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Journey shows how proper pacing can improve storytelling in games

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As Brad Pitt screamed, "What’s in the box!?" in the final moments of Seven, I found myself white-knuckled from clenching my hands into the sofa arm rest. My curiosity had me frothing at the mouth, and just as I was about to find out what was in the damn thing, the screen cut away to a woman in a white apron wearing too much lipstick and talking about auto insurance.

When I watch a film, whether it be in the theater or at home, I expect to devote several uninterrupted hours to it. Most of us do. Movies are made with this in mind. They are paced in a specific manner with the assumption that whoever is watching will finish in a single sitting.

Video games don’t have the same expectations. This is largely due to the fact that most games cannot be completed in one session. Most of us prefer to take breaks rather than resort to using diapers to finish Mass Effect in a single sitting.

After playing Journey, which is only one to three hours long, I realized that while forty-hour games have their place, this interactive medium has been missing out on the emotional impact created from tightly controlled pacing.

 

Journey was made differently than any other video game I have ever played. It was designed around being completed in a single session. What this did was allow the designer to create an experience that had very directed pacing.

I spent 30 minutes wandering the desert alone. I only passed occasional ruins that reminded me of my isolation. Then, I met a companion. We traveled together. I was thrilled to have his company. After an hour with my voiceless friend, I ran ahead. When I looked back, my companion was gone. This string of events had stirred up very specific emotions. If any of these moments had been broken up between play sessions, their impact would have been lessened if not entirely muted.

With increased quantity, the designer loses the knowledge of knowing when I will reach a specific situation. Depending on when I choose to put down the controller, my emotional connection with the situation will have changed for the next time I play the game. Saving the world seems significantly less dire when I can take a break to go indulge in taco tuesday at a local bar.

I've spent too many hours caught in constant action because the quiet moments all happened in a previous session. Without the the steady climb to the top, the ride down from the roller coaster doesn't hold the same excitement. Allowing a game to be designed with the assumption that a specific amount will be played within a single session could allow for a smoother experience.

A video game that is longer than a single session is able to achieve many things. It can take more time to develop characters, and it can provide complicated situations that are built upon mechanics introduced many hours earlier. Many story-driven games have two days worth of in-game time to create a world and deliver an immersive experience that two hours can't. The downside is that with a longer play time, the game loses control over the pacing — but it doesn't have to.

Think of what a designer could do if games were segmented into chapters with the assumption that each one would be completed per play session. This would allow for proper pacing for each session. You would never find yourself spending an entire session getting exposition or the conclusion of a dramatic event without the build up. Games like Uncharted try to give the player moments of action followed by quiet reprieve so the player will naturally feel like taking a break. The problem is, this isn't always deliberate or obvious to the the player.

There are issues that will arise from creating a game in this manner. For instance, a player may not have the skill to complete the game within the session. Being able to achieve this controlled pacing will take tremendous game design, but the effort could be well worth it.

The connection built from spending three hours with a character before their death will always be greater than if it's the first thing that happens within a game session. We have gotten used to having complete control in how we consume our media, but if we give up some of the freedom so that a designer creates a game with cinematic pacing, we may just find a richer experience that is unlike anything we have ever played before.


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