Flashbacks and how to do them right

So, since this popped into my mind in the other thread. Flashbacks have been a huge topic of internal discussion between me and myself over the years. All too often, they make me feel very railroaded, because all of this has already happened. I.e. I feel I don’t have any control over their outcome. In my mind, I keep hearing the game show Get on with it! at me. Which, of course, is usually also the case in “present” scenes, but it never bothers me then.

I tried writing flashbacks myself, but I was never quite satisfied with them.

What’s your design/play philosophy? How to do it right without taking away the player’s perceived (i.e. fake) control?

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For a discussion like this, flashbacks should be distinguished from cutscenes. The latter are a simpler idea, a way to explore a tangent or subplot. Flashbacks on the other hand are more complex, for the reasons you noted-- on the one hand one hopes to allow the player some sense of participation, while on the other hand guiding the player-character through an inevitable sequence (inevitable because, on a timeline, the events have already occurred and cannot be altered).

A game which handled flashbacks fairly well was Color the Truth from this year’s IF Comp. On the other hand, a game which offered inadequate flashback use was Act of Misdirection.

One important difference in these games’ use of flashback is that in Color the Truth, the player is beforehand given a rather clear idea regarding what probably needs to be accomplished during the flashback, while in most scenes of Act of Misdirection the player has no reasonable basis upon which to even speculate what either the goals or motivations of the player-character ought be.

To be effective, I think a flashback scene should separate the gameplay purpose of the scene from the mechanics of navigating through the scene. If the purpose of the flashback is elucidate characterization, then the plot of the scene should be crystal clear. If on the other hand the flashback is meant to explore some plot developments, the motivations and knowledge of the player-character should be readily available to the player. That many authors who attempt to use flashbacks fail to note this distinction is in my view one of the main reasons flashbacks (as an experience) are usually frustrating, leading us to believe flashbacks as a technique should generally be avoided.

Ballyhoo is the one game that comes to mind. I think it was done right. I agree it’s a pain if it takes too long, and I think summarizing the past is best done with examining an item, etc., or talking to people.

Color the Truth worked fairly well, because it made it very explicit that its flashbacks weren’t so much “facts set in stone”, but rather subjective and perhaps unreliable accounts. I liked that it allowed me to revisit the same scenes and try for changes. This could have gone into much more detail. Still felt quite railroaded in all instances as it was always quite clear where each scene was going.

In all writing, not just IF, a good editor upon encountering extensive flashbacks with note whether the author may be starting the story in the wrong place. If there’s a lot of background detail, why not let the player read/play it first as part of the actual story instead of going back?

Flashbacks can be intrinsic to the structure of a story. Sometimes the actual present isn’t much except a vehicle for a character to remember something. “Why am I hiding inside the train caboose in the science museum waiting for the place to close? Here’s how I got here…” Westworld made extensive use of flashbacks that were concealed from the viewer as a plot device.

One just needs to decide if a flashback is necessary, fun to play/read, or just interrupting or delaying the story. The author of course may do a lot of world-building, but is it necessary right off the bat to know all the political ins and outs and export trade goods of the fantasy setting and 500 years of historical dynasty if I’m in a medieval town and just need to find an armorsmith first thing? Would the character know all this? Are there diegetic ways for the player to learn the background via actual scenes and story bits they encounter?

A text dump at the beginning can be very off-putting. Star Wars has taught a lot of fledgling writers the exact wrong thing to do!

Star Wars also taught a lot of other storytelling sins to the general public – like having a plot without a proper protagonist in this second trilogy :wink:

I think Force Awakens is the only Star Wars movie that hooked me and kept me enthralled through the entire movie (I’m not a huge SW fan) because after the requisite crawl, the movie jumped straight into action and supplied a protagonist with immediate motivation (the stormtrooper takes off his helmet!!)

In opposition, episode 1 jumped from the crawl to an “As you and I both know, Bob” conversation about political stuff.

Surprisingly on-topic :wink: That is indeed one of the worst ways to pass background information to an audience. Maybe the general rule should be: passing information to the audience (player, viewer, reader…) should happen in an organic way. Once you feel that something is only shown in order to pass information which the characters would already have, something has gone wrong in the structure of the narrative.