Five Great In Medias Res Opening Stages
There are certain games I’ll never play again. Games that, no matter how amazing they were, I just can’t drudge up the desire to amble through their opening sequences for a second time. Dragon Quest VII is easily the worst offender, with multiple hours going by before the first battle. It was terrible when I was still getting to know the characters and story, insufferable when I already did. The problem goes far beyond story driven Japanese epics, as even first-person shooters can find themselves stuck in tutorial limbo, forcing players to wade through pages of menu tutorials and paused command highlights.
One way developers can combat this tutorial tedium is by using a technique known as in medias res, which is Latin for “into the middle of things.” In media res openings forgo the usual technique of establishing setting and character at the beginning of a story, instead throwing the viewer straight into the action and worrying about the exposition later. It’s widely used in film, such as in The Usual Suspects or Mission Impossible 3, but as video games get more and more cinematic, the practice has started cropping up on our consoles as well.
Here are five classic games that make great use of the in medias res technique in creating unforgettable opening sequences:
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
“What is an opening stage? A miserable pile of tutorials! Enough of this, have at you!”
Your journey in Symphony of the Night actually begins as Richter Belmont, moments before he ascends the fateful steps to Dracula’s antechamber in Rondo of Blood, the previous game in the series’ twisted chronology.
This would make sense, except back when Symphony of the Night was originally released in 1997, Rondo of Blood had not yet made its way to US shores. This left American audiences in the dark about who this blue tunic clad gentleman was and why he seemed especially pissed at Dracula. All we had was a hilariously overwrought speech and one of the most epic opening battles of all time.
It was only after defeating Dracula that Symphony of the Night put you in the slippery shoes of Alucard, the game’s real protagonist. That’s right, you had to beat the last boss of the previous game before Konami deigned you worthy to even see the tutorial, which was little more than blowing through a bunch of giant wolves in amazing gear.
Speaking of Castlevania, Rondo of Blood had a similarly abrupt opening sequence, tasking you with defeating Death while riding a carriage before tossing you into the ruins of a flaming village. Apparently life in Transylvania isn’t nearly as dull as that one episode of No Reservations has led me to believe.
Medal of Honor: Frontline
I’ll never forget the first time I saw somebody get up and leave a movie. It was during Saving Private Ryan’s opening D-Day scene, one of the most shocking and horrible expressions of war ever put on film. It made the couple next to me get up in silence and leave, completely caught off guard by the raw intensity of that opening volley of bullets.
Medal of Honor: Frontline attempts to do the same thing by starting you off in the back of one of those tiny little rafts, just another soldier in what would become one of the most infamous naval landings of all time. Players are given about as much context for this battle as the very soldiers themselves had. There is a hill, you need to get on top of that hill, and if you die doing it then you have served your country.
It’s only after this that things start to settle into their regular routine of hidden documents and bombed out sniper-infested towns, the bread and butter of these kinds of games. Even then, the opening level stays with you, an example of the suddenness of chance that cut short the lives of so many.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
One way to use in medias res, which Christopher Nolan just loves to do, is to start the player at a point far advanced in the narrative, bouncing back to the true “beginning” after a short period of time. Left with a spate of unanswered questions, players are far more likely to advance through a typically stolid tutorial sequence, if only to find out what happens between points A and B.
Uncharted 2 starts with Nathan Drake hanging from a train that has jumped the rails and is a strong breeze away from slipping into a frigid abyss. How did he get there? Why is he beaten to a pulp? Is Nolan North paid by the ‘shit!’? All questions players are left asking as they struggle up and out of the once horizontal train car. Once you escape the screen goes black, letting you know that the game is really starting a few days earlier.
It’s not until the halfway point that you find yourself actually aboard that train during normal operating conditions, the game playfully winking at you as if to say ‘Hey, remember this? Probably best not to order a drink.”
In media res can also be used to create a scenario that encapsulates the larger themes of the game while still maintaining a sense of urgency or action. Silent Hill for the Playstation does a great job of this with its nerve-wracking opening sequence. Harry Mason, looking for his missing daughter, stumbles into an alleyway that’s filled to the brim with horror movie tropes. Awkward camera angles, an upended wheelchair with a slowly spinning wheel, and a pathetic lighter for a guide are all hallmarks of the series that are introduced in the first moments of the game.
Then there’s that telltale air raid siren, followed by the creeping darkness of the otherworld of Silent Hill, something that doesn’t mean much now. As you go, things get darker and darker, bloody sheets masking mysterious cadavers on gurneys at every turn. The rules of video games that dictate that the opening moments of a game are safe and secure, a place to learn the controls and come to grips with the world, float away into the void.
With that, ghostly children with scalpels crawl out of the dark and kill you. Welcome to Silent Hill motherfucker, where the tutorial ends in your demise.
Sure you wake up and the actual game begins, but for many people those first moments were their last when it came to Silent Hill, a clear sign that they were totally not ready for what was to come.
Final Fantasy VII
One of the advantages of using in medias res is that it’s just plain more interesting than a more traditional opening. Exposition, character development, and setting are great, but we’re busy people and those all take a long time to get started. What is this, a Myst game? Fuck that. Give me action. I’ll deal with all that text stuff later.
Final Fantasy, as a series, has tended towards starting players off in the middle of something they don’t fully understand. You don’t know why Cecil wants that crystal, just that he needs it. Terra doesn’t even have a name during the opening of Final Fantasy VI, you just know that you need to find the Esper in the mines of Narshe, then watch a hilariously long title sequence.
The first hour of Final Fantasy VII is one of the best examples of this, a stirring terrorist action against the nefarious Shinra corporation by Cloud and AVALANCHE. Not only is it packed with combat and intensity, it also sets up the primary conflict of the first act of the game while introducing us to the main characters of the story. It’s not until you return to Sector 7 that the true scope of Shinra’s abuses becomes clear, but by then you’re already invested.
This kind of fast paced tutorial was a breath of fresh air in a genre known for plodding openings that required hours of grinding and methodical research. By using in medias res, Squaresoft put players right into the action from the get-go, making FF7 one of the most approachable RPGs of the time.
Does your favorite game toss you into the thick of things with little to no exposition? Mention it in the comments!