Blog: Video Games Need “Previously on…” Recaps Each Time We Play

BioShock was basically my introduction to the “HD era” of video games. It was also the first heavily story-driven game I played in that generation. I’m not writing a review here so I won’t go into too many specifics, but it was one of those mind-blowing gaming experiences that had me consistently riveted from start to finish and I have almost no ill to speak of it, except for maybe that odd, anti-climatic final boss fight. If I were to write a review, I’d be sure to give attention to the amazing story in the game, which – I would claim – had me captivated throughout its many twists and turns, the emotions it stirred, and the psychological questions it raised.

However, in all honesty, I wasn’t exactly sure of the details of what was happening a pretty good chunk of the time.    

I could write a paragraph that summed up the basic plot (and don’t worry, if you haven’t played the game or haven’t finished it yet you won’t see anything even close to a spoiler here). I know you play as some guy with a mysterious past who finds himself in a decaying underwater metropolis called Rapture, which is now overrun by humanoid creatures with costume ball masks who seem to act like perfectly normal human beings until they flip out and try to kill you when they see you. And some guy name Atlas gets a hold of you over a radio and is trying to help you find his trapped family so that all of you can safely escape Rapture together. The man who built the place, Andrew Ryan, is a bad guy who had all these conformist rules laid out for the citizens of Rapture and now wants you dead for some reason. And then there’s these big dudes in oversized retro diving gear called Big Daddies, and they only seem to get upset when you attack one of the Children of the Corn-esque little girls that walk around with them. Oh, and there’s this drug that originally was distributed with apparently good intentions but is what caused all of the people of Rapture to turn into crazy, flame-throwing, teleporting monsters. And there’s these drugs called Plasmids that give you special powers like electric bolt attacks and the ability to turn invisible. Uh, yeah, that’s about how I remember it.

Now maybe you have played Bioshock, and you have a lot of problems with my description. It’s also very possible I’ll think a little more about it in the next few days and decide I want to change the description completely. But the point is, I only had the vaguest sense of the minutiae of the experience as I was having it, and even now as I reflect on it things don’t get much clearer. However, I still loved the game. Now maybe that speaks to the incredible gameplay and overall atmosphere of the game, but that’s not the point here.

Certainly I won’t say the game was necessarily hard to follow, or that the plot was overwrought or overly complex. The fact of the matter is, and it pains me as a hardcore, lifelong gamer to admit this, but a lot of the time I don’t truly know what’s going in on the stories of the games I play. I usually only have an “idea” of what’s going on, and that’s especially true of adventure games, RPGs, or any game of a decent length. The reason behind this probably has less to do with my ability to follow complex stories as it does the very nature of video games themselves and the way they are played. When you watch a movie, you (usually) watch the entire thing from start to finish in a single sitting. When you read a book, you wouldn’t normally read two pages today, take a week off, read 3 pages next week, and then put the book down for a month before reading another chunk. And when it comes down to it, that’s how I – and I think many other adults – play video games.

Look, I’d love it if I was able to wake up one morning, boot up one of the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest games in my backlog, and go at it hardcore until it was finished, breaking only for the consuming and subsequent expelling of food and beverages. But I’m not 15, so that just isn’t feasible. Even “shorter” games will take me weeks, maybe months to play through. It’s just the way it is when you factor in family, friends, work, chores, sleep, other hobbies, and the many other little things that get in the way of pure, uninterrupted game time. Not to mention that it isn’t as if only one must-play game gets released each month, and you have that whole month to finish it before the next one comes out. So it is just plain impossible to stay as on top of a game as would be required for me to stay immersed enough in a game’s story to never miss a beat.

What about television? Why is it that we’re able to watch a half hour- or hour-long show with gaps of at least a week between each episode and still be able to “keep up” with it? The answer is simple: pre-show recaps. Before the new show starts, we get a little refresher on not only what happened on the previous show, but often the whole saga thus far. A lot of modern cable shows, ones that have one long ongoing continuous story, will sometimes go several seasons back in their introductory recap as needed for what is going to happen on the particular episode we’re about to watch. That way we’re always up to speed. Usually all it takes is for the key points of the previous show(s) to be touched upon, and suddenly our memories of the entire thing are sufficiently jogged.

Some video games have done similar things, but far few do. And the ones that do, it’s usually just a couple of lines of text as the game is loading. More often than not, once a game loads, we’re standing in the same spot that we last left our character, with only our own memory to tell us where we are, what we’ve done, what we need to do next, and especially where we’re at in the game’s narrative. If we, you know, had to be adults for awhile and were forced to not play the game for several weeks, or even months, good luck remembering what the hell is going on. This is unacceptable. I know I can’t be the only gamer who can’t – or just doesn’t – stay aggressively on top of every game that I play and get back to it with every ounce of free time I have until it is finished. So I feel that developers need to start implementing some sort of “Previously on…” feature in games so that we aren’t completely lost if we put the game down for awhile.

It doesn’t even have to be as involved as the cutscenes, either (although that would be preferred – little clips of the various cutscenes up to the point in the game we are at). Even if it was just a paragraph or two of text, or better yet, a narrator filling you in on what’s going on in the opening moments, as the game is loading and you’re getting your bearings. The developer can go ahead and write out the game’s entire story in advance, and as you play it would slowly open up relative to the point you were at. Doesn’t seem like it’d be that hard to do. Even with the more open-ended games, there’s often still only a singular, largely unchanged overall plot running through it. I still can’t imagine it’d take that much extra work to give us a “Previously on…” update every time we start even the most branching of game stories. You game developers worked hard on those game stories, and you want us to believe that storytelling and character development in games has come so far and is either going to one day eclipse movies, or already has. So wouldn’t you want to do everything you could to make sure we are actually taking in all of this amazing storytelling, rather than just enjoying the action and only kinda-sorta knowing the reason behind it all?