As developers, the most important thing we have to worry about is the player experience; how our design decisions affect the player.
As a player, there is one thing I hate: flashbacks. Flashbacks are scenes that have happened earlier in or before the story began. Whenever a flashback is used in a game most times it’s executed poorly or carries on too long. A good example of poor execution is in Final Fantasy VIII (FF8).
Final Fantasy 8 FlashBacks
In FF8, there are flashbacks the main protagonist experience that introduce three new characters: Laguna, Kiros, and Ward. Each flashback focuses on the story of these supporting characters revealing new information in relation to the present story. The problem is the length and what a flashback does to the story.
The information provided in the flashback could have been provided in shorter sequences at important times, instead of long sequences that break up the pacing. This way the personalities of the supporting characters would be introduced without dealing with the flashback’s number one issue.
Flashbacks break the pacing of the story. Whenever these scenes come up in FF8, I dreaded them; I was taken away from the action at critical points in the story like being yanked by a cane off the big stage. If I didn’t love the franchise, I may have found the flashback confusing and given up at that point. Now, Final Fantasy VII (FF7) executes flashbacks in an alternative way.
Final Fantasy 7 FlashBacks
In FF7, when the protagonist is introducing new information through flashbacks, a single scene is shown. The character mentions the scene and discusses it as if it’s happening in the present. This present tense keeps the pace of the story without ruining the player experience. This execution can take other forms. For example, showing past memories in the present at the same location. This grounds the past to the location and keeps the scene short, sweet, and present. These are better executions of the flashback, but there are other options over using flashbacks. The other option is to introduce the information through dialogue.
Dialogue Over Flashbacks
By asking the character about the past through dialogue, you can skip flashbacks entirely. Here’s an example of the technique.
In this scenario, we are gauging the protagonist past through a supporting character.
Dart: “Hey, aren’t you that mercenary who killed thousands of men?”
Krest: “No idea what you’re talking about old man.”
Dart: “I’ve heard the stories; you’ butchered innocent traders who came to your village before you were even in 15.”
Krest: “Hah! Traders? More like vermin.”
Dart: “To think, it’s only been 2 years since then.”
Here we learn that Krest is quite the killer and that the traders may not have been as innocent as people think. Furthermore, he’s only 16. We could take this further with a traveling companion or acquaintance to expand on his past.