At GDC this year, Randy Smith recommended that game developers provide a “game-toy” as their players’ initial experience with their game: strong, juicy affordances with low pressure. Which is great advice, but is of course not all that you need: as Smith also comments, we want players to be able to enjoy the game for the long term so he recommends adding “depth on demand”.
Which raises the question: how can we link the two? I ran into one possible answer while listening to an episode of This American Life this week, which started by discussing the concept of the “I Wish” song. (Also known as the “I Want” Song.)
This is the first song that the main character sings in a musical: it introduces the main character’s hopes and desires, hopes and desires that will motivate the entire rest of the show. And this sounds exactly like what I’m looking for, a perfect bridge from the initial experience to the entire rest of the show. (It doesn’t hurt that I’ve got musicals and video games on my mind recently, of course.)
So: how can we use this in video games? Not literally, of course (though actually, that would be awesome, I would totally play a video game that was a musical): in my previous analogy, musical numbers get translated into gameplay segments. Which means that the first real gameplay experience in a video game should be an “I Wish” segment.
What would that look like? Maybe that’s exactly what Randy Smith is getting at in his concept of the game-toy: you get to see the fun that’s lurking in the game right in the start of the game. But I think that alone isn’t enough, (especially in narrative games): the “I Wish” song isn’t a static experience, you need the seeds of the game’s development there as well, ideally both ludically and narratively. (Hmm, in musicals, does the “I Wish” Song contain the seeds of the musical development in the rest of the show?)
What games have done something like this? Metroid Prime might be an example; the only quibble I have there is that unlocking abilities is a core part of the game’s experience, and you don’t see that in the space frigate segment that leads off the game. The start of Ocarina of Time in another candidate: you learn about Link’s motivations, you see him take the first steps towards acquiring new powers. But where to stop it? If we include the Deku Tree dungeon, it’s a bit long; I suppose we could stop before then, given that he does acquire the sword and get frustrated by not being able to leave the village before then. Looking at games I’ve played more recently, MySims Agents is also a good candidate: at the start, you learn that you want to be a secret agent, you learn about the main villain, and you start solving puzzles.
Now if only you’d burst into song while doing so…
This post has not been revised since publication.