find something you’re not sure you want to hear, and the cryptic messages composed of audio fragments all contributed to a sense of rising panic but also wonder. We screamed about it, but we were hooked and eventually finished the game (in hour-long chunks followed by cute animal videos to lower our respective heart rates).
Zainabb Hull: Yes, Oxenfree! I deliberately went in with as little information as possible and immediately knew it would be My Kind Of Game. I did get mild sensory overload from the timed conversational options but the “something’s not right here, on this dark and isolated island” vibes and compelling characters won me over straight away.
I also love the opening sequence of Kentucky Route Zero: the distinctive art style, the atmospheric soundtrack, meeting Blue. It immediately establishes a sense of taking a road trip through a lonely landscape where things don’t quite fit into our real world. In particular, going into the gas station basement gave me chills—that was the moment that really pulled me into the game (and Conway onto the Zero). It’s an opening that really sets the player up for the rest of the game, with its light surrealism and touches of horror.
Melissa Brinks: Everyone’s already-mentioned choices are great. BioShock: Infinite is simply not a very good game in most ways, but the opening scene (everything before you’re confronted with racist caricatures and like, the actual gameplay) really intrigued me when I played it, and I just replayed it to be sure I wasn’t only remembering the good parts. It’s probably not my favorite, but it has remained with me as a really economical (and heavy-handed, but I’m not opposed to that) bit of worldbuilding. You’re rowed to a mysterious island by two weirdos (the weirdos being the best part of the game), shot into the air, then baptized in a watery temple full of prophecies you can’t really understand, and finally greeted by three godlike statues of America’s founding fathers worshipped by a bunch of white-robed cultists. Is it subtle? Not at all. But in addition to looking great, even by 2021 standards, you immediately feel immersed in this terrible, terrible world. The little touches with the shimmering, shifting reality, the Luteces and their false choices, and that bangin’ Beach Boys quartet drag you further into the mysteries, which, unfortunately, are eclipsed by the game’s awful ideology and dull gameplay. If only the rest were as strong as that opening!
Cress: I absolutely love the music video opening to Chrono Cross with Yasinori Mitsuda’s banger soundtrack piece: Scars of Time. I get so pumped every time it starts up! The video uses shots from FMVs later in the game, teasing at dragons, floating castles, and your main character as a baby?? When you actually get to play, you’re suddenly thrown into a dungeon several hours into the story. After some tidbits of info from your party members and a few battles, you’re given a disturbing vision before fading to black. For all you Chrono Trigger fans, a familiar “Good morning name!” appears on screen. I’m not always a fan of flash-forward storytelling elements but for Chrono Cross I think it works to its advantage and lines up with themes in the story. While the late game narrative suffers from exposition dumping and rushed development, the opening and intentions have always stuck with me as an experimental art piece that shouldn’t be compared to its predecessor.
What game has your least favorite opening? What makes it so bad?
Naseem: I’m so sorry Maddi and December but what was that opening to Final Fantasy XV. I don’t mean the dragon, that’s par for the course, but like, something something dad leaving something??
Sara: Y’all know I love my Bioware games but I do not love the titular origin stories of Dragon Age: Origins. Sure, it was nice to be briefly immersed in the world and politics of Thedas by beginning the game in a context specific to my character: a city slum for elves, for example, or a human noble estate, or a mage’s circle (hi Cullen!). But. You’re telling me, a completionist, that there is game content I cannot access—unless I start six different characters? Wow.
Zainabb: I really feel that, Sara (and I also absolutely did start six different characters just for the opening sequences, eek).
I think my least favourite openings generally are forgettable ones. I want my game openings to be memorable, to stick with me, even if I don’t really gel with the game overall. Having said that, the Mass Effect 2 opening is one I can remember but don’t particularly like. Initially, I found it confusing but eventually wrapped my head around the timeline and what happens to Shepard. The thing that frustrated me more was that Shepard seemed to just accept that they are now essentially an indentured worker for the extremely dodgy and obviously racist Cerberus. There were few opportunities to say, “hey, what the fuck” or otherwise express any kind of objection to Cerberus’ operations or politics, which my Shepard was actively against. I appreciate that the game has to set up its narrative (and the accompanying restrictions) but it felt clunky, undermining the character I’d built throughout the first game.
Melissa: In the complete reverse of my first answer, this is not the worst opening, but Red Dead Redemption 2‘s first like… ten hours (that’s too many!) often feel like they belong to a different game—one that I like significantly less. It’s more rootin’ tootin’ cowboy shootin’ (with some emotional beats) than I think suits the game’s actual themes and story. Yes, you need to know that Arthur isn’t a super moral guy, and the characters are important, but because I didn’t know who anybody but John was and I was mostly wandering lost in the snow, it took a lot of time for the game to really grab me. Those first ten hours, mostly until Arthur and Lenny have a wild night of debauchery at the Valentine saloon, didn’t do much to make me want to keep playing. I’m glad I did, but having to tell people who are intrigued by the story that they have to surrender ten hours of their life before they even begin to get to what I think is good about the game (and I do mean begin—the stuff I think is actually good is significantly later!) means it sounds more like I’m warning them off than welcoming them in.
Cress: Thinking of game openings I couldn’t remember, I had real trouble recalling Drakengard 2. It’s not a good game in general but I thought it could have an interesting story like Drakengard did. I decided to watch the opening again and now I know why: it’s a very disjointed mish-mash trailer of gameplay and characters stating their drives without us knowing what they mean. Then, when you actually get to play, you start out as know-nothing Nowe, training to be a knight. So we come from a trailer aiming to hype you up to a tutorial school. Even Drakengard, with all the same faults and failings in gameplay, has the good sense to start you off in a high-stakes war. I didn’t get very far in Drakengard 2—Nowe continues to be clueless and the battles are repetitive and awkward to play.
Are there any games you can think of that do something particularly interesting with the concept of “beginning?”
Naseem: It’s been a while since I’ve gotten to discuss one of my favorite games, Undertale, and even longer for its successor Deltarune. Both of these have openings that are also beginnings in their own way. In Undertale, we open with the story of the first human who fell underground into the land of monsters, which is soon overlaid with images of the player character (canonically named Frisk) going to the same mountain to fall underground—and awaken in a cushion of flowers. The parallelism between Frisk and the first human is important not only thematically but also literally to the story of the pacifist route (if you kill no one). Flower imagery is a recurring motif in the game, too. This is a game that immediately tells you your choices matter, as Frisk makes a decision to seek out the mountain no one is said to return from. This sets the game into motion and the player soon learns they have the ability to refuse to continue the cycle of violence this society is trapped in—or give into it. And so Frisk literally begins anew what other humans have already done, but that is part of the cycle.
Deltarune, on the other hand, expects its players to have come from an Undertale background (although it claims not to). Thus, Deltarune sets the player up to expect a similar experience in the opening chapter. It begins with a story drawn in the same style as the opening to Undertale, this time a LEGEND of the story of three unlikely heroes who will save the worlds of LIGHT and DARK when the balance shifts. With this, Deltarune signals to the player that this will be the central conceit of the story—and then there is an abrupt pivot. “Are you there? Are we connected?” Then: “Excellent,” says a small heart on the screen, a familiar and unsettling image to Undertale players. After walking you through character creation, the “voice” tells you your creation doesn’t matter, and deletes it. “No one can choose who they are in this world,” it says, before stuttering, “Your name is…” Deltarune therefore lures us in before snapping the reins away to signal the game is a different experience and to not hold onto the past, no matter the references. And still there is the disquiet of something unfinished—the speaking heart may yet return.
Sara: Shout-out to Oxenfree again, which (spoiler?) turns your entire first playthrough into a beginning of sorts. Oxenfree is the sort of game where your choices matter: your dialogue selections and the order in which you do things determine who survives the island and whose friendships and relationships remain intact. But no matter what you do and how your end credits look, you’ll find yourself right back on the boat at the beginning. The only way to break the time loop—and to unlock the best ending—is to play a second time through, armed with the knowledge you gained from the first.
Zainabb: Everything opens in a sparse void where you briefly control a formless, thinking being that’s then established as the “mind” of a randomly generated animal on Earth. Later in the game, you’re able to “move into” various creatures, objects, and formations, taking control of plants, atoms, and entire planets. All of these things are able to think and emote like the animal we begin playing with. The game challenges our sense of linear time, disrupting our concept of “beginnings” by constructing the universe as entirely interconnected. We don’t start as tiny atoms and end as planets or galaxies (or vice versa), we don’t experience “youth” and “old age” as we progress through the game. Instead, the game establishes circular relationships between everything in the universe, so that my beginning in the game becomes other beings’ middle or end. When you “complete” the game, you simply start again.
Similar to Oxenfree, as Sara mentioned, Everything essentially provides you with a time loop. However, instead of working to break the loop, Everything rejects the concept of a “correct” linear timeline, arguing that we are always living within a time loop of sorts.
Melissa: Oxenfree really is just so damn good.
Cress: This might be a bit more common nowadays, but I really enjoyed the first Kingdom Hearts with the dreamlike sequence allowing you to learn the controls and choose your playstyle (do you begin your adventure in the morning or at dusk?). Unlike the usual: “do this or do that'” of tutorials, this one gave a sense of weight and importance to your decisions that I hadn’t felt in many games. Also by virtue of being within a dream, having a disembodied voice guide you doesn’t feel out of place or annoying. It’s more like you feel compelled to do it.
In Demon’s Souls, even if you do everything flawlessly in the beginning area, you will have to fight a nigh-invincible boss. And even if you manage to defeat this demon, a dragon shows up and burns you to a crisp. FromSoftware isn’t just trying to be cruel for the sake of it (though they can sometimes feel that way, believe you me), they are trying to get you as the player to accept death, accept failure. Only by doing so may you find the resilience to press forward. This has been a recurring theme in most of their games.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.