It happens to everyone. You’re enjoying the latest story-driven game or open world RPG, but suddenly, for one reason or another, you stop playing the game. Not that you weren’t enjoying the game, but it was getting late that night. Your boss wants you in early the next morning to cover someone else who quit that day with no warning. You go to work the next day and come home afterwards, but you get distracted again. Or maybe you felt like doing something else, like hitting a movie or reading a book.
Days pass, then weeks. You forget about the game for some time. You’re busy at work, trying to impress your superiors, and your mind just isn’t on the game. At some point, you make the time and plonk back down onto your favorite couch cushion. As you boot the game up, you load your save file and get to the game screen.
At this point you stare blankly at the screen. It has been a hot minute, and you can’t remember thing 1 about the game.
What was I doing?
This is the question that is sure to plague most players’ minds at one point or another in larger, story-heavy games, and it is a situation that developers of these games should be ready to handle. We live in a new age of distractions. Our smartphones are little attention vampires, constantly pulling our attention away from other things and filling our heads with information, stories, ad’s, you name it. Many people have to pull 2 jobs and don’t get much time with their games. When they do have a rare chance, there is a good chance that they’ve lost much of their memory about the game, breaking the game’s narrative flow.
When I was a kid, things were different. During the mid to late 90’s, hardly anyone had a mobile phone, and it wasn’t nearly as distracting as it is today. In addition, there were fewer video games out there, and most of the games weren’t terribly long. A good RPG lasted maybe 20 hours or so depending. Most console games predating the Playstation and N64 that weren’t RPG’s were light on story. Go save the world or whatever. Pretty boiler plate stuff. You could pick up most any game and play it without much context. Jump on the platforms. Shoot the bad guys. Beat the opposing team. Do better than you’re currently doing. If a game wanted to be long, the easy strategy was forcing the player to grind using artificial difficulty (making the enemy stats much higher than the player, such as Phantasy Star), or make the game so tough it took many tries to actually complete. The Ghosts n’ Goblins series comes to mind, especially with their tradition of “Oh you beat the game, just kidding, do it again, maybe with slight changes.”
Ghosts n’ Goblins, infamous for making players play the
game twice. This is an extreme example of artificial difficulty.
While older JRPG’s weren’t too complex with story, one issue they had was that if you came back to the game later, you most likely had no direction, especially during the middle game. Usually early-game wasn’t a big deal since the player was so weak that there wasn’t likely many places they could go (or maybe story stuff locked them out, like the bridge in FF I). Middle game was particularly problematic since that was when the player would likely have many places to go. If you quit for a month, who knows what you were trying to do? Maybe you could look around a bit or check your key items to get an inkling, but often they were a stab in the dark. This was well before the days of auto-updating quests, journal entries, waypoints, etc.
The bridge in Final Fantasy I doesn’t appear until you defeat the first boss,
Garland, preventing the player from wandering off immediately at the start.
With newer RPG games like Fallout, Skyrim, etc. the main issue is one of information overload. I remember back when I used to play WoW during Burning Crusade that I would take as many quests as I could get my greasy mitts on. It was more efficient, since sometimes you could complete a couple quests at a time before you came back to town to turn them in. Unfortunately, if I put the game down for a month, coming back I’d be staring bleary eyed at maybe 6 or 7 quests in my log, paralyzed by the choices and not knowing which I had been undertaking, Maybe if I counted 6 wolf pelts in my bag, I could guess that I was doing a quest to hunt wolves, but that was if I was lucky. Players in open world RPG’s these days can take a heavy workload of quests that can cause them to waste more time in confusion than they would actually save by trying to multitask.
So what are some options available to developers to remedy the issue of prolonged absence? Well, the easy solution would be making a game so amazing and compelling that no one could possibly put it down 😀 If you can do that, honestly the issue of prolonged absence is probably the least of your concerns since you’re likely rolling in dough from your smash hit. If you’re developing a retro-style RPG, putting in a journal that talks about story progression may be a quality-of-life update worth putting in your game. If the game has a map, consider giving the player the ability to add a custom waypoint marker on it, like Skyrim or Fallout has.
If the game has a lot of story, but the story is linear, it may be worthwhile to write a couple paragraphs (possibly coupled with a voice-over) for each natural stopping point in the story. Sonic Adventure does this; if you come back to the game, the character you select may read out a section of the story that just happened: “Eggman got a Chaos Emerald, Froggy went missing for the millionth time, etc.” It’s just a nice little bit of polish that your players will appreciate. If they don’t like/need it, they can always skip it.
When my friends and I played D&D, as a joke we would say “Last time, on Dragon Ball Z” right before the DM would catch us up on whatever we were doing last time, since most of us would have forgotten by the time the next session came around (me especially). This was a reference to how DBZ would start out new episodes with the narrator quickly going over the events of the previous episode to inform the viewers what the situation was. Why not take a little time to make the life of your players that much easier 🙂