The secret charm of starting zones in video games

How video game starter zones use the oldest trick in storytelling to invest us in a hero's journey
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It doesn’t matter if you’re gliding off the Great Plateau, setting sail from Kefalonia’s golden coast, or watching the gates of Vault 101 open before your weary eyes, the emotions are the same. A sense of fear and trepidation at the unfamiliar terrain that lies before you, yes, but also excitement, and a deeply primal ambition to explore every corner of this brave new world, and carve out your place in it. It’s the archetypal Homeric opening to a hero’s odyssey, and while the best is yet to come, let’s not forget what you’re leaving behind.
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Players will typically spend only a few hours at most in the starting zone of a video game, but by teaching you the ropes, tethering your character to a fixed place of origin, and contextualising the journey to come, they’re a valuable bedrock for anchoring the narrative of any interactive epic. And while many of these starting areas will look vastly different to each other, dependent entirely on the dictates of the game world, they all share the same subtextual DNA, collectively inspired by the timeless coming-of-age fables that have enraptured the human race for millennia.

In the beginning

Image credit: Ubisoft

 

You usually won’t be able to leave a game’s opening area until the story decides that you’re ready, and developers achieve this ‘cordon sanitaire’ through a varying number of structural tricks. The easiest way to isolate the zone from the rest of the world is to make it an island, as is the case in the likes of Far Cry 5Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and several starting areas for certain races in World of Warcraft.

Other games like Breath of the Wild take a different tact, where the “island” becomes a raised plateau that can’t be descended until you’ve acquired a parachute to safely glide towards the plains below. The Embrace in Horizon Zero Dawn, meanwhile, takes the form of a walled community, whose gates won’t open until Aloy’s earned the right to leave as Seeker.

Several RPGs – such as The Witcher 3 – will take a more hands-off approach, leaving you free to explore beyond the boundaries of your starting zone as early as you wish. You’ll soon learn, however, that the lack of a physical wall has been replaced by an invisible but no less effective level gate, and it won’t be long before a bunch of higher tier enemies send you crawling back to square mile one. However, a video game separates its starting zone from the wider world, though, the intentions are the same; to provide a sense of the ordinary that preludes and thus enriches the adventure to come.

Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

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