Saturday, July 12, 2014

#72: Narrative Pacing: The Oddity of Games

It has been some time since I finished my adventures in the world of Dragon Age: Origins and its various DLC packs. To that end, I have been comparing my experiences with that game to others that I have played. What I was pondering through this introspection is the question of narrative pacing in the world of video games. As with most properties of storytelling, the general rules governing narrative pacing undergo changes when applied to this new realm of media. Since a lot of my problems in Dragon Age: Origins came from its pacing, and Awakening felt better because it improved said pacing, it would be pertinent to contemplate the topic in this week's post.

One of the things that stands out most to me with regards to video game pacing is how players are willing to wait a little longer for the plot to advance, in comparison to consumers of other media. In a book, if the plot was about solving a murder mystery, and then the author spent an entire chapter discussing the philosophical nature of crime scene investigation and criminology, people would wonder why that decision was made. While that information may certainly be tangentially related to the plot and interesting in and of itself, it would not be relevant to the mystery and the main plot of the book. Film also has this kind of problem. If a movie character in a spy movie was talking to another character, then some random bad guys step into the scene for the protagonist to beat up for five or ten minutes, followed by the protagonist resuming their conversation where they left off, the audience would be completely confused. They would think to themselves what the point of that detour was, why it took so long, and why it was not cut from the final product.
However, this is demonstrably not the case in video games. As players, we accept when a conversation in a video game is interrupted by an attack by random gang-bangers. In fact, that tends to be fairly normal as far as games are concerned. The reason is pretty obvious. People purchase video games so that they may play video games. It is okay for the story to briefly take the backseat, because more often than not it is not the reason players are sitting on their couch with a controller in hand. We can comfortably go dungeon crawling for about an hour or so without any advancement of the main plot until the end. The model of story->gameplay->story->gameplay has been a mainstay in gaming for as long as games began to focus on their narratives. Most other mediums would consider it weird for the plot to go so long without advancing in a meaningful way, but that is so common that it still remains a very ingrained model for game designers.

Less, but still fairly, common is when the story of a game takes a detour in order to prolong the length of a game and allow for more gameplay. These kinds of additions can be hit or miss, depending on their context. For example, Fort Frolic is one of the most loved segments of the original Bioshock game. In terms of the central conflict of Atlas vs. Andrew Ryan, nothing major is accomplished in Fort Frolic and the plot comes to an overall standstill. Having said that, both the environment Fort Frolic and the madness of its master, Sander Cohen, are so interesting that most players either would not notice or would not care. Though it adds nothing to the narrative, the game is richer for the existence of this content.
By contrast, The Fade in Dragon Age: Origins is one of the most reviled example of this going wrong, for good reason. While attempting to rescue the mages in the Circle Tower, the player party is ambushed by a Sloth Abomination and forced into a deep sleep. In the world of Dragon Age, a person's soul is in a spiritual realm called The Fade, home to both divine and demonic entities alike, when sleeping. This sets up a three hour segment where the protagonist needs to break out of The Fade, rescuing his/her other party members in the process. Like Fort Frolic, it does not serve any real purpose beyond adding length to the game. Unlike Fort Frolic, it is not interesting enough in its own right and drags too long to hold the attention of the player. Along with the Deep Roads, The Fade has a major negative impact on the pacing of the game. It is so reviled that there are mods whose sole purpose is to remove that one section from the game. Regardless of the rest of the game, the mere existence of this content does make Dragon Age: Origins lesser.

There is also the fact that gaming is a unique medium in that the skill of the player can also have a direct impact on the pacing. A skilled, or veteran player will have an easier time completing individual sections of a given game, resulting in an overall faster pace than a newcomer/novice player. Books and films have easier times in pacing themselves because they do not require such skill, thanks to their passive natures. The game has a tougher time because the mechanics need to be paced as much as the plot or any individual gameplay section needs to be. Even then, there always exists the possibility than a player will never finish a game because they just cannot complete a difficult mission. It is a unique challenge that I truly do not know how to overcome.

In the end, it is hard to determine if there is a specific pacing that can appeal to the most people. Like many things in life, it comes down to the individual to decide if a game's pacing is fit for them or not. Movies and books tend to have very specific formulas for the way they are paced, but that is something others have discussed before. Because each game is so radically different from the next, they call for different structures and styles. Each such structure requires its own unique pacing to best take advantage of that. I do not profess to have concrete answers as to how games should be paced or how developers should consider the type of game they are making when considering pacing. However, I do think it is an interesting question to ask after playing a game like Dragon Age: Origins.

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