Planescape: Torment opens eerily. But I was prepared for that. I’ve read about the game; everyone says it’s great, including the exposition.
Other games have beginnings that really stick with me. Deus Ex: Invisible War’s comes to mind. A few minutes into the game, the power in my character’s apartment building briefly went out. I chanced to look up to see the ceiling flicker. It was a hologram, behind which scientists watched. This moment alone was unnerving— but in a generic way (Oh no! I’m a lab rat for some scientists!). What makes it memorable is that the scientists watching me were not part of a evil corporation, but the same people I’d begun to cooperate with and talk to. Maybe I even related to them a little. It made the injustice of being monitored more palpable.
The other game that comes to mind is Unreal. I started off wandering through a prison space-ship after a catastrophe (I can’t remember what it was, or even if the game tells you). There were dead bodies. Streaks of blood colored the walls. It was dark and grim, and the lights flickered, giving strobe glimpses of carnage. At one point, I came to a door, the sort that lifts up and down mechanically. It was raised about a foot above the floor. Behind the door I heard screams and a few gunshots. A spray of blood came out from under the door. The door raised the rest of the way, with nothing behind it but pieces of dead body.
My twelve-year-old mind was terrified.
I don’t know if PST’s beginning will resonate with me as well as these other games’. It began with my character lying on a table in some sort of gore-splattered dungeon. A floating skull hovered next to me and spoke. The skull was clever, witty, and helpful. On tables around to me, dead bodies lay flayed and dissected. The skull told me scars covered my back. The scars were words; a journal, telling me what to do.
The next thing I remember is me killing some sort of undead worker for a key. I kind of pitied the worker. Then I spent a while trying to find which of the doors the key opened. In a big square room, I had somehow missed it.
In following few minutes, I met grisly and interesting creatures. I can’t remember their names or what they said; I do remember a totally compelling air of eerie mysticism, exaggerated by the gore and the casual chat of my companion (the talking floating skull).
The other thing of note is me killing one of NPC’s there. I entered a conversation with him. Through my bumbling answers to his questions, I ended up provoking him to attack me. I killed him. At first I didn’t mind or care about it. I was under the impression that I couldn’t avoid killing him, that the game made me do it. But in the next 30 minutes of play, I began to feel like I could have avoided the murder. Now everyone in the gruesome building wanted me dead. And rightly so. I had just killed one of the workers. And now I regret killing him.
This whole mental process is an interesting example of how important effecting change can be. Simkins and Steinkuehler talk about this in their paper “Critical Ethical Reasoning and Role-Play“. In a game, a player’s ability or perceived ability to effect change in the game world can be really important to the meanings or feelings a game provokes. When I thought the game structure forced my hand, I wasn’t too interested in the consequences. As soon as the inkling of fault entered my mind—that something could have been another way—I became emotionally invested in what happened.