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


…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.


The beat issue

Conventional writing advice encourages using beats — descriptions of character action and reaction — to provide variety from an endless stream of “he said” and “she said” tags. This is great advice, but it can be kind of annoying to implement in IF, because any time you describe a character interacting with the environment, you have to make sure that

— the description fits the current world state; the character isn’t adjusting a pair of spectacles he’s no longer wearing, or looking at an item that the player already put into a locked safe in the other room.

— the description correctly modifies the current world state: if the character moves, dons, doffs, or breaks something, that is reflected properly in what we see thereafter.

— the description fits the character’s mood and personality; not every character should draw from the same pool of gestures, and an individual character shouldn’t repeat himself too often. Every character needs his own gestural vocabulary.

— the description reminds the player/reader of the environment, and physically grounds him in the location. In lots of IF, it’s hard to get away from location — interacting with it is all there is. But in very chatty IF, it’s possible to lose all sense of place and start to think of the characters as two floating heads speaking in a vacuum.

— the description contributes to any ongoing action that is supposed to be happening in the scene (if, for instance, the character is supposed to be in the process of performing some task or other); since IF dialogue can happen in various orders, we have to decouple the dialogue from whatever other thing the character is doing.

— (subtler) the description is not too distracting from the dialogue. Sometimes we have descriptions of characters taking independent action which would be fine on their own (if that’s the only thing that character is doing this turn) but which are too detailed or long-winded to fold into the flow of other dialogue.

There’s no one-size-fits all solution to these problems. In Best of Three, I was most concerned about grounding the player in environment and in communicating the NPC’s mood to the player, so I gave the NPC a series of postures. A change in mood would trigger him to change his posture, and the change from one posture to another was a source of beats.

In other contexts, it can be useful to be arrange beat elements in a linear way rather than as a state machine: e.g., with a table or list of beats representing each stage of the action the NPC needs to be performing during dialogue. In I7, it’s sometimes useful to use small scenes to represent the stages of NPC behavior — since multiple scenes can be running at a time, the NPC’s actions can be tracked separately from any scenes that have to do with dialogue.

Whatever approach I take, though, I almost always find that it’s good to have some special model whose job is to provide the content of the beats, and for the conversation quips to refer to that model most of the time. There are of course always exceptions — sometimes a piece of dialogue just has to be paired with a specific gesture or expression, and that deserves to be hard-coded — but the more flexible model allows for livelier dialogue overall, and a more complete sense of place.

Edited to add: see also Talking Head Avoidance Device.

Inform 7 for the Fiction Author

Jeff Nyman recently raised the idea of having a guide to Inform 7 specifically written for an experienced fiction author without background in IF, and I posted a brainstormed outline for such a project. The formatting was pretty ugly on Usenet, though, and I had a few ideas for revisions, so here is another, longer and better-laid-out version of the same thing, with more links to relevant games and articles.

This still isn’t nearly into the shape I would use if I were actually going to write this book — and I don’t have time to do any such thing right now anyway; I have a bunch of things to do for Inform 7, feelies.org, and the long-neglected theory book before I could take up a project of this magnitude. (And I’d like to have a little time to work on a WIP of my own — IF support work has pretty much wiped out my time for that kind of thing lately.) But possibly people will find the brainstorming interesting, even if it isn’t worked up into a complete document.

Continue reading “Inform 7 for the Fiction Author”