Playful Narrative is a series of short irregularly updated articles each focused around a single lesson or point to remember when writing for games.
Build a recap function
There is only one reason I’ve never really gotten the hang of playing a Zelda game: I get lost. Not lost in the game world because of routing or other game design issues, no, lost because I’m an irregular player. I pick up a game, play it for a couple of days, then have a busy period and leave the game to pick it up again sometime later. The only problem is, you can’t. Picking up a Zelda game after, say, three weeks, is like waking up in a room you’ve never seen before. You have no clue how you got there, where you were going and what is happening. And Zelda isn’t alone. Adventure games and other story led games are often build with a certain pacing, disregarding the idea that barely anyone finishes a game within a week, leave alone in one solid play session. In some cases this will mean having to backtrack a little to get back into the game, or losing some of the original pacing. In extreme cases though, this means it´s often faster to start the game anew than attempt to backtrack until you get a sense of what you were doing.
Because games don’t allow the player to read back like they would in a book, there is no ´previously on…´ like within a tv-series and they aren’t completed in one session like a movie, they have a serious need for a recap function. Players are going to get back to your game after not playing for hours, days, weeks or even months, so you’d better prepare for it. These other media forms suggest a couple of solutions, though ‘reading back’ into a game by some form of diary or even watching such a device through cutscenes in the form of a ‘previously on’ isn’t very elegant. Not least because besides the general storyline, the player will want to backtrack on very specific details like ‘which doors did I already open’ and ‘what was this weird item for again’.
There’s always wisdom to be borrowed though, in this case from the soap. Soaps are possibly not what comes to mind first when you think of writing and narrative design, but there are many narrative devices and tricks in this genre that you can learn from as a writer. One of them is what I call the ‘drive-by recap’, it’s a quick and elegant way of recapping vital information exactly when it becomes relevant, without a need for active backtracking. It goes like this: Whenever something resurfaces in the story, a character recaps the most vital bits of information about it in dialogue that is in line with the overall story1. For example, old character Jimmy calls after having been absent from the story for an entire season. The dialogue that follows would be along these lines:
Character 1: Who’s that?
Character 2: (While answering the phone, whispers) Jimmy
Character 1: Jimmy?! You mean the one who you-
Character 2: – Yes the one I used to date before I was with Bob.
Character 1: But he hasn’t called you all year?
Character 2: No, he was serving in Iraq
This immediately gives new viewers the most vital information about the character Jimmy and his relation to other characters while recapping this for regular followers of the show, all packed away in natural dialogue.
This of course requires some skill to translate to the narrative of a game, but that isn’t all too hard once you get the hang of it. It can’t be done with everything, but it is a very useful trick to recap on events, characters, items and other aspects with narrative significance. What you’re left with then is everything you can file under the category ‘doors and keys’: aspects of the game that are somewhat insignificant to the story and as such can’t be recapped through it, but are very important for the gameplay. This category can be solved in a multitude of ways, the most important guideline here is that these aspects are not story related and shouldn’t be made as such just for the purpose of recapping information2. These fixes will always be very game and style specific, aiming most of all to bridge the gap that falls in the usual routing when a playing session is interrupted and continued later.
This week’s point to remember
Build a recap function in your game, to recap the narrative and to support the routing.
Next time in Playful Narrative: Credibility matters
Whether you totally agree with me or feel like I completely miss the point, let me know in the comments or get in touch! See you next time.
- And as such does not noticeably break it up or ‘pause’ it. [↩]
- Some examples of fixing these would be maps that mark visited areas or points of interest, characters mentioning information like ‘I think I’ve been here before’ when opening already visited areas, or adding notes or examine functions to items in the inventory of the player that explain their relevance at that point in the game. [↩]