Giant Bomb defines “backtracking”, in part, as the following:
“Backtracking is often a derogatory term used to describe a situation in a game where the player must return to previously encountered locations in order to continue advancing the game”
Most of the time, backtracking is annoying, even when realism-wise it’s a little dubious how the game’s hero is able to make it all the way out of perilous situation X while off camera. But as is usually the case, the real answer on backtracking is “it depends”. Sometimes, in small doses, it can be very effective.
Hotline Miami (Steam link) is a super-violent action game that has earned a lot of attention as an indie PC title released in October 2012. It uses backtracking in a brilliant fashion – to really hammer home the game’s own meta-commentary on violence in games.
If you haven’t played Hotline Miami before, the basics are simple. You arrive in a building, kill everyone inside, then leave. As you’re making your way through the building, intense electronic music plays, pushing you onward. Once you’ve reached the end of the building, the music stops, and you have to walk back out to the car, through all the carnage that you just caused. Here’s a quick video of exiting one of the missions (warning – graphic pixel-violence is in this video):
In most games, when an enemy dies, they just disappear. In Call of Duty, you don’t see bodies stacked up on the battlefield. But in Hotline Miami, all of the blood and bodies stick around exactly where you left them, and it’s a powerful mechanic to really get the player to notice all the killing that’s been going on. And that’s exactly the point – without going into details of the plot, the whole purpose of all the violence in Hotline Miami is a commentary on violence in the gaming industry. There’s a great Gamasutra article on the topic if you want the full-on spoiler-riffic details.
Okay, so the game wants you to notice all the people you’ve killed. Does that mean that backtracking is cool, as long as there’s some deeper meaning? Is it okay to make the player get all the way out of the 10th level of the dungeon because it’s more realistic? No, of course not. Everything in this game is fast-paced, and getting out of the level doesn’t take more than 30 seconds, even on the larger maps. And, it offers the player a chance to seek out any collectables they may have missed along the way. There aren’t a ton of things to collect, but you’re probably going to be too busy killing people the first time through to worry about the collectables that much.
Backtracking in games is still generally a bad idea, though in certain circumstances, it can be effective. While there aren’t many laws of user experience, I might postulate that don’t waste the user’s time would be one. Hotline Miami is an excellent example of backtracking that is both meaningful and not annoying.
What other games have you played that included backtracking in a positive – or at least neutral – way? Drop a note in the comments!