Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Top-10 PC Games Opening Cinematic Sequences

From the early age of Pong, games have matured into a complete art-form. Story and cinematics are often as important as graphics and gameplay. Video games are the closest we have come so far to creating a holo-deck. You can be anyone and anything you want and you can dive head-first into this myriad of imaginary worlds. We may not realize it but gaming is a major component of what is known as the invisible literature, reproducing themes, memes and emotional states that constantly remodel and reshape our collective unconscious.
The cinematic Opening Sequences are there to start the story and make you want to follow it; to set the emotional framework and, carefully, lay hooks that will lead you to the surface. Some are Computer Generated Images (CGI) while others make use of real actors, making them short movies. These are the very best.  

10. SYBERIA: The Wound-Up Funeral 
Syberia is a wonderful Adventure game. A young professional arrives in the French Alps looking for the heir to a toy factory. However, just like life, everything is complicated. This is only the beginning. 
The dark yet playful atmosphere is set early on. Who really is this girl arriving alone in the rain? Whose is this funeral and why are automata honoring the deceased? Not only is this opening sequence artistically impeccable but it is also effective in reeling you into the world of the game.

9. RIVEN: Through the Linking Book
Riven, another first person adventure, was produced in the wake of Myst’s huge success. Although technically a superior game in every aspect, it did not duplicate the success of its prequel, mostly because a number of Riven’s puzzles were too difficult for the average gamer (in all honesty, I had to consult a walkthrough guide to get past the rotating room!). 
This however, can take little away from the hypnotic opening sequence which absorbs you into this beautiful world of magic books, steampunk islands and damsels in distress.     

The History of the Houses

The only thing better than an intro with Bene Geserit witches in it, is one where they use The Voice against each other.  Emperor: Battle of Dune is a masterpiece of a real-time strategy (RTS) game (Westwood’s swan song, just before it was absorbed and homogenized by EA) is set just after the end of the 1984 movie adaptation of the original novel. The sets and the costumes are very close to David Lynch’s vision whereas the acting follows on the footsteps left on the desert sands by the cast of the movie. 
This opening sequence makes the list because it does two things and it does them well: it recaps the history of the Houses (for those unfamiliar with the Dune universe) and it creates the anticipation of the coming conflict. The conflict you are about to get involved in. Because, no matter what, the Spice Must Flow

7. GRIM FANTANGO: Travel Agent to the Afterlife
Grim Fantango is an adventure game set in a 1920’s noir atmosphere, about the Land of the Dead (where little is actually different from the land of the living), can hardly avoid greatness. And this greatness is more than hinted in its subtle opening sequence. Manny Calavera is a travel agent to the souls, trying to make enough profit in order to move along himself. He may be down on his luck, exploited by his boss and ridiculed by his coworkers but nothing can make Manny loose his Humphrey Bogart cool. And the opening sequence is exactly that.     

6. CALL OF DUTY 4 – MODERN WARFARE: Driving to an Execution
CoD4-MW makes the list not because of the graphics or the artwork but because of the ingenious way it was directed. It plays out like an episode out of Homeland and it manages to both set the mood and jump start your adrenaline for the first-person shooter (FPS) that is about to explode on your screen. It can be accused of emotional manipulation but that is only to be expected of games. If an FPS manages to make you angry just before the shooting begins, so much the better! And it is the details, such the authentic interior of the late 80’s Mercedes SL you are transported in to the jailer’s sweat beading on his forehead, that convince you that you are a man about to die. 

5. SHOGUN - TOTAL WAR: The Art of War
Shogun: Total War is the game that started the THQ’s Total War series and for that alone, it is monumental. Nevertheless, the game’s opening sequence is included because it is one of the most artistic. By use of a Japanese-accented voice-over the gamer is both immersed into the world of medieval Japan and offered a number of gameplay tips that he or she will need shortly. From the traditional Japanese paintings and the koto music in the background to explaining the turned-based strategy (TBS) of a game structured on bushido, this opening sequence is a masterpiece on its own. 

4. MAX PAYNE 2: The Darkness Inside
Sequels always have the not so easy task of bringing up to speed people who missed on the previous installments. Max Payne 2 does this in NYC style. The sad story of Max Payne is outlined in a noir graphic novel that unfolds one frame at a time. The leather clad, back-combed NY detective may have gone through hell but his sufferings are far from over. Because revenge is a tiger; it is easier to ride her than slide off her. And there is always a bullet, patiently waiting in its nest, your number to be called up.   

The Price of Freedom
The sequel to StarCraft, one of the most popular RTS ever, was years and years in the making. Building on this anticipation (and actually making fun at it) this opening sequence of StarCraft 2: WoL only turns this built up tension into an unbearable desire to finally play the game. The CGI sequence is immaculately made and, even if it does not explain the mechanics of the game (most of us already know them anyway) it does set the foundations of the emotional build up that is about to unfold. “It’s about time” indeed!

2. FALLOUT 3: 
War. War Never Changes.
This one is beautiful and brilliant at the same time. It is sad and nostalgic of a futuristic world on the verge of extinction. It starts off Fallout 3 with the credits in a series of slides projected on a radiation-hardened screen. Then the Ink Spots sing the 1941 jazz hit “I don’t want to set the world on fire”, the voice coming from a still functioning tube radio in a burned out public bus. The camera pulls back to reveal the world after the nuclear holocaust. That is when the famous “War, war never changes…” monologue can be heard. And, then, in a small number of story interruptions, the gamer gets to make the choices required at the beginning of every role-playing game (RPG). Pure brilliance.

1. HALF LIFE: Black Mesa Inbound

Half Life 2 may be a better game (and one of the best games ever made), however, when I started this list there was not a single doubt in my mind on who would be at the No.1 spot. The opening sequence of the original Half Life, entering the Black Mesa research facility, is, by far, the greatest cinematic opening in any PC game.
It sets the mood and the tone of the game. It allows the gamer to try out the controls of moving around in the confined environment of the train car. Brief credits flash and fade out cinematically at the corners. You are passed by different levels, rooms and environments, all hints of what awaits you in the game about to begin. And yet you are still driven further, deeper into the research facility. You learn that your name is Gordon Freeman, you are a low level scientist. And what is the purpose of such a huge facility? Well, Dr Freeman, you are about to find out.
(NOTE: the game has been recently revived by the – unbelievable! - Black Mesa MOD which is free and can be installed on STEAM).   

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