Introductions and tutorials are key to drawing players into games and setting them up for success. But game openings have been lackluster in recent months. Already in 2022, games like Dying Light 2 and Horizon Forbidden West, despite their overall quality, offer laborious intros that spend too much time on linear exposition.
These game openings may just be a small part of a sprawling experience, but they’re absolutely crucial. When games aren’t good until five, eight, or 10 hours in, there will always be a chunk of players unwilling to push through the boring parts, no matter what excellence might lie ahead.
But for all the recent failures, there are plenty of games that nail their openings. Dozens of games out there let players immediately jump into their worlds, or offer an interesting, but evocative experience — it’s not about whether it’s fast or slow, but how an intro uses its time to excite players about what’s ahead of them.
Despite the downward trend video game openings have had over the past few years, there are loads of games that nail those first few hours. Here are our 13 selections for the best game openings ever made:
Stardew Valley has the perfect start to a simple video game. It’s not flashy like some of the others, but it does an excellent job of pulling you into its world and not letting you go.
After inheriting a farm from your dead grandfather, you leave your desk job and move to the country. The game quickly introduces you to a few characters and gets you started with your farm. You’re able to venture out, meet new people, and learn as you go. You can experiment with new crops or stick with your parsnips. Efficient players can push to get as much done as possible in a single day, while the more relaxed farmers out there can take everything at their own pace.
There’s a friendly world around you in Stardew Valley, and the game makes it easy for you to feel at home almost immediately.
Portal and Portal 2
Image: Valve Corporation
The intros to Portal and Portal 2 are both charming and menacing, a line the series walks almost flawlessly throughout.
The first Portal simply sees you waking up inside a test chamber before slowly introducing you to the portal mechanic. The second takes a far more cinematic approach with its moving rooms and faces. Both give you the spooky, corporate visuals while keeping you smiling thanks to GLaDOS and Wheatley.
But more than the vibes, which are immaculate, the Portal series makes its rules abundantly clear and doesn’t waste any time. Puzzle games have to challenge you to stay interesting, and both Portal games keep their intros informative but brisk, making sure you’re never bored.
Super Mario 64
Image: Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks
Dishonored 2 does a nice job of teaching you how to play, but that’s not why it’s on this list. No, the important part of Dishonored 2’s intro is the story setup around it.
The Dishonored sequel takes place years after the first game, where Emily is now an adult (and one of two playable characters). The intro shows her training with her father, Corvo, the protagonist from the first game. You have to chase Corvo through the city of Dunwall and even choke him out to practice stealth combat.
It’s an important flashback that aptly details the relationship between these two characters while also prompting the player to learn the game’s controls.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo
The Great Plateau in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers perhaps the best tutorial ever made — and that’s coming from someone who likes the game, but doesn’t love it.
This area acts as a miniature version of the entire Breath of the Wild experience. Each Shrine is dedicated to a single tool, and it teaches you the foundations of what you’ll need to know before venturing off into the world. There’s a bit of everything on the Great Plateau, and it does just enough to make you feel confident before sailing off to adventure.
Breath of the Wild leaves a lot for players to discover outside of the plateau, but it never leaves you feeling underprepared. It excites you about the possibilities in front of you for the next 100 hours, and establishes a baseline of what’s possible. And it’s to Breath of the Wild’s great credit that it lives up to the expectations set by its fantastic intro.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Image: Monolith Productions/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor has a brutal opening that quickly sets up the game’s villain and shows you why you should hate them. But before Talion’s life goes to shit, the game teaches you how to play in some very clever ways.
The game starts by giving you some combat training. But instead of slicing down orcs, you’re teaching your son to fight on the gates of Mordor. When it comes time to learn stealth, you get to crouch down as Talion and sneak up on your wife. Instead of delivering a blade, Talion hands her flowers.
Shadow of Mordor is a game mostly about murder and revenge, so the game choosing to teach you its core mechanics through acts of love is a fascinating choice, and it makes Talion’s losses hit that much harder.
Mass Effect 2
Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts
The intro to Mass Effect 2 is perhaps the greatest video game opening sequence of all time. No, I’m not talking about the Cerberus facility (which does actually offer a great tutorial). I’m talking about when Shepard, savior of humanity and series protagonist, dies in space.
The second Mass Effect couldn’t possibly start with more urgency. After rolling around in the Normandy, a new race of aliens attacks, killing old crew members and forcing Shepard to try to evacuate the crew. But Shepard doesn’t make it, leading to a The Six Million Dollar Man-style “we can rebuild them” moment.
It’s a shocking twist 10 minutes into a sequel, but it’s the aftermath of this change that’s so interesting. When Shepard is revived two years later, they find themselves working for terrorists. It completely alters characters’ perceptions of them, and becomes the perfect jumping off point for one of the best video games ever made.
A classic JRPG all about recruiting friends to join your cause, Suikoden 2 offers a tragic setup. Two friends, nearly brothers, are separated in an accident, and in that moment, the game sets up a key rivalry that’ll last the entire game.
Suikoden 2 does a fine job explaining its mechanics, but it’s the game’s confidence that sets the intro apart. It’s quick to build conflict and invest you in its story. JRPGs have a history of long intros, and any turn-based combat fan you’ve ever known has told you the famous “it’ll get good after hour X,” but Suikoden 2 gets its footing immediately.
If you want to beat Suikoden 2, you’re in for a 30+ hour experience, which is anything but brief. But it’s to the game’s great credit that it’s able to set the stage and establish its characters so quickly.
God of War (2018)
SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
God of War’s 2018 reboot needed to do a lot of work in its intro. It needed to craft Kratos into a complex character, instead of an angry boy with daddy issues. And not only does it quickly evolve a well known character to be far more nuanced than he ever was before, it builds an emotional journey that makes the world easy to invest in.
The entirety of God of War is a story about the relationship between a father and son, and the intro establishes a nearly non-existent relationship between Atreus and Kratos. But it’s in the opening moments that Sony Santa Monica builds the anchors that will eventually pay dividends. The way Kratos reaches out to his son but doesn’t quite touch him, his teaching moments that come off too harsh, and the genuine fear he feels for the boy when Baldur shows up.
It sets up so much while also serving as an excellent intro to the game’s puzzles, combat, and bombastic spectacle.
Image: Ultra Ultra
Many intros on this list deserve to be here for their brevity, but Echo’s takes the opposite approach. Echo is a stealth game that sees the main character, En, wake up on a mysterious new world before the game starts to dole out its mystery slowly.
Outside of her AI companion, En is alone throughout the game’s opening. Through this isolation, the universe slowly unfolds into a tutorial, teaching both the game’s basic mechanics and the rules of the world. But En is learning to deal with these situations herself, and Echo makes it easy for players to empathize.
The Echo tutorial blends storytelling and mechanics to teach players while simultaneously introducing its world. It’s a hard balancing act, and one that many games fail, but Echo manages to maneuver it deftly during its slow-burn intro.
Image: Valve Software
Half-Life 2 immediately drops players into the famous City 17, with almost no context on how the world has changed since the aliens started pouring into Earth during the first game. But it uses this mystery to its advantage, creating one of the most memorable settings of all time.
From the moment you step off the train as Gordon, you’re able to pick up items and play in Valve’s physics sandbox. But the world around you is so dilapidated and broken down that it’s hard to focus on anything else. Enforcers roam the streets, which immediately establishes an authoritarian mood that’s key to Half-Life 2’s story.
Half-Life 2 does a great job of teaching you how to play and the extent of its physics engine, but the reason I love it is for its memorable, depressing walk through the city, which eventually inspires revolution.
Final Fantasy 7 (and Remake)
Image: Square Enix via Polygon
In both its original and Remake forms, Final Fantasy 7 starts things off with a bang. The gang, Avalanche, is moving to blow up a Mako reactor and change the city of Midgar forever, immediately setting up every main character as an ecoterrorist. But the forced perspective of Cloud makes the situation clear: Despite destroying a reactor in the middle of a populated city, Barrett and the rest of the crew are the heroes of this story.
Where Avalanche stands is an important thing to know, because the world of Final Fantasy 7 is extremely complex. But the intro mission simplifies things by getting you straight into the action and explaining why you’re there. Final Fantasy 7 doesn’t work if it’s subtle, so the game immediately shows you the evil behind Shinra.
Because its intro is so obvious and so loud, Final Fantasy 7 builds its city and class system very early, letting you focus your energy on learning the game’s combat system and falling in love with the characters around you.
Image: id Software/Bethesda Softworks
The best part of Doom’s 2016 reboot is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Doom Guy is the most irreverent first-person shooter protagonist of the last decade, and he doesn’t give a damn about the station he’s woken up on or the will of the people around him. He’s the Doom Guy, and he’s here to fuck up demons.
Doom’s intro works because the character reflects the gameplay. You’re not playing Doom to listen to scientists or read computer monitors; you’re here to smash shit, so that’s how Doom Guy interacts with everything. Within seconds of hitting start you’re shooting demons and grinding them to a pulp. Minutes later you’re picking up new weapons, meeting new foes, and finding new ways to destroy them. And then, of course, once the game has teased what you’re in for for the next several hours, Doom Guy cocks his shotgun to the music as “DOOM” pops up on your screen. Perfect.
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