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RPGs need in-game recaps to help us out

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Just like serialized TV, role-playing games should start catching us up on what we may have forgotten

artwork from Final Fantasy 4 Square Enix

One of my all-time favorite games is Mother 3. Its combat represents the pinnacle of the franchise; the characters are wonderful; its story is engaging, emotional and tragic.

But I don’t think I’ll actually ever go back to finishing that story, because I can’t for the life of me remember what’s going on. A crashed computer and a mountain of schoolwork meant I lost my Mother 3 save file, and the fear of starting over made me spend months avoiding the game entirely. Eventually, a friend convinced me to return to it ... at which point I couldn’t remember where I was in the plot, or why, or pretty much anything I’d done to get to the place I was in.

As much as I loved, and still love, playing Mother 3, I can’t see myself going back to it without that context. Yes, there are ways to catch up online, with wikis and whatnot. RPG stories can be summarized in text, but they are meant to be played — and that’s why an in-game, visual recap would be a lifesaver for these lengthy, plot-based adventures.

There are times when dropping into something in medias res is acceptable, not jarring. Not so with heavily serialized media, something that TV networks airing weekly dramas or soap operas have long been aware of. As television became increasingly dependent on ongoing story arcs, many shows began airing a refresher of what happened in the most recent episodes. The so-called “Previously on” (or even “Next on”) segment has since become a reliable crutch for overloaded viewers who watch numerous shows every week, or who take extended breaks halfway through a season.

Avatar: The Last Airbender recap sequence card
Even Avatar: The Last Airbender did this, even though it was a 30-minute cartoon.
Nickelodeon

Having a stack of shows means that wires can sometimes be crossed, or little details forgotten entirely. The same is completely true with role-playing games, each of which seem to demand complete attention in order to follow along. It’s not easy for all of us to do that, with multiple games coming out at once and other, non-gaming interruptions break into our schedules. (Maybe that interruption was a plot-y TV drama, even.) We know how we’re expected to play these RPGs, but we also know that we can’t trust ourselves to meet expectations every time. It’s why a chance to recap where we’ve been in these lengthy games would be so crucial.

Think about it: What if we had the option to load a stylish catch-up sequence when returning to Persona 5 after more than a year away? I put down Final Fantasy 4 for what I thought would be a brief hiatus, and that was when I was in high school; I’d love to boot up my Nintendo DS and be greeted with a synopsis of everything that had happened up to where I left off. Same goes for Chrono Trigger, also on DS, and Final Fantasy Tactics on PlayStation.

I can hardly remember anything that happened in Tales of Symphonia, another RPG I loved but pressed pause on after hitting a puzzle I had no patience for. I went back to it years later and finished that puzzle, but after that? I’d even forgotten how to battle properly.

A screenshot from the opening of Chrono Trigger
This is definitely a thing I remember happening in Chrono Trigger. But I couldn’t tell you who, what, where or why.
Square Enix

I played five hours of Mass Effect 2 sophomore year of college. You think I’m ever going back there without someone telling me what the hell that game is even about? Nah.

Some of these attempt to give context for what you’re doing whenever you need it. These features are only so helpful; Tales of Symphonia goes to a lot of weird places, and its brief, text-based synopses don’t quite capture the spirit of that. The original PS3 release of Mass Effect 2 begins with a recap of Mass Effect, a game I never played, and that just added even more for me to learn and soon forget.

When games like these are so reliant on their storytelling, forgetting that story means forfeiting your investment. It’s hard for me to make amends with that, because I love so many things about RPGs — story included. Mother 3’s rhythmic battle system rules, and the world is charming without knowing every detail. The accumulation of those details is what distinguishes RPGs and makes them emotional, beloved experiences. Filing all of that away in your brain is daunting and most likely impossible. If our games could just help us jog our memories, maybe we’d leave fewer of these games on the shelf, never to be touched again.