I had planned for a big, elaborate introduction here. But then I got stressed and sick and now I’m having trouble just focusing on the screen, so nuts to that. Here’s the 2nd part to this post, where we talk about pacing of narratives in video games. Last time we established the differences between narrative and gameplay pacing, this time we’re talking about how to get the two to play nice together.
Recognizing Your Tools
Most mediums for storytelling have fairly standard tricks for quickly adjusting the pace of a work. Books can jump between characters to always hit the most eventful moments at the right time, expand on the description and dialogue when its time to slow things down, or merely give readers a sense of complex happenings rather than having them shown in full, depending on what rate the author’s wanting things to move at. Films can make use of montages to speed up the narrative passage of time, make a lot of jump cuts to instill a sense of speed, or linger on long shots and facial expressions when it’s time to slow things down. Comics and graphic novels have long used the space between panels to imply more things are happening than being shown without affecting the narrative flow, and used the number of panels on a page to control how fast they’re being read through. I’d say that nearly all forms of storytelling have a set of basic tools for brute-force controlling pacing, that nearly all competent creators are so well versed in just from absorbing other media of the type that they’re able to implement them without even thinking.
I don’t think, however, that’s the case for video games. At least, not so much as it is for other mediums. Storytelling has a comparatively brief history in gaming, and study into the medium’s capabilities has been lacking. They just haven’t been around long enough for creators to pick up en mass ideas of what works and what doesn’t; what tricks can be employed to mechanically adjust the narrative pace and what maneuvers have a harmful effect on the work. This is one major area that I feel designers’ constant need to look to films for cues in videogame storytelling is a huge feeling. Sure, some of the same tools might be in play, but only for cutscenes. And cutscenes should really only be used when the plot can’t be adequately served by the gameplay engine. Instead, to really advance videogames as a storytelling medium, developers are going to need to learn to use tools specific to this unique artform.
And what tools are those, exactly? Well, if I knew, I’d be off making money as a pretentious videogame auteur and this blog would be a lot more popular. Based on my knowledge of writing stories and common game structures, though, I can at least make some educated guesses.