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Tense and Tension in Games

This article takes a look at manipulation of game time as a means to achieve immersion.

Altug Isigan, Blogger

July 21, 2009

10 Min Read

[In one of my posts at the IGDA Writing SIG mailing list I had pointed out that manipulation of the perception of time was key in creating event density and emotional attachment in games. I argued that understanding the factors that have an impact on felt time (or subjective time) would be crucial in making better games.  In this article I want to elaborate further on the issue.]

The Tenses of Gameplay 

The relation between subjective time and immersion has been subject to studies in philosophy and psychology. Some of these studies have been already applied to game design. For example Cziksentmihalyi's Flow Theory had been applied by Jenova Chen in his game Flow (2006). The idea behind the adaptation was to find a way to make the game maintain the right level of difficulty, so that the gameplay requirements and goals of the game are a match to the skills and intelligence of the player at play.  Once this match is achieved and maintained over longer periods, the player gets absorbed by the activity at hand and is lost in a state of flow in which time dissappears to a degree in which its passing is no longer perceived.

The opposite of such a state of flow is boredom -- sticky time. Boredon has been a central issue in philosophy, especially Existentialism. One of the best words to express the "nature" of boredom is its  German equivalent Langeweile which literally means "long duration". This has been one of the central issues of philosopher Martin Heidegger and was among the major subjects in his book Being and Time. In deep boredom, time becomes so dense and sticky that the player, no matter what she does to overcome the problem of "long duration", will always surface at the consciousness of her own existence, that is, Being. This is a state in which we perceive our very presence as "heavy" time: Dasein; the 'being there'.

There are probably many other "shades" of perceived time; not only between the two ends of Flow and Langeweile, but also within these concepts themselves. Cziksentmihalyi for example, distinguishes between a variety of mental states that are very close to flow, but not quite flow itself. Heidegger on the other hand distinguishes between many types of boredom. 

While I am not able to tell how broad the spectrum of perveived time and the corresponding mental states is, I believe that it is definitely worth trying to find out more about  these "tenses" and experiment with them.


Pacing and Tension

One of the aspects of good drama (and gameplay) is focus, that is, leaving out the details that slow down story progress unnecessarily or do harm to the intensification of events. This is essential in dramatization. Narration is a selective process that is also concerned with the pace at which the selected things are presented. Often the selection itself will equal to a discourse on time.

While focus doesn't equal to "speed is king", speeding up things is often regarded as the more valuable way to go. It's often 'motion' that is associated with such high levels of pace: the motion of objects, the motion of the camera, and so-called tertiary motion (motion achieved through various editing styles). An example for this would be a sequence in which cars are chasing each other at high speeds, their motion caught on camera via quick zooms or lightning-pans and presented to us as a body of many short shots which are cut together in quick succession. Action pure! We know how appealing this can be to an audience.

However, this does not mean that everything must be at full speed. More than that: action without breaks in between is a guaranteed way to tire down spectators and will put them off eventually. The secret in storytelling rather lies in knowing when to accelerate and when to de-accelerate the flow of events. This is what we call "establishing a rhythm". In movies, the writers usually care to have a healthy proportion of action scenes and dialogue scenes (or of day shots and night shots, in-door shots and out-door shots, all of which are other known ways in in establishing rhythm). Avoiding to have the same pace (or texture) over long periods prevents a dullness and numbness from settling in. Fast-paced and slow-paced scenes replace each other constantly. This ordering of scenes will give a feel of rhytm and allow spectators to value action and breaks alike.

There is also another benefit in maintaining rhythm: A slow-paced dialogue scene that follows a fast-paced action scene will give the spectator a rest and allow her to reflect on the causal chain that lead to the current state of things and the relations between characters. It's a chance for digesting all the information and to develope a stance in regard to the state of affairs.


Pacing and Rhythm with Game Layers

Having multiple game layers (multi-level games, as Ernest Adams calls them) is one of the ways to set up such rhythm in games. Usually there will be a dual-layer structure consisting of a global and a local layer. Strategical decisions are made rather on the slow-paced global layer. Whereas local layers will send the player into rather fast-paced tactical combat. Switching back and forth between these layers will establish rythm. Let's look at two examples to make clear how game layers set pace and rhythm:


Sample game: Diablo

Global layer vs Local layer

   slow paced - fast paced

 Town - Dungeon

   dialogue & trade - battle & looting


Sample game: Need for Speed Underground 2

Global layer vs Local layer

   slow paced - fast paced

    City - Race

  exploration - competition 

     discoveries & "pimp my ride" - earning money & reputation


When we compare the layers in these two examples, the first thing we notice is that the local layers provide more event density than the global layers. First, there is an increased amount of motion, not just in terms of the action that takes place, but also in the construction of the screen event: We see a lot of primary, secondary and tertiary motion. Second: time is transformed into a scarce resource and thereby utilized as a form of putting pressure on the player. Third, gameplay procedures intensify: carrying out actions requires the player to apply complex key combinations in very quick succession.

The global layers on the other hand are rather meant for planning and reflection; decision-making is carried out on a lower pace.  Time is unlimited, controls are simple. The decisions that are made usually have long-term impacts in contrast to the often immediate impact of the decisions that are made during tactical combat.

This contrast between layers results in a feeling of rhythm. In games without forced continuity, it is often possible that the player can set her own pace and decide for herself when to operate on the global layer or when to operate on the local layer (and how long to stay in these layers).


Procedure-Based Pacing

Another way to create rhythm and pace is to structure the length of procedures. This will dictate the pace of gameplay and bring variety into the playing sequences that replace each other.  

While certain parts of procedures can be given a more ritual-like status with lots of delaying elements that are aimed at creating and maintaining suspense, other parts can be cut short to emphasize certainty and shift focus from how the result is achieved to the result itself. For example a certain play sequence might feature a lot of "filler" moves; moves that do not necessarily carry further the plot or procedure, but that establish a certain mood or ambience. Another play sequence may rely on core actions carried out in quick succession and have no filler moves at all. Integrating or removing such fillers will change the experience and felt time. A sequence can be prolonged or shortened. Important decision-making nodes can be emphasized, not so important ones can be rushed through. Through such adjustment, a designer can emphasize things, or play them down. These design decisions will have an impact on the level of engagement and immersion of the players.

Two ways to connect procedures to each other are embedded procedures and back-to-back procedures. We might also see combinations of them.

Embedded Procedures

These procedures are built into each other pretty much like Matrushkas. At some point, a new procedure will be launched within an already ongoing procedure. Hence, this type of procedures can be said to expand vertically. Theoretically there is no limit to depth. A perfectly symmetric structure would look like this:


But consider the examples below:



It's quite clear that the two games above would feel quite different to play. The first one deepens quickly and it takes a lot of time to get back to the surface. The second one dives into the deep slowly, buth rushes up to the surface quickly.

Back-to-Back Procedures

These types of procedures resemble a chain. Procedures do not overlap, they do not run parallel. Hence it can be said that they expand horizontally. Theoretically there is no limit to their breadth. A typical back-to-back structure would look like this:

       {...} + {...} + {...} +....

But again we could have variations:

      {.} + {.}

  {.....} + {.....} 


          {...} + {..} + {.} 

          {.} + {..} + {...}

Again, the games above would feel different when it comes to perceived time.

As a last point, let us say that various combinations of embedded and back-to-back procedures would be possible. Considering that these procedure-based pacing methods can be installed throughout a variety of game layers, we see the richness that these two methods provide us  in game pacing and rhyhtm.


Summary and Conclusion

In this article I have elaborated on various ways to create rhythm and setting pace in games. I distinguished between pacing based on multiple game layers and procedure-based pacing. I have further made a distinction between embedded procedures and back-to-back procedures. Finally, I have pointed at the richness that combinations of these  methods  provide us with.

I believe that concepts like subjective time, screen event and event density are crucial in our  understanding of how games work for players. Consequently, any game designer who has added these concepts to her game design vocabulary will benefit from this due to the increased capacity of consciously manipulating the time-related aspects of games. I have no doubt that this will help in making highly enjoyable games that have  their unique immersive "musicalities".

Altug Isigan



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