Interactivity and Managing Pacing

So now that I got that rant from last week out of my system, let’s spend some time on the topic I actually wanted to talk about. Interactivity and Pacing.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about pacing in the past couple of days, because I’ve been editing, and editing means fixing up the horrendous pacing errors I made in the first draft.

Pacing has never been my forte. That may or may not have been obvious from either my previous blog posts or from my actual writing.

And I’ve also been doing some more podcast recording with Liberation Industries (and some Twitch streaming, so follow my Twitter to be notified when that happens), which means I’ve been thinking a lot about interactive stories.

Interactive stories are great, and I love them dearly. Both the with-people-tabletop version, and the electronic with-or-without-people video kind. And several other kinds as well – let’s not pretend they’re the only ways that people have invented to make stories interactive.

Let’s start with the video game kind to illustrate the point, because things get messy when you start talking tabletops. I realise that more than just one writer works on a video game, especially huge RPGs but because they’re all working together to create one “story” (or one “experience”, might be the more accurate term), let’s just treat them all as one entity. One of the problems that I often see touted for big RPGs like the Bioware games (Dragon Age, Mass Effect) and open-world games like Skyrim is that the pacing completely goes out the window once the side quests start. Suddenly the big important plot quest is forgotten because you need to go collect the Twelve Rat Nipples for the local magic experiments.

And that’s fair enough – when the side quests and tasks that don’t further the main plotline (or don’t involve interacting with or learning about your companions) make up at least 80% of the game like they do in a lot of those big RPG and open world style games, it’s easy to “forget” about the main plot – and it immediately takes away any sense of urgency if you’re given a “time-sensitive” mission but you can spend as long as you like running menial errands.

Which, I think, illustrates the core pitfall of any interactive medium when it comes to pacing. Interactive fiction includes the idea that the person consuming the fiction has agency in the fiction. That might be the case in some types more than others – a lot of visual novels can be quite linear, and there are games like To The Moon that technically have gameplay, but it’s really just an excuse to move from the Plot Scene to Plot Scene, and it’s neither challenging nor really engaging in its own right. (Don’t get me wrong, I adored To The Moon, and I don’t necessarily think it would have been better as a movie than a game … but that’s another blog post that I’m going to put on the list and write soon). But in general, the prevailing wisdom that I’ve seen discussed for games is that players generally feel like they enjoy games more when they feel like they had some form of agency in the game experience (whether that is in the narrative, like an RPG, or in the choice of gameplay and mechanics like in a fighting game or an RTS). Let’s just forge ahead assuming that’s true – or at least that it’s true enough to be useful to this discussion. Now, video games don’t have to do that in the same way – they can use mechanics or gameplay for agency, but when you’ve got a tabletop game, or really any kind of collaborative storytelling where people are creating the story together in real time, it is necessary that all the participants feel like they had an equal hand in things. Now, equal doesn’t always mean ‘equivalent’ – in a traditional game of DnD, for example, the Dungeon Master, who creates the world, and the players who play only their characters don’t have the same roles and yes, there is usually a lot more for the DM to do than the players, but anyone who thinks the DM has the most power in determining the story and the narrative is doing things very, very wrong.

When you have a tabletop game, the issues of agency from video game RPGs become much more pronounced. People are generally willing to forgive RPGs for not giving them certain options, or not allowing things to be done in a certain way or in a certain order (not always, but generally). This is because we understand that a program has to have some limits. We aren’t yet at the point where we can build a totally adaptive game that accepts open-ended inputs like writing your own dialogue (and of course, that understands tone, sarcasm, metaphor …) and where the characters are fully voice-acted for all possibilities in that system. We still have to rely on other humans for that kind of experience. And that’s where tabletops and other collaborative or interactive stories get more messy – because there is infinite scope for the world and the characters to adapt to any input from any single participant, and for that to affect the course of the story as a whole.

But that means that if the players feel like they aren’t getting enough agency, it’s not because they are dealing with a program that was developed with a different experience in mind, it’s because there are real people at the game not listening to their input or ignoring their ideas and needs. People get resentful a lot quicker if they aren’t able to effect change on the story, or feel like their choices don’t matter or aren’t being listened to and incorporated.

So, what does this have to do with pacing? Well, a big problem in video games where choice in the narrative is a big element is that it can be hard to manage the rate at which the player goes through the story without feeling like the players are being railroaded. Especially when it’s a game with lots of sidequests and opportunities to explore a large world.

With an interactive game that’s more face-to-face though, management of pacing becomes more difficult. When players choose how they want to engage with the world, and especially when they create the plot collaboratively rather than running through a prefabricated plot, pacing management becomes less about good planning and more about reading the room. Pacing becomes about sensing when the other people in your group naturally speed up and slow down, when they start to become frustrated and when they feel like they need a slower scene. And maybe that pacing doesn’t have to be the same as a non-interactive story. I have heard gaming podcasters talk about stories for streaming versus games for playing, and they are very different creatures – often, I feel, the podcast needs to artificially add arcs and more traditional narrative pacing in order to make the recorded game feel more interesting to listen to. An actual game, on the other hand, can be quite an amorphous thing and still be engaging, provided all the players get an equitable amount of story focus.

All in all, I think I think of stories when interactive narratives are involved a lot differently to traditional narratives. I think they are quite similar – as the plot reaches its natural endpoint, the stakes get higher, and the plot tends to speed up, and I think that holds true for freeform interactive stories as well as traditional narratives. But I see a lot of promise in a system that measures pacing not just in terms of narrative speed, emotions and stakes but in terms of character drive.

Expect this topic to get revisited in the future – and more topics about interactive fiction. I’m far from done with this topic.

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