[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.
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.
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?