I played my way through Bioshock Infinite recently, and was struck by a major similarity it had with the original Bioshock. One major common thread that crossed through the entirely different settings, the different narrative styles, the different gameplay engines, that really popped out at me, so much so that every time I looked back on the games, I just couldn’t seem to get my thoughts away from it. No, it’s not the shared themes. No, it’s not the dual magic/guns gameplay. Instead, it’s something much more basic, much more overarching, much more meta.
Namely, Ken Levine et al cannot pace their game’s narratives for beans.
One thing I’ve found when dealing with creating art, though, is that obvious problems in the work are rarely simple as they seem. That glaring problem in a story that seems like it should be so obvious where it comes from and how to fix it? The real issue is likely caused by something seemingly benign several layers down, and the obvious fix would cause several problems in the story to arise on their own. It’d be easy to say that the creative team behind Bioshock and Infinite just have a bad storytelling habit. The truth of the matter is, though, while it’s obvious that Irrational Games really don’t have a grasp on good storyline pacing in videogames, “You’re bad at writing!” is not really much of a diagnosis, and the two games have completely inconsistent and opposing pacing problems, pointing at completely different aspects of the work that got away from them. The first Bioshock had a very simple storyline that was waaaaay stretched out over the course of the game’s runtime, and didn’t seem to care about matching up gameplay climaxes with the emotional and narrative climaxes. Bioshock Infinite had a much more complex story but ended up crowding a lot of events and revelations together, and had several instances where the gameplay actively tore your attention away from the narrative, distracting you with fights while plot was still going on. Between the two games, it’s easy to say Irrational is weak at pacing, but the flaws are too inconsistent to point to any specific quirk, technique, or style that’s causing the weakness.
It’s not entirely surprising, though. After all, video games are an incredibly young medium, and the time they’ve been seriously used for storytelling is even briefer than that. There’s not nearly as much documented studies of video game storytelling as there are for things like movies and literature, little opportunities to become educated on the subject, and few people who have been in the industry long enough to have gotten good at it.
So, I figured, hey, I should take the opportunity to work out how video game pacing might work myself myself. After all, I got A’s in both my game-focused programming classes and in my creative writing classes in high school, so that obviously makes the country’s premier expert on the subject! I have a responsibility to use my big, sexy brain for the betterment of mankind, and what better way to do that by making a few people slightly more enlightened about interactive electronic entertainment? There is no better way, obviously. So here we go: a brief glimpse into the art of narrative pacing in video games.