I’m going to let you in on a secret: I haven’t completed many of my favourite games. All the latter-day Elder Scrolls games, Baldur’s Gate 2, The Witcher 3. I love them all dearly, but as a games journo who often needs to spread himself thin across many games rather than hyperfocus on one or two, I inevitably put them down for long stretches with the full intention of returning to them one day.
In principle, the idea of returning to a game following a break of six months, a year, or more, is fine, but the more complex a game the more awkward it is to pick up where you left off. And there are few games more complex than epic-scale choice-driven RPGs, where there’s always a big decision to be made, or a lover to be placated.
Re-entering these intricate, lore-rich worlds in which you’ve been at the centre of vast power struggles, conspiracies, and prophecies where some clairvoyant duchess dreamt that it’s your destiny to slay some tyrant can be, well, a bit intense. Sure, these games like to pretend you’re just a regular schmoe who can roam the world at your leisure, but you invariably get pulled into some seriously high-level shit whether you want to or not – it’s simply the RPG way. Coming back to these games after a long break is like the president of a country returning to their post after spending a year in a coma. There are quest checklists to go through, inventories to manage, and wars to declare; its a lot to take in.
Returning to The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings after 18 months, for instance, I’m thrown straight into an army encampment, where some prince (or king, or something), is chewing my ear off about military affairs while I stoically nod my head pretending to understand. This tides me over until a trio of dialogue choices pop up, and I’m meant to advise him on what to do next: ‘Err yeah, sure. Kill the elves and, umm, save the prince. Sounds good.’ I’m basically Russian-rouletting choices that will have a huge impact on how this epic story unfolds and ends, which kind of defeats the point in a choice-driven RPG, doesn’t it?
It gets worse in those promiscuous party-based RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. You can basically find yourself waking up from a deep sleep at your party’s base, rolling over in bed, and Jesus Christ, there’s a burly horned beast or fin-haired blue alien staring back at you, eyes glistening with adoration, going all in on the ‘deep feelings’ chat, or – in the case of more casual bedmates – reminiscing about the wild night you’ve apparently just spent together. Who is this person? Did I just– did we just– how far along in this ‘thing’ are we? Were they just lying there watching my character sleep for the last eight months since I last played the game?
It can be a disorientating time, though some games do try to ease you back into things. The Witcher 3, for example, has a lovely loading screen that presents the most recent events in your game through a narrator, complete with hand-drawn images. It’s a valiant effort, offering some kind of narrative foothold even if your memory is foggy, like you’d been up all night drinking with the Bloody Baron while he wailed about his dead baby and marital transgressions.
Tyranny is another RPG that does things elegantly. If memory serves, the game logs your passage through the game in a kind of tome format, like a historian charting the grand events of the game as you’re helping them unfold. Spend a couple of minutes delving into this well-worded journal, and you’re all caught up.
But getting up to speed with the story isn’t the only obstacle you face after a long hiatus. As any RPG player can attest, a well-stocked inventory can be a terrifying thing – squares upon lists of abstracted items with numbers and buffs and thingies attached to weapons that I vaguely remember I was going to dismantle and reattach to some other weapon but I don’t remember what that weapon was and even if I did there’s now this other weapon that would maybe be better but if it really is then why didn’t I think of that before putting the game down for a year?
Was I missing something then? Am I missing something now? I just don’t know.
How much of a break can you have from one of these games before returning to it becomes an alienating experience? At what point do you accept that you’re better off starting over? The Catch-22 is that the deeper you were into the game, the more complex it is to get back into, but the greater the guilt when you flirt with the idea of restarting; it’s not easy facing up to the idea that those 30, 40, 60 hours of progress become meaningless as soon as you click the ‘New Game’ button with trembling fingers.
Interestingly, while I bounced off my attempts to return to both The Witcher 2 and 3, I returned to Red Dead Redemption 2 with relative ease following a year-plus away from it. Its uncomplex inventory, and simple mechanics that are pretty much the same as in any Rockstar game dating back to GTA IV certainly helped, but a lot of it also came down to its tortuously cyclical narrative.
In a story about a band of drifters chasing an unattainable dream and constantly being let down by their leader, it’s not that hard to pick up where you left off because, well, Arthur, Dutch and co. aren’t exactly going anywhere, are they? That, and I couldn’t face restarting a game whose pace is so deliberately arduous and trudgy. I’m much more willing to restart Geralt’s adventures with a fresh perspective (and a clean slate of people I’ve slept with).
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