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.
One important factor that’s just ripe to be taken advantage of is the player’s investment in the plot. If you’ve gotten them properly immersed, then things aren’t just happening to the characters, they’re happening to them. And there’s no better way to push players along than to have them pissed off at other characters. In fact, if you’ve got the player immersed and you play their emotions just right, you can get them to do a lot of your pacing work for you. For example, I usually play my rpgs pretty methodically, but when one of the characters I had gotten closest to in Persona 4 was put into danger, I absolutely rushed through the dungeon to save them. Get a player invested in your story and get them worked up over something, they’ll naturally bump up the pace as they take care of business.
On the other hand, it’s pretty easy to motivate players to slow down the pace when you need to. Just give them an incentive to do so. Players are a greedy lot, so if you strategically sprinkle sidequests and hidden treasure around when you’re wanting them to take more time before they move on to the next plot point, most of them will readily follow your cues.
When it comes time to speed the pace up again, one of the most important things is to keep the player character moving forward. You can brute-force this, by imposing a timer, but I’ve generally found timed gameplay sections to be some of the least satisfying. Instead, it’s probably better to find some sort of organic method towards moving the player along. Enemies that’ll chase you and keep respawning tend to work well, but they don’t fit with every game. Probably the strongest thing to do, though, is to naturally design your levels to where the player can move from action segment to action segment with very little break in between. After clearing out one room, have another group of enemies ready immediately in the next segment. Easily mark out where the next set of enemies are, and provide a quick path to get there. Keep empty sections of your level to a minimum. There’s definitely a place for sparse enemy concentration and plenty of breaks, but you’ll want to save them for times when storyline tension is not at its height.
The design of boss battles can make or break the narrative pace of a game at a particular moment. When done right, plot-important boss fights will usually arrive at or around narrative climaxes, so that’s the time to work on maintaining a fast pace. This means these bosses should usually fight aggressively, causing the player to constantly be moving and reacting. No matter how tough the fight or how long they last, it’s vital that the player feel they’re making progress. Multi-stage bosses will be good for that, as will those who visibly show greater damage as the fight goes on. Defensive, counter-heavy, and puzzle bosses, definitely have their place, but not as the character’s rival/sworn enemy/anyone else the player fights at a fast-paced point in the plot. Those builds can be both fun and tense, may be better served in places where the plot is relatively slow-moving, to avoid dragging things down.
Factors to Avoid
One thing that a plot-first game needs to avoid at all costs are moments where the player has no idea where to go next. Getting stuck in a game is the plot equivalent of having your car break down by the side of the road. The Elder Scrolls-style objective marker system caught a lot of hate when it was first introduced for possibly holding the player’s hand a bit too much, but it did quickly and easily provide a way for the player to always know where to go next. Same situation with the Navi-style periodic hint prompts. It doesn’t have to be quite so blatant, though. In the short-term, it’s pretty easy to keep players from getting lost in your levels by using lights or colors to direct the eye towards where you want the player to go. This is actually already in place, in a lot of games. Once you know to keep an eye out for it, it pops up everywhere, where the doors or paths that lead to your next objective will be just a bit better lit than the surrounding areas. For more long-term guidance, you’ll have to use the world itself to help point the player the right way, ensuring there’s enough clues and hints that they know, or at least can figure out, where they need to be. I think the original Fallout may have done the best job of this of any game I can remember. It took several stops to find the water purification trip that served as your primary objective in the beginning of the game, but each destination had a few clues that pointed to the next as a good place to search, without being obvious about it, and eventually stumbling upon Necropolis and finding out that it held the spare chip felt like a very natural development, one that left few opportunities to lose your way.
Most games need a failure state. It’s hard to raise tension or keep players interested when there’s nothing at stake. The problem with game overs, though, is they have a tendency to wreak havoc on any sense of pacing. No matter how masterfully crafted your gameplay is, no matter how much you’ve designed it with pacing in mind, it’s all going to be ruined if your player has to go through it twice. Game overs happen. There’s no real planning for that. What you can do, however, is throw them back in the action as quickly as possible. This means generous checkpoints, skippable cutscenes, and preparations to just have minimal progress lost. If a player successfully completed a step of your level before dying to something later, don’t have them perform that step again. For that matter, you should let them get through your game over screens in a hurry. I’ve got quite a taste for a creative game over, but seeing them repeatedly robs them of enjoyment, and takes the player from in the midst of your swelling pace into moments where they’re not really doing anything at all. Failure has a tendency to bring whatever pace you’ve built crashing to a halt, and you really want to get the player back to where they were as fast as you can, to try and salvage as much of what you built as possible.
When trying to maintain a good, strong pace, you’ve got to make sure your cutscenes and gameplay coordinate well with each other. If you have a rapid, speedy cutscene, your gameplay has to match. Else you get your narrative and gameplay pacings going at different rates, and one will invariably drag the other down. Similarly, you can’t have quiet and serene cutscenes with lots of emotional resolution, then just bust out the ninjas at the end of it. That’s going to lead to some dissonance, and just make the whole thing feel like a mess.