That Idol

That idol

Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark, opens with our intrepid archeologist stealing a gold idol from an ancient temple riddled with booby traps. We get the famous running away from the boulder scene, betrayal, and some all-around awesomesauce, but it doesn’t add a thing to the plot. In fact, the movie tells exactly the same story without that sequence, but it wouldn’t be the same without it.

The Hobbit is one of my favorite video games of all time, and it uses a similar technique with its tutorial sequence. For those who haven’t played the game, it starts you off in a dream of the battle of five armies where you’re invincible to help you get the hang of things. Once again, the sequence isn’t so necessary, especially if you already have the controls down, but it adds something to the experience, the promise that by the end you’ll get back there and be awesome enough that you don’t need to be invincible.

The beginning of any narrative is all about making promises, and sometimes it doesn’t even need to fit with the rest of the plot. As a rule of thumb you need to build information from the get-go, but if you start off too big the audience will just get overwhelmed and walk away. There are exceptions, but this has to do with something called the learning curve.

You may have heard the learning curve applied to how much effort it takes to learn something given how good you already are, though in narratives it’s slightly different. It refers to how much information you throw at the reader, and getting this information out is important. It’s what lets you tell the story in the first place after all. However, too often we run into the trap of drowning the audience in information. Sure we have a ton to work with, but who’s going to keep going if they feel they’ll never understand everything?

There’s a delicate balance to walk here; you have to dole out enough information to keep the plot going, but not too much to lose the reader, and still make all the promises you need to.

The idol scene is a great solution to this problem because it A) makes the promise that this film is going to be about our epic adventurer who risks life and limb to recover ancient artifacts and B) does this in an interesting way so we don’t fall victim to the learning curve. It can do this because that scene is effectively an independent narrative.

One principle of narrative is that tension must always be building (on average, there can be breaks), but that means that if you up tension too high too soon, you’re left scrabbling to up the stakes. I call this Dragonball Z syndrome because that anime perfectly demonstrates it. Near the beginning, Picollo blows up the moon with a single shot. Several episodes, Frieza destroys a planet. Later, Frieza gets cyborg implants to make him stronger, and Trunks slices him up into tiny pieces. By their measurement scheme, that means Trunks can destroy planets. And it gets worse. Goku comes back (and he’s even stronger than Trunks) , androids show up that they barely beat, but then more powerful androids come, then Cell eats the androids. Then Majin-Buu comes along and I’m just asking myself, just how strong are they now if Frieza, a wimp by comparison, could destroy a planet!?

Now that I got that rant out of me…

In a separate narrative, however, you can afford to slow down and then bring things to the appropriate level of tension by the end.

The learning curve takes on a whole new definition in games where it is literally how well the player knows how to play. Needless to say, no one wants to read a textbook to figure it all out, so they need tutorials.

One technique for tutorials we can learn from Indiana Jones is to have a separate plot arc at the beginning that’s easy, but still awesome. If it’s not awesome, people won’t think the game’s any good even if they haven’t scratched the surface yet. They always say don’t judge a book by its cover, but let’s be honest, everyone does that anyway.
Take-away message, the tutorial should be the first thing you design because it’s what sets the tone for the entire experience. Good tutorials help make good games, but no matter how epic your game is, if someone breaks through the tutorial with a bad taste in their mouth, they won’t care how good the game is. Once you get that, go make it awesome.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get away from these evil demon monkeys. They’re mad at me for some reason…

Temple run

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2 thoughts on “That Idol

  1. The great thing about the opener in Raiders is that it is a complete story told in 5 minutes, that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film. After having seen that, we have a clear understanding of the character, the setting – the Indy universe, and our expectations for the plot – tension, discovery, reversal, escape. Instead of being a strange new character, Indiana is now an old friend when the true development of the story begins.

    Thanks for a refreshing burst of clarity, this morning.

  2. You could also relate such an intro to the “Hero’s Journey” narrative archetype. The fast-pace burst of action at the beginning is, in a way, describing the “life as usual” stage of the Hero’s Journey. It’s not important to the main plot, but it’s important because it sets up the context of who the Hero is and what their goals/life is like. Then you get the “call to adventure” stage of the Hero’s Journey, where something fundamentally changes.

    Odd, isn’t it… how video games with excellent stories are the ones that manage to adapt the storytelling techniques of literature/film in an interactive way 🙂 I think you’ve stumbled upon a gold mine.

    Great post!

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