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.