The Importance of Pacing in Games

The Importance of Pacing in Games

Pacing is an important aspect of any game, from both a story and a gameplay perspective. A game with poor pacing introduces characters or situations and then refuses to develop them properly (Final Fantasy 13), has a plot that drags on for too long (Dragon’s Dogma), or flashes action and plot at inappropriate times (Unreal Tournament 3). A game that is paced well gives you enough time and detail to understand and fully comprehend the plot and characters, but doesn’t linger.

Take for example Deus Ex, a game with fantastic story pacing. You’re introduced to Paul and Unatco from the start and work with both; playing the tutorial mission first introduces you to more folks you’ll come to know in the game. As you play the game, you understand Paul’s character and learn more about the inner workings of Unatco. You get to see a complete picture of how Unatco and Paul work. And when Paul reveals that he’s working for the NSF, and Unatco betrays you, it’s completely unexpected but fits with their actions and methods. We’ve had the time before then to see how people feel about both Unatco and the NSF, and seen their methods of operation, so having someone completely change their view on these groups has an impact. Up until then, I simply assumed Unatco really were the good guys (but heavy-handed in their methods) and the NSF were the bad guys (with somewhat good intentions).

Invisible War didn’t give you this kind of time. After you’re introduced to the three other trainees at the Tarsus Academy, one of the trainees, Billie, reveals a similar plot twist; she is aligned with The Order, a religious group that disagrees with bio-enhancements. However, because the story has yet to develop enough or give enough information to the player, it’s difficult to call Billie good or either Tarsus or The Order evil.  I, as a player, have no reason to trust her reasoning, not to mention that I simply don’t care. I don’t feel like I understand her motivations or the ideologies of either the Order or Tarsus at that point. Hearing that one is supposedly evil isn’t a big revelation at this point since I had no expectations of either of them.  Hence I can’t have any real emotional investment so early in the story.

His betrayal is an actual surprise since you’ve spent some time with him.

His betrayal is an actual surprise since you’ve spent some time with him.

Many games have made similar mistakes, such as Dishonored and Kingdom Hearts, but none are as bad as Bulletstorm. The game starts with the main character and his crew being chased by an army commander. Both of your spaceships crash land on a planet, with two of the crew dying immediately. I didn’t know why the commander was after this crew and I didn’t care about the two dead crewmates, but later on there’s a flashback mission meant to alleviate all of this. I thought this would be great as this was a chance for the game to really make me care about the characters that I ultimately knew would die or betray me. However, the mission was so short and abrupt that it still didn’t spark any emotional response. Even worse, it made the same mistake again; you get betrayed by the army commander at the end, but since you’ve never done any other missions with this character (which would have made great flashbacks), this was never hinted at or shown to be consistent with his character. It would have taken another flashback to make up for that one, but it never came.


Two of the people in this picture don’t survive for more than ten minutes. I didn’t even bother to remember their names.

Story aside, gameplay provides the another way to pace a game.  GTA: IV for example has very slow pacing, with the first few hours acting  as a disguised extended tutorial for the game. You need to play for about an hour just to get a pistol, and the game forces you to play some of the side-missions, such as a race mission with Brucie or the dating minigame with Michelle. There are a number of different sideplots and story arcs that increase the length of the game in this manner; every few hours you’re introduced to a new character or group and need to spend a mission with them to learn about their character.

Episodes from Liberty City is the exact opposite. The very first mission of The Lost and The Damned gives you a shotgun and has you in a big gunfight. One hour in, you get a mission that gives you a rocket launcher instead of a pistol. Part of the reason for this is it’s an expansion pack to GTA: IV. The developers assume that you’ve already played the original game so they don’t use hours of tutorials to teach you everything, but also because it’s tied in with the original story. Unlike Niko, Johnny is part of just one group and works with them all the way. Only their story matters, not the story of every criminal or group in Liberty City. Since the story is more constrained, the plot can move faster. You’re not going to be meeting a lot of new characters and spending a few missions just to build a relationship with them. The game gets right to the point and lets you have fun with huge gunfights, fast car-chases and large explosions from the start.

Pictured: The very first weapon in the game. Not pictured: 2 hours of driving missions.

Pictured: The very first weapon in the game. Not pictured: 2 hours of driving missions.

Saint’s Row 2 also has this fast pace. Volition didn’t want to focus on the plot too much, and they clearly understood that their audience knew the basics of how to play a game, so they made sure to start off with a bang. The first mission of SR2 has you escape from prison, shooting down numerous people, boats and helicopters along the way. The main plot then follows three different story arcs that you can start at any time, but the initial mission for each isn’t a boring ‘understand me’ mission. Nor will you ever finish off a mission with an amazing gun-battle only to have a banal driving mission when you start the next one. This gives Saint’s Row 2 a fairly small amount of unique missions instead of a lot of similar ones, which cuts down on repetition and keeps the pace up.

The combination of these two things, story and gameplay, make up the focus of a game, which gives you the overall appeal. The Witcher focuses on the character of Geralt and his development. Every mission shows off a different aspect of him; since he is a complicated character, there’s a lot of time in-between so you can digest what you’ve learned. The plot moves at a glacial pace as a result, but only because the main plot isn’t the focus. If it was, entire chapters and most of the side-missions could be completely removed to improve the pacing, while losing little to none of the plot details.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings instead focuses on a main plot, not the character of Witcher Geralt. The game is shorter as a result and moves more quickly, giving the game a tighter pace. Every main mission directly relates to the main plot thread and moves the story forward, and there are far fewer side missions, with most of them still relating to the main plot somehow. Chances are you’ve seen a number of examples that fit these six outcomes. If you know any other games that you think had great pacing, or really poor pacing, feel free to post them in the comments!

  1. Cameo says:

    thanks for spoiling a game I am currently playing.

  2. Janis von Seggern says:

    Hey, this article is incredibly good! A great insight in pacing in games, i enjoyed every word of it :)

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