How do you tell a good story in a video game? This is a challenge developers have struggled with since the early ages of video games, and more often than not, the story in a game comes across as slightly lacklustre in one way or another. Now, you could simply dismiss this as being down to video games favouring gameplay over narrative. However, the Telltale games success points toward another problem – one that indicates an intrinsic disparity between game and story.
The idea for the post come from playing “Batman – The Telltale Series”. You see the story works, is well written (as is most often the case with Telltale games), and feels engaging. I will talk more about the actual game in another post – this one will focus more on the overarching question of narrative. Well at least one point concerning narrative, not a long, long in depth view. That will have to wait until I work on my thesis.
The point I refer to is pacing. It should come as no surprise to most that pacing is key when it comes to storytelling, and if it isn’t something you have thought about, I suggest you begin to pay attention to it, and you will notice it is everywhere. From the number of shots in the scene of a film, to the punchlines and pauses in a comedian’s joke. Pacing directs attention, affects mood, and keeps us engaged. Bad pacing can easily result in a loss of attention. And here we arrive at my point – video games struggle severely with pacing.
The simple way of putting this is if you imagine an axis. On the one end you have a tightly narrated story with exact pacing, and on the other you have and open world where storytelling does not occur before you seek it out. The better paced a story you wish to tell; the less agency you can afford the player to have in a game. A maybe better analogy would be looking at your own life. You have full agency here, and nothing will happen as long as you do nothing, and even when you venture out into the world, not every event will be a great story. This is something we accept in our lives, so maybe we should accept it in video games that emphasise player agency?
Of course we shouldn’t! As mentioned the above is a simplistic version, one to establish the basic premise of the problem at hand. However, even if an open world game is able to create a great storytelling environment, pacing will remain its biggest challenge.
So how does Telltale utilise pacing? In short, they make sure that any event is controlled by QTEs (quick time events), which removes the luxury of time and prompts players to make snap decisions. This is particularly poignant when you engage in conversations and there is a timer on your response. For instance, in the Batman game I was a bit slow when reading my options once, which resulted in a panicked choice that led to Bruce Wayne shaking hands with Carmine Falcone at a party… Not to my surprise, this did not go down very well with the press, and I had to spend the next hour rectifying this one mistake. The mistake instilled a certain amount of defiance and urgency in me – I needed to prove I wasn’t in cahoots with Falcone!
Telltale didn’t invent neither timed conversation responses or QTEs, however they have created a formula where they integrate them more seamlessly with the storytelling and general experience, which leads to a better pacing.
I am merely scratching the surface of this discussion, and would still like to investigate various instances of good and bad pacing in games further. So if you have examples of the one or the other, of games that prove or disprove the points I have made, then please add them in the comments section.
I do not believe video games to be incapable of telling stories, nor that there is a total disparity between game and story, but there are issues that need to be addressed, such as comparisons between game and film. They are different types of media, and so stories need to be told in different ways as well in order for them to succeed – especially if they are to be more about the gameplay than the Telltale games are. Part of the problem is that the video game industry is still unsure about how such stories to tell these stories – especially in AAA franchises. But if they start to pay attention to pacing, and maybe restrain player options in certain areas, just so as to push the story forward in the desired pace, well, then we might begin to see some interesting results.
Lastly I would like to refer to this article in Forbes, by David Thier, which is what inspired me to look more into pacing in video games.