Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Reconciling Immersion and Pace

Steve Gaynor recently posted a fantastic article where he encourages exploring a narrative structure that's less Hollywood-esque in linearity and more of an immersive, organic exploration. We've been teased with this model before, most obviously in sandbox games and RPGs like Fallout 3, where a great deal of optional content is disconnected from the core narrative. Steve says we should take this to the next level and start thinking seriously about what games look like when there is no core narrative at all, when we treat the game as a place to be explored rather than as a path to be walked. Of course, he's not claiming that this model should serve as a universal replacement to a traditional narrative structure, just that it should be an equally valid alternative. (He's far more eloquent than I about this though, and his blog is excellent in general, so please give it a read)

Now, I completely agree with Steve that this is a model games are particularly well-suited to and that holds great promise. My concern is that it's going to be difficult to realize and harder still to make enjoyable. The model that Steve proposes is the section of map labeled hic sunt dracones. It's a framework that's very divergent from many forms of narrative storytelling, and certainly all the common ones. One area that I feel will be especially challenging to address is pacing.

Gamasutra recently published a pair of articles about pacing in games. It focuses on action games, but the basic lessons are applicable to most narratives. A emotional exchange between characters, coming upon a grand landscape vista, discovering a hidden fact that reverses a player's perception of some vital situation; these can serve as peaks in the intensity graph as much as a pitched gun battle. Another Gamasutra article (last link, I swear) suggests that not only does good pace affect our conscious enjoyment of a game, it actually evokes a physiological response as well.

Some studios demonstrate better understanding of pacing than others, but none more so than Valve. Listen to the commentary on their more recent games (which was an absolutely brilliant addition and I wish other developers would follow suit) and it's immediately obvious that the pace of each level and encounter is thought about quite seriously. Even in a game like Team Fortress 2, where Valve has little control over how the game plays, they still manage to adjust the pacing of a match by adjusting things like respawn time, spawn points, changes to the map itself as the game progresses, etc. And of course, the heart of Left 4 Dead is its AI Director which basically serves as a pacing engine.

Pacing a game is hard. If the intensity is too flat, the game feels dull, plodding and won't be able to hold a player's attention. Too much intensity leaves the game feeling exhausting from being cranked up to 11 continually and moments that were truly intended to be poignant get drowned out. If pacing a single, linear storyline is hard, how much harder will it be to pace an immersive experience, where the player has total control over where they go, what they see and how they interact with it?

FarCry 2 seems like a step in the direction of immersive meaning. There is still an overarching narrative, but the player can approach it entirely at their own pace and from a number of different directions. The world itself is fully navigable and the games goes to great lengths not to break the 4th wall. But even in FarCry 2, we can see the difficulties of pacing a more immersive game. While oft-derided, the respawning guard posts provide much needed amplitude in the game's intensity. As the player navigates between points of greatest intensity, the mission climaxes. Even if the player chooses to avoid them, they're (at least meant to be) moments of excitement and variation. The diamond briefcases serve a similar purpose; when the player sees their diamond tracker start pulsing green, they can choose a few moments of excitement with a payoff at the end. I'm not going to claim that these mechanisms are perfect, but that only goes to demonstrate how difficult they are to get right.

Where I think the issue of pacing will be most noticeable is in a game's climax (or lack thereof). Steve uses travel as a metaphor for what immersive games should feel like. The issue of climax here is problematic as well though. Travel may sometimes end with a crazy final night, but more often it just ends with going to bed early to be at the airport on time and feeling a bit melancholy that the experience has to end. Without a climax, I fear immersive games will conclude the same way. They'll peak at some point and everything will be downhill from there. They won't end with a bang, but merely with a whimper when one day we just don't come back.

This could entirely be my bias, though. I'm not a "must get to 100% found" completionist, but I do make a point of finishing almost every game I buy, to the point of maybe passing on something I was interested in if I haven't finished what I'm currently working on. A game has to be really quite bad for me to stop playing it. I may well be overthinking the issue. That being said, I have difficulty imagining a game having strong emotional resonance without some kind of cathartic conclusion. I'll probably never forget the first time I finished Earthbound, the Curse of Monkey Island or Portal. Yet when I think about Alpha Centauri, despite that game consuming way too much of 1999, it makes me a little sad to think that the only conclusion it had is that one day I simply stopped playing it.

I've posed a lot of questions here and not many answers. I'm mainly interested in hearing what others have to think about these issues. That being said, it may be interesting to look at how tabletop RPGs have addressed the issue of pace. Immersive, choice-emphatic gameplay is de rigueur to the point that its absence is negatively referred to as "railroading." As the story is built around this model, the GM has the ability to make plenty of changes for the sake of pace without having to worry too much about repercussions. But this is enabled by the fact that the GM and the players are sitting at the same table and it's pretty easy for the GM to see when things are lagging and pick up the pace.

Perhaps AI constructs like L4D's Director could assume that GM role as an executor of pace. Or perhaps there is another solution as of yet unrealized. Most likely it will be a combination of techniques that will allow immersive games to still keep the player's attention and provide interesting, memorable experiences. I'm quite interested in hearing your take on this, even if it's to tell me I'm completely barmy.

Additionally, this is my first real post, so I welcome any feedback that you have. Please feel free to comment or email me at above49.ca {at} gmail.com.

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Blogger Steve gaynor said...

Hi Nels,

Glad to see my posting has inspired you to do some writing in your new blog.

My general feeling would be that, as you allude to with the Far Cry 2 comments, pacing in an immersive space must be arranged the same way the world and experiences in it are: as a net, instead of a line. I think Fallout 3 does a great job of pacing its world: when simply wandering, they spaced out authored locales at a fairly even rate, and gave the player tools to seek them out, meaning that a nice flow of explore, investigate, explore, investigate tended to occur. Then within each major or minor locale there tended to be an arc of discovery, conflict, and resolution.

As to the overall experience having an authored meta-pacing of beginning, middle, end, I'm not sure what the answer would be necessarily. Perhaps giving the player some sort of experiential gate past which they may elect to 'complete' the experience (leave the immersive space with a bang) provides the climactic finale. Or maybe simply having a place where you're free to stay as long as you wish, that 'goes on without you' and which simply ends when you decide to stop visiting, is fine. It sounds like one kind of lives within the other.

December 9, 2008 at 8:52 PM  
Blogger Iroquois Pliskin said...

Hi Nels,

I think pacing is an underanalyzed element of game design, I'm glad you chose to discuss it here. It's one of those issues that I find myself thinking about again and again when I reflect on my favorite games.

As you point out, there is an interesting conflict between achieving a consistent pace of gameplay and achieving a genuine sense of immersion. Pacing implies authorial control over the situation while immersion places the accent on the player's free exploration of the world at their own discretion.

Steve's mention of Fallout 3 is quite salient, I feel like that game had such excellent "flow" to it despite its openness; the density of the world is such that you always feel like there's something interesting around the next corner.

Perhaps the solution to the kind of conflict you point to is a meta-AI-director. That is, maybe long-form experiences like Fallout 3 could benefit from the implementation of a higher-order system that manages events like enemy encounters, gives a definite beginning-middle-end shape to the player's interaction with the world.

Hmm, now that I've written this I realize I havn't broken any new ground. Ah well. Good post!

December 9, 2008 at 10:45 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Steve Thanks for stopping by, I appreciate it. Hope you didn't mind me using your writings as a springboard to get things started here. I'm definitely a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants here (like Master Blaster).

I'd thought of Fallout 3's net of interesting locals, each of which is individually paced, as a reasonable structure in an immersive model.

But I wondering, without a narrative spine to serve as a crumb trail to lead the player from one area to another, will paralysis of choice end up turning a lot of people off? When I was playing Fallout 3, I spent a lot of time in the DC Ruins, but didn't go west all that much until the main quest sent me looking for Vault 112.

Maybe I'm overthinking it though. To extend the travel analogy, it's quite normal for a relative stranger to say "When you're in Kyoto, don't miss Kinkakuji" or "Be sure to go whale watching in Victoria." It may be possible to have those crumb trails without them being connection to some greater whole.

@Iroquois Now that it's been pretty well proven in L4D (why must you all be on the 360 version? Many tears have been shed over this!), I think we may see even more games using AI constructs to modify overall pace. It's possible that something like Fallout 3 already does and it's just minimal.

In case you didn't see it, in the comments of the second of the Gamasutra articles about pacing, someone does an excellent breakdown of how CoD4 rearranged traditional pacing to great effect. I can't seem to link directly to the comment, but it was fantastic. It's by Jacek Wesolowski, about 10 comments down or so.

Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment!

December 10, 2008 at 6:04 AM  

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