Friday, March 6, 2009

Pacing in Stories and Games

This is an article about a lot of things, but all of them are related to the time in which things happen. In stories or games, it can be really unnerving to have plot points that are timed improperly. It makes no sense when many climactic actions occur one after the other. This is particularly true in games where the final boss is actually not the final boss and it's really the final final boss in charge... who is actually just a minion for the ultra final boss. Plot twists like having the perceived villain be a puppet are interesting if used properly, but all-too-often it is overused in games, especially amateur ones.

This article is a guideline for writers, designers, and GMs alike who want to create more exciting storylines for people to experience. I'm intending to look back on it as I start GMing my own RPG campaign. It's advice that I think is useful no matter what kind of world you are creating. If you paid attention in literature class in college, this may be obvious for you. Most of you probably didn't take literature though (hard, subjective courses with lots of essays - bad!) so hopefully this is new stuff to a majority of readers.

The first step to proper pacing is a plot hook. A story should never, ever, ever start from a dead stop. We should see the main scenario and be interested in the characters we are first introduced to. This is why in Star Wars we see Leia and Darth Vader before we see Luke. Luke's introduction into the story is boring, but we get to see interaction between Vader and a variety of characters. We also get to see Leia and the droids deal with a pressure situation where the Empire has them at the throat.

In Final Fantasy VII, the gameplay starts off with a bang when Cloud and co. raid Mako Reactor 1. The intro scene for FFVII is very high energy and exciting, especially considering it's an RPG and RPG intros tend to be really boring and unfun (see also Eternal Sonata's first 5 hours). Originally I thought FFVIII was going to open similarly with the SeeD raid on Galbadia but it turns out that doesn't happen until an hour in.

All good adventures also start with a good reason to get the players involved in the story. They have to care about what's going on, or it will take more work later to get them excited about the adventure. I am pretty guilty of not hooking my players until later and hooking them in through the rising action and/or lull points. This is a bad habit! Bad! Bored players stop showing up to your games!

After the plot hook, and after every tension peak should have a slight lull where we get to gather our senses and think about things. High energy moments need some space so that we get to absorb the situation. If we have a big string of high energy suspense moments, we get bored and the tension loses its shock value. This is a good time to introduce backstory or paint pictures of things. It's also a good idea in games to allow the player(s) to free roam a bit and do some of their own exploring.

One of the things to do during plot lulls is to give little information tidbits. These lead to things you've already planned ahead for in your writing elsewhere. The leet writer term for this is foreshadowing. That way, when Padme reveals that she's really Queen Amidala, you can be like "Oh, I totally knew it!" For a bad example of this, Leia being Luke's sister is foreshadowed almost nowhere else in the Star Wars movies (yeah, there's a little dialogue between Vader and the Emperor in Episode V) and when it happens it's actually a pretty big shocker, like wtf was Lucas thinking? But when Padme reveals she's Queen Amidala, it's a bit of a shocker, but there's more precedent and we connect better with the situation.

Before the next tension spike we need to have rising action. Rising action should be a natural transition between the lull after a tension point and the next tension point. Occasionally it's okay to have an occasional 'OMG' moment where stressful moments come out of nowhere. It is not okay to do this constantly over the course of your storyline.

For a good example of how not to do this, play Final Fantasy IX, where every climax seems to come out of nowhere and the rising action leads to almost nothing (really boring plot revelations). At least the ending is sorta done right. Generally the reader/player should make enough discoveries or plot revelations to reveal the next climax, such as the bad guys are moving here and we need to stop them, or Shimamura is (or isn't) sleeping with Komako, oh noes!

Mad props if you get the reference there.

Anyway tension points return somewhat to the area of plot hooks, where we have a moment of high energy. However, a plot hook can be brief and doesn't have to be high energy (it just has to be interesting) but a tension point has to be tense. That's kind of the point. When Sailor Moon faces off with the monster of the day, that's the tension point.

In much the same way, your writing has to come to a head and you're gonna have to involve the reader or player(s) in what's going on. We know the bad guys are probably going to lose, but that doesn't mean we can't present them as being threats. In Episode VI when Luke and Vader fight, it seems plausible, even real, that Luke would be beaten by Vader or perhaps even give in to the Dark Side. While we know deep down that Luke will win, the previous movie even set a precedent by making Luke lose (!) to Vader in a previous duel. This creates a lot of tension for this final climax between good versus evil.

In games it's pretty cool because making a battle hard for this purpose is okay because bosses should feel challenging. If you're a GM or game designer, bosses should never be free walks - consider any free walks you give the player(s) to be a small failure and learn from it. Obviously at the same time though, a battle should never be impossibly challenging (hopefully that's obvious!).

The main point though is that you get an encounter that is tense, interesting, and enjoyable for readers or players. And most importantly, don't overuse. You can't get people excited over and over - you gotta pace yourself.

Some things I should really mention - too much character development is usually boring. I like to have something happening often enough that we get to naturally develop characters instead of having them talk about themselves to each other. Character development in general is very very good (ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL IN WRITING) so it is perfectly okay to have a paragraph or two here and there with people talking about themselves to each other, but you should never lose focus of the goal of moving the story forward.

As a game designer it is especially important - never bore the player with walls of dialogue. Always move the game forward and try to keep the player involved. Obviously you can use dialogue to achieve this but too much is not so good. For a good example of Too Much Dialogue, play a Final Fantasy game. Any one of them will do, even VII (although VII is probably one of the best about moving the story along). Actually, almost any JRPG will do for this purpose. For a great example of pacing in general, play Metal Gear Solid or any of its sequels (except ACID and 4; I've never played those so I can't give my hearfelt reccomendation).

Yeah, I haven't played MGS4.

The flowchart for a good story should have a plot hook at the beginning, then a slow rising action to a tension point, followed by a lull into another rising action into a tension point, and so on. The tension points should vary in magnitude (you can only blow up a city so many times before it gets old) and sometimes you can skip lulls or rising actions. In general though you should not, and there should always be a pacing gap between tension points. Also of equal importance is that lulls should not last too long, or the reader/player gets bored.

Also, if I insulted your favorite game or movie, I should note that pretty much all the references I made here are pretty good games and movies (Yes, even Episode 1). Eternal Sonata is a pretty good game overall, even if some of the plot is really convoluted and it suffers from some pretty bad pacing and poor balancing. Final Fantasy IX is one of my favorites in the series despite its awful use of shock value plot points. Final Fantasy VIII is one of my least favorites in the series (pre-XI) but is still a pretty quality game with a great love story and good character design. I think that both FFIX and ES are really good examples of bad pacing, though, so if you're looking for counter-examples to say FFVII (which has awesome pacing), FFVIII (also great pacing), and the MGS series, those are probably some of the worst examples of pacing I've seen in commercial video games. I've seen far worse in indie games (Sonny comes to mind).

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