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Beyond Pacing: Games Aren't Hollywood

May 21, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In an in-depth design article, People Can Fly (Painkiller) designer Wesolowski looks at games from Freelancer through Thief and beyond to examine the all-important art of correct pacing in video games.]

Good pacing can be essential to gameplay, just like it's essential to great adventures on the big screen. Game developers often look up to Hollywood for guidance, which seems to work well -- for at least some titles.

But there are major differences between the media, ones that we cannot ignore. Following big screen examples helped us make our baby steps, but ultimately it's a dead end, because it turns good games into bad movies.

Cinematic Experience

Modern media are younger than we realize. My grandmother remembers Life Without Radio; my parents remember Life Without TV; and I remember Life Without Computers. By contrast, both drama and literature were widespread in ancient Greece.

The first computer games were created some fifty years ago, but another two decades had to pass until there were enough players around to talk about them. Some keep complaining about the lack of critical vocabulary to this day. On the scale of cultural maturity, we're toddlers.

Like all children, we haven't really made up our minds yet. Instead, we look up to other media, and film in particular. But cinema is only about a hundred years old itself, so we're toddlers looking up to high schoolers. We think the bigger kid is so much like us, because it relies on sound and animated images like we do.

Films, too, require teamwork, merge art with advanced technology, and have similarly large budgets. And yet, they are so much more successful that we feel a little envious at times. We don't look up to just any film. Our ambition is to be like Star Wars and James Bond when we grow up.

There is an obvious difference between the toddler and the high schooler. Games are interactive. They're meant to let people do things. But we're hoping that we can at least present those things to players the way movies do, and let them respond, somehow, without ruining the cinematic experience. I think we're fooling ourselves. The big kid doesn't even like us.

Pacing in Star Wars. Intensity is an increasing wave of peaks and reliefs. Each peak and slope can be associated with some significant occurence. There are eight peaks on this picture.

There are a number of misleading similarities between computer games and blockbuster films. Most notably, an archetypal story structure called Hero's Journey can be applied directly to game narrative. All of its key concepts translate easily into an interactive setting.

The player is, obviously, the Hero. The combat loop, which constitutes the biggest part of gameplay in most action games, corresponds to confrontation sequences. Missions and levels correspond to trials on the Hero's path, often personified by End of Level Bosses. Cutscenes and briefings serve as exposition sequences and provide relief from intense action.

Bigger enemies, better equipment, and levelling up all correspond to Hero's inner growth, while repetitive tasks and minigames are recurring themes, resemblant of the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner.

From these similarities emerges the crucial concept of pacing as an art of governing audience emotions. The hypothesis is that if we arrange events in an "increasing wave" of intensity, we will achieve the cinematic effect of mounting tension. Just like in a movie, when the game ends, the audience shall be left shaken and wanting more.

It would probably work very well -- if only players were an audience.

Plot Twist

A film audience is passive. It just sits and watches. The film may influence them in many ways, but they can only rewind it and watch it again. Their state of mind is affected, but their ability to watch the film isn't.

In contrast, players are bombarded with stimuli which affect their ability to respond to subsequent stimuli. The most obvious case of this is the broadly-defined learning curve. Even if players do notice all your hints and prompts, how do you make sure they have drawn the intended conclusions? When miscommunication happens, a film just goes on at its own pace; a game deviates from intended course due to player interference.

The only exception to this is a cutscene, but cutscenes aren't interactive. So we compromise. We make sure there is only one point of entry and one exit available. We take care not to allow players to look in a "wrong" direction when there is something we feel they have to see. We avoid situations that may take some time to figure out. We use quick time events.

Our efforts are futile: the interactivity is lost, but a truly cinematic experience doesn't appear, because we're unable to achieve a movie-like pacing. Our dubious practices are so limiting we keep making the same few games over and over again. The narrow category of Tower Defense clones displays as much diversity as the whole genre of First Person Shooters.

In order to see why this happens, let's take a look at how intensity works in computer games. Simply put, we can either escalate sensory stimuli or build up abstract meaning. The former happens when guns, explosions or enemies get bigger, putting the Hero in a greater danger than before. The latter happens when each part of a narrative means something -- but together they mean something else. "I am your father, Luke" is more than just a paternity acknowledgement.

These two kinds of intensity tickle different parts of our brains. Escalation is visceral and relies on our perception, while meaning buildup is cognitive and relies on our understanding. Escalation is temporary, because it's easy to replace a big gun with a small one.

Meaning lasts. Once we learn to like a character, it takes a lot to convince us to hate them. Do you remember how many Berserkers there were in Gears of War? Do you remember what their main weak point was?

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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David Roberts
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"A film audience is passive. It just sits and watches. The film may influence them in many ways, but they can only rewind it and watch it again. Their state of mind is affected, but their ability to watch the film isn't. "

For most generic uninteresting films, I agree. Some films though, are slightly different. Some films attempt to encourage thinking and 'cooperation' / discussion to some extent, not unlike Brechtian stage plays - so they could actually be active rather than passive.

Also, I disagree with the ability to watch the film being unchanged. The first time I watched Reservoir Dogs I was very much on the verge of turning it off. It definitely had an effect on my ability to watch it (hopefully you can understand why).

Jacek Wesolowski
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the word ability was meant to be taken in a narrow meaning. Your "Film Watching" skill doesn't change significantly over the course of watching a particular film.

The decision to stop watching is an interesting example, but you could say the same about pretty much anything. It's a decision you make outside of the process of film watching. Within the process, there are no decisions you can make with regard to the film you're watching.

What you're describing is the process of building an interpretation. The message of a film is not delivered instantly. It takes time, so your perception of the film and its message changes over time. Your reaction to film is your own, individual process - you kind of "play the Reservoir Dogs game" in your head. But it doesn't affect the way you watch the film, only the way you interpret it. Again, it happens outside of the process of film watching. Naturally, you can discuss or even object to the film's message. But the message itself won't change.

Steve Jakab
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"The decision to stop watching is an interesting example, but you could say the same about pretty much anything. It's a decision you make outside of the process of film watching. Within the process, there are no decisions you can make with regard to the film you're watching."

In almost all cases this is true. An interesting exception is the experimental film "Timecode" by Mike Figgis. The film consists of 4 scenes shown on the screen simultaneously (which take place in real time, without cuts), but the audio only comes from one of the scenes. In the theatrical release, Figgis controls the audio for what he wants the audience to pay attention to. However, in the DVD release, the watcher is allowed to switch the audio channel at will, so you do have direct control of how the movie plays out, at least as far as the sound goes.

John Mawhorter
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While interactivity on the part of the audience defines reading books, listening to radio, and watching movies, the amount of activity involved can be (not always) much greater with games. Pacing with regards to the tempo of gameplay is, as you point out, much more difficult to intentionally design for upfront. Good article.

Steve Gaynor
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Great article. The most confident designs trust the player to define the experience they want to have, instead of dictating a cinematic pacing model onto them.

Michael Rivera
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Excellent article. Essentially it all boils down to the idea that the best game stories are embedded within the game, rather than told directly to the player.

One thing I would like to mention though is that the pacing in Half-Life 2 is also quite good, despite it being a pretty linear game. The only reason I can think of for this is that an equal amount of storytelling is put into the environment and action sequences as there is put into the scripted "cut-scenes" between each chapter. As a result, the Hollywood method of pacing works quite well because you are constantly being reminded of the escalating threat level through your surroundings (stable city 17 -> wilderness -> chaotic city 17).

Luis Guimaraes
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I'd point Bioshock as an exemple of all these mechanics

Eric Scharf
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Jacek - your article is well done, but I like your follow-up comment even better. Interpretation is everything, whether watching on film, on TV (for games and other programs), or in the here and the now of real life.

Tim Lewis
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I think you'll find it was uncle Owen and aunt Beru who were killed or are you trying to prevent spoilers?

Tomasz Mazurek
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An observation that struck me as fundamental in the article is that we do need pacing changes in games, but the cinematic "mounting wave" pattern is just one possibility of structuring it. What is more, this is a pattern that has been found as optimal for typical movies - 1.5 to 3 hours long, watched as a whole in a single seating by passive audience and not requiring any skill to be watched.

Games are completely different in those areas and thus the cinematic pacing will be ineffective:

- they are several times longer than films, and thus the mounting wave has to be scaled - it is either scaled horizontally, making the story look overstretched, or uniformly, requiring the pacing and tension in later stages to become absurdly high;

- they are not played in a single setting - remember that the whole carefully crafted cinematic pacing will be gone the moment the player saves the game and returns to it a week later;

- films have to gradually raise the tension because the audience is passive and it would be bored without constantly increasing stimuli; gamers are active and thus the increasing tension is not as useful;

- games require skill, often significant, to be played; pacing and difficulty curves are correlated and this means there are limits on how high and how quickly we can raise the pacing without overwhelming the player's skill.

To recapitulate, not only cinematic "mounting wave" pacing pattern is not the only possible pattern for games, but also it may be far from the best available option. In my humble IMHO Jacek has pointed out a direction towards a better solution - base the pacing on player's actions. This is largely confirmed by historical examples great games - the most memorable are those with either good multiplayer or strong sandbox aspect - and such games by definition cannot have not only cinematic pacing, but any predefined pacing at all - it has to be based on player interaction.

sean lindskog
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I really enjoyed this article. It has lots of good insights towards the difference between cinema and games. Games have become more influenced by movies, and it's important to think about what can be gained by this influence, and what will be lost if we're not careful.

Some games are much more movie-like than others. Some of these movie-style games probably can incorporate certain cinematic techniques to good use. But games are their own unique medium, and I fully agree on the distinction between good game design and good movie direction.

Jeff Spock
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Excellent article, with a caveat: The Hero's Journey tells precisely one story in a terminally linear and inflexible way. It's everything good game design should not be, and it's one of the things that crept into gaming from film writing that doesn't belong here. My apologies, of course, to Mr Campbell.

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Johannes van staveren
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Could we apply this curve to anything?