Credit to my buddy Queelez for this rant idea. He’s a darned good bloke who’s always got a great rant idea for me.
One of the most universal truths about crafting a story is that the opening to your work should grab an audience’s attention. You want to draw your audience as far in as you can in your initial connection with them, whether it be through excitement, intrigue, beauty and wonder, humor, or whatever other appeal you can come up with. It’s true for writers, it’s true for filmmakers, it’s true for sequential artists, and it’s true for game developers. It’s a tried and true technique older than our oldest stories, and one that spans every form of expression, from the snobbiest cinema right down to something so casual as a story told between friends. First impressions are powerful, and the effective creator makes sure that first impression is a good one.
The developers of the games below did not know this.
5. Behemoth Battle (Final Fantasy Mystic Quest)
Who the hell does this? Who the hell makes the very first fight of a game one which you have no guarantee of winning?
Mind you: I’m not against the idea of opening your RPG up with a battle. I’m not even completely against the idea of opening your game up with a fight which the player can actually lose, if the player decides to monumentally screw up.
But there is only a single thing you can do in the Behemoth Battle at the beginning of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest: Attack. There is a single strategy for victory, and that is it: hit the Attack option several times, and whittle down the Behemoth’s HP before he whittles down yours. And most of the time, that works just fine! I’m sure most people reading this who have played the game have no idea what my problem is.
But the thing is, you can miss the attacks you make. And the Behemoth can also get in critical hits. So, get unlucky just twice in this opening battle of the game, and you will die because of the cruel twist of RNG fate. And there’s not a goddamn thing you can do about it! You have NO other options to take in this battle to counteract a bad role of the electric dice. What kind of a way is that to begin a game? Punish a new player for his/her mistakes if you have to, but have the sense to make sure that in the first damn fight of your game, there’s no chance the player will lose even while he/she does the RIGHT thing.
4. Ordon Village (The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess)
LET ME OUT OF THIS BUMBLEFUCK VILLAGE ALREADY.
3. Temple of Trials (Fallout 2)
You know, I think the question of whether tutorial dungeons need to exist is debatable, but regardless of your stance on that issue, there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to go about making one. The right way is to do it like, say, the tutorial dungeon that Lufia 2 (the real one, not that Curse of the Sinistrals crud) opens with. It’s very straightforward, it only introduces a small set of the gaming conventions that you need to know at that time, it communicates effectively, and it’s short.
Now, you want the wrong way to make a tutorial dungeon? Look at Fallout 2. It’s long--as in, the size of a full, actual dungeon. It’s boring. It tries to get you familiar with too many of the game’s conventions all at once. It really doesn’t communicate the mechanics it’s teaching you effectively. And it feels extremely forced, an extra jammed into the game for the sake of gameplay rather than plot. Take it out (as some mods do) and you lose absolutely nothing from the game. It’s just a terrible way to start the game; it’s a chore, nothing more, and not even an effective one.
You know what’s the real kicker about the Temple of Trials, though? The real kicker is that Fallout 1 had already proven that it was completely unnecessary. Fallout 1 has no such tutorial area at its beginning; it just drops you into the game and lets you figure out how to engage with its world on your own. And it worked absolutely fine for every player I’ve ever known who started the series there! Fallout 2’s Temple of Trials is an inept attempt to teach you stuff that it’s already proven doesn’t need to be directly taught anyway! Idiotic.
2. Twilight Town (Kingdom Hearts 2)
I’m sorry, SquareEnix, I think I might’ve misheard you. The ears, they play tricks on a guy after he reaches a certain age. You say I’m going to have to spend how many hours playing as a minor, nearly superfluous character doing minigames before the fucking game actually starts?*
1. Peragus Mining Facility (Knights of the Old Republic 2)
Oh my stars. If you thought the Temple of Trials in Fallout 2 was a dull tutorial dungeon, then you...well, you were totally right, obviously. But Peragus is even worse.
I mean, I’ll give it the fact that pieces of plot actually do happen in this first dungeon of the game. You meet major characters, you discover bits of the lore, you encounter a couple separate antagonists, and the events of this dungeon actually DO have plot relevance. At first glance, you’d almost think this were a solid opening.
But it goes on FOREVER. There should never be a time when your tutorial dungeon spans HOURS. And while stuff does happen in the facility, it’s only occasionally punctuating long, dull stretches of simplistic gameplay teaching you skills that are definitely simple enough that they could just be picked up as they become relevant while going through the rest of the game.
And once again, you’ve got a case where the game’s a direct sequel of a title that proved this bullshit wasn’t necessary! KotOR1 had its opening tutorial stuff, but it was quick and didn’t jam the entirety of the game’s mechanics down your throat all at once, just what was needed to get along. The sequel’s mechanics are pretty close to the first KotOR, so what’s the deal with this 3-hour long hand holding session?
Dishonorable Mention: Half of the Damn Game (Star Ocean 3)
Okay, so, Star Ocean 3 does have an actual, legitimate opening, and it’s mostly fine. Main character Fayt gets involved in lost-in-space shenanigans, finds himself on a backwater little world whose culture is in a feudal era of sorts, and helps a little village out before leaving. Okay, fine.
Except that the place where Fayt ends up next, and stays for the next 20 - 30 hours of your time, is just another backwater fantasy planet! One which has the very barest possible relevance to the actual damn plot of the game! Fayt gets mixed up with fantasy world politics for half the game, while the actual plot of this entry in a theoretically science fiction series goes on up in space without him! Eventually the issues of importance to the entire universe find Fayt and abruptly yank him back to where things that are actually significant happen. So abruptly, in fact, that it almost feels like halfway through making the game a new director got hired, walked into SquareEnix’s offices, and screamed, “Whatever you thought this game was going to be about, drop it! We’re doing things my way now!”** It’s just too bad that he didn’t arrive to kick start the game’s plot a lot earlier. Because a 25 hour generic fantasy prologue detour to my inventive scifi epic is too goddamn long.
* Yeah, yeah, I know, Roxas is super important to the Kingdom Hearts series overall. Fine. But he’s really not all that significant for THIS installment. His presence in KH2 mostly serves to set the possibility (which SquareEnix exploits as shamelessly as they do ineptly) for spin-offs about the series’s side lore. If you took him out of KH2, not a lot would need to be reworked, and those changes wouldn’t be especially sizable.
** I know, of course, that this did not happen. Because when SquareEnix decides to play musical chairs with its development staff on a title, what you get isn’t an improvement. What you get is a convoluted, incredibly boring boondoggle of a game that throws every sensible, time-tested rule of narrative it can find into the trash bin.