Thursday, April 22, 2010

General RPGs' Opening Sequences

Thanks to Ecclesiastes again for another good idea for a rant.

Opening sequences. They're not a new concept--the idea of having an opening that shows the premise and characters of your work through various scenes spliced together to the main theme was a standard for television shows decades before even the concept of video games had been thought up. These original music videos were used by sitcoms, dramas, soaps, and especially cartoons without fail, and often still are.

RPGs' opening sequences usually occur immediately before the title screen, after the title screen's been up for a minute or so without any buttons being pressed, or once you begin a new game. Some games will have even have more than one--like, one that happens before the title screen, and one that occurs after the title screen's been up for a bit. The purpose of the opening sequence is, as near as I can figure, to get you excited and interested in the game you're about to play, and to give you a taste of the game's themes, scope, ideas, setting, and/or characters. Most opening sequences hit on most or all of these points in one way or another. For example, take the opening sequence to Tales of the Abyss, which is a pretty good specimen of the average opening sequence. The opening is a montage of anime scenes portraying specific events from the game (which, incidentally, are usually not actually portrayed in anime FMV cinemas when they're actually happening in-game) that grab your attention, containing both scenes of action and scenes of mysticism and so on, all to a rather fast-paced main theme. The idea is clearly to grab your attention immediately. The scenes show several of the game's places and suspenseful moments (providing a taste of its scope, ideas, and setting), and has a part which shows each of the main characters one by one, thus giving you a quick orientation to them.

The concept of an opening sequence is a good one. It's entertaining, and it can be a good, effective way to get a player into the right mood for the game, which can be important. I mean, sure, if you're playing a game from the Tales of series, you probably don't need to be told that it's going to be a very colorful, anime-ish adventure, so setting the mood might not be so essential, but with a game like, say, Breath of Fire 5, setting the mood is significantly important, especially if the audience is at all familiar with previous games in the series. Breath of Fires 1 - 4 were all decidedly fantasy games with a world-spanning scope and the feeling of a save-the-world adventure.* Breath of Fire 5's opening sequence, though, is gritty and at times somewhat aggressive, showing a grimy urban underground and emphasizing a personal struggle, while showcasing the artistic style and setting, which are all major factors in the game. It helps you get into the feel of the game before you start playing, and in this case, it's helpful, because a player might otherwise feel a little disjointed at playing something very obviously not the fantasy epic they're accustomed to with RPGs.

Of course, there are some common annoyances with opening sequences, too. For one, the JPop. The terrible, terrible JPop. Now it's not like I don't occasionally (actually, "rarely" is closer) like a pop song from Japan. Hell, I'd say JPop has as good a chance of producing a quality song as any genre of this hemisphere. But I can't recall the last time I saw an opening sequence set to a JPop tune that wasn't just utterly horrible to listen to. Opening sequence JPop tunes only seem to come in one variety: Whiny and Disjointed, Interspersed with Screeching. Y'know, if the rest of the game's going to have tunes that actually fit in appropriately to the scenes they play in and don't have keening vocals "singing" one of the most annoying languages ever spoken, I don't see why the opening song, which should be, y'know, trying to create an accurate feel of the game, has to be radically different. Take Grandia 3's terrible opening sequence--the song to it is generic and pointless JPop. It doesn't get you ready for an adventure in any way, it doesn't stand out or fit the game's feel at all, and frankly, it's not particularly nice to listen to. I guess you could say that it actually IS relevant given that the game itself is generic, boring crap, but I somehow doubt that was what SquareEnix was going for.**

Worse than the vocal stylings of a talent-deficient teenager whose highest aspiration is to be one of a virtual sea of Japanese pop idols for whom the phrase "5 minutes of fame" is unrealistically optimistic by a good 4 minutes, though, is some of the visual content of some opening sequences. First of all, there are some out there that just plain spoil too much of the game. The problem with showing scenes from the game in an opening sequence, you see, is that one will usually take some of the game's best and most gripping parts to show, which tend to be plot-important enough that showing any part of them gives stuff away that would have otherwise been surprising and interesting! Giving away your better plot twists and moments of tension before the game has even begun is NOT an effective strategy for preparing your audience to maintain an interest for a plot that takes 50 hours to tell.

Another problem is the rare opening sequence that actually just has no relevance to the game. I mean, Suikoden Tierkreis's opening sequence doesn't suggest an RPG adventure that involves danger and combat and mysticism so much as it suggests a long nature walk with an abundant amount of photo ops of anime characters standing and looking out to the horizon in a thoughtful way. When the whole point, as near as I can figure it, of an opening sequence is to give a sample of what's to come and get you interested in the game's events, showing a bunch of stuff--BORING stuff--that just doesn't really have much or anything to do with the game just defeats the purpose of having it.

A personal irritation with these things that I often have is also how often opening sequences reuse Full Motion Videos from the game itself. FMVs, be they 3D or anime or whatever, are meant to be the attention-grabbers in an RPG, the moments that are so important that they have to be shown in cinema form--something to look forward to, essentially. So I kind of feel like I'm getting cheated a little when a lot/all of the opening sequence's cinematic footage is taken from the FMVs you'll already see. I mean, not only does it invite the problem of spoiling the plot that I mentioned above, but it also lessens my interest--I'll be slightly less interested in the FMVs in the game that I've already seen a decent glimpse of, and after I've seen them, I'll be less interested in the opening sequence because it's just little pieces of larger cinemas. I just feel that it's better, and gives the audience a little extra, to make the FMV of your opening sequence portray stuff that doesn't already occur in FMV during the game. You take the FMV opening sequence Square added to their Chrono Trigger rerelease for the Playstation 1--it's got lots of anime cinema in it to watch that's neat, showing various situations and scenes from the game, but the actual in-game FMVs aren't included, giving us more to watch instead of just recycling the same FMVs multiple times.

Opening sequences are more important than they're often given credit for. A good one, like the original opening sequence of Chrono Trigger, which had exciting music, good direction, and set the game's tone perfectly, can get the player in just the right mood to appreciate the game all the more--hell, a good enough opening sequence might actually buy a bad game some time before the player starts to realize that the game's not all that the exciting beginning promised. It worked admirably with Chrono Cross's 2 opening sequences, particularly FMV one--that one is so effective as a preparer for adventure that watching it STILL gets me excited and ready to play the game it's showing, even though I HAVE played it and KNOW that it is actually awful. Conversely, a bad one can just drag a game down, an irritating strike against the game before it's even begun. A little effort and good directing sense on this matter can go a long way for an RPG.

* Even though one, arguably two, of them ended up not having world-saving as their main purpose.

** Then again, who knows...considering SquareEnix's business plan and overall level of game quality from around the time of Grandia 3 up to the present moment, it very well could be that they DID intend to make a crappy opening sequence to recognize and reflect the game's poor quality. Just another in a long line of "Fuck Yous" to their loyal fanbase.

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