Pause to Reflect: RPGs, Pausing, and the Lack of Thereof

Pause to Reflect: RPGs, Pausing, and the Lack of Thereof

As much as many of us enjoy games of various genres we will at some point or another experience interruptions in our hobby. The convenience known as the pause button has existed throughout several console generations to give players the ability to temporarily break from their gaming for whatever life throws at them, be it a phone call, a ring at the doorbell, a meal, a trip to the bathroom, and so forth. Yet shockingly, those of us who primarily play RPGs, nine times out of ten (estimates may vary), do not receive this option.

What’s more, RPGs, even prominent ones, without some kind of universal pause feature, have consistently appeared throughout every console generation. While RPGs with real-time elements do often feature some kind of pause, most turn-based titles do not. A pause feature is certainly necessary in real-time RPGs, because otherwise, breaking from the game for a sudden interruption, particularly in the middle of a difficult battle, would yield unfortunate results such as a dreaded Game Over screen. Most turn-based RPGs, conversely, do not feature a pause button, with developers perhaps assuming that because the action of battle can stop as the player mulls command input, they can still break from the game without fear of lost progress in combat.

There are, however, a select few real-time RPGs with no pause button at all, such as tri-Ace’s Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, although it is still possible to “pause” the action of combat by bringing up the combat menu. Some turn-based RPGs, moreover, may feature real-time elements in their battle systems, such as the Xenosaga trilogy and Suikoden V (in the case of its strategy battles), but again, no pause button, even though in the latter title, a “pause” exists in the form of bringing up the battle menu.

There are plenty of places outside battle where pausing might or might not exist, such as normal exploration, cutscenes, and mini-games. Sometimes, standard exploration of fields and dungeons may completely lack real-time elements, so players can still break from the game without fear of missing anything, but if there are real-time elements, such as visible monsters, players can “pause” by bringing up the game menus. In many RPG cutscenes, moreover, the action can “pause” in between dialogue boxes (with button presses advancing these scenes), again providing an opportunity to break away from the game should a life interruption come.

However, in other cases, particularly when voice acting is present, dialogue might scroll automatically (optional in some games such as the third and fourth Persona titles), with pausing sometimes being unavailable, in some instances causing players to miss scenes if an interruption occurs. Mini-games, too, might have real-time elements, although in many cases, pausing is again disabled, providing plenty of opportunities for screw-ups should sudden life interruptions occur. The main point of this editorial is that pausing should be available anywhere regardless of the situation, whether a game is turn-based or not.

Some gamers, however, might consider the lack of a true universal pause button to be a trivial flaw, but since this writer is constantly interrupted by things such as his family, answering the phone, and suddenly having to go to the bathroom, the lack of a pause feature at times can be vexing. Recently, I had the pleasure of playing Persona 4, a title with no pause feature whatsoever, with the volume muted while scheduling a job interview, bringing up another small point: having to reach for the remote to mute the volume when no pause is available and/or if a game’s pause feature doesn’t mute the volume, and we definitely don’t want our game to interrupt our conversations, yes?

Even if there are many places where the action of the game stops, like exploration, there is still no excuse whatsoever for no pause feature, given the many interruptions life will undoubtedly throw our way, and the fact that the start button most controllers have often goes unused. Persona 4, as mentioned, has no pause at all, which can be a burden if the player sets cutscene dialogue to automatically advance, with the player consequentially able to miss important scenes and rare anime sequences, where pressing the start button, lamentably, skips them entirely. I’m fairly certain the Japanese experience as many interruptions as we American gamers do, so why, then, do developers turn a deaf ear to such gamers?

Part of it could have to do with the failure of Japanese and American game reviewers to even criticize companies for not including a pause button in their games, or perhaps the sheer laziness of game developers. Even those games that do have some kind of pause feature tend to not implement it universally or properly. For instance, Ar tonelico II only allows for pausing during its mostly real-time battles, Kingdom Hearts lacks a pause feature during normal exploration, Parasite Eve II has no pausing during its cutscenes, and the first Dark Cloud doesn’t mute the volume when paused. In fact, one of very few examples of an RPG I’ve played with a perfect pause feature is the last game’s sequel, Dark Cloud 2.

One may ask, moreover, why pausing would be necessary in purely-turn-based RPGs with no real-time elements, with cutscenes that advance as we please with button presses, and where we consequentially have no fear of missing anything despite real-life interruptions. Well, some of us, such as this game critic, wish to accurately gauge our overall playing time, and when we have to break from our games, the game clock will likely not stop, adding extra minutes to our time spent playing, which can, if we’re especially unlucky, really add up. Moreover, certain games, such as Kingdom Hearts, err by not stopping the game clock even when paused.

There are, however, decent ways in which the pause problem is resolved. For instance, the Sega Master System had a built-in pause feature on the console, and the Nintendo DS essentially allows players to “pause” any game by closing the system. Until the day all systems have some sort of built-in pause feature or all games actually let players pause anywhere, though, game reviewers in Japan and abroad need to hammer developers more on this issue. After all, not all of us are completely immune to the constant interruptions real life will provide us, and really, is it all that difficult to implement a pause feature in the first place?

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