I hadn’t played Deus Ex: Human Revolution for weeks. Considering how much the central narrative revolves around mystery, conspiracy, and corporate intrigue, I resigned myself to suffering through a couple clueless hours before the plot sunk in again. But as the game loaded, I was presented with a pleasant surprise: written recap that I hadn’t really noticed before. The surprise isn’t so much the existence of a recap, but rather how effective yet unobtrusive it manages to be.
The recaps appear in the first loading screen, after you select “Continue” from the main menu. The information is split into several pages depending on how far you are into the story, and each page has a paragraph of material. This is the only time that events are recapped. Loading screens during the game just show tips and artwork, so you’re never faced with this “Previously On” screen while you’re actually playing. This allows Human Revolution to avoid the awkward moments that Alan Wake fell prey to, in which the game summarizes events that you just watched.
It also helps that the recaps are written. People may be more familiar with video recaps thanks to sterilized TV shows, but video is time consuming and must be watched straight through. The inherent flaw in any video recap is that players can’t interact with it; they just passively watch and have no control over what is shown. When trying to sum up a game, the developers have no idea how long the player has been away, whether it’s been hours or months, so they can’t know how much information should be reiterated to the player: Should they cover everything and include an ever-lengthening video at the beginning of every play session, or should they only cover recent events, which doesn’t help at all if you’ve forgotten the beginning of the game?
Since the summaries in Human Revolution are written and are broken up into pages, it’s very easy to browse through the information. This is a better way to recap games because it gives players control over what information they get. You can skip to the end to read about what just happened or jump to the middle for a quick refresher on why you’re going to China. Unlike with video, the player isn’t forced to watch (read) something that they already know.
There are a lot of pages on this recap screen, meaning the story is broken up into dozens of short descriptions rather than a few long descriptions. This is a great way to divide recaps because it takes short play sessions into account. Deadly Premonitions had a nice recap video every time that you loaded a game, but its episodic breaks were so few and far between that you’d end up getting the same recap even after progressing in the plot significantly. Human Revolution ensures that this won’t happen by creating a new recap page for every minor bit of plot progression.
But recaps are pointless if you can’t read them, and there have been other games that offer plot points or other things worth reading (i.e. not tips or instructions) in their loading screens: In Trenched, you could browse some fictional magazine covers while the game loaded, and there is some really funny material there. However, often the level loads before you read all the ads on the cover. Thankfully, Human Revolution‘s recap screen doesn’t disappear. Instead, when the game is ready to begin, you’re promptted to press a button to exit out of the recap screen. This allows you to read at your own pace without fear of missing information. It’s a very simple and basic addition. It’s common sense really, but it’s still worth pointing out because other games have proven the old adage that common sense isn’t common.
But what makes these recaps truly effective is how well they’re written, how each page progresses logically to the next. This is not just a summary of disjointed quests. Each page follows a template: They always end on a cliffhanger and always end with ellipses, as if ending the sentence definitively would imply an end to the game. The subsequent page resolves that cliffhanger. First, with a sentence that sets the scene (effectively recapping the recap), and then by telling us what Jensen found/saw/did/heard/etc. Then, of course, it sets up another cliffhanger . . .
This template allows the recaps to flow smoothly from one plot point to the next, without feeling disjointed or confusing. It helps that the game ignores the insubstantial side quests, allowing it a tighter focus on the more important conspiracy story.
Human Revolution has the best story recaps of any game so far: They’re well written, detailed, concise, interactive, and easily skipped. For as much as I liked Alan Wake, I’m content if I never hear the words “previously on” in a game ever again. Just as long as I can still read them . . .
You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.