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Interactive Storytelling - Narrative Techniques and Methods in Video Games

Mike Shepard, Author

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Mass Effect, Mass Effect 3

Pacing is how a story keeps readers, viewers, or players engaged without overwhelming or underwhelming them along the way.  Recall the three-act structure in the last section; while it’s a good structure, it is more effective when combined with pacing.  The way the three-act is illustrated, the intensity and action just keeps rising and rising at a steady clip, which, narratively, isn’t good.  Pacing keeps scenes of action and rest in balance, so players enjoy the action parts even more.

Action in-game can be equated to candy: having it every so often keeps it desirable exciting, but having it all the time makes it seem more bland, and suddenly we’re looking for something stronger to satisfy our sugary cravings.  The same principle applies but, as can be seen in a handy, relevant chart.  A well-paced game can be narratively gripping, full of action, but still enjoyable because they space out the peak action moments.

In the example of Mass Effect, the big lulls in action come post-mission, generally after the most heated part of the mission, like rescuing Liara or discovering the Thorian.  Once the mission is complete, the crew returns to their spaceship, the SSV Normandy, and drifts around space wondering what they want to do next.  While aboard the Normandy, players can walk around and converse with their crew members, learn more about them as a person, and generally take a break from the combat and quests that hub worlds (worlds that main missions take place on) provide.

That’s thinking big picture, in terms of major plot points, the entire experience, like in Star Wars.  Extra Credits’s resident game designer, James Portnow, shared his segments of pacing in the episode Pacing: “the ‘arc,’ the ‘scene,’ and the ‘action.’  The Arc represents the piece as a whole,” (Floyd & Portnow, 2011) similar to the overarching structures seen in the example.

“The Scene is a subsection of the game, what we would often call a ‘level,’ though it can take other forms depending on the type of game you’re playing.  Each level, or building or encounter in your game should follow the exact same engagement pattern.” (Floyd & Portnow, 2011)  The “Priority: Tuchanka” mission from Mass Effect 3 (2012) follows the pacing curves within its own existence as a level, otherwise just another curve on the Arc pacing chart.  As one can see, the same principle that applies to a narrative as a whole can also apply to individual parts of the narrative.  This keeps players engaged without overwhelming them, even on individual levels.

When referring to the Action, Floyd and Portnow boil down parts of the Scene, namely the gameplay-driven moments.  Thinking of the Mass Effect series again, there is a rise as one raises their sniper rifle, peaking as they pull the trigger, and dropping down as the weapon recoils.  Same principle applies when running an enemy through with a Lancer in Gears of War, pulling a sneaky kill in Dishonored, or performing a perfect technique in Portal.

Pacing, regardless of the medium it’s used in, helps to keep a narrative fresh and enjoyable for its audience.  Video games use it in terms of its overall plot, yes, but also in individual levels, keeping the experiences within the larger experience enjoyable on their own terms.  Most importantly, a video game employs pacing in its moment-to-moment encounters, helping to keep players engaged in the narrative in a way that only an interactive narrative can.
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