Tense and Tension in Games

***This article is also avaible on my Gamasutra blog.***

In one of my posts at the IGDA Writing SIG I had pointed out that the 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 artcle 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 has 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 flows to a degree in which its passing is not even perceived any more.

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’s famous 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” of emotions and experiment with them.


Pacing and Tension

One of the aspects of good drama (and gameplay) is concentration or 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 concerned with the pace at which the selected things are presented.

While concentration 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 which such high levels of pace: the motion of objects, the motion of the camera or 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 shot cuts 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-all-the-time is a sure way to turn down the spectator after a while. 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 to establish rhythm). Avoiding to have the same pace (or texture) over long periods prevents a certain feeling of dullness and numbness to settle in. In order to help the player to value the different experiences that come from various levels of pace, such varying scenes are put against each other in a certain order. This order will give a feel of rhytm. Therefore fast-paced and slow-paced scenes replace each other constantly. A rather slow-paced dialogue scene that follows a fast-paced action scene gives the spectator a rest and allows her to reflect on the causal chain that lead to the row of events and the roles of the characters.


Game Layers as Means of Pacing and Rhythm

Having multiple game layers (multi-level games, as Ernest Adams calls them) is one of the ways to set up such rhythm in games. You make strategical decisions on a rather slow-paced global layer. However, the game will also maintain local layers in which the player will engage in fast-paced tactical combat. Switching back and forth between these various layers will establish rythm.

Sample game: Diablo:

Global layer (slow pace): Town – Dialogue & Trade

Local layer (fast pace): Dungeon – Battle & Looting

Sample game: Need for Speed Underground 2:

Global layer (slow pace): City – Exploration (Discovery) & “Pimping the Ride”

Local layer (fast pace): Race – Facing competition & Earning money and reputation

When we compare the layers in these two examples, the first thing we notice is that the local layers provide higher levels of event density. 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; time is utilized as a form of putting pressure on the player; player actions require a variety of button moves being carried out in quick succession to achieve the desired results etc.

The global layers on the other hand are rather meant for planning and reflection, decision-making is carried out on a lower pace and they seem to have an impact on a broader tense and not immediate as it is on the local layer.

The contrast 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 game sequences that replace each other.  

While certain parts of procedures can be given a more ritual-like status with lots of delay aimed at creating suspense, other parts can be cut short to emphasize certainty and shift ifocus on the result. For example a certain play sequence might feature a lot of “filler” moves; moves that do not necessarily carry further the procedure, but 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.

Through such adjustment, a designer can emphasize things, or play them down, or put them forward as unchangeable facts. These 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 or in back-to-back procedures. We might also see combinations of them.

The Embedded Procedure

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


But consider the games below:

{{{..}….}……} or {……{..{}…….}..} or {……{….{..}}}

It’s quite clear that the three games above feel quite different to play.

The Back-to-Back Procedure

These types of procedures resemble a chain. Procedures do not overlap, they do not run parallel. 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:

{.} + {..} + {…} or {…} + {..} + {.} or {.} + {…} + {.}

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

Before we finish the article, lets have a look at a combination of embedded and back-to-back procedures:

{……} + {.{..{…}……}..} + {…} + {.{}}


Summary and Conclusion

In this article I have elaborated on various ways to create rhythm and set 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.

I believe that concepts like subjective time, screen event and event density are crucial to understand how games work for players. Consequently, any game designer who has these concepts in his arsenal will benefit from them due to the capacity of making accessible and manipulable the time-related aspects of games. I have no doubt that this will help in making good-paced immersive games.


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One Response

  1. […] New Article on Pacing and Rhythm in Games Posted on July 21, 2009 by altug isigan I’ve put up a new article on pacing and rhythm in games. The article is titled Tense and Tension in Games. […]

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