You Never Get a Second Chance at a First (Level) Impression

Image by Flickr user Nergal2009
Image by Flickr user Nergal2009

Thanks to all the snow we recently had here in the northeastern United States, last week I enjoyed a couple days at home.  Between time spent on actual work-at-home work and real life concerns, I managed to allocate a few spare moments to gaming. One day I was in the mood for an action/adventure game, so I turned to my backlog and started up Assassin’s Creed III. Having not played any AC titles since the first one, I was happy to be reunited with Desmond Miles, that kidnapped soul who descended from the Assassin’s Order, and who was able to take on the lives of his ancestors through a device called the Animus.

ACIII had something of a mysterious start, but once the action began after the requisite tutorial, I was on my way to becoming a master assassin of America’s Early Republic. The first mission began with Desmond as his eighteenth century Templar ancestor, nobleman Haytham Kenway.  I received some instructions and I walked. I walked faster. I sat. I listened. I climbed some stuff. I snuck around. I climbed some more stuff. I reached my target, whom I killed (except that I didn’t as it was part of a cut scene.). And then I walked and walked faster again. And then the mission was over. I sat there a moment, dismayed at the rather lackluster start to what’s supposed to be a rich and vibrant game. I don’t know what I was expected, but boredom wasn’t it.

I was told that it takes few missions before ACIII really picks up steam; and don’t worry, I plan to stick with it. But I haven’t picked up the controller since that first 30 minutes. It’s not that I don’t want to play, but generally, it takes me a longer to get into games that start off with menial missions, even when the reward is more than worth the sacrifice.  This leads me to the question: just how important are a game’s first missions/levels/quest?

Pardon the weird segue, but I’m sure some of you have noticed that the first levels in any Mario game tend to be the least perilous. These “grass” levels, as they are sometimes named, are usually fun, bright, and colorful, with plenty to do and see. For me, these preliminary levels are usually the ones that I find myself replaying the most. There’s no slippery ice or spiky things – it’s just coin-collecting, goomba-stomping madness! And it works. These are the perfect (if a little deceptive) levels to get one started in Mario’s quest. And it’s not that they are “easy” levels – let’s face it, death waits around every corner in a Mario game – but they produce a very solid feeling of accomplishment, which one needs to maintain in order to get to Bowser.

Back to ACIII, that feeling of “yeah! I’ve done it!,” that’s what was missing from it’s very first mission. Now, I’m not saying that I needed to face off with some crazy hard assassination right off the bat, but do I want to replay that moment of Kenway and a lot of walking? Hardly. As impressive as opening cut scenes can be in any given game, that first mission or level is really what sets that stage. It’s where game design and development really matters, because if you can’t hook players (or maybe just me) within the first mission, level, and/or quest, then what’s to guarantee that they will want to continue?

Of course, some people are going to play through games, good and bad, simply because they must. And sometimes, lack of that initial hook is made up for in scale and story. Taking examples from my past plays, the first few missions in Skyrim, The Last Story, and Dragon Age II, weren’t anything to write home about. But their worlds and characters were just so intriguing that it would have been a shame not to continue with them.

So back to the question then: just how important are those first missions or levels in games? Can they really make or break a game? What game(s) left you completely bored or pleasantly surprised after the first quest?

16 Comments Add yours

  1. It’s true, first impressions are critically important. If you are not enjoying your time at the beginning, what motivation is there to continue and risk being stuck in the same awfulness?

    If games can hook you at the start, the odds obviously increase that you’ll stick with it to the end.

    As an aside: for me, Assassin’s Creed III was a major let down. I don’t blame you if you don’t bother picking it back up. AC II and Black Flag are much, much better titles to jump to instead.

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    1. cary says:

      For sure. And like I said, it’s not that the initial missions in a game have to be crazy ridiculous or anything, but they should at least be *interesting.*

      I watched the vast majority of ACII being played, so I kind of feel like I played it myself. It’s the American history buff in my that makes me want to stick it out with ACIII, but we’ll see.

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  2. duckofindeed says:

    It’s very important a game start off good. While I pretty much will play through any game I start, whether it’s good or bad, when it then comes to the matter of playing the game over again, I don’t want a game that, even if it gets good later, is something I dread going back to because the beginning levels were so boring. The best games are those that are good throughout, and if they start off bad, it makes getting into them so much harder.

    The exception to my need to finish any game I start is the games in the “Sega Genesis Collection”. There are over 40 games in one convenient disc, and if I start one, and it’s not good, I’ll just try something else. I started “Phantasy Star 2”, but it was boring, so I gave up. Same happened with “Phantasy Star 3”. The only one I played through all the way was “Phantasy Star 4” because it started off good and stayed good. The second and third games may be great, but I can’t make myself play far enough in to find out.

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    1. cary says:

      Compilation discs are great in that regard! It’s so easy to switch between games, and you don’t feel so bad about leaving a few behind if they are real stinkers.

      I also try to play through a game no matter what. Though if a game is or gets boring, it’s going to take me a long time to get through it because the real motivation to play just isn’t there. If I’m going to completely quit a game it’s usually out of anger (i.e. rage quitting) rather than boredom.

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  3. Hatm0nster says:

    The job of a games opening level(s) is to make the case that the rest of the game is worth playing. They have to show you how it works and the potential fun of the mechanics. If they don’t do that, then you’re not going to get hooked into it.

    I’m with Derek on this, ACIII was a total let down for me. Absolutely nothing of what I loved in the previous games was there, not to mention the protagonist was just plain unlikeable. I can’t vouch for the quality of Black Flag (haven’t played it) but ACII and ACII:Brotherhood were both excellent entries and well worth your time.

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  4. cary says:

    Yep, that’s the real purpose of those first levels. Uncharted 2 and Batman: Arkham City come to mind as a couple games that have really great first missions. Everything’s so vividly done and well-designed that they draw you in right off the bat.

    Haha, that’s two strikes against ACIII. Hmmm… As I said to Derek, I’m going give it my best, but if it really strikes out, then that’s just the way it is.

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  5. twohp2few says:

    I had this exact experience with ACIII though I never really thought of it this way until I read your awesome article. It never hooked me in, and the minute I put it down, I was out and had no interest in coming back. Meanwhile, another game I was starting, XCOM, did a great job of hooking me in with the early missions and the different elements of game play that got unlocked after each one. They had a much better early game and won me over because of it. Great article!

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    1. cary says:

      Thanks! Now I am REALLY starting to question continuing with ACIII! 🙂 I’ve been intrigued by XCOM for awhile now, but I haven’t made the leap yet. (I’m not sure my little laptop can handle it, haha. Makes a good cae for investing in a Steam Machine or gaming PC. Yet another thing on ye olde to-do list.)

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      1. twohp2few says:

        Well I think it is definitely worth it if you like that kind of turn based combat. If you need to keep adding games to the list that will eventually push you into upgrading…I think it could well be on there. It was definitely one that helped to push me ahead

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