5 “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
My new addiction to Super Bunnyhop videos has led me to think about video games a little differently, specifically about the pacing of single-player game experiences. George Weideman identifies “quiet time” as an essential component, and that sounds entirely appropriate to those moments of downtime in most of my favorite games, coincidentally enough. Just take a cursory look at The List, and you’ll see most of them exhibit times of extreme tension and relative relaxation.
Yes, even Bayonetta paces out its set pieces with calming music in-between combat sequences, and the shop’s smoky lounge jazz allows you to ponder, think, and observe a slew of new purchases with safety. Role-playing games use quiet time as a strategy element, allowing players to rest, stock up on items, upgrade their equipment, and generally think about their next goals. Long-term strategy games exist as large pockets of quiet moments and thought punctuated by combat sequences; none of those games emphasizes that dynamic more than Total War, which allows for turn-based strategy and vicious real-time combat in an oil-and-water approach.
What makes these moments so important, other than the obvious dynamics of a single-player journey? First, they keep the player from mind-numbing exhaustion. I remember watching the last hour of Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, and I felt completely spent from a constant hour of climatic action. There’s no build up, and the giant robot explosions, while satisfying in themselves, start to drag when placed in such quick succession. The bunched-up elements destroy the quality of its individual parts, lessening the whole as a result.
Would I enjoy Ninja Gaiden if it were merely a single room with constant combat sequences? For a while, maybe; even if the combat engine works under such stringent conditions, that doesn’t mean players won’t experience fatigue at the titanic levels of awesome mechanical interplay thrown their way. If you don’t space it out, how can I appreciate all these elements individually unless I’m critically looking at the game while playing it? I doubt most people have the time or inclination to that end, so the game suffers from a poor flow and design decisions.
At the same time, these moments of quiet augment the loud moments; they don’t overtake them. There are some game where there’s just too much time in-between actual challenging tasks. The more recent Zelda games suffer from this heavily. Personally, I think Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time presents its purpose exactly once, and then the feeling of an open world shatters when you find out that there’s very little to do. And yet, Nintendo forces you to traverse this field a heck of a lot in the course of the game’s lengthy run-time. Unfortunately, the emphasis on that one effect tends to bog the game down, and the ocarina songs don’t exactly help that process (minigame alleviate this somewhat). Quiet time doesn’t always mean good design; it means implementing them well, the same way a film knows its own plot peaks and valleys.
In no way am I saying that this is easy; hitting that exact balance becomes a nearly impossible task from a purely mechanical standpoint. Level design requires a ton of skill, not only to provide an interesting experience with the core mechanics of a game, but also to provide a gradual curve for the entire game. Furthermore, those levels need to pace out the entire length of the game, teach the player how to move, and just about a billion other things wordlessly…unless your game uses a tutorial, in which case you make everyone feel pretty dumb. Good level design makes players feel smart, and that feel means that actually learned your arbitrary rules. Quiet time plays directly into that by forcing contemplation and thought of previous events.
Yes, the player remembers the challenges, the mechanics, and all the little weird quirks that make one game a favorite and another a failure. At the same time, those quiet moments may not always get the spotlight, but they enhance the experience infinitely more than we suspect. Without dynamics or tension, there’s just not much there for us to see. A massive blur of nonsense does not make for a compelling game. The more visible elements of a game – graphics, story, whatever – usually obtain the spotlight; they’re loud, brash, and in your face. Yet, when I remember a lot of my favorite games, I remember just sitting in this digital world and thoroughly enjoying it regardless of whether it contains white-knuckle actions 24/7.
I love the weirdness of Platinum Games and their worlds, hilariously ironic and deathly serious all at once. I love the atmosphere of Super Metroid and the Metroidvanias (those are almost therapeutic in their simplicity these days), mostly dark and alien. I love the happy world of The Wind Waker; the whole game may be really easy, but every time I play it I get a stupid goofy grin on my face that no other game can replicate in quite the same way. I love the unique nature of these experiences, and a lot of their quality comes down to their implementation of quiet time, charged with the correct aesthetics qualities and engaging silent moments. When the game “leaves you alone”, or at least gives you the illusion at such, it really opens up a world.
I imagine that’s why prayer is often done in secret, and in a closet (or at least Jesus says as such). The quiet nature of that divine relationship allows for a focus and settling of your circumstances, to focus on God rather than situations. Distractions abound, and yet prayer, optimally, happens when you remove all those problems and communicate in secret, in the quiet time which allows for perspective beyond the here and now.
Or, at least, that’s how I see it.