I suspect it’s very easy for people to get confused at the idea of editing video games. After all, there isn’t really much by way of traditional “edit-points”. Outside of cut-scenes, you don’t usually switch angles, and when you do (primarily done in third-person survival horror games) it’s usually for practical reasons. There are exceptions – you cut to a a closer angle when Edward Carnby approaches the entrance to the tomb in Alone in the Dark so you can better see what he’s doing, sure, but it might also be an angle chosen to emphasise the claustrophobia of the environment. Or, perhaps, to strategically hide the mummy coming up behind Edward to play up the ‘boo!’ factor when we cut to a wide shot again.
What triggers these angle-changes, however, is the player. Maybe it’s moving toward the edge of the screen that triggers it. Or, maybe, hitting the ‘view’ button in a more typical game. So the idea of the art of editing actually existing within a game – especially a first-person game where your perspective is constant and entirely player-controlled – doesn’t seem like a big deal.
But really, when you consider that the pace of a game is so heavily controlled by the player in a video game, it makes the managing of pace not just more difficult – but much, much more important. Let’s take a look at the most common way of dealing with pace…
The Half-life series seems like a funny example, but it’s actually a good one. Gameplay in Half-life is almost completely uninterrupted by cuts of any sort. There are, by design, no moments where the player loses control (sort of). I say sort of because there are certainly bits where you’re constrained inside various objects or rooms, stuck watching something occur. This helps give you the illusion of control, even though it’s a perfectly linear game which is barely more complicated than a ‘rail shooter’, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Despite being a bit extreme in this way, the game does what most video games do – it lets you slow down the pace of your gaming as you like to explore the little details. If you’re scared by a head-crab sequence and take your time around the corner, you’re setting your own speed, and your experience is going to be wildly different from some guy at a party, playing half-drunk, who runs around the corner blasting without taking any time to really experience any feelings other than adrenaline.
More conventional shooters will have clearly defined levels, and in the middle of these levels will be the odd scripted sequence where you temporarily lose control of your character. Good examples here are the typical “shell explodes nearby, comrade gives you a hand up” trick from early Medal of Honor and Call of Duty games.
So, the ‘editing’ here from a game development perspective is really about deciding when to break up the gameplay, and how to pace the levels.
Two recent games have stuck in my mind as great examples of pacing / editing failure, but in completely different ways. The first to fail in this way was Mafia 2. The majority of games in an open or “sandbox” world tend to be based around the emergent gameplay that occurs when you let a player loose in a functioning game world – regardless of the effort spent on the story in, say, the last few GTA games, Assassin’s Creed or Red Dead Redemption, it is most likely that the things the bulk of players will think about when they reminisce about their experiences with these games will involve these ‘found experiences’, not so much things that happened in cut scenes.
Mafia 2′s major problem is that it presents very little interactivity in the world – nothing to give you these emergent experiences. This doesn’t, however, make it ‘live or die by its story’, like some folks have said. This introduces an element of frustration for the players who, even if they are gripped by its weak story, are forced to endure hugely long drives through a world which feels less ‘alive’ than we are now, as sand-box gamers, used to.
What’s this got to do with editing? Well, this is an example of the almost complete lack of it. There are a few instances where we’re teleported to the next month, year, or what-not, but for the most part we are forced to endure the most mundane parts of Vito’s life, without enjoying any of the guilty pleasures that his gangster-life has.
There are some situations where ‘editing’, both of story and of gameplay, would have helped immensely, and Mafia 2 needed both. It’s hard not to leave Mafia 2 with the feeling that throttling back the time spent in each section of Vito’s life would have brought more out of the story. This is certainly a case where less would have been more.
A player could spend hours exploring Black Mesa’s every corner, if he or she wanted to, but the option was always there not to. If your gaming style is more like a Michael Bay film than a Paul Thomas Anderson one, then you can craft that experience for yourself – just not out of Mafia 2.
In stark contrast to this, we get to the latest evolution of Call of Duty – the Treyarch-developed Black Ops. Where Mafia 2 needed to at least let us give up and hire a cab for the last leg of that fifteen-minute drive, Black Ops continues the trend of each Call of Duty game being faster and more frantic, both in terms of its gameplay and its plot.
The series began with a fairly realistic plot, but slowly moved from the realm of games that feel like ‘war movies’ of the sort John Wayne would star in, to techno-thrillers of the sort you’d buy at the airport before a long-haul red-eye flight from one side of the globe to the other.
The original Modern Warfare began in a believable setting, but slipped into Tom Clancy territory with a story that involved a nuclear detonation, undercover operatives, stolen nuclear weapon codes and a chase scene right out of a James Bond film.
Next up in narrative terms, we got Modern Warfare 2, which took this techno-thriller feel and ran it all the way into Michael Bay territory, with frantic gunfight after frantic gunfight. The story was so absurd that anybody expecting a semi-serious war story was bound to be moaning and groaning with each new plot development.
Finally, we reach Black Ops, a pseudo-sequel which merges the Modern Warfare universe with the World at War one. In this fascinating universe where one or two men single-handedly won World War 2 due to their remarkable ability to be shot at by dozens of MG-42s on full auto without being hit once, we find their attempt to make a thriller sort of like what would happen if an idiot had written The Manchurian Candidate.
In Black Ops, we have a grab bag of everything anyone who was vaguely awake during history class would associate with the 1960s. The Space Race, nukes, Kennedy’s assassination, Robert McNamara, brainwashing, communists, people trying to kill castro, the Bay of Pigs invasion, Vietnam. None of these subjects are treated seriously, and all of them are there for a very brief period of time, just enough to say, “Hey! Look at us! We wiki’d the ’60s and threw it all into a blender!”
But really, we’re past the point of taking these plots seriously, so complaining about the absurdity of them doesn’t really serve a purpose. The big problem with Black Ops, and the reason it’s mentioned here, is the pacing.
Where a well-crafted game will either have a very seriously controlled pace from sequence to sequence within the story, and where Mafia 2 is a sprawling mess of nothing intercut with a plot, Black Ops’ uses its Manchurian Candidate-inspired story to let them cut into ‘memories’ whenever they get interesting (read as: violent) and out of them again when they’re about to get interesting (read as: understandable).
It’s as if somebody saw the Assassin’s Creed series’ use of memories and realised it’d be a perfect way to make the series even faster, less understandable and even more directly marketed at fourteen year old boys who grew up glued to shows like 24 and huge-budget hollywood action films.
In Black Ops, missions are intercut with headache-inducing flashes of numbers and images related to our protagonist’s obvious mental conditioning. Add to this that the missions themselves are frequently cut short – sometimes mid-firefight – for our interrogator to slam us into a different memory, with a tenuous logical connection at best. We spend very little time in each fragment of the story. So much so, in fact, that it becomes so difficult to follow the details it’s hard not to wonder if they used this method to simply hide plot holes big enough to drive a creatively dead video game franchise through.
When you pick up an action game you do expect action, so it may seem a bit silly to complain that the game is ‘too’ fast-paced or too relentless in its action, but pacing this action out with moments of tension is what makes a good action film great – or a good video game great.
An example would be this: in Black Ops, the game opens with a sequence where you are in Cuba, preparing to assassinate Fidel Castro. After meeting in a bar, Castro’s police turn up and you quickly find yourself in a firefight. You fight your way from the bar to his mansion, do some more shooting, and then, after seemingly killing your target, you do some more fighting for good measure. Crash to opening credits. Welcome to Black Ops: a fighting game, with guns.
A better way to pace a cold-open for a video game like this might be the same way a film would. Perhaps your kill is done with a sniper rifle, and you open with the tension of the player preparing to snipe the Cuban dictator. You can still have it devolve into a firefight, but only after a minute or two of tenseness, staring down the barrel of your scope and preparing to take the kill-shot on a man whom you know, historically, did not die.
Editing is different in video games to any other media. Either you force ‘cuts’ on the player and he feels that he’s being dragged through a story in the same way he would be through a TV or Film (but without the production values or quality writing) or you risk going too far the other way and boring the player.
There’s a definite art to pacing video game stories, and we can see it being done both with hard-cuts more akin to traditional ‘edit-points’ or chapter-stops, or by simply allowing the player to decide on (or at least moderate) their own pace.