Bringing it Home, Part One

For me, the opening thirty seconds of a video game, film, book or any other form of art is what makes or breaks the experience. Bear in mind I am in no way referring to media that, in itself, requires no narrative, such as Counter Strike, or physics textbooks. Story-driven experiences need to have that hook, that certain "je ne sais quoi" that draws you into the world of its creator’s own imagination for long enough that you’re not sure whether you ever want to leave again.

With video games, the task of coming up with a stimulating opening sequence is fickle from the beginning. Do we create a short film, or make it interactive and player-driven? Will it have an orchestral, grand soundtrack, or the wonderfully honest musings of DMX? The questions are endless, but the one question they’ll always have to answer is the one question journalists fail to overcome themselves fairly often, myself included: what, where, when, how and why.

Those five irritants are the bane of an opening paragraph, and sometimes, you feel like you’re it checking off items on a shopping list, as opposed to bearing your literary soul to the world (or, in most cases, the rather more narrow-minded, homophobic and angry world of the internet). However, you’ll sometimes find yourself in a situation where, just by the simple act of leaving just one of those five out, the writers will have you hooked instantly.

I could harp on and on about Final Fantasy VII, but I’ve flogged that horse in this column so many times that it’s practically got its own WordPress account. Instead, I’m going to go with an old favourite of mine: not, perhaps, a favourite you’d necessarily consider "old" in the grand timeline of video games, but definitely old enough to think back to with a sense of archaic wonder: Halo: Combat Evolved. If you’ve not read the novelisation of the first in the Halo trilogy, go out and grab it, or even find an extract on the web, as it expands on the things you’ll never see in the game.

However, in-game, the cutscene is a thing of brilliance, due to four words "unseal the hushed casket". Those four words became so synonymous with Bungie’s legendary amounts of secrecy on their projects that the second you saw them uttered prior to Halo 3’s first trailer, the internet went crazy for months on end. Those four words were the password needed to unseal the cryogenic storage chamber containing John-117, the first ever human embodiment of Kermit the Frog’s well-worn phrase "it’s not easy, being green."

To emerge blinking into the world of a UNSC cryogenics bay on board the Pillar of Autumn was very much akin to the sensation a lot of us feel when delving into a new universe of contemporary interactive origin for the first time. Not quite sure of ourselves, we look around, shake ourselves out and begin to explore, before throwing ourselves headlong into the task at hand. Breakout is a classic, but let’s be honest, once you could work the paddle, it was only a few minutes before you were seeing how fast you could sling the ball around the screen.

At this point, the fans among you are probably screaming bloody murder, as I’ve actually skipped to the end of the sequence, the non-interactive bit being completely left out. But I think it was important to highlight that particular bit, as after a ten-minute cutscene, you do tend to wonder at what point you’re going to be enjoying the universe through your own hands, your own controller.

The sequence starts with an iconic image: the halo construct itself. Floating in-between a small moon and a rather large planet, it spins, silently in space. Can I stop here? I’m all for science fiction being experimental, but thank God Bungie saw sense and made outer-space silence. It’s a vacuum. There’s no air. Nothing vibrates, causing sound. Nothing. And silently the ring floats, before we’re presented with a ship, the dialogue emanating from within instantly thrusting us into characters we’re not aware of, yet. "Cortana", a man intones, teasing us with the prospect of a character yet unveiled, put in a position of importance by her withheld information, "all I need to know is, did we lose them yet?"

It’s this question, panic, that makes the Halo franchise so wonderfully different, and we’re introduced to it from the get go: humans are not dominant. They are getting themselves kicked all over the shop by a yet-unknown enemy, that later reveals itself to be the Covenant. The pink-skinned apes, arrogant in their dominion over Earth, are running scared. From other humans, we’d assume at first, mainly as if a spaceship isn’t that far out of the ordinary, a floating space station in the shape of a hula-hoop isn’t too extravagantly creative, either.

Music plays an important part in our emergence into this new narrative: soft, sorrowful strings bring us slowly up towards the ship itself, the camera glancing over the name of the space-faring vessel in question. It’s this mix of clever mise-en-scéne and sound that clues us in that we’re looking at a human vessel (as aliens tend not to label their vessels in English bold Helvetica font), and it’s none too powerful, as otherwise we’d be hearing crashing symbols leading us into an orchestral tidal-wave of cinematic bravado, not unlike "Ride of the Valkyries".

The opening to Halo was what differed it instantly from the hundreds of other "holy crap, space war" titles we’d been playing, from the Mars-based, 2D, BFG 9000-hungry world of Doom, to the yawn-inducing, creatively constrictive and tame Star Ocean. It displayed humans on the run, in space, from something a lot bigger and nastier than they were. Relying on computers for information instead of their own bravado, the humans presented to us in the opening sequence were a refreshing wake-up call from the space marines of yore.

However good the beginning may be, the ending must be just as satisfying, and definitely a lot less ambiguous, unless the developer’s angling for a sequel (which, to be fair, Halo was guilty of). Next week I’ll be delving into the endings of video games for the second part in this column. Sometimes, a thousand words just isn’t enough. That said, sometimes ten minutes of cutscenes can make or break a revolutionary FPS.


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Author: Christos Reid View all posts by

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