Good pacing doesnít necessarily make a story good, but bad pacing can ruin a story on its own. Games have a tense relationship with pacing. The player should have freedom to play how they want, but generally that freedom comes at a cost of pacing. In Grand Theft Auto theyíd tell me that theyíve got a friend of mine hostage and they will kill her if I donít come running. So obviously I drive around aimlessly for a few hours, go through a dozen cars, try to steal a helicopter, start driving toward the mission, get distracted by the cops when I accidentally run over a pedestrian or twelve. Eventually Iíd get to the mission and everyone would act like I drove there immediately.
Pacing is something thatís really hard to get right. Most time limits in games are pretty arbitrary. But apparently the world is going to end in a day and mankindís time limit has run out so letís look at two great examples of pacing in games.
Unlike the game mentioned below, Journey has no time limit. Youíre dropped into a desert and shown a mountain in the distance. You then meander in that direction. Or not, you could wander around for a little bit, take in the sights, get blown around by wind, whatever. That mountainís going to be waiting for you. Heading off for your goal is really the only thing to do but you can decide to take it as slowly as you want.
Giving the player the right to take as long as they want isnít a new idea at all. Really anytime you donít have a time limit you could take ages to walk across a hallway. The difference between other games and Journey is that it fits the story and theme. Journey has great arcs of pacing throughout the whole game, alternating in slow/fast/slow/fast and so on. Like thereís a scene of building a bridge that takes a while but once the bridge is built you quickly speed across it. Thereís crawling through the desert and then sliding down the building through sandy corridors at breakneck speed. The ending takes this to itís logical conclusion where everything slows down more and more until finally everything stops. Then you fly outward, faster than you ever had before in an exhilarating explosion of music and light.
Even within individual areas there is the rise and fall of speed. In the beginning youíre just wandering through the desert and the entire area is pretty slow. But as you trudge up hills slowly, you get a little rush of speed as you slide down them on the other side. The entire game is a magnificent set of arcs that tie together with coherence that isnít often seen in games.
You knew this one was coming. Easily the best use of a time limit from the golden age of gaming. These days thereís a lot of games that get creative with time (Half-Minute Hero comes to mind) but The Legend of Zelda: Majoraís Mask did it first. You have a journey that will take weeks but you only have 3 days to save the world. Only through liberal use of rewinding time can you survive.
In the game time is always moving. You can slow it down and rewind it, but you canít stop it. Thereís always a clock running and unless youíre in a dungeon, the game will let you know in those tense, now infamous words.
It gives a whole new feeling to the usual Zelda formula. Majoraís Mask has more sidequests than Ocarina of Time but you never feel like youíre wandering aimlessly because thereís always that moon in the sky, glaring down on you and growing ever closer. The entire game consists of learning the steps you need to do in order to complete each quest. You slowly learn more and more about the world, you learn what events happen and when, you learn what you need to do at certain points to change time, you learn what happens when you change time. Slowly you, the player, become a master of time, stepping in at the right moment to change the future for your benefit. In Ocarina of Time you traveled through time, in Majoraís Mask you own time.
The most impressive thing about the game is just how much changes in those three short days. The townsfolk start off cheerful and everyone is either ignorant of their approaching doom or downright defiant of it (thereís a swordsman who threatens to cut down the moon if it gets uppity). The music is cheerful and up-tempo, happily playing in the background as you do your shopping. As the third day rolls around however, the moon takes up half the sky and nobody is cheerful anymore. The music has the same tune but thereís a sinister melody running through it that seems to overpower the original, making it into a mockery of its former cheeriness. The proud swordsman is hiding in the corner of his house begging and praying to be saved. You learn so much about these characters in such a short time.
The hardest sidequest in the game takes a ton of preparation. You need a near encyclopedic knowledge of what happens when in order to get the pieces together to reunite two lovers separated by a curse that turns one of them into a child. Even once youíre prepared it takes all three days in order to get the two of them to see each other again and itís only at midnight of the last day, less than a minute until the end of the world that they are reunited. They tell you that they will greet the dawn together.
The first time you head up the tower to stop the moon from destroying the world youíre weak, your toughest weapon is a bubble, and youíve been transformed into something unfamiliar. At the end of the day, youíre overflowing with weapons, youíve got a new sword, and you know exactly how to save everyone. The game gave you the freedom to complete all this but kept you within its own time limit.
Majoraís Mask makes such a great use of a time limit due to all these things. The game gives you tons of freedom to do what you want but manages to fit a great story of pacing in it too. Compare this to Journey which is the exact opposite but makes it work very well. Can you think of more games that donít sacrifice pacing for freedom? Do you love Majoraís Mask as much as I do? Let me know in the comments!