Sunday, July 8, 2012

What Video Games Taught Me About Flashbacks

When I was a teenager, I was a nerd.  I'm talking computer programming, networking, comic book reading, video game playing uber nerd.  Not a lot has changed over the years--I'm still a nerd at heart--but I don't have time to geek out the way I used to.  At seventeen, I poured hours into games like Zelda, Final Fantasy, Star Ocean, and a hundred others I can't even remember anymore.  Flash forward ten years and the most video game action I see in a month is when my son begs me to jump Robin over to the high platform in Lego Batman.  So once in a while I like to grab a new game at the store and veg out.

Friday was just such a night.  My husband was out of town, my kids were in bed, my house was clean (ish.)  Best of all, I'd read a great review on a game and had finally talked myself into buying it.  Like most things though, reviews are subjective.  As soon as the game play began, I was smack dab in the middle of a cut scene that I can only describe as a prologue.  Worse, the character dialogue went something like this:

"Well, as you know Geralt, the people will kill you if you don't tell me what I want to know."

I'm paraphrasing there.  I think there were some colorful threats about beatings and ripping out my character's guts.  You get the idea, though.  Of course my character didn't want to die, so he began to spill the story of what a flashback.

The first real game play for this game doesn't even happen in present day.  You know what's more annoying than reading a flashback at the beginning of a story?  Playing one.  Every item I pick up is essentially useless.  All the herbs and potions and swords I come across won't do me an ounce of good when I jump back into the present day (six years later.)

The whole thing was more confusing this way, too.  There are all these characters I don't know.  There are whole conversations that mean nothing to me.  I almost feel like I've been intentionally left out of the loop and that annoys me to no end.

Someone once told me that flashbacks are a clever way to show important events that will have an impact on things occurring in the present day.  I say clever my foot.  It's nothing more than the game developers (or author) scrambling to dump info on the player (or reader) because they are either too lazy to develop the plot in its own time, or they simply don't know how.  Excuse me Polish Studios, but you've got two disks worth of playable content and you're telling me you couldn't structure the plot a little better?  Shame on you.

If you're going to employ a flashback in your writing (or video game) here's a few tips to keep in mind:

Don't put a flashback in the very beginning of your story.  It should never be the first, or second, or probably even third scene.  Flashbacks are weak from the onset because they have already occurred and therefore cannot create a realistic tension.  Frame stories work, yes, but only as a novelty.  It's nice once in a while, but not as an everyday thing.  I certainly don't want to play this setup very often. (I'm talking to you, Dragon Age II!)

It's also a matter of getting acclimated to the story at hand.  Let your reader get a sense of what's going on, what this world has to offer, and who your characters are.  Then, when the time is right, feed them some of the important information that led up to the present day.

If the memory or flashback is essential and there's just no way to get around it, make it as brief as possible.  Sometimes this can be accomplished with internal dialogue, or in a conversation with another character, while other times you need a full-blown chapter devoted to the event that occurred.  Use your best judgment, but remember, the more time you spend in the past, the less connection your reader feels.

Lastly (and this is just my personal opinion,) keep it relevant.  Maybe the flashback in this game really is critical at this point in the game (I doubt it.)  For the sake of argument, I'll go ahead and give the developers that.  If that's the case, then you'd think the flashback would start at the most important moment.  Not so.  It opened with a slightly graphic sexual encounter with a chick I don't even know yet.  (I've got a whole separate rant for game ratings that I won't get into right now.)  I realize I'm not exactly the target audience for this game, but in terms of story, I fail to see how this scene was relevant.  If I'm going to suffer through a flashback, I want it to be pertinent information only.

Flashbacks can be great literary devices, if done correctly.  There are plenty of books, movies, and even the odd game or two that do the technique justice.  There are a lot more, however that give the flashback a bad name.  Don't fall into that category.  Make sure your flashbacks are not your opening scene, keep them brief and on topic, and don't confuse your reader by throwing a dozen new characters in them (unless you want your reader to be confused.)

And if you ever find yourself on the development team of a video game, don't make your first level a prologue with a flashback full of items the player can't keep.  That's just mean.


  1. Thank you for pointing out what nobody else seems to notice!!

    I've always been a huge RPG geek and the fact that the companies nowadays don't care about actual story telling blows my mind on so many levels.

    To quote a well know TV show - We have the technology.

    But nah, let's focus on making everything shinier, and giving our female leads even SKIMPIER outfits!

    Flashbacks can work, if they are... Flashes.

    Let's think about this for a moment: if the ingame character has a flash back would he think and ruminate on his entire journey?

    Who in their right minds does that? (Ah, yes and there was this one time when I wandered aimlessly around for two hours because I forgot to pick up the key!) That's not a flashback. That's a memoir.

    I think they wanted to add an element of suspense in Dragon Age with that carrot dangling from a stick tactic.

    Look at this cool shizz! Now play through the game if you want to know what happens!

    Doesn't work. just doesn't work. If the outcome of my journey is predetermined all the suspense goes down the proverbial drain. I loose the feeling of having a choice. The game becomes a slog.

    I think a lot of cool story telling can be done with video games. It's up to the creators to experiment.

  2. I'm with you. In the last few years it seems like story has taken a backseat to graphics. I like to play games with graphic appeal, but not at the expense of an engaging plot. I like what games started doing with the "choose your own ending" technique in games like Fable or Mass Effect, but I think by Mass Effect 3, that sort of came to an end.
    I'm really sad to see the immersive storytelling in games dying off. I don't hold out much hope for the Japanese franchises that used to dominate the RPG market, now that they have to compete so heavily with lazy American game makers. I think it's a matter of time before we see the RPG disappear entirely. At least here in the US.

  3. I wouldn't say that RPGs will disappear as such, but I can see a future where we will have grind-fests that pretend to be RPGs.

    The Japanese market has hit rock bottom ever since Final Fantasy 14 came out. They made some questionable changes to the game mechanic, because some a-hole Bioware bigwig posted multiple posts about how Japanese RPGs aren't really RPGs, but turn-based combat adventure games (really Bioware? Really?).

    The hoidy-toidy fanboys agreed and now we have like 4 (5 if you count Zelda) major Japanese franchises:

    Final Fantasy, Tales, Kingdom Hearts and Persona (the last one being my favorite).

    Also, the advent of the MMO rpgs really damaged the story telling aspect of the RPG. Not to sound like a curmudgeon, but nowadays it's all about cool gear and achievements. The people who grew up expecting those to be the norm need to experience an adventure with a gripping story and characters.

    Skyrim has almost no plot, but a lot of sandbox freedom and side quests. Fall Out 3 did well until you reach the ending and you are not even given a choice on how you want to end the game (no, you go into the Radioactive chamber of doom, that's your job. And I have a bajilion packs of Redex. Why CAN'T I survive?)

    But there's always the exception to the rule like Mass Effect 1. Oh, and Witcher and Witcher 2!

    Also there's a little known, but quite enjoyable, Japanese RPG series called Mana Khemia. Might want to give those games a shake. :)

  4. I'm not going to embarrass myself by attempting to sound intelligent about RPGs. But I am reading carefully between the lines to see that you are at home, living in what sounds like a normal state of existence. Therefore, things are alright with you and your neighborhood? I'm glad to here it. You've been on my mind a lot this week.

    1. We are doing well, yes. And thank you so much for thinking of us. We are getting torrential downpours right now in fact. The fires in Colorado Springs are out and we had flooding the other day. I'm hoping our weather balances out soon!

    2. I was wondering about this too - so glad to hear the fires are finally out.

  5. Trisha, glad to hear things are getting better.

    I never got into to computer games. My husband used to play them a lot though. I remember him saying that the Final Fantasy story lines were really awesome. It was worth playing the game just for the story (I think it was Final Fantasy).

    But this is excellent advice on using flashbacks. As a reader, I want the story to start with the actual story. Flashbacks need to short, relevant, and only when I've been teased enough that I'm dying to know what happened. :)

  6. Great advice on flashbacks. And, I, too, and glad you're safe and sound.


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