Cold Open

There have been two games I played recently that have started with a cold open, e.g. one with no tutorial that just sort of throws you into the game. The first was The Long Dark, and the second is a space-sim called Hellion; both are in Early Access and both are survival-based games. So, in a sense, it’s difficult to determine whether either one intentionally set out to have cold opens, or if this simply reflects their current, unfinished states.


Pictured: falling out of the airlock into open space.


There is a lot to be said regarding the power of cold opens. In an age of 24/7 information coming from every angle, it is refreshing to be thrust into an unknown environment without any sort of hand-holding. It absolutely appeals to Explorer-types, and also those looking for more difficulty in their games. Plus, many times it makes thematic sense, say, if you just woke from cryo-sleep in an otherwise abandoned life pod.

Personally, I find cold opens to be exceptionally difficult to pull off well.

The fundamental issue I have is the dissonance between what the player expects and what the designers intend. What ends up happening is that players must essentially “metagame” how the designers actually intended the game to be played.

For example, in Hellion you awake from cryo-sleep inside a life pod without functioning Life Support. While there are a few tablets on the ground which give you a general idea of steps to take, that is basically all the guidance you are given. I searched the area and did not find enough items onboard to repair the Life Support. I found a jetpack without fuel, and supposedly a charging station for said jetpack, but could not determine a way to refuel.

So… what now? Did I miss an item in the search of the ship? Am I supposed to try and space walk without a jetpack? Is it a bug that there weren’t enough items to repair the Life Support? I have mentioned before that I am fine with tough puzzles, as long as I understand where the pieces are. What I absolutely despise is not knowing whether my failures are due to not performing correctly, or because I didn’t trip some programming flag from 10 minutes ago, or some other nonsense.


Somewhat more literal cold open.

I had a similar issue in The Long Dark, of which I played about an hour before turning off. It takes 30 game minutes to break a stick into pieces by hand? Okay, fine. But having found a shelter and tools, I saw no particular way to locate food, or reconcile my exhaustion meter with my temperature meter with the time of day, e.g. how was I to sleep and keep warm in the middle of the day and still survive the night? I understand that perhaps the intention is for the player to be constantly on edge in the quest for survival, but again, I’m not even sure how food really even works in this game yet. I have not seen any flora or fauna beyond sticks and snow.

Flailing around in the darkness is not my idea of quality game time.

I’m not saying game designers should go full Ocarina of Time and have Navi pester you for hours. Minecraft has (had?) a cold open that was relatively straightforward once you got over the intellectual hump of punching trees. Don’t Starve is a much better example of how to do a cold open – there isn’t much of an explanation of anything, but I still felt a sense of agency in being able to interact with things.

And maybe that’s just it: I might not be doing the right things, but being able to do something is important.

I dunno. I think the best compromise would be to have cold opens with a fairly robust PDA/AI Assistant/Crafting Menu. Those that want to wander around blindly can, but those who want to know what they can do… well, can.


Posted on March 8, 2017, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I have literally never heard the term “Cold Open” before. I googled it and apparently it originates in TV.

    The term I was taught when I was at University reading English Literature was “in media res”. Miriam-Webster gives the first known use as 1786 although obviously the process goes back to Homer and beyond.

    I quite like “Cold Open”. I might use it instead of “in media res” in future. They seem to be identical in meaning.


    • Yeah, “cold open” wouldn’t really be relevant to literature, since there are no title screens and such. Unless perhaps the book cover counts? ;)


  2. In the long dark, there is apparently a way to melt snow to get water. The game doesn’t ever indicate that this is possible, leading me to run out of liquids every time I tried it.


    • The water deal was just a random icon on the Fire menu, which I discovered by accident. Otherwise, yeah, I would never have thought about it. Although, I did think it was silly I couldn’t just scoop some snow into my mouth – I’ve heard that that isn’t good survival-wise due to getting colder, but probably preferable to dying of thirst.


  3. I find it very interesting that you got that impression from The Long Dark, because I’ve found it to be one of the most realistic and intuitive survival games out there. Thinking about it, I imagine some of it could be attributed to the fact that 1) I grew up and live in the Canadian prairies which has a cold and extended winter and 2) I have some passing interest in real life survival.

    For example, it’s very common knowledge here that you counteract well-below freezing temperatures with more/better layers of clothing. Windchill, which is a big factor here in the winter, is dealt with by wearing windproof outer layers, walking in sheltered areas, or just staying indoors.

    Nights are basically there for sleeping (preferably indoors) and maybe doing some indoor stuff if you have the extra time. Not just because it’s colder but also because the lack of electrical lights makes it impossible to see (also something I’ve experienced growing up in a rural area). I actually think they were rather forgiving with the night lengths considering that in December, we’ll get maybe 7 hours of light a day. And this is in a more southern area of the Canadian prairies.

    Animals are pretty scarce in the winter because of migration and hiberation, and pretty much all plants are going to be dead because it’s really cold. This is another part that I think they were rather forgiving on since there’s way more animals than you’d realistically find in an area and there are a few plants you can still find (although mostly for medicinal purposes). So the best place to find food is where other humans left it, aka inside their houses. Basically you’re not so much a mighty hunter or expert farmer as you are a scavenger living on the reminiscent of a decimated society. Although if you can find dead deer to butcher or ice fishing spots, those are also good for some food.

    And finally, it honestly boggles my mind that snow + heat = water is something that not everyone knows. Hauling snow inside to melt it into drinking water wasn’t just common for prairie pioneers but also for generations as recently as my parents. When you have no indoor plumbing and wells have frozen over, it’s just what you do. Eating snow doesn’t really work not only because of the temperature like you mentioned, but also because it’s about 10 times less dense than water (ie. 10 cups of snow = 1 cup of water). So it would be an inefficient way to hydrate yourself. I also speak from personal experience there (yes, silly kid me thought it was a good idea to eat snow). And can I just say that I’d take melted snow over whatever putrid concoction I’m apparently scooping out of the various toilets in the game? :P

    Anyways, that’s just how my experiences have affected how I view the game. Considering that The Long Dark was made by a Canadian company, perhaps they assumed a similar sort of innate knowledge on the player’s part? There is also a Story Mode that will come out eventually, maybe that will have a more comprehensive tutorial.


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