Saturday, June 24, 2006

Pacing

I haven't had the time to finish writing the MMNG post I want to write, so here's a simpler post about something else entirely.

Some of my very old readers might remember I occasionally posted about pacing. When I watch a movie or play a game, pacing is one of the most critical elements. A poor script can still be an excellent movie if paced well, and an excellent script can be turned into a worthless movie with the wrong pacing.

Pacing isn't solely the director or the writer: it's a bit of each. So, it's very hard to get the pacing in a movie or game right.

When it does go right, you know it. Something clicks. System Shock II. Lost in Translation. Young Frankenstein.

Of course, not everyone feels the same way about all pacing. Chances are, you hate some of the things other people consider very well paced. That's because there's more than one kind of pacing, and people have different preferences (and often, their preferences vary by mood).

Blade Runner is running in the other room. Blade Runner has exquisite pacing. But the pacing is similar to that of a three-toed sloth with no arms. So how can the pacing be considered good, when it is so slack?

Imagine a more tightly paced Blade Runner: put some strings or drums in the action scenes, trim some of the many slow sections, maybe add some snappy patter. What do you end up with? Suddenly, it becomes cheesy.

But because Blade Runner is paced more like a National Geographic documentary than a sci-fi movie, it has a weight to it that you don't get with tighter pacing. The pacing in Lost in Translation gives it a rather etherial feel - if you don't feel sleep deprived when you begin watching it, you'll feel sleep deprived by the time the credits come up.

So, I don't think there's any "global formula" for pacing. But there are some heuristics: you have to decide what kind of feel you want the pacing to give you. Hard or soft? Fast or slow?

Regardless of what you choose, and what medium you're working in, pacing is always going to be a critical element. Whether you're programming a game or writing a novel, pacing is often what makes good good and bad bad.

5 comments:

Patrick Dugan said...

I've got this idea that pacing in a game can be looked at by the sort of local/global agency ratio at a given moment. For instance, Final Fantasy VII, which had good pacing, will osscialate between very focued missions where you're running up the Shinra Building, to very relaxed pauses where you're petting Chocobos and min/maxing your materia. The prior feels constrained but with global importance, while the latter extreme has lots of freedom but only slight optimizational effect. The transtion between the two is where the pacing really shines, for instance the motercycle race to escape Midgar after fighting a string of bosses, or the tension before a Jenova battle.

(Technically the FF games, with the exception of maybe VI, didn't have much of any global agency, but they succeeded because so many players bought into the illusion at those focused intervals.)

I think in a drama game this becomes much more explicit in content creation, where you design "levels" or scene templates with these metrics in mind and let the balance of the system provide smooth transitions between the two poles.

Craig Perko said...

Pacing isn't "on" or "off". It's not even just "fast" vs "slow". Not only does pacing come at different levels, it comes in different "weights".

For example, the pacing of Doom the Movie was good at a very high level, but the individual scenes and flow between the scenes was very poor.

Lots of tiny changes aren't the same as one large change, when it comes to pacing... even if the end scenes are the same.

It's a complex subject. Thinking about it as "off" and "on" or "A" vs "B" just isn't strong enough.

Patrick Dugan said...

Yes, thats self-evident.

I think of it more as a wave, different people like different types of waves, and the high level pacing of a game or narrative (or both, since in this sense pacing most direclty applies to the narrative a game produces) is sort of a meta-wave of how the nature of the wave will tend to change over the whole discourse. Of course, this all ties into flow theory, so the first thing that needs to be done is identify the market needs of a given design (Crazy oscillations? Smooth sways? A docile patter with intermittent jumps?) and measure the content you build against that huerisitic.

Craig Perko said...

Sure, why not?

Generally I find that those kinds of theories aren't needed - a brain is powerful enough to figure out how to do it with experience. Then complex theories become inefficient. :)

Patrick Dugan said...

I would say "Zen of Design", but that Shadowbane guy already took it.

Ohm, frag, strafe, med-kit, lateral climb while doding death from above, whew another med-kit, ohm...