A game’s introduction is one of the most important obstacles that a developer must work with. It is the space where the story, characters, and gameplay are all put into focus. It’s the first impression that the player will begin to pick apart in their head. A strong start to a game can set the pace for an entire franchise while a weak one can leave a stain on what might have been a powerful legacy.
A great intro is going to pull the player into its world without a second thought and make them forget all about the pizza in the oven. For this list, there can only be one intro per series as some of them would be a little redundant otherwise. A strong opening scene can take a lot of different shapes and sizes so let’s take a look at some of the most impressive intros in gaming history.
Half-Life’s opening is legendary for being the blueprint for many AAA game intros since its release. The idea that the main character is just a regular scientist on his way to work when everything hits the fan is simplistic at this point, but it offered the schematic that many plots would copy (some of which are on this list). What is brilliant about this opening is that you are able to get a sense of Half-Life’s universe before everything goes to hell.
You get an idea of the relationships that Gordon had with his peers and meeting these people before seeing them pulled into a grate helps to make it all the more horrifying. The sense of normalcy that we feel in the first few minutes is all the more powerful by how quickly the situation goes south.
The Last of Us
Most of the Last of Us feels like a proper blockbuster movie and the opening only helps to cement those feelings. The writers did a great job making us care about Joel and Sarah’s relationship. In fact, I think many of us cared more about Sarah than her dad when the Last of Us began. I would compare this to the first ten minutes of Up where it could be its own story wrapped up before the main story takes off. The little moments between father and daughter are juxtaposed by the frightening first few encounters with the infected. The player must play through this section as Sarah so they do not have as much freedom to take the initiative.
They are in the control of a person who lacks control and that only adds to the stress. As Sarah rides in the back seat of a car with Joel in the passenger, she begins to see the situation unfold with people running, ambulances blaring, and helicopters surveying the area. It feels active and confusing like any real catastrophe would feel. Finally, the player takes control of Joel and they must try to take Sarah to safety but that isn’t how things go. The beginning of The Last of Us is heartbreaking but shows how cruel this world can be which only sets the bar for the rest of the story.
Pokemon LeafGreen and FireRed
The pokemon games are pretty cut and dry at this point with their openings but nothing beats the original sequence of picking your first pokemon (nothing except the remakes). Within the first town, you are introduced to pokemon as a concept, your region professor, your rival, and your very first pokemon.
There are few rooms that are as iconic as professor Oak’s lab, with the three pokeballs sitting on one of the tables. Each ball is representing not only the pokemon within but the type of journey that the player might have depending on their choice. It’s largely a nostalgic intro, but the fact that so many people, both new and old, have fond memories similar to this must say something about the formula of these introductions.
Fallout: New Vegas
The Fallout games all do a pretty great job introducing the player to the different plots and settings in its universe, but I have to say that New Vegas takes the cake. New Vegas is able to introduce an enemy in Benny for the player to aim their efforts, give them a thin thread to follow to start their exploration of the Mojave Wasteland and get them playing the real game in a matter of minutes.
Unlike the other modern iterations of Fallout, New Vegas has the player taking on the role of the courier in 10 minutes or less without me feeling like my transplant into this world was rushed. It all felt natural and well-paced, and I always have a burning passion to take Benny out front of the Lucky 38 and make him pay for leaving me in that shallow grave overlooking Good Springs. It’s quick and elegant and only serves to put the rest of the plot in the player’s hands as any RPG should.
The opening level to Dead Space is very similar to Half-Life’s but imagine if Gordon was so late that he came after the experiment that sent Black Messa into turmoil, and that’s Dead Space’s opening. Isaac and crew are heading toward the USG Ishimura, discussing their mission and making it seem like it would be a simple job with a pleasant reunion between Isaac and his girlfriend. The Ishimura comes into view, and the crew notices how completely dark it is.
Despite that, they go in further only to crash and become curious about where everyone is at. The crew explores the flight lounge until a temporary quarantine starts up when a necromorph makes its way into the lounge. Isaac watches as the first casualties of the mission are killed in front of him, and then he is dashing like a mad man through the unfamiliar halls of the ship. It’s simple, exhilarating, and has the player in several mindsets before the dust settles.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day
The brilliance that is Conker’s Bad Fur Day is how Rare plays with player expectations. They knew that they were doing something unprecedented when they set out to design a 3D platformer with adult themes, and the intro does everything in its power to communicate that to the audience. The very first scene in the game is Conker looking angry with a crown on his head with a shot that pans out like something out of Clockwork Orange. Except here is an anthropomorphic squirrel with some inanimate objects with goofy eyes. In the first few seconds, Banjo and Kazooie met Anthony Burgess and had a child named Conker.
That is a scene from the end of the game, but the first scene chronologically shows us Conker calling his girlfriend but being unable to reach her. Conker then makes the assumption that he can spend the night drinking, and the events of that night will be what sets the course for the rest of the game. What Conker is able to do with this introduction is similar to what Shrek did with Fairy Tales (of course not to the same extent) by showing a darker and more gritty view of what the audience expects from its source material and visual style.
Resident Evil 4
Resident Evil 4 kicks off with a leisurely drive through the woods with Leon in the backseat and some guards upfront. Leon is searching for a girl that is supposed to be in this area. The car stops at a house, and Leon goes to see if anyone is around to answer some questions. The guards wait in the car, and Leon slowly walks toward the house. Crows are flying around, seemingly mocking Leon from the trees and trail.
Leon enters to find a farmer staying warm by the fire; however, as it turns out, the farmer isn’t too friendly and takes a swing at Leon. Leon dispatches the farmer and looks outside to see that the car is nowhere to be found and other violent howls can be heard approaching the house. This opening isn’t complicated, but it sets the pace for the game and shows that there is a mystery around the setting and its people. You are left stranded, feeling isolated and confused. Those are the primary feelings of RE4, and they start from the word “go.”
Batman: Arkham Asylum
On the first playthrough, it can seem like the game is over with Batman delivering the Joker to the Asylum, but it’s only the beginning of a long night. Batman has a bad feeling after how easily he captured the Joker, so he helps to escort the clown prince to his cell. Along the way, Batman meets several of the guards and villains that will play roles big and small throughout the story. A slow mini-tour of the asylum before Batman is set loose himself.
The TV monitors show the Warden, who talks about a little bit of the asylum’s culture, and Batman even meets Killer Croc, who openly threatens Batman. The intro establishes the world by making it feel like a breathing place that existed before you turned on your console. It also foreshadows future encounters with Killer Croc. I honestly don’t know how they could have made this opening any better.
The Portal 2 opening is kind of sad, but it also gives a look into a world that wouldn’t be out of place in The Matrix’s universe. Chell wakes up from sleep and is told by a disembodied AI to perform some simple tasks to ensure that she doesn’t suffer any cognitive decline, like walking around the room and staring at art. Each objective is cleared once a loud buzzer goes off, indicating that Chell can listen to instructions. Then Chell goes back to sleep only to be woken up by another AI. This time it’s a core called Wheatly who is trying to get Chell out of the facility.
He says to trust him, and given that you are locked in a 10×10 hotel room, you let him go. Wheatley takes control of the room, and everything begins to shift. The painting shudders on the wall, and nicknacks begin to fly across the room as the entire structure begins to move to another location. Walls begin to tear away as Wheatly hits everything during the journey until the room is more of a metal skeleton than the cozy hotel room it once was. This sequence helps to illustrate the world that Chell inhabits as well as introduce the character Wheatly. Both introductions are done expertly.
There can be no other game at number one except the original Bioshock. The player crash lands outside of a mysterious lighthouse, and after swimming over to its marble steps, the player decides that entering is the best course of action. The giant stone doors slam shut, and the lighthouse begins to come to life. The player finds a bathysphere and begins their journey down to Rapture, but along the way, a short propaganda film plays which discusses Andrew Ryan’s philosophy in creating this underwater utopia.
Once the projection screen pulls away, the grand reveal of Rapture unfolds. A giant squid swims by, skyscrapers seem to reach all the way to the surface, and marketing for different businesses flashes across the cityscape. It all feels magical and alive until Jack’s mini-sub resurfaces in the welcome center, where it becomes evident that nothing is as Ryan had described. The city has gone to hell with protest signs and mutated citizens being the only welcome that Jack receives.