The Pace of the Game

I wouldn't forget how to read between the one time that I pick up a paperback and the next, but I certainly do forget some of the rules of play for a specific video game often enough between one play session and the next. Relearning how to play creates for a disjointed experience of the long term project of completing a game.

I played Capcom's game Remember Me in three discrete sessions of wildly varying lengths. I played a bit of the first episode of the game for maybe an hour or so. I got the hang of the controls, a sense of the combat, and a handle on the plot, nothing more. I played through the remainder of the first episode a few days later and played through episode two and much of episode three. Finally, in one marathon session of six or eight hours (coming almost a week after my second session), I burned through the remainder of episode three, then through episodes four through eight.

Remember Me isn't an exceptionally long game as far as boxed titles go, maybe 10 to 12 hours, but the brevity of my initial playthroughs followed by a session that stretched over much of a day led to a weird sense of the pacing of the game and my understanding of the game's plot points and controls.

During my last session, I had an especially weird moment near the tail end of the game in which the game's protagonist, Nilin, reminded herself of a few of the major events of the last five or six episodes. It was a very disconcerting moment for me, as I was kind of like, “No kidding, that's what I just did. Why are you reminding me of everything that I just did?”

Of course, in retrospect, it occurs to me just how problematic it is for a player to recall all of the most important story beats in most video games. Indeed, there is a character named Bad Request that I encountered in the final chapters of Remember Me who was the primary motivator in several of the game's final missions and who I was apparently meant to care a great deal about, which I found that I had no real memory of. He was introduced at some point in the first several episodes, and he meant nothing to me now. He was a blank in my mind (ironic, I suppose, in a game called Remember Me). However, like I said, it had been almost a week since I had given much thought to the characters and plot of Remember Me.

Of course, my own amnesia concerning Remember Me and why I was supposed to give a rat's ass about some dude named Bad Request extended beyond merely recalling the plot of the game. When I fired up Remember Me for the last time, I got stuck in a few places merely because I didn't recall some of the game's controls and how certain powers were activated and what they were for. A mini-boss character required that I use something called a “junk shot” in order to down him -- otherwise, he constantly regenerated health. I spent quite some time dodging this guy's attacks and swearing at my screen because I was trapped in an endless combat, uncertain what to do.

Eventually, I looked up the old tutorial scripts in a journal sub-menu of the game and discovered that I had learned this thing called the “junk shot” at some point in my prior sessions. With the reminder of how to perform the shot, I could finally move on.

The length and pacing of most triple A titles, even a shorter one like this (let alone a 40 to 50 hour game), is simply not especially conducive to how player's play. To be honest, the way I play games is probably more unusual than not, as I often spend big chunks of time, maybe five or six hours at a time on a game and continue playing them for several consecutive days until I finish them. But I have an obligation to get them finished, as I review a lot of games. I would assume that more players likely break up their time with a game into smaller bites and get around to them off and on over days, weeks, or months until they finish them -- assuming, that is, that they finish them at all.

All of which makes that moment when Nilin explains all the major plat points of several hours of gaming make little sense for me in my marathon session, having experienced all of these moments back to back to back. However, for the gamer under no obligation to complete quickly (or again, complete at all) this was probably a very useful moment.

Of course, not all media is like a film or television episode, able to be viewed in its entirety in a very short period of time. Novels, like games, tend to require a lot more time and a lot more sessions to get through in their entirety. The differences, though, between a video game and a book in terms of storytelling are fairly clear to me in terms of pacing. A novel sticks to the story. After all, that is all that it consists of. It's hard to forget characters and the main threads of the plot when that is all thst a book focuses on – the narrative. A player involved in games like Remember Me, though, finds his experience of these direct elements of narrative very often spaced out throughout the experience, fed to him in smaller chunks in cutscenes, perhaps, cutscenes that are often separated by huge chunks of gameplay and game activities. You'll battle a whole lot of foes between one cutscene and the next in Remember Me, not to mention the time spent traversing the environment as Nilin scales walls and explores the game's countless corridors.

In addition to not having had an experience that focuses exclusively on advancing the plot in every moment, the experience of playing a game is just that, play, and as a result there is more to interfacing with the medium than there is in something like a novel. I don't forget how to read between the one time that I pick up a paperback and the next. I also don't forget how to use a controller in a broad sense between gameplay sessions, but I certainly do forget some of the rules of play for a specific title often enough. Relearning how to play creates for a disjointed experience of the long term project of completing a game.

Now I am aware that games have made efforts to create a means for players to recall plot and play in video games. Several games feature a “last time when you played X, Y, and Z occurred” kinds of features (somewhat like Nilin's recollection of events too recent for me to need a recap for). Additionally, there are things like the journal sub-menu featured in Remember Me that bring me up to speed again on how to do what I'm doing. Still, though, when people talk about how most gamers don't finish most of the games that they buy and play, I can't help but wonder if some of the pacing problems that arise from the extreme time commitment required by many video games isn't a contributing factor.

I just recently started playing both Dead Island: Riptide and Metro Last Light but got distracted by other obligations. While I played a bit of both, I feel like I would need to restart either one to get back into them, just to relearn how to play and to remember what was going on in them. And while I only played a bit of them, the idea of starting over and losing the hours that I did already put into them isn't really all that appealing.

I'm not really sure what the solution to the problem of pacing is (well, besides focusing on shorter and shorter games with very focused plots and simple mechanics) and maybe it doesn't matter, maybe games are merely consumed as incomplete experiences and that's fine with their audience. Nevertheless, it seems to me that developers often have a story that they want to communicate fully or a bunch of levels that they want the player to experience the design and challenge of, so it seems to me worth continuing to worry about. Honestly, the combat of Remember Me doesn't fully come together until the last few episodes of the game when the player has sufficiently unlocked enough ways of building melee combinations to experience how Nilin is supposed to fight. These are good moments in the game, and it would be a shame if the player didn't get to experience the best, most empowering moments of the game.

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