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The Best Opening Level In Video Game History

The first level in any video game is one of the most important moments in the journey. But what is the best first level of all time?

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Justin Giglio
Tue, Jul 10, 5:29 PM
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Greatest of All Time – Opening Level – Half-Life

When it comes to strangers and fictional characters, first impressions are crucial –
we all remember the frustration of finding out that we were playing as Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2 instead of the ultra-cool Solid Snake. So, clearly, first impressions are no less vital in the video game world either, and they can extend to opening levels of games just as easily. Great opening levels tend to stick with us the longest since they’re the first things we encounter in games, and they set the stage and the tone for the rest of the adventure. If the opening bit doesn’t grab us, then there’s a risk that we’ll be overly critical of a title and refuse to continue on deeper into it. This is especially the case with an abundance of new, killer titles coming out at a fast pace, and a huge backlog of top-tier games we still haven’t gotten to yet.

Thus, time is of the essence, and developers are constantly figuring out new ways to hook us in the opening minutes of their games. It could be something as simple as a catchy tune that we’ll end up singing for weeks – or the rest of our lives – like in Super Mario Bros., or the all-out, edge-of-our-seat mayhem of GTA 5’s prologue that propels us into the main story with more questions than answers. Perhaps it’s incredible storytelling, like in The Last of Us, that leaves us weeping every time we see it? What the hook is, however, isn’t as important as whether it’s unbelievably well executed and whether it leaves us dreaming about a game’s opening moments long after powering down the console. And for our money, the opening few minutes of Half-Life comprise the Greatest Opening Video Game Level of All Time. In fact, we’re still dreaming about it, as it holds up very well even today – two decades later!

When Half-Life landed in 1998, it revolutionized the first-person shooter genre on a massive scale. Until then we were quite happy playing Quake II and Duke Nukem 3D with minimal backstory or in-game narrative. The one thing we craved, and those games delivered, was radical, ass-kicking action! But after playing through the first few minutes of Half-Life, we suddenly grew up for the first time and expected more from our FPS adventures. And how could we not? For the first time, we didn’t have to read the game manual in order to try and piece together a narrative connecting a shooter’s missions. Also, the brief opening CGI cinematics of games like Quake II were suddenly replaced by Half-Life’s immersive, well-scripted, in-game narrative that placed us right in the midst of the action! And we weren’t just dropped into an opening mission and left to imagine motivations as to why we’re killing everything in sight either; instead, Half-Life took its sweet time building mystery and suspense – all while showcasing it’s technical advancements – in an effort to highlight the game’s movie-quality narrative, giving us real motivation and logic for our actions instead of just mindlessly blasting away bad guys. Gone were the badly done cutscenes and paragraphs of text too. Seeing as we were immersed in the game’s world as Dr. Gordon Freeman, there was less need for both cinematics and description because the narrative’s events simply unfolded before our very eyes!

Half-Life also replaced the mission-based structure of FPS games with a single, continuous map linked by brief load times. No longer were we locked into a start/stop gameplay structure, and mysteriously transported to some new start zone after completing a mission. Instead, the continuous map allowed for greater flow, both in terms of gameplay and storytelling. And the developer, Valve, really strove to deliver in terms of narrative and gameplay flow, placing increased attention on character design and scripting, allowing for Black Mesa to feel like a real place. Half-Life also differed from previous first-person shooters in that, instead of playing as a muscle-bound block of machismo or a genetically bred killing machine, we took on the role of Dr. Freeman, a scientist on his first day of work - a wild departure that has inspired countless protagonists ever since.

Even outside the FPS genre at the time, Half-Life was still incredibly unique. How many games do you know of that opened with a nearly five-minute tram ride? It’s essentially a rail shooter without the shooting and yet it’s still jaw-dropping! Think of an adult-themed Disney ride from Hell and you’ll get the picture. Also, in 1998, there were not a lot of games with such massive openings on both a creative and technical scale. In film, one of the most revolutionary openings of all time is from Orson Welles’ 1958 film-noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil. Well, we think that Half-Life’s opening tram ride is the equivalent of this – just in video game form, but it’s every bit as stunning, creative, and innovative as Welles’ iconic opening tracking shot.

Further, Valve’s masterpiece shooter offered a level of immersion that just wasn’t seen in games at the time. Sure, we’d been blown away by the storytelling in Metal Gear Solid, but even still, the story moments were delivered through cutscenes, which is basically like watching a movie. Half-Life, on the other hand, allowed us a level of agency unseen for the time, allowing us to essentially play through what would normally be cutscenes or other heavily scripted scenarios. It’s such a revolutionary jump forward, that we could separate first-person shooters into two eras: Before Half-Life and after Half-Life.

Then, of course, there’s just the overall sense of awe and mystery stirred up during those opening few minutes that rival anything done in film. On the Black Mesa Tram, we’re essentially shown much of the game’s environment in a short period, letting us see future areas and scenarios that create many more questions than answers. So much so, that playing the rest of the game feels like completing an incredibly well-designed puzzle, where more and more small pieces of information seamlessly fit into the grand narrative to create one hell of a ride! There’s the eerily calm, robotic female voice – akin to GlaDOS in Portal –that narrates the surroundings in such a monotone way – while brief glimpses of all hell breaking loose are shown –that just creates a creepy, mysterious tone and lets us know that something is truly amiss in this secret research facility. Further puzzle pieces are the brief glimpse of The G-Man, subtle views of scientists running from something that we just can’t make out, and a very ominous military helicopter; let’s just say that there are enough clues to indicate that something is rotten over at Black Mesa; and it’s not long until the full nightmare is revealed and the heroics of one Dr. Freeman are on full display! And the rest is history!

There’s no doubt that first impressions are important, and the opening moments of Half-Life truly knocked our expectations out of the park! Being so radically different from first-person shooters of the time –while providing an extraordinary level of immersion rarely seen outside of movies – it’s clear that the intro to Half-Life makes for the Greatest Opening Level of All Time!

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