Note: This article contains spoilers for Fallout 4.
Compared to traditional media like novels and film, video games are very bizarre in terms of pacing. A film plays out over a specific period of time with nearly every second curated by the editor, who makes sure that no scene is too long. This desire to move the plot along in a timely fashion seems to flow from the nature of film as a communal experience. We don’t tend to watch movies alone, but rather with others. Thus, they should be an event that we complete in one sitting.
Video games are more like novels, which a person usually does not finish all at once. A person can read a novel at their own pace, and they can easily jump back and read a section again. Yet, even the most linear of video games are not nearly as linear as a novel or a film is. The player has the autonomy to continue the story at their leisure. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, the player has all the time in the world to soak in the story of the game and its qualities as a game. On the other hand, the director of a story-rich game gives up being able to tell his or her story in the exact way that he or she wants to tell it. I have to imagine that this would be frustrating for an auteur-like director like Hideo Kojima of the Metal Gear Solid series [And, perhaps, his infamously lengthy cut scenes, especially in Metal Gear solid 4 bear witness to that frustration — ed.].
The reality of player autonomy is especially apparent in games like Fallout 4 and in other open-world games like Grand Theft Auto, where the player can basically avoid the plot and do whatever they want. In Fallout 4 a player may choose to explore the wasteland, build settlements, or do side quests instead of completing the main story. In fact, it often feels like the “main story” is just another side quest for the player to complete in the grand world of the Commonwealth.
Yet halfway through Fallout 4’s main story, the game uses its own tendency to distract to tell its story. The player-character spends a large part of the game hunting down Kellogg, the man who stole his or her child and murdered his or her spouse. When the player finally catches up with Kellogg, they find a creepy, James Spader-esque character (well voiced by Keythe Fairley) who seems more rational than they thought he would be. Of course, the player kills Kellogg, but in order for the plot to progress the player must dive into Kellogg’s brain and use his memories to find the missing child.
This dream-like exploration of Kellogg’s memories is one of the most memorable moments in the game. If the player doesn’t care about Kellogg and just wants to complete this objective, that player can run quickly through the memories until they find the relevant one and complete the quest. But if one takes the time to explore, one can experience the full life of a man in a unique way that only a video game can offer.
Every memory in this sequence consists of a scene of Kellogg doing something that informs the player about this man’s life. Yet, the player can select different objects in the memory to listen to a voiceover of Kellogg himself as he explains the life he lived. This information is interesting, touching, and tragic. We see a boy growing up with an abusive father and a beaten mother. We see a young man once filled with hope, who has found a lover, and had a child with her, only to see all of these things torn from him by his own greed. We se an middle aged man who has found success, but is unsatisfied with the course of his life.
The player can choose to get lost in this one minor character’s life. The game doesn’t force its player to participate in any of these memories, but it leaves an open invitation to do so and provides a choice to explore if desired. A film could never give its audience this information without slowing its pace to a crawl. A novel can include this kind of information, but often a very long tangent of this sort can bogs down a story and can lead to pacing problems. But video games are simultaneously their own best friend and worst enemy when it comes to pacing. They can give the player tons of tools to experience the narrative, but they cannot force the player to necessarily have that experience.
This can make the discussion of video games difficult. If I told you that I have seen Pulp Fiction and you have seen it too, we can have a discussion about nearly every aspect of the film. If I told you I have read Moby Dick and you have too, we could talk about its intricacies all day. There is a sense of completeness when finishing a novel or a film. But when we play a video game, especially an open-world one like Fallout 4, there is no telling what one player experienced and another did not. Perhaps some people reading this article breezed through Kellogg’s memories and didn’t notice that they could stop and experience a fuller picture of his life, or perhaps they realized this and they just didn’t care to listen.
This memory sequence is a microcosm of Fallout 4’s world and story. Distraction is easy and encouraged, completion is relative. The pacing is entirely up to the player and that is an equally terrifying and exciting proposition. What the player does with their time in the game will ultimately determine the quality of the game they play.