Further Challenges in Pacing

I talked a lot here about scenes and plotting, and a little in the comments here about pacing problems in games with a lot of conversation (or highly-scripted scenes in general). I noted that a conversation-heavy piece of work can get to feeling really stolid, and I’ve been thinking a lot about why that is in order to try to come up with better leavening.

I’m not looking here for the large-scale strategic pacing issues (when are new twists introduced, how fast does the plot move) but at small-scale pacing. Does the game seem to be flowing quickly or slowly at any given moment? Is it sufficiently engaging?

Text generated per move is one possible metric. Research puzzles, conversations, anything that involves the player reading a book or computer screen in game: these tend to produce lots of text for any given player action. The more text the player has to read before typing something new, the more space there is between actions.

Moves required to reach interesting outcomes is another. A fifteen-puzzle you have to manipulate for twenty-five turns before getting to an interesting or unique output may feel slow, while a puzzle that can be solved more quickly feels fast. The more moves are required to reach a new outcome, the slower the narrative moves.

Difficulty of planning the next move (or planning a sequence of moves) is a third. In conversation, especially conversation that uses menus or TADS 3-style prompts, the player never knows in advance what he is going to want to type next. Menu-based moves at least require the same type of input (a number); prompts are worse, from a play perspective, because for each move the player has to process something like

(You could ask where to find the diamond necklace of Queen Warthammer.)

into a new action

>ASK WHERE TO FIND THE DIAMOND NECKLACE

…which may not be a huge strain on the cognitive facilities of most players, but does introduce some processing time on the player’s end. It’s not creative-thinking processing, either — not “what do I do now to solve this?” — but dull read-and-repeat processing. In general, I nonetheless prefer this kind of conversation for a host of reasons — it’s more flexible than menu-based conversation and more accessible than pure ASK/TELL, and it can be heavily customized. So I need to find a way to work around the pacing issues. (Of course, prompted conversation does not mean that there has to be a prompt every turn, which can have a particularly numbing effect which makes the game feel little different from a CYOA. I think my compromise position is to prompt the player about important conversation that would be at the forefront of the protagonist’s mind, but leave optional conversation strands unprompted; also, to have a reasonable leavening of cases where, e.g., the NPC asks a yes/no question where no additional prompt is really necessary.)

In any case, in conversation scenes, we have lots of narrative development, but two slowing effects: each action produces lots of material to read, and it’s impossible to plan sequences of actions. There’s no flow. The player may not be able to get stuck (since there are no puzzles), but he may run out of energy.

People critique compass movement in games — especially when the player must repeatedly traverse a large map — as unrealistic, boring, and confusing to novices. But one thing I will say for it: it allows interludes of automatic play, where the player can essentially go on autopilot. That may not sound like much of a commendation, especially if the IF in question is trying for literary value, but I think from the perspective of pacing it is valuable for the player to be offered interludes of relatively quick, low-intensity play to cleanse the palate before another bout of conversation.

So challenge is to come up with styles of interaction that are complementary to conversation interaction — smaller amounts of text output, more opportunity for the player to anticipate future moves — but which are still interesting enough to belong in a heavily narrative game.

A good combat system might actually fit that description, which is one of several recent developments making me a little more friendly to the idea of simulated combat in IF. (Not purely randomized, though! Possibly not randomized at all.)

That doesn’t solve the problem if all your characters are peaceable or your plot doesn’t have scope for violent conflicts, though.

Hm.

8 thoughts on “Further Challenges in Pacing

  1. “dull read-and-repeat processing”

    I like the idea of using hyperlinks for prompts, but as far as I know, only the TADS Windows interpreter supports them.

    And Re. low intensity play: What about sports? They’re an obvious peaceful analogue to fighting, so a conversation between tennis players perhaps. Forehand, backhand, throw tantrum… Then there are rituals and ceremonies, real and imagined: maybe two people dancing together or a diplomat forced to perform strange greetings. Or menial jobs. I bet someone could make a great game about working at a checkout and dealing with difficult customers. Scan beer, put beer in bag, ask teenager about age…

    But I think the real difficulty is coming up with things like this that work in tandem with whatever story idea you’ve already come up with. Unlike combat, they’re all very specific.

  2. It’s possible to set hyperlinks in Glulx. Some interpreters even support them properly.

    I’m not sure I want to do that, though, because I think it encourages people to play in an even more dull-and-mechanical fashion; if they’re at least forced to use the command line, they are reminded that they could still type something other than the prompts. (Prompts are for likely or plausible things to say at the next juncture; there are always other things the player could do if he wants to buck the flow a little.)

    Adding jobs/tasks is a reasonable point, though.

  3. Inspired as always …

    I’ve posted a question to RGIF about players’ opinions on TADS 3 style prompts. I don’t like having to copy long commands from the screen, but you have a good point about switching modes.

    Maybe some clever parsing would do the trick (accepting “ask where” as shorthand for “ask where to find the diamond necklace” in this context only?) But that’s quite a lot of work …

  4. “It’s possible to set hyperlinks in Glulx. Some interpreters even support them properly.

    I’m not sure I want to do that, though, because I think it encourages people to play in an even more dull-and-mechanical fashion;”

    I agree. As an experiment some time ago I wrote a TADS 3 extension which allows conversational responses to be either highlighted (so you could just click on them) or enumerated (so you could choose one just by entering its number) or both. Although in one sense it successfully produced an interface that was easy to use, from a game-play perspective I think it fails for precisely the reason you say: it made it far too easy to just enter numbers or click hyperlinks without giving it much thought, potentially resulting in a highly mechanical style of play during conversations. I tried it out on one of the beta-testers for the Elysum Enigma, who felt much the same (so I didn’t leave it in the final released version). Still, if someone wants to experiment further with this approach, the extension is available from the IF-Archive.

    I was interested in your remarks on pacing, since they’re quite pertinent to my current TADS 3 WIP, which is going to have to address those kinds of issue sooner or later, though I haven’t come up with any earth-shattering solutions yet, apart from trying to alternate conversational scenes with other kinds of activity.

  5. Hi Emily,

    I have a disagreeing point to make, but allow me to split a hair first. You mention modulating “intensity”, but I think you have two different concepts wrapped up there. One is emotional intensity, which is what a narrative modulates by following a suspensful, dramatic, or revelatory scene by a complacent or contemplative scene. The other’s cognitive intensity, or cognitive load, which is what I-F puzzles and “big, thick” mystery novels create. Whichever’s in use, I agree that a player periodically needs a break from it.

    But I believe one can get a break from either by going into the other’s territory. So, I disagree regarding the autopilot. I say autopilot navigation is just as dull and mechanistic as menu or word clicking.

    As for metrics, output-per-prompt and prompts-per-interesting-outcome both sound like promising metrics for pace. (The first also seems like a good metric for interactivity, at least on the surface.) But the third, “difficulty planning the next move”, sounds less like a metric and more like a particular flavor of cognitive load, which would place it in the category of substances being measured, rather than being the measuring stick itself.

    I’m interested in your reply to my reply, and would like to add one question. I’m fuzzy on how to define “pace”, and though I like Crawford’s definition of interactivity as “the number of options the author offers vs. the number of options the player imagines”, it doesn’t take into account how often the player gets to make choices. So, now I’m needing a better definition of interactivity, and some sort of definition of pace, and think they might be related… somehow.

    -Ron

  6. David:

    Maybe some clever parsing would do the trick (accepting “ask where” as shorthand for “ask where to find the diamond necklace” in this context only?) But that’s quite a lot of work …

    No, it’s not that much work; my current conversation code will let the player abbreviate conversation options just as one may abbreviate the names of other objects in the game world. IIRC, TADS 3 allows something like that as well.

    Ron:

    But I believe one can get a break from either [emotional vs. cognitive intensity] by going into the other’s territory

    To an extent, but I think that oversimplifies. A conversation can be both emotionally and cognitively intense: even if the player doesn’t have to do a lot of thinking about what to do next, there can be quite a lot of information in the NPC’s dialogue that needs to be assimilated.

    And, on the other hand, a conversation game is not necessarily the best context for pure cognitive engagement (i.e., puzzles for their own sake).

    I already apply certain general rules to try to liven up conversation passages: don’t prompt the player *every* move; when prompting, don’t always use the same formula of text to do so, but wherever possible work the prompt into the narrative; if possible, include some moves that involve YES/NO questions or other things where the player can see the options for himself; keep each conversation as short as it can be to convey what you want to convey.

    So, I disagree regarding the autopilot. I say autopilot navigation is just as dull and mechanistic as menu or word clicking.

    I wasn’t exactly arguing in favor of having autopilot sections; I was just suggesting that they do have a pacing effect which can be useful, even if in other respects they are not very interesting.

    But I don’t think navigation is mechanistic in the same way as menu clicking. Navigating a map by compass directions, when you’ve already been through it, requires a certain amount of memory review. That might not be a very interesting exercise, but I nonetheless find it more engaging than simply typing number keys in a menu, for instance.

    I’m interested in your reply to my reply, and would like to add one question. I’m fuzzy on how to define “pace”, and though I like Crawford’s definition of interactivity as “the number of options the author offers vs. the number of options the player imagines”, it doesn’t take into account how often the player gets to make choices.

    I suspect Crawford jumps over the question of choice-frequency because he basically recommends that one offer the player only choices, filling in the space between with cut-scenes or otherwise downplaying them. I think that’s a bad idea, but it does explain why he might oversimplify a bit.

    I’m not going to try to define interactivity right now. Too big a homework assignment, and no one would agree with what I came up with anyway.

    In fact, I’m not coming to the pace problem from a definition, either. I’m saying: in play-testing certain kinds of games, I notice there are times when I disengage — I stop being as interested in what’s on the screen, I start to feel weary — and other times when I am leaning in. Assuming all else is equal (if writing and implementation quality are, in my opinion, uniform throughout these passages; the narrative arc is continuing to move along; the game hasn’t committed any obvious immersion-shattering crimes), then what is going wrong with the dull ones?

    As far as I can tell, it has to do with the amount of variety offered the player, and whether playing feels like being on the wrong end of a conversation with a self-absorbed chatterbox.

    I suppose if you wanted you could call this something else (like “balance”, maybe) to distinguish it from strictly narrative kinds of pacing (how often are new elements introduced to the story, how do we prepare for climactic scenes, how is the payoff presented). But it does dovetail with choices about what kinds of scenes to present when, which is why I think of it as an extension of pacing.

  7. Re: kinds of intensity

    Hm. You gave me some things to consider, & remember. Thank you for the insight here. Though I’ll look for non-navigation methods of providing downtime, I see now how downtime is necessary.

    …general rules to liven up conversation…

    If I understand correctly, these keep the player on the conversation’s primrose path (or one of them), but prevent the conversation from seeming like “press SPACE for the next bit”, yes? And if I understand correctly, this is what you allude to when you say:

    [re: some games that seem dull in spite of themself] As far as I can tell, it has to do with the amount of variety offered the player,

    If so, I would like a term for that… that… “varying the syntax or form of input expected from the player (for the purpose of providing a veneer of variety)” or whatever it is.

    >>But it(?) does dovetail with choices about what kinds of scenes to present when, which is why I think of it as an extension of pacing.

    I don’t quite understand this. I agree a lack of input variety can reduce a player’s interest, but I don’t think reducing a player’s interest means the same thing as slowing the story’s pace to a stop, because a reader can lose interest even in a well-constructed, well-paced story for nothing beyond simple personal preferences in taste.

    Could you say a little more on that one point? I’m almost done here.

    -Ron

    (Yeah, I know formulating perfect definitions invites attack, but I was at least hoping you’d take a stab at it. To me, pacing is still mostly “I know when I see it”, which does not satisfy. “The rate of plot info drops” is better than nothing. As for interactivity, I suppose Crawford’s existing definition could be amended to include “how often the author offers the opportunity to intervene vs. how often the players wishes to intervene”. There are times when a long conversational textdump makes we want to interrupt right… there and say something different. Other times, I feel the conversation stopped too soon and gave me a prompt; the resulting what-do-I-do moment is uncomfortable.)

  8. I don’t quite understand this. I agree a lack of input variety can reduce a player’s interest, but I don’t think reducing a player’s interest means the same thing as slowing the story’s pace to a stop

    Well, no, but in the situations I’m talking about, I know the problem isn’t a macroscopic problem with the story (which I like well enough), but a small-scale one to do with the texture of the interaction.

    Yeah, I know formulating perfect definitions invites attack, but I was at least hoping you’d take a stab at it.

    I’m not afraid of being attacked exactly (though I’m sure some people would disagree, I expect they’d keep it civil, and if they didn’t, then I don’t really feel obliged to answer them either).

    I meant: that’s an enormous question. Or, worse: two enormous questions, because pace and interactivity are both important and they are different beasts (though, as you say, related, at least in IF).

    I don’t anticipate having an answer I like just by coming up with something off-the-cuff; it would take me days of thinking and writing-up to arrive at a preliminary answer (which I still might not be at all happy with). I’m also not sure how germane it would be if I did. All sorts of things are interactive but handle their interactivity in a different way than IF does, so a definition that tried to address the broad term would likely have little predictive value about successful use of interactivity in our medium.

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