Firewatch and Octopath Traveler, and the importance of a good introduction
A player's attention isn't a given but something to be earned.
Sometimes I struggle with new games, with new worlds, and I wonder if it's just me. I struggle in the sense that I can feel myself resisting them and refusing to accept them. I can feel them pushing new things on me, new worlds full of people and history and problems, and I know how much they want me to care. But we've only just met; I don't care. Just because I pressed "play" doesn't mean I'm automatically invested in what's going on. And I wonder if some games lose sight of that. Maybe it's not me - maybe it's games that struggle with introductions.
That's why I was struck playing Firewatch this weekend (it's now on Game Pass) and by how strong an opening can be, and how seemingly effortlessly it can coax you into caring about the world you're in.
It doesn't do much, Firewatch, and maybe therein lies the secret, in the lightness of its touch. The opening involves your character picking up a backpack, throwing it in the back of a truck, driving up to the hills and then walking through the forest to a Firewatch tower. You're in some control of this, walking a few feet or interacting with a couple of items, but you don't do much, and there are scene-jumps forward to speed things up. It's like a montage of a journey.
In between these scenes are memories - memories of your life up to this point. They're short bits of text, with very light interaction, relaying a poignant chain of events which explain why you're there, why you're doing what you're doing - who you are. It's everything you could want to know about a character's place in the world delivered in one short sequence. And at no point has the game stood you still to grandstand you about why you should care. Instead it keeps you moving, keeps you playing, and drops in crucial details along the way. By the time the introduction is over, you're in. It's brilliantly judged.
The other game-opening that struck me was Octopath Traveler's (also on Game Pass). I always begin any role-playing game with a certain amount of excitement about the adventure ahead, that's part of the thrill for me, but RPGs suffer perhaps the most from forcing elaborate worlds upon you, from showing how much they've made. But Octopath Traveler does something really neat in this regard. It shows you the world before you begin and asks you to choose a character from somewhere in it to play as.
You could be a notorious thief from that town over there, who's about to set off looking for some fortune he's heard of; you could be a fearsome-looking hunter who has protected her village but now must leave; or you could be the mysterious lady hiding as an exotic dancer in the south, who's out for revenge. You could be any one of several characters, so who will it be?
What this does is make you think about the world. It makes you read their brief stories and consider their place in the world and decide if you want that to be you. And even if you don't, you still know a bit about them and about where they come from. You still have a wider appreciation of the world than if you hadn't thought about it, about them. Before the story has even begun, then, you're partway grounded in it - it's clever!
It's openings like these that excite me, that convince me to play on. They seem to understand that introductions needn't only be admin to get out of the way before a game properly begins. They seem to understand that a player's attention isn't a given but something to be earned. They seem to understand that introductions matter too.