Skip to main content

The art of the start: how the best games grab us immediately

15 minutes of game.

What makes a great video game opening? With recency bias, you might say The Last of Us Part 1’s devastating introduction. But the best kind, I think, are able to successfully capture and distill the experience of the game as a whole.

It’s the feeling I got when I recently replayed Nier: Automata on Switch. Mostly, I was playing to test the port, and I didn’t have time to play more than the opening. But what an opening it is! Narratively, the stakes are high given 2B is the sole surviving android on a suicide mission against the enemy machines, but from this epic prologue, you get a taste of its combat that’s more like a feast, the way it changes between genres and perspectives, culminating in a multi-stage boss battle that could be the final boss in any other game.

Another game I recently replayed was Marvel’s Spider-Man, again just to test out the Steam Deck. I wouldn’t call it the better game but it arguably has a stronger game opening than Naughty Dog’s opus. That moment you first pull back the trigger and effortlessly take to the air as the web slinger himself is just electrifying, and as you go from swinging through Manhattan to taking down the Kingpin and his goons, it’s a fast-moving tutorial that breaks down the fundamentals of Spidey’s Arkham-inspired-but-playful combat. By the time Fisk is in cuffs, I’m happy to call it a day, just in time before the game’s open-world bloat materialises. But I’d take this over the literal cold opens of GTA 5 or Red Dead Redemption 2 that are practically divorced from their open-world USP.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes.Watch on YouTube

Open world games, RPGs, any game designed to be a timesink, are much harder to create a strong start, because you’re supposed to take your time to acclimate to the world and its systems. These are the games that get really good after 20 or 30 hours. But then that doesn’t hold true when Breath of the Wild exists. If I can’t find time to adventure through Hyrule all over again before Tears of the Kingdom, just an hour on the Great Plateau can remind me just how extraordinary this physics-based sandbox is.

The recurring theme here is time, or lack of it. It’s certainly the case in the age of Game Pass when anything not holding your attention for even a few minutes can be unceremoniously uninstalled, though it’s also relevant when I want to dip back into an old classic for a brief hit of nostalgia. There’s of course shorter experiences I can enjoy, but there is something quite special about being able to play only the beginning of something and that alone being enough.

Sonic Adventure 2
Sonic is perfection when it comes to this sort of thing.

Perhaps this stems from the heyday of game demos when you can play the same opening level over and over to mastery, while those who couldn’t afford the full game can still have their fill. Hideo Kojima understood this best, with both the demos for Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2 being legendary in their own right, while MGS5’s Ground Zeroes was essentially a demo released as a stand-alone retail game. And we can’t forget P.T., a teaser to a Silent Hill sequel that never was, but already so terrifying in and of itself.

One of my favourite demos is Sonic Adventure 2’s City Escape level that came with Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast. Those steep San Francisco-inspired streets, the still-catchy song, it was all glorious, and all while getting to grips with all the rail-grinding and other skills needed to nail an A grade through repeat plays. Bayonetta 2’s Prologue demo on Wii U left a similar impression, and even now on Switch, I can happily jump back into that one mission and get everything I want out of it.

Nier Automata
Nier Automata knows how to kick things off.

It’s much harder to replicate this in a story-driven game where, like film, it’s about setting the mood and wanting your audience to find out what happens next. Not that cinema doesn’t have exceptions: the opening to Pixar’s Up remains a masterclass that could be its own short film, and you’ll not see a more thrilling opening this year than the first 11 minutes of Romain Gavras’ Athena.

The better comparison then is with the opening track from an album. It’s probably not a surprise that many of the best tend to also be the lead single - and as the term implies, singles are their own hits and bangers. Of course I still like to listen to albums the old-fashioned way, from start to finish, but if you have to just hit that first track, then more often than not it’s going to distill that artist or band’s very essence and what they’re about. In other words, for a game to really grab me today when time is a premium? Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!

Read this next