[In this Gamasutra analysis piece, Connor Cleary takes a look at how games like Mirror's Edge and the Uncharted franchise handle the tricky job of pacing for enjoyment, and not for scavenger hunting.]
Immersion: for most big budget games these days, this is the goal; to so completely immerse the gamer in the world and action that the chase scenes make her heart beat faster, the gunfights make his palms sweat, the visuals make her eyes go wide, and the soundscape makes him want to close his eyes and just... listen.
There are a lot of things developers can do to enhance this feeling of immersion, but beyond great audio/visual design, physics, and dialog, good pacing is essential.
This is a difficult element to get just right though, and there are no all-encompassing solutions because each game requires very different pacing methods.
You wouldn't want to use the same pacing in Shadow of the Colossus
that you would in Gears of War
. This is also a difficult area to tune because it is the product of a variety of factors; if something is off it's not just a bug to hunt down, it's something less tangible than that.
But in any case, one surefire way to put the gamer's attention in a full nelson not let go is the ubiquitous chase scene.
Take Mirror's Edge
for example. Most of the time you are completely outnumbered and outgunned and your only option is to run for your life. I found this to be an absolutely fascinating mechanic, and quite novel actually. I'm used to being the powerful protagonist who wins against all odds, but there I was: Fleeing for dear life, surviving by way of dexterity and agility rather than power and fortitude.
My heart was beating faster, my eyes were pinned open, and I was leaning into my screen like it would help me get a better view of my surroundings. I realized that it was the momentum of the game that kept me so completely immersed. If you slow down, they will catch you; if you get stuck, they will catch you, and if they catch you, you will almost certainly die. Mirror's Edge
is an entire game based on the chase scene – and superhuman agility of course.
fosters a completely different kind of momentum, but does so quite well. Rapture – Bioshock
's underwater city – is great at making the player feel completely uneasy at all times. This is, again, the product of many factors, but I think the clincher is this: No matter how many times you clear a room, you can never be sure that it'll be empty two minutes later.
This is because the game regularly spawns enemies behind you, not in rapid succession but just often enough that you never feel confident backtracking to the safety of a previous room. Bioshock
is at all times prodding you forward, the whole game is almost a slow motion chase scene.
games are good at a lot of things, but pacing has to be among their best points. They do an excellent job of slowing down and speeding up as appropriate; slowing down to emphasize a really grudging uphill battle, or speeding up to enhance your adrenaline-injection system during chase scenes and high-speed firefights.
For example, at one point a helicopter is chasing you in and out and under and over a bunch of war-torn buildings, each closer to collapse than the last. The helicopter is blasting a series of new holes in the buildings, and you feel fairly certain that if you stop sprinting for half a second one of these buildings is going to come down right on top of you. It's exhilarating.
But I also want to address a problem I have with many games that utilize the kind of momentum I've been talking about: “Hidden Treasures.” In the case of Uncharted 2
you have to keep a sharp eye out for little glimmering spots that indicate treasures that you're supposed to collect.
There are something like 100 treasures hidden throughout the game, and if you're not constantly whirling the camera around you'll probably miss most of them – actually, you'll probably miss most of them anyway if you don't have an inhuman amount of patience or an insatiable completionist drive.
On one level, I appreciate this little “Hidden Treasure” gimmick. The Uncharted
games are incredibly gorgeous, and looking around for the treasures forces me to stop and really admire the work that went into these environments, as opposed to just plowing through at full speed – and similar mechanics in other games serve the same purpose. But the same gimmick can also completely break that carefully constructed momentum, and the gamer's sense of immersion along with it.
Let's go back to Mirror's Edge
for another example: There are a few hidden briefcases strewn about the city that you're supposed to collect while completing other missions. But if I have to stop and check every nook and cranny of every room that I can get into just to find those briefcases, then the “Hidden Treasure” mechanic has single-handedly undermined the point of the entire game.
To be fair: They're not impossible to find and they just give you achievements/trophies anyway so it's easy to write them off, but if you're like me you might find yourself inexplicably compelled to try to find them anyway.
A significantly less drastic example of pace-breaking comes from the God of War
series, where the games' fixed camera allows the developers to hide chests just out of view. Since these chests can contain items that increase your health and magic bars, it leads to a lot of running in place into corners and blindly jumping off ledges on a hunch. And like many games, it also means breaking away from the intended momentum to scour every piece of ground hunting for treasures.
Implemented correctly, chase scenes and momentum can drastically enhance the immersion factor of a game. But if developers want to make them work, they should really commit to it and avoid hiding treasures along the way that might break the pacing.
Alternatively, “Hidden Treasures” can be a great way to make gamers stop for an extra moment to take in their surroundings, thus heightening their appreciation for a well-crafted game. But used incorrectly they can feel like a waste of the player's time, a gimmicky way to increase play time, a cheap attempt to add replay value, or just a mechanic designed specifically for completionists. For instance, while I know a few people who are really proud of themselves for doing so, there's no way in hell I'm going to collect all 100 feathers in Assassin's Creed II