Years ago, when making The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, I wrote about game design, using both AAA and indie games as examples. One of the subjects I wrote about way more often that I remembered was game openings. For example, I criticized Bioshock Infinite for they way it opens, while expressing my love for the first minutes of the first game. Other games I have analyzed were The Last of Us (too good), Alien: Isolation (bad but loved by many), Beyond: Two Souls (player-protagonist sync issue), and Metro: Last Light (diorama versus the player).
Looking at these posts, I realized that I mostly focused on things that were problematic, and I never wrote about a game opening that, to me, was 100% great. Well, I did mention the first Bioshock, but I did not dedicate an entire post to it. Like I also never did with Gears of War, and that game has a perfect opening segment worth studying in game design schools.
But there is one more game that nailed the first minutes. And that game is Secret of the Monkey Island.
I have just replayed it, getting ready for Return to Monkey Island. It was, what, my fifth? sixth? playthrough, and I loved it nearly as much as I did in 1990. But, interestingly enough, it was the first time I noticed how perfect the structure of the opening segment was. And how it inspired a certain design philosophy that Witchfire is another example of.
Disclaimer: Below, I talk about the elements of the Monkey Island’s opening as if they were all consciously planned by the ultra-smart, all-seeing, all-understanding designers. With art, this is not always the case. I’m sure that some of the stuff I get excited about was merely an accident or a necessity. Like, I love how it’s always night on Melee Island, but I am pretty sure it might have just been the case of “we could not fit a day and night cycle onto five floppy discs, so we were stuck with just the night”. Doesn’t matter, still works and could have been a conscious choice.
It all starts even before you launch the game, with the title. Secret of the Monkey Island… “Secret” is a word that the marketing abuses all the time, because people are drawn to secrets like Gollum to the ring. “The Secret to Long Life” or “Secrets of Dating” and voila, a million clicks. “Island” is a word that evokes mostly positive feelings, of vacation time, exotic places, sea adventures. “Monkey” emphasized the exotic aspect even more, and adds a wink.
All these words together offer the title that promises interesting reveals and fun adventures in exotic locations. Perfect.
This is the first screen you see (well, after the studio logo):
It all amplifies the message of the title. Exotic location? Check. Mystery (the night theme)? Check. Adventure awaits? Check.
The next thing that happens is the hero just flat out says who he is and what’s the plan here:
It’s stupid, right? But it works. And if it works, then it isn’t stupid.
The reason it works, though – that this is Guybrush, our favorite shameless pirate-wannabe – is not something we learn right here, but right here is where it all starts. Where we start to build the mental image of the protagonist.
More importantly, right after the talk with the old guy, the players are presented with a choice. They can go down the cliff via stairs:
Or go the other way, the “path”…
…and get access to the entire island this way:
It’s fantastic that the players have a choice, immediately right when they are in control of the character…
…except not really. I’m lying. That’s not what happens.
What really happens after you talk to the old guy is the cut-scene continues and Guybrush goes down the stairs automatically:
He stops in this pose and place:
First thing to note here is that doing it this way – auto-choosing “stairs” instead of “path” in the cut-scene, effectively hiding the island map from the players – streamlines the experience. The players, at this points, do not really know what to do, what are the rules of the game, what are the mechanics, what is the gameplay, etc. – and we need to teach them that first, rather than open the entire world to them.
Second thing to note is that after the cut-scene ends, the players are still offered a choice, just one that is easier to grasp. Guybrush came from the left and is facing right, basically inviting the player to continue going in that direction. On the other hand, the poster on the left of Guybrush really catches our attention…
…very much wanting to be examined:
But even if we do that – and learn the most important gameplay mechanics: the way the verbs work – the game still expects the players to go right.
“Nope, I’m going left”. This is something a lot of players will say at this moment, though. It’s the beginning of the game, they’re peeking and poking and testing. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Limbo have achievements for turning around from the starting point exactly because we know that this is what more curious souls will do.
So what happens if you do continue left?
You are rewarded. Not only you can now choose the “path” and open up the island, you can also have a longer conversation with the old dude:
Out of the four key elements of well designed game – Autonomy, Mastery, Competence, and Relatedness – this reward awakens the first one and tickles the third one. “I had an idea that made sense within this particular world, I was able to execute it, and it worked” is a feeling all gamers love, and getting a pat on the back for being smart is not half bad either.
To be clear, if you don’t go left in the beginning, you will have to do so later. So it’s not a secret or anything. But doing this thing in the beginning when the game clearly wants you do something else first hits different.
Let’s go back to the port and continue right. Here’s where you can use the mechanics you learned when examining the poster (or learn it if you did not). You have to first Walk to the door…
…then Open the door…
…and then Walk again to enter the bar:
Is it a bit awkward? Sure. Ron Gilbert himself says that nowadays he would remove the last step, and you would enter the bar after just opening the door. Of course. But still, this little moment either reinforces the mechanics the players have recently learned, or forces them to finally learn it.
(Reinforcing is a whole big topic in itself, but for the sake of space, let me just recommend everything that Celia Hodent wrote.)
All right, so we’re in the bar, and we see all these colorful characters. Some we cannot interact with…
No, wait, technically we can interact with them just cannot talk to them. Anyway, with others we can interact talk…
…and they will teach us important things, like the background story or what to do next:
The bar section is either fairly long, if you decide to talk to everyone you can, or short, if you ignore them and just go straight to the Important Looking Pirates. Which is great, because, again: Autonomy!
Anyway, when you finally get to these guys…
…you learn (what you think is) the ultimate goal of the game: passing the three trials.
Finally, if you choose to ignore the bar and continue even farther right, or if you just go there after the bar, the game opens up similarly to if you went to the cliff and chose the “path”:
Ok, let’s sum up what happens in those opening minutes of Secret of the Monkey Island.
The visuals, music and stories told by the NPCs, and the general vibe of the game reinforce the experience that the title itself promises.
You learn who you are, what you want, and what you need to do to get it.
You learn the core mechanics in a tutorial that does not feel like a tutorial.
You are rewarded for being curious and exploring the world.
While Mastery is ignored for now (hard to master something you just started), Autonomy (having a choice of how to explore the world), Competence (feeling smart due to the rewards for the exploration) and Relatedness (you spend the opening learning who Guybrush is, and interacting with other human beings) are already all a part of the experience.
Now, how do I squeeze Witchfire into this?
We spent weeks figuring out the title. I do believe Witchfire fits a dark fantasy shooter nicely, and promises a certain type of experience. Then, when you start the game, we do everything we can to reinforce that promise. From the gaslamp-fantasy stylized UI, to the hypnotic “witchcraft versus the army” music.
Just like Monkey Island, we also start in medias res, but we are very clear about who you are and what is the goal of the game. There will be mysteries that are hard or impossible to solve but the who and why is not one of them.
This is still work in progress, but we’re also trying to make sure the tutorial does not feel like a separate part of the experience. Even with the best intentions, tutorials tend to feel patronizing, and we’re on the quest to make one without a tutorial window ever popping up.
And finally, the Four Riders of Game Design – again, Autonomy, Competence, Mastery and Relatedness – are deities we worship every single day. This is the absolute key to the Witchfire design.
Now, of course Secret of the Monkey Island was not a direct inspiration for Witchfire. But I was surprised, like, seriously surprised, how many of its lessons I have subconsciously assimilated. It’s a fantastic, phenomenal game that is still both fun and relevant today. A true classic.
But to be honest with you, all these design lessons are not the main reason why I consider Secret of the Monkey Island as something that is relevant to Witchfire.
For years now, whenever I discuss the design with the team, I ask them to keep making the game in an old school fashion. The gamer’s game, if you will. One that requires you to consult a map, one that has secrets way too big to be sane, one that expects you to try again if you fail, because you’re not a child.
But I could not quite put my finger on it why exactly is it that I want it. Replaying Secret of the Monkey Island solved the puzzle. Modern games sometimes feel artificial to me, like they’re games made by aliens excellent at pretending to be human. In theory, it’s all there, the visuals, the sounds, the story, the gameplay. But something is missing. I don’t want to say “a soul”, because I’m sure many of these games are made by teams that love them and loved working on them. I think a better phrase might be, “creative freedom”.
Creative freedom is certainly not something that Ron Gilbert’s most famous game is missing. The game feels like one made by a group of friends for people they like.
That, to me, is the true Secret of the Monkey Island. One that, fingers crossed, will emanate from Witchfire as well.
Question of the Week
Yes. One of the future posts will explain how Witchfire changed from purely a shooter to something more. There is nothing wrong with shooters being shooters but we wanted exploration, mind games, and puzzles.
To be clear, we did not suddenly become an adventure game. So not that kind of puzzles. But let’s just say that undead hordes are not the only thing protecting the witch you are hunting.