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Postcard from GDC 2004: 14 Ways of Drawing Players in with an Opening Cinematic


March 24, 2004
 

David Freeman, author of Creating Emotion in Games and popular game industry writing consultant, spoke this afternoon about fourteen techniques that a game designer can use to draw players into a game through the use of an opening cinematic.

Freeman noted that although pre-rendered opening scenes seem to be on the decline, there will always be a "beginning" to any story, and finding a captivating way to deliver that beginning can be the key to drawing a player into a game.

As he explained the fourteen techniques, Freeman played the opening clips of fourteen movies and television shows, each one demonstrating the principle he was exploring.

1. Flavor Scenes. In this opening, the event may not have a great deal to do with the plot of the movie or game, but serves as a scene-setter and taste of thing to come. Freeman's example was the opening scene in Top Gun, in which Tom Cruise's character engages in some character-defining high altitude antics.

2. The Fake-Out. This type of opening involves using a cinematic that makes the player think one thing is happening, when in fact it's something else entirely. Freeman showed the opening scene of Total Recall as an example, in which we at first think Arnold Schwarzeneggar is involved in a dramatic scene on Mars, but is in fact having a nightmare in his bed on Earth.

3. Suspenseful or Funny Chaos in Progress. In this type of opening, the audience is launched into a chaotic situation that quickly sets up a sense of kinetic energy. The example was Four Weddings and a Funeral, which begins with Hugh Grant and his girlfriend blundering their way to a wedding for which they are already late.

The Fugitive

4. Tragedy Happens to the Hero. This technique draws the audience into the life of the main character by beginning the movie or game with a character-defining tragedy. In The Fugitive, our first introduction to Harrison Ford's character takes place in the moments after his wife has been murdered.

5. Mystery. Openings that leave the audience trying to puzzle out a meaning are another technique for setting a successful opening hook. Freeman's example was The Matrix, which begins with a cryptic phone conversation and the arrival of several puzzling characters at a relatively mysterious location.

6. A Suspenseful Piece of the Plot. Similar to 'Chaos in Progress', but here we jump directly into an exciting and important moment in the story we are telling. Freeman showed the opening scene of Star Wars, in which Princess Leia's ship is attacked and overtaken by Darth Vadar's Imperial Forces.

As Good As It Gets

7. Opening With a Unique Character. This opening cinematic focuses on a particular character that will grab the attention of the audience. In As Good As It Gets, the opening introduces us to Jack Nicholson's character, a calmly irrascible man who dumps his dog into a trash chute for urinating on the floor.

8. Entering Into a Unique World. Rather than opening with a character, this type of intro brings the player into a strange and interesting alternate reality. Freeman's classic example was Blade Runner, with its bizarre opening images of a post-apocalyptic future Earth.

9. Character in Conflict. Opening with a character in conflict (be it with another person, a group, a society, or with nature) is another technique for effectively kicking off a movie or game. Freeman showed the first scene of The Breakfast Club, which begins with a voice-over detailing the inner struggle between a group of high school students and their school principal.

10. Hero Yearning for a Change. Another character-based technique for making the audience identify with the main character. Freeman's example here was Disney's Beauty and the Beast, which begins with Belle wishing for more than her simple country life.

11. Character Going Through Pain, Shame, or Humiliation. In this opening, we see a character enduring some sort of emotional hardship and are thus drawn into his or her plight. Ben Stiller's character in Something About Mary begins the movie with an embarrassing attempt to ask a classmate to the prom.

My So-Called Life

12. Character in Conflict with Self. This archetypal opening features a character struggling with some inner aspect of his or her psyche. Freeman's eclectic example: the opening monologue of My So-Called Life, the short-lived television drama that helped pioneer the genre of self-reflective teen angst drama.

13. Breaking the Fourth Wall. Openings that directly address the audience can be another effective means of drawing a player into a game or movie. Jerry McGuire begins with Tom Cruise speaking directly to the audience over an opening montage.

14. Playing With the Medium. According to Freeman, having fun with the medium in which a story is being told can serve as the opening attention grabber. He cited an episode of Ally McBeal, in which the title character is shown floating several feet above a character with whom she has fallen in love.

Freeman wrapped up by adding that a successful opening cinematic may or may not fit into one of the above categories, but will almost always demonstrate some sort of cleverness on the part of the writer. He finished by expressing his hope that game designers would use these techniques to improve the emotional content of their games, and that such improvements might ultimately lead to a bettering of the overall state of storytelling in games.


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