Welcome back to the three-part breakdown of the biggest issues which this year’s biggest game’s have in common; those games being The Last Of Us, Tomb Raider, and Bioshock Infinite.
#1 on the list was the irreperable imbalances and disconnects between level design and AI. From gunshots being blocked by invisible sound-walls, to the enemy’s frantic movement and aggression going against the elegant and subtle level design.
This next one is a bit of a bigger issue. It’s something which undermines all of the games at some point, in the same way, on the same level.
2. Pacing? What Pacing?
Storytelling has always had a place in videogames. From the text adventures of the 80s; to the graphical adventure games of the 90s, like the Monkey Island series; to modern RPG-epics like Mass Effect or Skyrim; well-developed narratives have always been around.
There is one exception: the contemporary high-budget, blockbuster, “AAA” action adventure shooting game. Many games still focus purely on gameplay, like Nintendo’s Mario series or multiplayer titles, but action and shooting games have always aspired to having some sort of great story; and rarely met the mark. Since the Doom’s and Quake’s, all the way up to the Halo’s and the Gears of War’s, narratives have been pretty derivative and basic in the shooter or action/adventure genre (except for one-off classics like Half-Life), despite their best intentions. Again, this is especially true in the high-budget realm, where games look more like movies, so they have tried to emulate the emotional and thrilling effect which movies have.
Until the last couple of years. Developers of these huge games, be they in Ubisoft or EA or Activision, have been increasingly harping on about how they are trying to get players emotionally invested. We’ve seen them succeed a couple of times; and this year especially has suddenly seen a spate of games with really ambitious narratives.
Bioshock‘s Ken Levine often goes on about “emotions.” Crystal Dynamics wanted to get players to connect with Lara’s narrative in Tomb Raider. And on the back of Uncharted’s unabashedly derivative (yet somehow maddeningly fun) narrative, Naughty Dog with The Last Of Us are going in for a literary-inspired, naturalistic character-driven narrative.
Despite the broad successes of these games, there is one department where they all, to a decent extent, fall flat. Pacing.
One of the core tenets of storytelling and narration is getting a flawless, fluid pace. Keep the player interested; but don’t be relentless. Maintain a methodical beat and let them think about stuff; but don’t bore them. Yet, despite how great these games are. hopefully it’ll become clear how bad all of these games are at this (although The Last Of Us stands up relatively well.)
Worst Offender: Bioshock Infinite
(Personally, I think Tomb Raider’s crimes against pacing are worse; but they don’t last as long and the rest of the experience isn’t as flawless as Ifinite’s. So Infinite takes the top spot.)
So, the opening half hour of Bioshock Infinite is probably one of the greatest opening acts of a game I’ve ever witnessed.
I couldn’t get enough of it. I loved it. I took my time on it more than I have ever taken my time on a game before. The unbelievable lighthouse, the fantastically fascinating dialogue on the boat, the sinister murdered man and the build up. Then the Lost-style crazy siren horn calls from the top of the lighthouse. The entry to Columbia. The singers. The shops. The psychedelic floating buildings. The everything.
And it takes its time. Booker’s slow characterisation is magnificent. There’s no combat, just a gradual collection of items and world-learning.
I personally believe this is one of the greatest pieces of pacing ever seen in a video game. The problem is, after that beautiful dark turn with the Irish man and Black woman at the raffle, what happens? That pacing goes out the window.
Rather than continue the slow pace, and throw more and more dark developments at the player to continue the worldbuilding, much like the original Bioshock, frantic violence begins.
And that’s it for the game.
Not paced violence. Not realistic violence. Not somehow-graceful violence. All of which the original Bioshock had. But hectic, frantic, gratuitous mindless violence. Literally the polar opposite of the heavy-handed but beautifully slow and methodical pacing beforehand.
Save a couple of moments of nice area exploration throughout the game, there’s no more perfectly developed pent-up pacing. No more sublime world introduction. It’s all ruined by tens of enemies coming flying at the player, blocking Booker’s path with the most mundane and repetitive of gunfights. A couple of nice changes of pace take place later, for example in the nightmarish nursery, but no matter the area in the game, at least ten enemies will come and f**k up the atmosphere and ambience.
However, it must be said that for the middle portion of the game, a decent pace of action and first-person shooting is kept up consistently. As tragic as the end of that opening segment is, it’s fair enough that the “gameified” elements kick in and stick around to fulfil the solid promise of action.
Until the game’s last half hour. Where, again, Levine’s direction regarding pace is entirely all-or-nothing. After the huge crazy Comstock-ship climax, there are no more bad guys. There is some exploration, of the Lighthouse-multiverse, but it’s very limited and considerably more linear than the game’s perfect opening. Even worse, rather than build more great plot developments throughout the twelve hour action-packed narrative, Levine and Irrational Games crush all the remaining plot of the game, since the first half hour, into the games final act. It borders on reportage; the game’s telling us stuff, not showing us stuff. And it all happens so quickly, with such unneccesary rush.
I’m a fan of Levine’s game. But the pacing practically ruined it for me. From slow and perfect, to fast and frantic in an eyeblink, then climaxing on a speedy overload of detailed information. Jarring doesn’t even begin to cover it. And the game’s actually decent story messed that up for me.
Bad Offender: Tomb Raider
Weirdly, Tomb Raider has the opposite problem as that of Bioshock Infinite.
To put it bluntly, you can’t introduce a cast of ten characters, build an emotional connection with a vulnerable central character, suggest character dynamics and a greater plot purpose, then throw everything on a crashing ship, throw in an implausible washed-up-on-beach survival clause, dangle more character interaction, then throw in a sudden cut to black with a knock-out punch to the main characters face, then introduce a mystery jump-cut situation…
In the first five minutes.
The game slows down later. It fixes its pacing. I found the open areas later on pretty perfect for pace, especially the side-quest tombs.
But dat opening sequence… Probably one of the worst bits of exposition I’ve ever seen from a modern action game. It shows an intrinsic, fundamental misunderstanding of how to tell a story. I didn’t feel attached to Lara at any point of my first few hours. It was just a joke. Add to this the fact that the acting and writing isn’t quite up to scratch, and you’ve got a really alienating, immersion-breaking narrative experience.
Again, Crystal Dynamics do address this as the game goes on.
Another problem with the game’s pacing is the “Lara is made of steel and is a tossed voodoo doll” gambit. Where Uncharted spaces out its main thrilling, spectacular set pieces, where Nathan Drake barely makes it out of dire situations or escapes; Tomb Raider throws too many of them at the player, too quickly. Lara whines all the time. She survives ridiculous amounts of falling and stumbling and crashing and leaping. Nathan Drake does, too, but in Uncharted his survival, and the pace of it, isn’t as jarringly, unrealistically rapid-fire as Lara’s on her new adventure. Lara’s disasters are often far more prolongued than Drake’s, also. Where Nate might get stuck on a falling bridge for a few seconds, or have to dodge a crashing helicopter, Lara will do all of the above and more in one relentless sequence of squealing and complaining.
If only Crystal Dynamics spent less of their resources on making the game’s set pieces and action as fast and spectacular as possible, the whole issue might have been avoided. The player might have been treated to more exploration, more puzzling, and of course, better pacing. A slower, more realistic pace, like The Last Of Us, would fit Tomb Raider perfectly.
Least Offensive: The Last Of Us
Now, these are almost nitpicky. They did jar me, but nowhere near as nearly-game-breakingly badly as the other two on the list did.
There are two moments in Naughty Dog’s near-perfect survival horror action adventure title The Last Of Us where the game’s pacing and continuity is undermined. In one case, it’s jarring but irrelevant. In the other case, it’s not jarring, but is very problematic.
Issue the first: between Chapter 3: Outskirts, and Chapter 4: Bill’s Town, there is an awful jump cut. The worst jump cut in The Last Of Us, a game which otherwise is flawlessly paced. It takes place after Joel and Ellie have battled, painstakingly, to escape the city. It’s brutal, it’s scary, the government are out to get them; Joel’s long-term partner in crime Tess sacrifices herself to die. You escape into the subway, filled with spores, you are forced to improvise to save Ellie. It’s a long, hard graft. At the end of a ton of gameplay doing all this, Joel says, ‘we have to make it over there, to that next town.’ He gestures into the far distance. ‘Let’s go,’ he says.
The screen cuts to black.
An image returns: the pair are walking down a grassy, overgrown road, and Joel says, ‘there it is!’ While pointing at a watertower.
That’s it. After having to battle every inch of a journey to escape through miles of city and subway, a whole day’s worth of travel is cut down to ‘there it is.’ Chances are, sacrifices had to made throughout the game to keep the plot and the story in gear, and that was one of them. But considering how Naughty Dog made the most banal cuts absolutely fascinating to experience later in the game, this is pretty inexcusable in my opinion.
Issue the second: you remember that awful, awful scene where, after an intense struggle for survival, the boy Sam, who you have been travelling with, is bitten? And he turns? And he attacks Ellie? And his big brother Henry shoots him? And then kills himself? And it’s traumatic as f**k?
Great bit, right? Fantastic storytelling, emotional, well directed, and also acts as a small metonym for the game’s whole story arc: Joel knows that if the same happened to Ellie, if she died, he’d kill himself from sorrow. Sam probably is part of the reason Joel goes so nutzoid on the Fireflies in the game’s last chapter, in order to save Ellie.
But most importantly, remember the cut to black? And then, the next scene at the start of Chapter 7, we are in “Jackson county,” in the mid-West, at Tommy’s dam?
Well, Chapter 6 “The Suburbs” takes place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And Chapter 7 takes place in Jackson, Wyoming.
This route, this journey which is cut and is embodied entirely by about fifteen seconds of a black screen, is roughly 1,750 miles of travel on-foot.
I suppose, debatably, this isn’t something to do with pace as much as narrative continuity. But either way, it’s a big misstep in my opinion. Essentially, cut from the game is a journey which is nearly a month long. It’s like 600 hours, on foot.
What happens to the pair in this 600 hours of cut game narrative? Surely Joel and Ellie have had a hundred more dangerous encounters. Surely they have become besties after 25 days’ travel. The pace of the game doesn’t fit the cut stuff. This is probably the only big “plot hole” I have found in the game, even if it is a plot hole.
Why Does It Matter?
#1 on the list- level and AI design- is a technical issue of game mechanics. The problem there is something which AI technology’s difficulties, and storage space limiting level sizes, are largely on the hardware side. Technology, not necessarily design- though design obviously comes into it.
But #2- pacing? Pacing is something 100% on the creative side. It’s 100% authorship of the developers.
The problems listed above in this piece arise from decisions made by the developers. Crystal Dynamics threw aside good, solidly developed exposition and character development in a rush to capture the thrilling, fast paced ascension of Lara Croft from layman historian archaeologist to adventuring, gun-wielding badass. Naughty Dog also decide to cut out spans of travel which would be realistically, and narratively important to the characters and story, in order to keep things tight, which jars the audience. Though it is easier to forgive than Crystal Dynamics’ amateur offering of jerky pacing.
But undoubtedly the worst offender is Bioshock Infinite‘s complete compromisation of everything which looked like it would make the game great. Players are teased with brilliant world building and an “emotional” storyline and plot development. Instead we get half an hour of that; then a 0-60MPH jump into rushy gratuitous gameplay, with an intense, frantic final act to wrap up the ambitious plot. I believe Ken Levine has made some fundamental mistakes with Infinite. I believe in pandering to the tight-thriller pace of a high-budget first-person-shooter, the actual story and world become secondary. They become less substantial. Every amazingly crafted building and storyline becomes a rush-through shooting gallery. Immediately after the game’s first big hook-face attack, I probably spent less than half the time exploring and enjoying as I did in the story’s set-up.
I can’t really believe he threw it all away.
Anyway, hopefully it’s clear why this is important for game’s to fix. The Last Of Us nearly nailed it- but not quite. Perhaps DLC will fill in the blanks anyway.
Next up: another problem which intrinsic to game design, but for me, this one’s almost unforgivable: IN-GAME MENUS RUINING ALL THE GAMEPLAY SUSPENSION TO COME.