The conflict between story & high time pressure in games

September 19, 2009

Sometimes an article writes itself. This one isn’t. Theres a reason why I’ve started several abandoned attempts at an intro and its this: I’m about to go against the grain. Its common practice in games to be constantly pushing the player on to the next bit of fun, perhaps a fight or maybe a hunt for exciting loot, point is, lots of effort gets put into minimising downtime.

This is fine in many situations, if you want a game based purely around deathmatching then who cares if the story is a bit, well, daft. However there are situations where this is unwelcome. I can give you a simple example from a recent release (Used in other games if memory serves), in Batman: Arkham Asylum when batman is being told something Batman will put his hand to his ear.

Theres three key things happening at this point in time, the player is being given some narrative thats pertinent to whats going on, Batman is being forced into a walk (He is prevented from entering his run animation) and theres an animation that makes clear Batman is listening to his earpiece.

More significantly, the player needs to hear this information, so the player is actively prevented from speeding to the next fight (It can be hard to listen to a conversation if your busy dodging grenades), but you can’t simply slow the player character down without giving some sort of strong visual clue which simultaeneously lets the player know that he can relax for a moment whilst passively reinforcing the importance of whatever information is being given, if its important enough that batman wants to actively push his earpiece closer to his ear then that helps make it clear to the player that this information is important.

Essentially, the game is slowed down so that narrative can be delivered to the player. This is key, one of the tiresome arguments that come up in the games are art debate centres on the notion that as games are interactive this poses a problem for the authors control over the specifics of the experience. Whilst I regard this as ultimately a straw man argument (The experience can be stronger because of the interactivity, not despite it), there is however a hidden point, the interaction can distract players, when you look at the Mona Lisa in an art gallery, you’re not doing it whilst under gunfire.

Anyway, whilst the method used above is useful for giving bite-sized pieces of narrative, it’ll break down the moment you try to give a lot of information. An alternative is to give the player something to do whilst narrative is being delivered, my favourite reference point for this is Deus Ex, but first I’ll start with giving the Mech Commander series an honourable mention. Here, briefing & debriefing sequences deliver narrative whilst the player can form a plan of attack and decide on equipment, or review the spoils of war in the debriefing sequence.  The briefing/debriefing sessions are done outside of the combat gameplay mode and therefor have no actual time pressure, allowing the player to choose to multi-task (Listen and plan at the same time) or go a sequential route (Listen/Watch then plan afterwards).

But what if you want to give the player something to do whilst narrative is delivered, but keep it within the core gameplay mode? Here Deus Ex shines, because the player has a significant degree of choice over when and how to enter (Or leave) battles (To an extent this is also the case with Arkham Asylum) the player again has a choice over whether to perform multiple tasks at the same time or perform them sequentially. The player can stay in hiding whilst listening to information given over JC Dentons info-comm system. Theres also plenty of information that the player can choose to ignore as well, particularly things like the books and newspapers scattered around levels that can give the game world extra depth but are optional (I like this more than I like random collectables to be honest).

Take a look at this image:

This is what choice is all about, really...

Now this is what I call choice...

When the player sneaks up to this area, he/she gets to listen in on a conversation. At the same time, there is an opportunity to observe the movement of NSF troops and therefor actively form a plan of action whilst listening into the conversation. The player can do both tasks at the same time, or sequentially, or just not bother listening to the conversation at all and leap straight into combat. Deus Ex has lots of moments like this, admittedly usually over the info-comm but also from nearby characters talking about events, or in e-mails on computers, etc. The games pacing is slow enough that a player won’t begrudge taking time out to read something, if your game is a case of “we only have 15 hours to save the world” a slow game and a nuanced story might not be appropriate (Heck, are save the planet stories really that interesting?).

Overall, don’t assume that downtime is useless and needs to be expelled from your game, isn’t this a perfect opportunity for you to clue the player in on whats happening in the game world? If there isn’t any downtime and you regard the story as an important part of your game, consider slowing the game down at key points – you can regard these as an opportunity to follow the difficulty curve principle. The points at which the difficulty is temporarily reduced to prevent combat fatigue from setting in are good for presenting a different kind of challenge, one that gives the player something to do whilst recieving information on the story at the same time, the Half Life series is a particularly note-worthy example of this principle at work.

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