Proper Pacing of the Video Game Narrative, Part 1

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.

Two Types of Pacing

So it might help our case to start out by defining what narrative pacing is. A work’s pace is something that’s omnipresent, something that can absolutely make or break a story, yet oddly, doesn’t seem to get talked about nearly as much as other subjects. Pace is such an innate part of storytelling that most experienced writers don’t even need to think about it, it just flows unconsciously into their work from the scenes they’re trying to create. Yet it’s so prevalent in a work that most creators will have absorbed at least some sense of pace just from the television/movies/stories they consume.

Narrative pacing is, in essence, the sense of frequency of things happening in the story. It’s the manipulation of the rate at which the narrative moves to give the work energy or instill a sense of time passing. It is the artist exercising control over the rate the story flows to ensure everything is delivered just as they want it to the consumer. It’s just the artist controlling how much happened in a certain amount of space to make sure they have the right impact, pretty much. It sounds so simple, when you break it down like that. Yet it’s absolutely vital to how a work comes off.

Next time you’re going through your story of choice, pay attention to how it flows. Watch those quiet, serene scenes. You notice how much longer the camera lingers on the environment, how much more description the author puts forward, how much more time the voice actors take to give their lines? Then go get into a good fight scene. Watch how often the camera cuts to something else, how the author is strictly moving from action to action with little embellishment in between, how much smaller and more crowded the panels get. That’s pacing in action. Lots of camera cuts, movement, and actions in a short space moves events along faster, and create a sense of energy. Long, serene moments slow down the pace and create feelings of reflection and relaxation. Any work needs both of those; something that constantly holds to the same pace just gets monotonous.

The unique things about video games, though, is that they have to deal with a completely different type of pacing at the same time. Game developers have to manage the pace of gameplay, as well, dictating the rate at which the player has to act. Surrounding a player character with enemies and having them dodge a maze of attacks before launching wildly into the fray? That’s fast pacing. Fighting a sluggish, implacable enemy with a large health bar who takes a huge amount of hits to bring down without putting up much offense of his own? Slow pacing. Perhaps because of most developers seemingly viewing gameplay and story as different segments of a whole, require different approaches. Creating an engaging narrative requires different tools than creating engaging gameplay. While camera cuts, time skips, summaries and flashbacks can boost the pace of a good cutscene, those same things would make gameplay segments borderline unplayable. At the same time, trying to add elements of gameplay tension and pacing to story segments are what led to quicktime events, and those have rarely proven to be a good thing for gaming.

The two types of pacing are interrelated, and engagement in one can make the other feel stronger. You remember that one game you were playing, where that one villain killed that one character you like and then later in the game you got to beat him up some and it felt so good? That’s the narrative affecting enjoyment of gameplay. And that happens all the time. You remember how dog-smacking horrible the gameplay was in Spec Ops: The Line? Yet, because the story was so strong, you don’t actually see many people expressing their frustration or boredom with it. The story made people enjoy the gameplay more.

It is very common for developers to keep their pacing inconsistent between narrative and gameplay. They’ll do things such as have major encounters with storyline villains, where the pace should be picking up, take place against barrier-change bosses, driving the pace down. They’ll throw random encounters with unrelated goons everywhere, in spite of the assault that happened while you were away from your hometown that you’re on your way to break. They’ll give you a desperate need to beat your rival team to a location OMG RIGHT NAO!!!111 but put stupid backtrack puzzles in your way. This is bad. If your narrative pace doesn’t match your gameplay pace, the whole thing just becomes a confusing mess on par with the last level of Bioshock. And do you want to play the last level of Bioshock again? No. No you don’t. When the narrative reaches its peak, the pace of gameplay needs to speed up to match it. More and/or stronger enemies should be faced, to take advantage of and enhance the tension. Boss fights should be placed around important story moments. Players should be able to move through the dungeon faster, and not be distracted by branching paths and shiny baubles. Aggressive play should be encouraged. You remember the ending of Dragon Age, when the Darkspawn attack reached its climax and the game threw scores of low-level goons at you so you were cutting down entire squads in seconds? That’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about here. That was a moment of high tension in the story, and the gameplay had you rapidly conquering threats to match it.

On the other hand, when events in the narrative are resolving? That’s when you slow down the gameplay pace. Give players the chance to visit towns and play minigames. Start introducing unrelated sidequests. Keep the enemies away and let them idly collect items in their abandoned buildings. As the narration starts building towards the next climax? That’s where the players should be questing through dungeons. That’s where they should be thrown into new and unusual settings. That’s where you have them work through progressively larger groups of faceless mooks.

The best example I can think of at the moment, in matching gameplay pace with narrative pace, is The Last of Us. Man, did that game do a beauty of a job at this. Major twists are usually followed by a tense, brief battle, then a time where you barely had to deal with any enemies to give you room to accept and digest. When things are starting to ramp up in the story, the developers had a habit of just skipping the stealth segments entirely and having you rushed by waves upon waves of enemies. Every gameplay arc starts with you just exploring the setting and collecting resources, builds up with a series of enemy groups how you can choose to either stealth through or engage in brief combat with, hits a climax with a major battle, then slows down to allow you to accept and absorb before moving on to the next segment. And it’s no coincidence that you get your only automatic weapon at the emotional height of the story.

The Player

Let’s play pretend for a second here. Let’s imagine that you’re writing yourself a nice story. You’ve got a great setting, beautifully developed characters, and you’re really getting into moving the plot forward. There’s just one problem though. Your main character has a mind of his own. And he’s a total dick! Seriously, you try to put a nice, engaging personal conflict in front of them, but they just want to spend hours driving cars over nameless bystanders. You finally get them in a climactic clash against their greatest rival, they use some technique you’ve never even heard of to finish the fight in seconds. You put their father in mortal danger, and they’re just hanging around counting the petals on flowers. Finally, you reach the last battle, you have them fight the fiercest beast from the greatest depths of your mind, you have the highest stakes in play, and your protagonist is so rude, he has the cruel indecency to just up and die!

All the potential a developer gives a player, all the power, all the freedom, they come at a price. Namely, that’s the creators putting a character into a work that they can’t completely control. And I can’t even imagine how difficult it is pulling off a tight narrative with a character you can’t control. Sure, it’s certainly possible to have a video game where you’re in complete control of the character, only freeing the protagonist from your controlled cutscenes when the enemies are already upon them, but that wouldn’t make for good gameplay.

Instead, a developer needs to accept the role over a player, that of a guide, manipulator, and dungeon master rather than a direct controller. The goal is to inspire the player to match the desired pacing, rather than to attempt to force them to match it. A really good, engaging story may do that on it’s own, but most can be helped along with properly designed gameplay. Ideally, you’ll want to keep the player moving. Giving the player a time limit could achieve that, but that’s a brute force technique and should be used sparingly. Organic methods of instilling movement would be stronger. That’d be enemies that continually require the player to duck and weave, punch attacks that at least feel productive, or nearby goals that use the players immersion to motivate them towards.

The enemies the player’s faced with may be one of the strongest tools for determining pace. Lots of fast, quickly killed enemies will speed up the pace, while defensive enemies will lower it. Keeping pressure on the players over long periods of time will increase pace and tension, while sporadically paced enemies slow things down. Enemies constantly in your face, requiring you to duck and weave and pick your moments? Fast pace. Enemies that only attack once in a while, from a distance, and only open themselves up for brief moments? Slow pace. Both sides definitely have their place. Just be careful you’re using them properly.

One particular problem with pacing game developers just can’t seem to get around is with bosses. A well done boss fight is usually the high point of the game. Conversely, poorly done boss fights just drag the whole experience down. The two most common boss types, at least in my experience, are the boss that’s pretty much just an average goon with way more health and immunity to flinching, and the boss that only opens him/herself up to damage once you’ve followed the right steps or waited around long enough. Both of those are horrible examples of the form, generally coming in at the highest points of tension, yet requiring a horribly played-out style of combat that naturally drives the tension downwards. You want a boss that can keep the pressure on, keeping the player moving right up until the end, and neither of those types can traditionally achieve that.

Of course, sometimes players just fail. Not me, but other players do all the time. And game over screens are absolutely horrible for pacing. They break the player out of immersion, destroy all the momentum you’ve built up, and ruin all sense of tension as the player just goes back and tries again. There’s no getting around them, some risk of failure is necessary, or else the game just isn’t fun. But the player needs to be able to get back into the action as quickly as possible, to maintain as much of the work put into building things up as you can.

And, of course, sometimes you just need to recognize that players are their own beast. They’ll have fun their own way, and there’s not much you can do about it. The best thing to do, then, is to make sure they have opportunities to screw around without messing up your pace. Give them chances to pursue those sidequests, while the pace is low. Set time in between missions, to let them sniff the flowers and kill the bystanders. Have a few lulls between rooms of enemies, so they have the freedom to screw around. And if they mess up your pace anyways? Well, that’s their own decision. Not much you can do about that.

Urgh, you know what?  This is getting longer than I had originally expected, and my time is fairly limited.  So we’ll have to finish this up in part 2.

4 responses to “Proper Pacing of the Video Game Narrative, Part 1

  1. I enjoyed this. I agree with you completely about The Last of Us. Tight, controlled storytelling by someone who obviously knows what they are doing. Wonder if the director ever played tabletop RPGs? Seems to me more game creators could benefit from a few years behind the DM screen. I thought Shadow of the Colossus was also amazingly paced, but I know many who would disagree with me.
    Good post.

    • Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      It’s been a long while since I played Shadow of the Colossus, but from what I remember, it is fairly strongly paced aside from the odd colossi that took me a little too long to get through. The structure of the game naturally gives it a good variance, starting nice and relaxed, building up an hitting a climax once you’ve discovered a colossi, before slowing down and starting the cycle over again while continually building tension throughout the entire piece. That’s really what you want in a narrative.

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