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How Can We Solve the "Pacing Problem"?

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I haven't exactly had my ear to the ground when it comes to the philosophy of game design/writing, so my apologies if I'm being redundant. I want to share my thoughts on what I call “the pacing problem.” I'll elaborate:

First of all, I'll acknowledge that it isn't the ambition of many games to have a good story. Either they don't need one in the first place by nature (Minecraft) or else they are just kind of mindless fun and they're ok with that (Doom). "The pacing problem" doesn't really apply to these types of games. I played Alien Swarm (a really great freeware game on Steam) and others like it, and I realize that they don't want or need a "good" story. The gameplay is enough.

But other games do want a story, and oftentimes they have ambition to have an original and thought-provoking one on par with literature or film. For instance, it is explicitly the case with Bioware games (to name an example), and it is implicitly the case for a wide variety of other triple-A titles to have a good story. Even games that most people don't buy for their enlightening narratives at least make token attempts, employing writers to varying effectiveness (Borderlands or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. for example). This category of games is very much concerned with telling a rip-roaring tale (or a more cerebral one?), and that's the focus of this article.

My goal here is to express some thoughts about one big stumbling block to good story telling in games. As you've figured out by now, that stumbling block is pacing. In literature and film (the other media I'm most familiar with), pacing is a refined practice. Films obviously have complete control over the pace at which the audience digests the content, and literature does to some extent (more on that later). But in video games, pacing is thrown for a loop. The typical formula for story-based games is to reward meeting challenges with new story content. The major problem with this is that different players take wildly different amounts of time to meet those challenges. Whether it be a difficult firefight or a tricky puzzle, some gamers will spend minutes on a particular stretch of the game while others will spend hours. In fact, sometimes it's so difficult that gamers put down the game in frustration. In other words, video game writers are expected to craft a compelling narrative when the best they can do is to transfer a random amount of words at unpredictable intervals to their audience. No wonder video game story-telling is the laughing stock of other media!

What are some paths to solving this that have already been partially beaten? I'll mention a few, starting with one derived from the media of prose.

Literature has a similar “pacing problem” as video games do. Different people read at different speeds, and they also split up their reading between multiple sessions. Writers have found ways to circumvent this problem. For instance, they can use chapters to provide coded instructions to the reader about where it is best to start and stop. With that in mind, the writer will shape their narrative so that it achieves the desired affect with those stoppages in mind. They also frequently shift perspectives between multiple story lines and then weave them together. This means that even if a reader jumps out and then jumps back in, a shift in perspective can allow the writer to sync up with their reader and build the proper intensity for the narrative.*
What is an analog for chapters within video games? The obvious answer is levels. In fact, a lot of story-based games from the past through the present have actually called units of time in their game "chapters" (from Betrayal at Krondor through Metro 2033). Thus, writers for video games already have something like this solution in place. Breaking up the action into chunks like levels (and offering up bits of cut scene between them) is a tried and true formula for video games. I don't see any particular reason to meddle with it (just like I don't see the idea of chapters going away anytime soon in literature).

So, the first method of dealing with the pacing problem is breaking up the game into digestible chunks called levels. Before moving on I'll just say that there is room for more subtlety on this point. For instance, Mass Effect allows you to go on "missions" that are levels in disguise, and lets you have a semblance of control over where to go next. It amounts to the same purpose, which is to allow the creators to imbue each chunk ("mission") with its own pacing in order to draw you in, without worrying about the player getting up and leaving or getting stuck for some other reason. Obviously this isn't perfect, for within missions there are the same problems I mentioned above: meeting challenges means that different gamers reach story points at wildly different times. Wouldn't it be nice if there was some way to integrate plot developments and characterization into the very game experience itself?

That brings me to my next point: the idea of inserting story into the challenging portion of the game. I can think of two differentiated examples: the logbook and party banter. There are many examples of each, but I'll just name one game apiece here. For the logbook idea, I'll point out Bioshock. While exploring Rapture, the player comes across lots of tape recorders with messages from their owners. These are either diary entries or audio messages to loved ones or something like that. More archaic phenotypes of this idea used text logs, with the consequence that hardly anyone ever read them. They reveal, bit by bit, something about the world and what happened to it. For the banter idea, I'll name Dragon Age: Origins. While journeying with your party of four characters in this game, they will occasionally talk amongst themselves. This typically reveals something about the characters' personality and past. Whereas the logbook reveals information about the overall plot, the banter device reveals information about the characters. Either way, I think this is a promising development in development of pacing for video games.

Finally, I'll mention a more primitive method employed by game creators to bypass the "pacing problem". That's not to say it's not effective. Some games just make certain sections so easy that no one will mess them up. In effect, this makes the game more like a movie, but it typically remains interactive enough that we can comfortably say that it is still a video game. The quickest example to come to mind is MMO storytelling. Since MMO's seem to be designed with the lowest common denominator in mind, I find that their plots frequently involve instances where the character just kind of follows NPC's around and watches the story unfold. At worst they have to fight some monsters that aren't particularly hard (a concrete example of this method is the freeware Lord of the Rings Online). Like I said before, this method is...effective. But I think that if game writers lean on it too heavily, the plot might start to feel hollow to the player, and thus it could backfire.

To sum up, game writers are not ignorant of the pacing problem, and in fact have already been employing several ingenious solutions. My goal in this article was to make crystal clear the problem we have in front of us. I hope that I've spurred your thoughts on the subject.

*In fact, I often find myself annoyed at this. In all the Dragonlance books I read as a teenager I would always get really involved in some storyline, only to have the author completely jump away at the start of the next chapter. It sort of felt like the wind had been taken out of my sails, because I now had to slip into the shoes of some new batch of characters. But now I know why it was necessary: teens have short attention spans, and "restarting" at frequent intervals allowed the writer to keep some control over the pacing.


Mar 29 2013 08:53 PM

I like this article - I wish the person who voted it down had left a comment explaining why.  Other than that I have two comments.  First, could you add a sentence or two about achievement-triggered cinematics, such as those used in Sims2/Sims3, Viva Pinata, etc.  These have both good and bad points, but they are definitely a way of doling out story in response to the player's self-set pace.  Second, I don't think the short attention spans of teens is actually why people write stories with alternating or rotating viewpoints.  It has more to do with the story's internal need to keep synchronized two or more plot threads or characters representing different thematic elements.

May 23 2013 12:42 PM

enlightening ... thank you for writing this article

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