Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Timing, Pacing, Expectations

There's an old joke about the key to comedy being timing.  The joke is all the more funny because it's true. But comedy isn't the only thing that relies on timing - not by a long shot.  Because every story has a pace at which it should develop.  That's part of why story editors make so much money. And why some authors haul in the big bucks and others don't.

One of my favorite movies is The Fifth Element.  It's a tightly-constructed film with a thoroughly dissatisfying ending. Because the film has excellent pacing throughout, but the end is very rushed.  It feels like the author or editor or director was told, "Okay, now you have to wrap this epic story up in ten minutes."

Lately, I've had cause to become more aware of story pacing in the television medium.  I joined a community called ReWatchers - we're watching TV shows as their writing team intended: One episode per week.  We've consciously broken the Netflix pattern of marathoning shows to get through them quickly.  One of the shows that the community is watching is Babylon 5. It's a really good show, but my wife has never been able to get through more than a handful of episodes - and I'm learning now that it's because the show really shouldn't be marathoned - because it's written to feature a broad story arc. Yes, there is a standalone story every week - but the main arc of the story unfolds in odd fits and spurts.  When you're only watching an hour or so per week, you don't necessarily notice how erratic the pacing is. When you marathon the show, some hours seem packed with too much story, and some episodes are all about that week's story.

It reminds me of Hamlet's Hit Points - Robin Laws' book about story pacing from a gamer's perspective.  I know I've recommended it before, but I'm probably going to continue recommending it for some time to come.

But pacing isn't an issue only for role-playing games, either.  There have been a number of games I've played where the timing of the game just feels ... off.

Miskatonic School for Girls took a lot of heat for being a mediocre game - and rightly so. People complain a lot about the randomness of the game or several other factors.  For me, the death knell of the game is its timing.  The start of the game just drags.  Somewhere around the middle of the game, it hits a good pace that feels about right.  And then the game hits a death spiral where it feels like it just suddenly ends.  I suspect that, were the pacing issues better resolved, the rest of the games problems wouldn't be as obvious.  As it is, the pacing of the game throws all of the issues of the game into stark relief.

I saw a discussion recently on whether people like games where "interrupt" actions can allow players to act during someone else's turn. My thought is simple: As long as it doesn't screw up the pacing of the game, I'm okay with it. But there are very few games where interrupts can't screw things up.

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