Friday, June 24, 2011

Ready for English class?

Behold, the basics of story telling:



This applies to all forms of narrative, up to and including the interactive kind. In order to maintain interest in the story there has to be movement; things have to be going somewhere. And when they finally do get to where they are going there has to be something on the other side to make the trip worth it. Most of the time games that don't have this are described as having poor pacing, but in reality there are simply missing one (or more) of the steps from above.

For example: many, many shooters have little to no rising action. There is a little exposition in the form of an opening cut scene, then it is balls out climaxes until it runs out of steam. Without rising action to build tension (or apprehension) the climax or climaxes are much less effective because there is nothing to compare them to. To pull wording from my college education from a previous life, how do you know what loud is until quiet has been established? If a shooter is all action, all the time, the action never actually goes anywhere and gets boring very quickly.

I feel like an old school example is in order.


The entire first level is exposition, right up to the giant bat. It introduces the character, what he is doing and how is going to do it. From there it is rising action; each level and boss gets more intense and difficult. I suppose it can be argued that it peaks one level early with Death, but the two stage Dracula fight is longer and not that much easier (I never managed to do it without the triple boomerang). The falling action and denouement are a bit muddled together, but I think the end credits with Dracula's castle crumbling in the background still work very well.

Why this old, 8 bit example? Because if 'they' managed to get the pacing so right with a liner game that can be beaten in an hour why can't 'they' do it now? Part of the answer is in the question: linear. It is very difficult to maintain reasonable pacing in open world games. The only one that I have played that managed to keep the plot moving in the right direction the whole time was Red Dead Redemption, and that was only because I chose to follow it. Still, even modern linear games have a hard time pushing things towards a singular climax because they start out to hard and fast. F.3.A.R. is a perfect example: it is an excellent shooter but I have little interest in anything happening outside of slow motion shotgun murders because every level is just as intense as the last. Within the levels there is some rising and falling, but it is limited to 'this is when you shoot things' and 'this is when scary things happen.' 

There is nothing wrong with having a quiet level or two to build mood, then slowly introducing more enemies or items or mechanics to build to the final boss. It's basic, but it works, and all the graphics in the world cannot replace a coherent, well assembled story with a beginning, middle, and end.

1 comment:

  1. If you're interested in the structure and deconstruction of narrative, I highly suggest you check out a book called Story by a screenwriter named Robert McKee... I think... lemmie check...

    Yep.

    I goes very in-depth on the archtypical narrative, how to properly represent genre, and the part I found most interesting: the way a scene itself has a pacing. How the best-written stuff in the world is not just a build-build-build - it's a zig-zag of potential success and potential disaster, back and forth.

    Back when I was a soon-to-be professional writer (I was, once upon a time, I swear), it was recommended to me by my mentor. The book always gives examples - it's a genius piece of work for anyone interested in the craft of writing, or storytelling.

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