Friday, July 25, 2008

Pacing and Horror

Big ups, GameSetLinks!

Late post today! I was... um... playing video games.

The main culprit was the demo for the PS3 downloadable title Pixeljunk Eden. How would I describe it? The platforming and the vertically-oriented level design puts one in mind, unexpectedly, of a 2-D Jumping Flash; the visuals and sound are an idyllic take on the (syn)aesthetic of REZ, and the game's traversal mechanics—swinging on a line of silk to move from platform to platform-- are pure Bionic Commando. While it's fun to describe the game, none of that will probably do anything to convey what the game is like. As N'Gai Croal says, you understand games with your hands. So run (don't walk) to your PS3 and download it by all means. (The excellent Pixeljunk Monsters is on sale, too.) Your only disappointment will be that you are unable to purchase the full version when the demo informs you that you are out of time. This is wanton cruelty.

I've been playing Silent Hill 2 lately, and the opening stretch of that game got me thinking about pacing. It seems to me that pacing is an essential but missing element of our critical vocabulary in talking about video games. Pacing is a well-known element of movie criticism; in movies, the length of individual scenes and the alternation between tension and release is a crucial component of the film's overall impact. The presence of a well-fleshed out discourse on pacing gives critics a good set of tools to convey to the reader how films handle time and tempo. (When a reviewer tells you the last third of The Dark Knight was overcluttered with action, you know what they mean.) We lack a similar vocabulary for games, whose pacing is both similar and different to that of movies.

Games, like movies, manipulate the time between events in order to produce their desired effects. Because most games are very long relative to movies (15-25 hours as opposed to 2 hours for a film) the potential for the use of time in games is very different than in film. In games, there is a lot more leeway to let the player wander for a long time without doing anything to them. Silent Hill 2 makes great use of this discretion with regard to time: during the opening stretch of the game, Silent Hill just sets you out on the fogswept path towards town with nothing except a map and a nightmarish camera. (When people tell you Silent Hill's camera is scary, they probably mean that it is incapable of providing you a useful view of your environment: every time you hit L2, the camera erratically swoops around your head like a panicked bird. But the effect is also really frightening: it does unintentionally convey the feeling of inhabiting the viewpoint of someone who is really terrified.) By my reckoning, I spent over thirty minutes wandering though the woods before anything overtly violent took place.

But during that half-hour, the game builds tension to an almost unbearable level; the chief engine of fear during this segment of the game is the audio, which is phenomenal. The sounds that issue from the mist are terrifying because they just verge on intelligibility; they suggest that there is something dreadful scurrying and breathing just beyond your field of vision, but you know not what. The score, on the other hand, is deeply unsettling because it is so eerily otherworldly. When you enter some areas you are met by a progression of dissonant and ominous synthesizer chords; the music is deeply unsettling without being abrupt or loud. Played with headphones, in a dark room, the game reduced me to abject terror in short order. When I finally ran into a fleshless monster intent on my destruction I was palpably relieved, because it broke the tension and because killing it was my first successful commerce with the environment. The success of this section was all a matter of using the pacing specific to video games; Silent Hill engages the player by subjecting them to the sort of slow, monotonously sinister build-up that would be impossible on film.

Other than the use of time and tempo, which games share with movies, there is an essential type of pacing to games that is lacking in any other medium, the pacing of the introduction of new mechanics and types of gameplay over the course of the game. Several of the best games that I've played are memorable for the rhythm with which they introduce and vary their basic mechanics. In Half-Life 2, you are rarely stuck repeating the exercise of the same skill over and over-- though much of the game revolves around shooting, the series does a superb job of varying the basic elements of the gameplay and mixing up the combat scenarios; there are periods of driving, puzzle-solving, quasi-platforming, pitched turret battles, and so on. (Half-Life 2 also has excellent pacing in the previous sense-- it does a good job of alternating periods of stress and release as you move through the game.) Super Mario Galaxy does many of the same things-- it progressively introduces new wrinkles to the game's planet-physics as you move through the galaxies, and also mixes in totally new mechanics and skills-- manta-ray riding, ball-balancing, and the like-- as you go. The changes in the underlying mechanics that evolve over the course of these games conveys a sense of progression to those games that is entirely unique to video games, and this progression is key to the fun because it keeps you engaged in mastering the new rules the games throw at you. Silent Hill 2 produces fear in the player by withholding almost all of the game's mechanics during those opening scenes, which feeds the player's sense of vulnerability and helplessness in the game's opening segments. You desperately want to master the world around you in order to gain some sense of security, and the game systematically humiliates that desire. The pace of your empowerment is the key to the game's success, and I've been enjoying that sense of profound helplessness the game provides.


Anonymous said...

All of this adds up to subscribing to your blog being a great idea.

Cyranix said...

Pacing in games has been on my mind lately as well, but focusing on the feeling of resolution in a narrative arc and how that gets broken by game over situations. From a storytelling perspective, it can be immensely unsatisfying for me to get involved in a well-wrought story only to have the game chime in: "And then he died, THE END."

I'd have more to say on the topic if I weren't a lazy ass and actually worked to keep up a blog. Kudos to you for consistently great entries.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@catfishmay hey, thanks for the good word. I'm glad you're liking it.

@cyranix: can you give me an example of a game you felt this way about? I think I know what you're talking about, but I'm not sure.

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