I recently started to watch TV again. It’s strange because TV used to be such an integral part of my life, a facet of media that I so closely identified with, that had become synonymous with me. Then, one day, without rhyme nor reason, I stopped watching TV. Whenever I tried to return to the vast void that is television, the bottomless pit of day-time drama, overly melancholic British crime tosh, unfunny “relatable” comedies, I found myself unable to venture beyond the opening.
Warning. This article contains spoilers for the games mentioned in this list.
The First Episode
The first episode of a TV show is so important; it’s crucial to hook the viewer in. It’s why I was unable to enjoy anything, and why for the better part of five years I fell out of love with TV. It sets up the over-arching narrative, the characters you’re supposed to fall in love with, the B, C, and D plots we’re desperately attempting to follow over the ten or so episodes, the relationships, the tone, the style, setting, etc.
I found myself switching to another show because the first episode had simply failed to draw me in. If I did watch more than one episode, I did so out of obligation, because it was the next best thing, and I must watch it or else suffer a fate worse than death: FOMO. But as I mentioned, I’ve returned, managing to watch beyond the first episode, not out of obligation or determination, but out of a wondrously nostalgic sense of joy.
I’ve gotten lucky with some recently released TV series, like Sweet Home on Netflix, and it’s all thanks to an enticing first episode. Because even if there are some dips later in the show, I was so engrossed by the beginning that I wanted to continue till the end. Just as the quality of the first episode of a TV series is essential to establishing the viewer’s overall interest, the opening of a video game is pivotal in getting you hooked, lined, and sinker’ed. Whenever I look back at the games that have made a difference in my life, or the games that I’ve enjoyed the most, I usually think of the opening, and the way I felt as the events slowly unfolded before my eyes.
So, I figured I’d compile a list of all my favourite game openings! The rules for this list are simple. The opening can be several hours long but has to be what I’d consider the opening part of the game. It must establish the characters, setting, gameplay, motives, and themes. Otherwise, it’s basically just my opinion. So, sit back, read on, and hopefully enjoy.
5. Far Cry 3
Far Cry 3 opens with an absolute banger. Paper Planes by MIA is a bop, not just because MIA weaves catchy lyrics with a beat so smooth you could spread it on toast, but because it’s become heavily associated with the insane, action-packed, morally ambiguous journey of Jason Broady, Far Cry 3’s protagonist.
We watch as Jason, his brother, girlfriend, and friends enjoy a luscious holiday on some undisclosed tropical islands, clubbing, drinking, and sky diving. It’s a familiar sight (if you’re lucky that is), a holiday away with mates, likely a final hurrah before reality kicks in and you have to get back to that miserable day job. Each character even gets their own character card as if they’re main characters, which makes us feel as if we’re in for a romp around a tropical island. Surely nothing can go wrong?
Cut to Vaas squatting in front of your cage as you (Jason Broady) and your brother (Grant) struggle in your binds. The classic anime trope of “You’re probably wondering how I got here” rings through my head as Vaas chews the scenery, menacingly threatening you as he deftly exposits about what’s happened thus far. Vaas, played expertly by Michael Mando, is the game’s villain, and Ubisoft clearly takes pride in that. He’s at the forefront from the very beginning, established from the get-go as the game’s central antagonist, someone you’ll truly learn to hate over the course of the next few hours. It’s worth noting that Ubisoft actually set up the game’s true villain in a brief bit of dialogue, something I hadn’t noticed until recently.
Its terrifying going from the bright, colourful island romp to this muffled-scream-filled nightmare. This opening five minutes sets up the tone of the game expertly, as well as its themes, motifs and characters. For example, its clear that Jason is just your average guy, rightly freaking out when his Army Reserve bro snaps the neck of their guard. In fact, Jason is so unprepared for this that he freaks out all the way until his brother is shot and ultimately dies. That upbeat MIA song seems like eons ago as Grant dies in your arms, his eyes rolling as you desperately try and hold his neck wound.
Just before Far Cry 3 pops on screen, Jason is chased through the jungle by Vaas and his men. It’s a harrowing experience as you hear Jason desperately scurry through the trees and vines while Vaas’ men cackle in the distance. Bullets whizz around you as you scramble back on your feet, a helicopter marks your every movement, blinding you with its light. You know there’s no way out, but you have to keep going. Then, just as you clear a tunnel, a guard drops on you, wielding his knife inches from your neck. You struggle, pushing it closer and closer towards him, fighting for your life. Then, filled with fear-induced-adrenaline, you watch as the knife sinks into his skull. It’s your first kill, and Jason reacts as much, but you the player know full well it won’t be your last.
This intro sets up the villain, the central character, his main goal (saving his friends), and the themes (the morality of violence, loss, friendship, grief, good and evil, right and wrong). It does all of this without dumping a whole load of exposition, it does it all while delivering a cinematic, yet harrowing chase through the jungle, and it does it so expertly, that when you finally see the title appear on screen, you’re rearing to go. There’s a reason that Far Cry 3 has remained so ingrained in my memory as being one of the best games ever made, and it might just be the intro.
4. Death Stranding
Death Stranding wants you to know it’s a movie. Sure, it’s a game, but Hideo Kojima is so obsessed with his cinematic direction, that Death Stranding opens up as if it were a film. We hear Norman Reedus, who is playing Sam Porter-Bridges, read out an ominous poem before the hauntingly beautiful landscapes of Death Stranding’s apocalyptic world appear before us. Actors’ names appear on the screen, as if it were a movie, as Low Roar’s melancholic Don’t Be So Serious plays in the background. It’s a stylish opening to a very cinematic game and tells us right away that we’re in for a very Hideo Kojima experience.
As the opening credits continue to roll, we see Sam zooming across a darky and murky landscape, the dust trailing behind him as his motorbike bolts on by. The song fades out as the sounds of the futuristic-looking motorbike whirring to life, rocks scattering as the wheels churn across the jagged ground, and the incoming rain fill the scene. Sam looks over his shoulder, and we gaze upon the foreboding cloud as it chases after him.
He continues on his journey, stopping at the edge of a cliff, wondering how he’ll escape the incoming rain. Looking over he sees two deer attempt a jump, and after witnessing one of them make it, he turns his bike around and goes after them. What he doesn’t see as the camera lingers, is the second deer stumble, slip and fall down the cliff-face. Sam makes the jump but swerves as he lands to avoid crashing into an umbrella-wielding woman. His bike topples over the cliff, and now we’re stuck, trapped in the rain as a mysterious, invisible figure chases us.
An Apocalypse Like No Other
This opening scene does so much to establish tone, world, and character. Its opening lets us know that this is going to be a depressing game, set in a world that has abandoned all hope. The apocalyptic wasteland is beautiful, unfettered in its vast emptiness. We see tides of jagged rock covered in moss as Sam attempts his escape, a sea of green and black, a place where nature and the abyss meet, both simultaneously the birth and death of the world. Once the cutscene has ended, we control Sam as we descend the cliff-face, stumbling across the uneven ground as we near a city completely devoid of life. As we approach Don’t Be So Serious continues to play, which both lends a cinematic feeling to the ordeal, but also a stern reminder that our time in Death Stranding isn’t going to be a happy one.
The opening also establishes Sam and Fragile, played by Léa Seydoux. We get to see Sam’s stoic nature, his emotional trauma and baggage laid out for all to see in the form of handprints scattered across his body. We know something has happened to him, but not what, a set up that would not only pay off later but leave us intrigued, salivating at the chance to play more. Fragile is introduced as a mysterious, expository character who clearly knows more than she’s letting on. While Hideo Kojima uses her as a form of an exposition dump, he also cleverly and subtly uses visuals and context to explain a lot of what is happening.
The Hidden Horror
Timefall and BTs are shown off in this opening sequence, to good effect too. The aging properties of Timefall are shown very early when one hits Sam’s hair, turning it white, and later when it hits his hand, making it wrinkly. BTs’ footprints can be seen chasing after Sam when he’s on his bike, and later one taunts Sam and Fragile as it skulks around them, trying to sniff them out. This moment perfectly establishes Death Stranding’s horror undertones while also establishing the key rules of the BTs: they can’t see and hunt based on sound (not unlike the alien from Alien).
Within a matter of minutes, we have the central character, a little about his backstory, several mysteries, and villains, as well as a clearly defined world set up. It’s an incredible opening that proves how video games and movies can work in conjunction with one another to create a wonderfully in-depth universe. Death Stranding’s opening doesn’t really end here, and only a few minutes later does it offer one of its best cutscenes, but I won’t spoil that here. It’s just too good to. Go play it, and you’ll see what I mean.
3. Pokémon (The Whole Franchise)
There’s a moment in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, where Bilbo, who has awakened to find all of his newfound friends have left, decides to leave his sleepy town of Hobbiton to “go on an adventure!”. That freeing feeling as you run by the gates of your small, claustrophobic town to go seek wondrous adventures all across the world is exactly what makes Pokémon’s opening so special.
Pretty much every Pokémon game is exactly the same, so I’m happy to lump them all under one section. You start off in an unassuming town as a kid who wants more out of life than chilling at his mum’s house doing naff all other than occasionally bumping into a renowned Pokémon scientist who randomly lives nearby. Through convenient circumstance you end up with a brand-new best bud and set off on your own adventure through whatever region you may be in, capturing all of the new Pokémon to your heart’s content.
What is so special about Pokémon’s introduction is the moment you step into the grass for the very first time. Sure, there’s something to be said about seeing what the new starter Pokémon look like, but chances are you’ve already spoiled that for yourself, especially with these new titles. But that moment, when you step out into the tall grass for the very first time, not quite sure what Pokémon will jump out at you, it’s elating. The screen goes black, the all-too-familiar battle music plays, a silhouette appears before you, and lo-and-behold it’s a brand-spanking-new Pokémon.
Unfortunately, with each new title, this effect has been lessened, likely due to the fact that the newer games rely too heavily on older Pokémon. But, when it was all fresh, when each game brought with it the promise of a hundred-odd new creatures to capture, it was genuinely exciting. Going on that adventure was captivating, and still is to an extent all these years later. It’s that warm, magical, fuzzy Nintendo charm that makes it so special, and I hope they can recapture it with the future iterations.
With some of these openings, I’ve had to go back and rewatch them, remind myself of why I enjoyed them so much. I didn’t have to that with Skyrim. Its opening is so iconic, so ingrained in my memory that I feel as if I’ve truly experienced it.
Hey, you. You’re finally awake.
Whenever I think back to Skyrim, I think Christmas day. It seems strange, but it’s when I first played it. Months before Christmas had even rolled around, my sister and I watched countless YouTube videos on Skyrim, planning together which race we’d be, whether we’d use swords or magic, what class we’d end up becoming proficient in. We were hyped. Sat down in front of our tiny TV, the events of the opening unfolded before my eyes, trapped in the cart as it rolled its way down that narrow path, trees either side, muddied, defeated, helpless prisoners surrounding me. Where am I? Why am I here? Why should I shut up back here?
I couldn’t believe my eyes as we pulled into Helgen, watching as families cowered and mumbled hateful comments as we passed on by. My jaw dropped to the floor as the horse-thief attempted to book it, arrows whizzing through the air and slamming into his back, pinning him to the ground within seconds. I spend hours refining my character, choosing my race, facial features, body-type, and finally, the most excruciating part, my name.
Thomas The Swanky Dragon
I settle on something silly, something I’ll come to regret later as I fully commit to roleplaying and get pushed towards the crowd of prisoners awaiting execution. Surely I’m not one of them. Surely I’ll get saved. But there I am, my head on the chopping block, the executioner stood before me, his axe sharpened. I truly felt Buckbeak’s pain at that moment. I genuinely thought that was it (bare in mind I was quite young), and that I’d die. Before I could mutter a final prayer, a roar sounded from afar catching the guards’ attention. What could it be? Is this my chance to escape? What’s going on?
Depending on whether you played with mods or not really changes what appeared next. For me it was a giant dragon with jagged spikes protruding from its back, its sharp teeth bared before its roar echoed across the village propelling the guards into nearby walls. If you played with mods that’ll have been Thomas The Tank Engine. Either way, iconic. From here you dash through burning building after burning building, narrowly avoiding the dragon, watching as soldiers die around you. It was genuinely terrifying yet absolutely exhilarating.
An Iconic Intro
Finally you reach the keep and are forced to choose a side. Imperials or Stormcloaks, you decide. Kill a bunch of soldiers, probably take out a torturer (depending on which side you pick), shoot a bear, and then break free, out into the open-world. Oh boy, is it an opening.
Sure, Skyrim’s opening doesn’t do a whole lot to establish characters or narrative, there’s not really a whole heap of that in the game anyway. But what it does do is establish tone, themes, world, and most importantly a precedent for the player going forth. This is going to be an action-packed, dragon-filled, fantastical journey through a bleak and cold world. It’s going to be about the political conflict between two vastly different factions, it’s going to be about choosing sides. But most of all, it’s going to be a whole lot of fun. Not to mention this opening introduces you to one of the best soundtracks in gaming history, but that’s another article for another time.
Honourable Mentions – No Man’s Sky
No Man’s Sky doesn’t really have an opening. Sure, you do start the game the same way every time, waking up on a mysterious planet with the sole objective of repairing your ship, but it’s not really an opening. So far, all the best openings have been from singleplayer-narrative-based video games, which No Man’s Sky doesn’t really fit into. So why is it on this list? Well, simply put, the very first time you play No Man’s Sky is incredible.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Running around whatever randomly generated planet you spawn on for the first time can be hit or miss. Some are lush, with vibrant and colourful landscapes, varied fauna and creature life to discover and document, and perhaps some secrets left behind by an ancient civilisation for you to uncover. Others are downright boring, with flat, uninteresting, basic landscapes and deformed animal life that hobbles up to you and croaks a measly “baa?” But regardless of which type of planet you get, the feeling of finally fixing your ship and being able to travel into the cosmos is tantalisingly fun.
You giddily hop into your ship, watch as it lifts up, the dust around you flung into the air as you blast off into the atmosphere leaving a thin wispy trail in your wake, and grin. The multi-coloured slipstream that fills your screen as you burst through the atmosphere and into space is a sight to behold, and when you finally stop, releasing your ship from its 2001: A Space Odyssey vision, you finally gaze upon the stars you so hoped to see. From here No Man’s Sky is whatever you make of it, but those brief few moments, from getting into your ship, anticipating the very best of the cosmos, to launching yourself at those very stars you wished upon, you forget everything else. It may not be like the other openings described on this list, but it sure is a memorable one.
1. Xenoblade Chronicles 2
I’ve been stumped on this last section for a while now. I keep coming back, watching as the line flickers waiting for me to pour my heart out and explain away why this game’s opening is so fantastic. But every time I stare at this blank screen, waiting for the reasons to come flooding out, I find myself unable to type. It’s not for a lack of reasons, there are plenty, but more because of a strong emotional attachment I have with this game.
It sounds weird, cringe even I’m sure, but whenever I try and explain my love for this game, simply listing off a bunch of its technical achievements seems disingenuous. Instead, I smile, remembering the time I spent playing it, the rollercoaster of emotions I experienced as I journeyed to Elysium with Rex and co. For me, that smile is enough to explain why I love this game so much. It’s the sort of smile you don’t have to try for, the kind that sneaks up on you, spreading across your face like a warm embrace.
Argentum Trade Guild
I haven’t played Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in a while now, but I remember that introduction fondly. I remember the way I felt when stepping into the Argentum Trade Guild for the very first time. As you arrive, the bombastic score begins to play, loud, cymbal-crashing crescendos greeting you as you dash from one exciting detail to another, talking to every character you meet. The song dips, ever so slightly, transforming into a sweet melody played on the flute as the sun shines brightly in the distance. Just as you feel the song beginning to fade, a hastened drum roll snaps the song back into a swelling symphony. A guitar and piano play a lighthearted tune as you step inside the guild.
You find yourself surrounded by the most exotic stalls, the scents from food stands wafting in the air as the music dances around you playfully. The music builds into an emotional second-act, swelling until it returns to the crescendo from the beginning, swinging the song back full-circle. As it plays, guiding your journey across the trade guild, through the central exchange, up the stairs past Bana’s office, further up still until you reach a hub adorned with trees and benches, children gleefully playing with one another, you truly begin to feel a sense of adventure creeping up on you.
This opening moment in the Argentum Trade Guild is a showcase of Monolith Soft’s incredible genius. The music reflects the journey you’ll embark on, the epic scale of its more narrative-heavy moments, the light-heartedness of its more character-driven scenes, its softer more reflective story-beats. The location itself is a small, but detailed area that shows the colour, style and tone to expect from each new world you’ll explore. It’s a taste of what’s to come, and that’s what makes it so special.
Trial By Fire
The triumphant music swells as Pyra’s cage sets ablaze. We see, for what is probably the first time, Malos genuinely frightened. A furious flurry of flames fires into the sky, exploding against the ship. As the orchestral track intensifies, Rex bursts from the ground, soaring through the sky with a roar, before landing, flaming sword in hand. He looks up, rearing to go, to take out those that betrayed him and protect Pyra. The song switches to a more electrifying, upbeat battle track. The thumping beat pulsating as Rex launches himself at Malos, the slick animation and lingering shots allowing for the action to play out beautifully.
It’s an intense fight, but one that Rex could never win. He is flung aside as Pyra hopelessly defends herself, but before long an enormous dragon sweeps into view, deftly dodging incoming missile fire as he rushes to Rex’s aide. Nia, who’s had a change of heart, dashes to rescue Pyra, and together with Rex, they fly away to safety, narrowly avoiding Malos’ wrath.
This scene takes place shortly after our jaunt in the Argentum Trade Guild. It’s the inciting incident, the one that sees our hero swept off on an adventure he had no intention of taking. It would have been easy to set up Rex as an unwilling hero from this point on. Still, it’s his youth and naivety, determination, energy, and wishful thinking that transforms him into a hopeful hero. This addicting personality sweeps the player up in the action along with him. It once again exemplifies Monolith Soft’s incredible and well-executed use of tonal shift to create an energetic and epic narrative beat that would serve as the game’s cataclysmic moment and as an introduction to the storytelling techniques used thereon.
The Very Best
This scene, along with the other 14 odd hours of cutscenes, would have been ruined had it not been for Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s slick animation quality, terrific direction, and stunning visuals. It’s rare to see such quality cutscenes in video games these days, especially ones that emulate the same level of quality and polish given to some of the best anime out there. To accompany the visuals is a soundtrack that rivals those of Joe Hisashi, and is by far the best soundtrack I’ve ever heard in a video game.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s opening is fantastic for a number of reasons, both technical and emotional. But I think the real reason this is my number one opening is because while the other titles all excelled in their own way, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 proved without a shadow of a doubt that games can be more than just that.
I’ve talked at length before about how Studio Ghibli was there for me when I really needed it, and how I’ve come to associate very deeply emotional parts of my life with those films. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the same for me, a spectacular marvel, a technical wonder, an emotionally evocative memory that has truly changed my life for the better. I love Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s opening for the same reason I love all of the game’s on this list. They all hold a special place in my heart, I just think Xenoblade’s is a little bigger.