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.