Setting the Pace

"Shawn, honestly, I just can't do it."

It's only an instant message, so he has no idea the true agony in my virtual voice as I say these words.

"What kind of a gamer do you think you are?" he challenges. "Just use the quick save and put the damn game to bed. You're practically finished! You've already done all the hard work."

He's right. So I knuckle down and do it. I finish the last 17 minutes of Half Life 2: Episode 2.

The Half Life series - indeed everything that has issued forth from Gabe Newell's savvy and brilliant brain - has been one of the true examples of unmitigated excellence in the game industry. In any industry. While individual releases may have had a bug here and there, it would be ludicrous to find fault with Valve's mastery of game design.

And yet, with 17 minutes to go in their latest iteration, I lost my patience.

I will acknowledge that I am an easily distracted man. Sober, I would claim that this is a function of having a life full of responsibilities, and important demands on my time. After a martini, I would be forced to concede that my ability to dump 80 hours into Oblivion or 20 hours into Team Fortress 2 shows sober-rabbit for the liar he truly is.

I think my gaming ADD is a function of enlightened self-interest. Years and years of playing games have given me a Pavlovian world view: one so conditioned by repeated stimuli that it's difficult to shake, especially when faced with an outlier event like The Great Game Glut of 2007 ™.

This belief system suggests:

  • Most games suck.
  • Those games that don't suck are only interesting until I've seen how pretty they are, or what new gameplay tweak they're pawning off as innovation.
  • Those games that pass step 2 are only interesting so far as they are truly addictive or have a great story to tell.
  • Most truly addictive games wear thin, leaving me with the hollowed out feeling of a junkie coming off a three day binge.
  • Most "great stories" are ultimately disappointing and don't survive the cold clarity of 8 hours sleep and three cups of coffee.

This overwhelming cynicism leads to short attention spans. My personal tolerance for doing something un-fun during an evening of game time is extremely small. Whenever a fellow gamer cajoles me to stick with a game because "after the first few hours, it's really awesome" I nod politely while trying to remember where I put the sleeve so I can get it in the Gamefly envelope as soon as possible.

Because my tolerance isn't a few hours. It's about 20 minutes. I will play something entirely un-fun for twenty minutes before I give up. I thought I was unique in this until I played through Half Life 2 Episodes 1 and 2, and then Portal and Team Fortress 2, with the commentaries enabled. Time and time again Valve's designers talk about how the levels have been tuned not just for playability, but for pacing. Every section of their games seem to be timed to keep the player from becoming "fatigued." It's not a word I'd associated with gaming until I heard it uttered through an in game commentary, but it makes me feel justified in my world view.

What was striking about the near-ending of Episode Two – I don't think it's a surprise or a spoiler to say it's a long, drawn out battle against bad guys – is that it was the first time in dozens of Valve gameplay hours that I had experienced fatigue. This is all the more surprising because Portal, my hands down winner for rabbit-game-of-the-year, was the ultimate in anti-fatigue games. Not only can the entire game be played in an evening, but each identifiable chunk of the game was paced so perfectly that I never, ever felt bored, overtaxed, or frustrated.

But what pulled me through the last knothole of frustration wasn't peer pressure, it was my belief that the story would ultimately be worth it. I pressed through the final 20 minutes and, thankfully, I was indeed rewarded with what will be a top-ten set-piece of game storytelling for the foreseeable future. And of course, had I known I was only 20 minutes from the end, not hours, I would have kept at it all along, instead of procrastinating for nearly two months.

And yet, I can't help feeling like I shouldn't have been put in the position in the first place. I don't believe it's wrong to seek perfection. I don't think it's wrong to expect every minute of every game to be enjoyable and fun. I expect movies to be fun – or at least engaging – from beginning to end. I expect a fine meal to be delicious from appetizer to desert.

I'm not suggesting it's easy, nor do I think many games – even brilliant games - get it right all the time. Bioshock suffered from the occasional fatigue-inducing combat and flow problems that might have crippled a game without such a dominant and compelling narrative. World of Warcraft, like all MMOs, can become mind-numbing and yet survives due to the communal experience and the well-honed incremental rewards that such grinding yields.

Conversely, there are many games – most of them "smaller" games – where pacing is so perfect that it is nearly the whole reason for playing. Lumines, a relatively simple puzzle game, is brilliant precisely because the change-up in the pace of play is perfect from level to level, making it enjoyable to play for hours at a time. Portal succeeds precisely because of its pacing. The best real-time strategy games balance the contemplative nature of strategy and the frenetic pace of battle to create exactly the right level of tension for it to be fun, not frustrating.

I'm not proud of it - I'm endlessly in search of the easy high. I want the maximum amount of fun for the minimum pain. If I knew all the compounds in the alchemical formula for the perfectly paced game, I'd be working on the next Mario Galaxy. I'd be lying on the beach in Vanuatu sipping gin, sharing a laugh with Gabe Newell, and occasionally offering to rub lotion on his creamy-white back.

I wouldn't be sitting here, staring at my stack of games and wondering if I should even bother.

Comments

I got frustrated at the end of Ep2 also, and eventually just shrugged and turned God Mode on. I was pretty burned out/jaded with it by then, and just wanted to see the rest of the story.

Ep2 is far and away my least-favorite of the series so far. I think they're running out of steam. The narrative is unsatisfying and the experience is both short and very much a retread of what's gone before.

Portal and TF2 were pure awesome, and made the Orange Box entirely worthwhile, but Ep2 alone wouldn't have been worth buying, IMO.

edit: you have an unclosed Italic tag somewhere. I can't close it in the body of my text, I tried.

Re: the italic tag. Right after Mario Galaxy is where it needs to be closed.

Great article, Rabbit. Lord knows that I'm the same way a lot, which is probably why I've got such a huge stack of games waiting for me to finish them. It's a slog through a lot of BS in order to finish them up and be able to say "I did it!", and for something that could be worth very little at all. Also, the greater the perceived slog, the less I feel like putting the time into it, because the ending's going to require some seriously mind-blowing storytelling to justify the effort I'm putting in to get to that point.

Also, this does remind me that I should turn on the commentary for the Orange Box. I've been meaning to do so, and now that I know that, generally speaking, Valve "gets" the concept of player fatigue (as a general rule, although I'd argue there are points in the original HL2 where they botch that statement badly), I should listen to what they have to say more closely.

Fixed. Thanks. Tired.

I don't think I will every play a game with commentary off again. The trick is finishing sections then going BACK to hear the commentary. That way you get the experience as it was intended, but the explanation and insight while it's still fresh in your head.

rabbit wrote:

I don't think I will every play a game with commentary off again. The trick is finishing sections then going BACK to hear the commentary. That way you get the experience as it was intended, but the explanation and insight while it's still fresh in your head.

FYI, that doesn't work for achievement whores. Not saying you are, just remembering the folks in various forums saying, "What do you mean the achievements don't count if I have commentary on? F*#$!"

EDIT: Well, unless you do it like you said, and do each section twice in quick succession, but that sounds like work to me. I don't really want to see the section I just finished again.

On the topic at hand, god mode is a wonderful thing. I've lost count of the games I've only seen the end of thanks to god mode.

If the game already feels like a slog, you either put it down, or you just get it over with. No one but me cares if I finished a game, and my gaming time is to precious to not enjoy it.

I really think people's opinion of HL2e2 would have been different if it was packaged by itself. When thrown in with two extraordinary games it tempers your experience. To be honest though I see exactly where you are coming from Rabbit. Hopefully 07 raised the bar for producers and developers to provide games that may change this.

Ep2 was my favourite of the series so far (including the original). IMHO, the pacing was much better and the last battle was excellent - just hard enough to present a challenge, not too hard to be frustrating. Ep1 had a lot of boring sections (the entire first hour or so, the pointless civilian escort mission near the end) but I sat and completed the last 3 hours of Ep2 in one sitting, which is pretty rare for me.

My one complaint about Ep2 is the achievements - to me it was really jarring to have these "Achievement unlocked" messages popping up.

My one complaint about Ep2 is the achievements - to me it was really jarring to have these "Achievement unlocked" messages popping up.

That's actually an Xbox Live setting. You can go into your Personal Options on Xbox and turn off notifications.

Certis wrote:

That's actually an Xbox Live setting. You can go into your Personal Options on Xbox and turn off notifications.

I'm playing on PC, maybe Steam has the same option somewhere.

I played on the PC too, never saw those. Or if they were there, I didn't notice them. Weird.

I got frustrated at the *beginning* of HL2 episode 1 but slogged on until I got to the beginning of episode 2 and then decided to give up.

I guess I'm a bad person, but I don't understand all the fuss about HL2. IMHO it gets bogged down a few chapters into the original Half-Life 2 game and never really makes it out again.

Yes, yes, I can turn in my gamer card at any time.

Great read, rabbit.

I too was initially discouraged over the end sequence in Ep. 2. When I first realized the completion requirements placed on my shoulders, my initial reaction was, "You've got to be f'ing kidding me.". But after a few restarts and strategy reorganizations, I was able to dive in in earnest. It actually didn't take me too long to finish after I got a handle on the game's demands, but even still, I only managed to squeak by a victory with a panic-riddled "hail Mary" with only about 07 points of health left.

Falling back into the couch in a nervous sweat, I felt as though I had just given birth. It took a while for my pulse to stabilize as I was treated to a wonderful ending cinema. Was it worth it to have my blood pressure dangerously elevated during the bulk of the end-game?

Yes and no.

It was great to pull off a victory against incredible odds. Feeling like I was flying by the seat of my pants, pushing through and pulling off the win somehow felt like a real accomplishment. The downside is that as much as I'm in awe of the whole set-piece, I'll likely never revisit it, which is a shame. I just don't want to go through that again.

I find that my days of struggling through a difficulty curve in order to master or "own" a particularly difficult game are severely numbered. I wanted to enjoy Xbox's Ninja Gaiden, but the brutal difficulty level just left me frustrated and ultimately disinterested. I don't play games to throw my controller at the wall in anger, I play them to have fun. While I'm not adverse to "challenging gameplay" the line between a good challenge and Savant Skills Needed is a fine one.

Maybe it's because I just don't have the time (or patience) to sit in front of the television for stretches of hours mastering the skills needed for a game like Ninja Gaiden. Maybe it's a matter of how well a developer adjusts the learning curve or overall difficulty level. I had no trouble playing through CoD4 single player on Normal. It's the perfect balance of challenge and fun. I had to reset a number of times, but it never felt like I was fighting against a "pre-set difficulty level". I felt as though I simply needed to play that particular section a little smarter. I'm okay with that. I just hate feeling like I'm at a disadvantage with a game's difficulty scale to begin with. That's why I have no motivation to play CoD4 on the highest difficulty level. Masochism is so "15th century monk".

I recently picked up NBA Street Homecourt for 360 at a great price. I gave it a whirl for the first time last night and had to select a difficulty level before starting the Career Mode. Out of the 4 choices, I picked Easy because I just didn't want to be bothered with wrestling with the controller to beat the A.I.. I was simply looking for a casual B-Ball experience where I could pull off Harlem Globetrotter-esque moves and dunks with ease. I've got no guilt about that. Conversely, I think I'd get bored quickly if I played through BioShock on Easy settings.

I suppose my level of investment and willingness to slog through difficult portions of various games is proportional to the payoff the title is giving me. If I feel like I'm being rewarded with a great experience, my willingness to stick it though the tough parts will be higher. Most days I'm up for a reasonable challenge. However, other days I just want kick my brain into auto-pilot and have an mindless romp through a title with little effort.

It seems like the whole issue of keeping people engaged without overwhelming them is tricky business. I guess I don't think about it much unless I'm being pulled in either direction too much by a game. It's definitely an art of game design that is often taken for granted.

I loved the end of HL2, beat it first try, then replayed it. The trick is to accumulate and store in a pile. Hopefully not too cryptic, but not a spoiler either.

If you really want fatigue, try getting that asshole gnome into the rocket.

That Achievement was freakin' brilliant.

Certis wrote:

I played on the PC too, never saw those. Or if they were there, I didn't notice them. Weird.

IIRC, the notification is in the top right(?) corner. Not in the bottom center like Xbox LIVE. Then again, I think I've only seen it in TF2, and not Portal or Episode 2. As an achievement whore, I like the notifications, because sometimes bugs and other strangeness prevents getting them.

As for the topic: Pacing is extremely difficult to get right for a game. The problem is that it's an ever-changing target. Huge waves of repetitive enemies works for schmups, but not for most FPS's. Non-repetitive puzzles are extremely difficult to come up with-Portal's a great example of this. Level grinding sucks in most RPG's, but if you give a good reason to explore and complete sidequests, as well as ample rewards during the main story, this can be mitigated. These are all common pitfalls, and, unfortunately, they're not easily fixed.

"More is better" isn't. There's a point where the player gets fatigued, or annoyed with the game. The trick is to time and balance gameplay so the player doesn't get that. Whether this is the "30 seconds of fun" encounter design that Halo has(which works wonderfully in Multiplayer, but falls short in the single player campaign), or a long series of trash followed by a boss(like just about every game ever), the designers need to make sure that it feels right-not too long, not too short, but enough to allow for a natural climax to occur when the player wins.

I've noticed that 'Game ADD' seems to be a common theme with experienced gamers, though fatigue is probably the best term I've heard describe it. I noticed it in myself years ago, seeing the same themes and the same mechanics with just thin layers of gloss and color to differentiate. I got fed up with treating every shooter like Counter-Strike, treating every RPG like Neverwinter Nights, treating every RTS game like Starcraft.

What I learned was that the problem wasn't entirely in the games. Most of it was me. I don't like to give my entertainment a pass, but eventually I had to take a step back and teach myself that a certain amount of buy-in is necessary. Yeah, I could treat all my FPS games like Counter-Strike, running in as fast as I can to score headshots, but maybe that's not the most fun I could have. Maybe I could try to play it like the designers intended for me to play it, or in a way that's appropriate to the setting and theme. If the game is well-designed, that should all happen on its own.

I find myself adhering to this attitude of 'Zen and the Art of Game Mechanics' more and more, and I'm happier for it. I look at a game, and I think to myself, "What aspect of this game could be called 'grinding?'" If I can figure that out, I do the opposite, and I'm generally more satisfied because of it.

I found the ending of Episode 2 extremely frustrating myself. Yeah, it was pretty clear what I needed to do and I actually didn't do too bad in the first half of the chapter. Then, after that "intermission" or whatever you would call it when several of the striders all show up at once, I suddenly hit a wall. I finally managed to get through it, but it literally took me hours (and prompted several questions from my wife as to what I was yelling at). I only finished by quicksaving whenever I grabbed the device to throw and restoring over and over until I took all of them down.

Of course I'm an older gamer; positively ancient for this industry. My reflexes just aren't what they used to be.

The rest of the game up until that point was challenging, but that ending was nothing but an exercise in frustration for me.

I agree, I have an amazingly short tolerance for games. Games only keep me if they can get me compelled in any way, via gameplay or story, quickly. Rare is the game that keeps me compelled via visuals but it's happened to me, usually because of character design and not because of graphics capability. And yes, I will give up on a game quickly if I can't get through it.

I played through ep 2 recently and I have to say the ep 1 and 2 are now up in my top ranked game experiences of all time. The ending, even though I saw it coming a mile away (and who wouldn't, considering what the one character was saying right before the last battle - thanks for being so cliche, Valve) was still very awesome and compelling. One of the best game endings I've seen, and surprisingly good considering how abrupt it is.

This last battle, I actually got through it and it did not get me fatigued. The first time through on the first night I just went in guns blazing to see if I could do it, no real thought. After a few hours I literally thought that it was impossible given the situation. Usually in this kind of situation I start over and think of a few strategies and it's a few times before I think of one that works. But this time I hit it with the first strategy I came up with. I wasn't sure it would work because of all the extra enemies that are present to guard your targets but it worked really well, I got through the second time in a very short manner. And trust me, I am not a good gamer at all.

The last battle in Ep2 was definitely frustrating at times. The car was too twitchy and hard to control. Even so, I played until I got the Neighborhood Watch achievement.

As I get older and have less and less time to game I have come to the conclusion that I need to be very picky about the games I play. In my youth I could waste time on really crappy games, or games that I had already played. Now, if it is not AAA material or is something I am really interested in, forget it. I have a list of games that I want to play, and I am now realizing that in most likely hood I will never play them all. If you are not having fun, even on a game that is considered to be AAA by the vast majority, just put it away knowing that it is not for you. Life is to short.

BTW, I personally loved the ending of HL2:E2. Best part of the game.

I have a friend who is suffering from this in the most extreme form. The guy buys game after game and plays none of them. He then continues to look for new games. He hunts bargain bins like he is rooting for truffles. The joke was even made the other day that he does not enjoy games, but rather bargains. The only game I have seen him get into in the past two years was Elite Beat Agents. Its the only game I have seen him not only beat, but beat on all difficulties. I think that the idea that it takes a few hours to get into a game is a good point. I guess what I am trying to say is I agree.

Cheers

I played EP2 on Normal and really enjoyed the ending. After my first failed attempt, I had to actually sit up and was able to finish it the second or third try. The open-ended nature of it combined with the pace and multiple targets definitely got the heart rate up. To me, that's a good thing. I like being on edge in games, dangling above failure. Good games put in you in circumstances like this. Bad games just fail you.

Old Man Grant wrote:

I have a friend who is suffering from this in the most extreme form. The guy buys game after game and plays none of them. He then continues to look for new games.

I know someone like that, too. I wonder if he'll read this.

rabbit wrote:

... sober-rabbit ...

Hello, sober-rabbit. I'm McChuck. I don't believe we've met.

Gamer ADD = Getting old No I think what happens is you get use to being handed a dud game and don't want to invest the time into playing what could be a crappy game. I have not reached that stage yet and most games I buy I finish on the same day.

But lately I have found myself waiting to buy games instead of running out and grabbing them instantly.

I hate to say it but HL2 is so 20th century! I'm kinda tired of "Have crowbar will travel" I'm starting to hate all single player games as not many have a good story so I'm really only looking for multiplayer maddness in all games I play with singleplayer thrown in if they want. Well as long as its not a retarded old concept like UT or Badly pulled off ala QW:ET.

I am exactly the same way. Between feeling like I only have limited game time nowadays and having a glut of games, I give up on a game very easily. I have a game-queue that is ever growing and never shrinking, and you (the developers) want me to sit through this painfully slow stretch of your mediocre game? Nope. Switch off, seal it back in the sleeve, and mail that sucker back because I have 30 games lined up to take its place.

Pharacon is correct, I think. I'm getting to the point where the only kind of single-player games I'm interested in are games that are unique and fresh to me. My current single player backlog is...

Psychonaughts
Shadow of the Colossus
Persona 3

Just finished Mass Effect and felt it was fresh and interesting and the story and cinematics were good enough to make me want to play it a second time.

Other than that, my favorite games are all MP games right now. I have limited time, there are a ton of games. I only want to play SP games that truly interest me. I'm tempted to play HL2 since I bought Orange Box for Portal and Team Fortress 2, but I don't know if I will ever get far into it. It's just too much and it's too much grinding through baddies. I don't know.

Right there with you on Episode 2, rabbit. That final encounter was definitely fatigue-inducing.

I typically prefer to "tour" through games without putting in too much effort, but I occasionally seek out something brutal purely for the sense of accomplishment. I guess I've reached a point where I need both ends of the spectrum to stay interested.

The thing is, I usually want to choose. I found Crysis' series of late-game design switches jarring. Call of Duty 4, on the other hand, managed to add some variety but still stay relatively consistent in terms of its game design. I've really been into casual games lately, in large part because they're often more focused in terms of gameplay, tone, presentation, etc.

Conversely, there are many games – most of them "smaller" games – where pacing is so perfect that it is nearly the whole reason for playing. Lumines, a relatively simple puzzle game, is brilliant precisely because the change-up in the pace of play is perfect from level to level, making it enjoyable to play for hours at a time. Portal succeeds precisely because of its pacing.

Right. Games that successfully present a basic rule set and goal and then thoughtfully explore or build on them over time, without too much fuss, are often the most memorable of enjoyable. Shadow of the Colossus comes to mind as a great game that offers a series of encounters that, despite being wildly unique, are all built upon the same basic goal and same basic set of game mechanics.

I had trouble with the end of Ep 2 only until I learned that you could ram the hunters with your car, and that you could pick up logs with the gravity gun and use them as a shield against those exploding flechettes. After that it was smooth sailing.

I know I'm an odd case, but I really love it when games require you to make those kind of discoveries - at least when they make sense.

Episode 2 is by far my favorite game in the Orange Box - the way it fades to black over Alyx's voice at the end is just so well done. And risky, considering that in the hands of an average video game voice actress that scene would have been like nails on a chalkboard.

The Fly wrote:

Right. Games that successfully present a basic rule set and goal and then thoughtfully explore or build on them over time, without too much fuss, are often the most memorable of enjoyable. Shadow of the Colossus comes to mind as a great game that offers a series of encounters that, despite being wildly unique, are all built upon the same basic goal and same basic set of game mechanics.

Exactly. I'm loving getting to play this game finally, in part because of this. I can see this being on my shelf indefinitely and pulling it out many times over the years. I can't say the same for Half Life 2. I got a bit into it and realized it was going to be a bit of a slog. The story certainly looks interesting. But nothing more interesting than I could get by going to my local bookstore (as I already do every couple weeks) and picking up a new Sci-Fi book. I'd rather read a more compelling unique story than slog through an ok one.

Rabbit wrote:

And yet, I can't help feeling like I shouldn't have been put in the position in the first place. I don't believe it's wrong to seek perfection. I don't think it's wrong to expect every minute of every game to be enjoyable and fun. I expect movies to be fun – or at least engaging – from beginning to end. I expect a fine meal to be delicious from appetizer to desert.

I spent a year leaving my save game of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker rotting because I hit that pace-killing wall of the Grand Fetch Quest of Doom that took what should be optional gameplay in a Zelda game (endless fetch quests for entertaining diversions from the main gameplay/story) and made it into a several-hours-long slog of tedium. A year. This was the first Zelda game I'd ever played that left me debating just giving up and trading it in because it wasn't fun anymore. And I'm a Zelda slut.

Finally I sat down with a guide and just plowed through it to get it over with. And I will likely never play through the game again because I know that section is just sitting there waiting to run me into a cliff that'll take tedious time to climb again.

Even the final dungeon after that wound up being more tedious than I would've expected, though maybe I was just soured on the game by that point. The finale was worth it, fortunately.

God of War, Tales of Symphonia, Banjo-Tooie (despite its utterly perfect and brilliant predecessor), and several other highly-rated games have all fallen prey to the Tedium Effect, inducing gamer fatigue with me. That's a great term, very fitting.

I'd be lying on the beach in Vanuatu sipping gin, sharing a laugh with Gabe Newell, and occasionally offering to rub lotion on his creamy-white back.