Part 8 Putting into play – The hidden art of pacing 2 (3)

The Hidden Art of Pacing is a three-part trip that takes you on a journey to trace the core of the hidden art of pacing by stripping familiar story and game structures from standard elements to discern the engaging and motivating forces that trigger the receiver´s building of experiences, feelings, and expectations.

If you would like to read the first part, here is the link to The Hidden Art of Pacing 1 (3)

Driving a car is often used as a metaphor to describe the pacing of accelerating and decelerating information. The art of pacing examines how you can inconspicuously engage the receiver’s thinking and the strength and speed at which the receiver processes causal, temporal, and spatial networks. In doing so, you make it possible to utilize the drive behind the motivation to understand. This was something I became aware of when I moved from scriptwriting to game design. Evident was the difference between engaging and motivating someone. It elucidated the balancing of providing and withholding information, which deepens the experience, emotions, and expectations of the receiver.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between conventional writing and game design, I started to strip the dramatic story structure from its familiar features in the previous chapter to trace back to the heart of where the engaging and motivating forces reside.

To unveil the core to how you are pacing and balancing plot and style to engage and motivate the receiver’s meaning making, I replaced the story structure’s standard features with an engagement and duration axis.

To show how the narrative systems of plot and style coexist when triggering the engaging forces by how the receiver interprets the causal, spatial, and temporal links, I turned the conflicts and turning points into cause and effect.

The change to cause and effect amplifies how contrasts and cause and effect provide you with an opportunity to trigger and propel the dynamics of causal, spatial, and temporal networks. The dynamic network opens up the possibilities to differ between the engaging and motivating forces in regard to the receiver’s learning, feelings, and meaning making.

Since contrasts are the drive-state to curiosity (see Part 5 and Part 6), in relation to the engagement axis

– contrasts work as triggers (calls).

In relation to the duration axis,

– contrasts turn cause and effect into a propeller.

What is experienced as speed and intensity from the pacing of engaging and motivating experiences is how the trigger (call) conveys engagement, and the propeller incites motivation in relation to the receiver’s understanding and learning.

Accessing the technique of plotting a pattern that engages and motivates the receiver’s understanding and meaning making, it can be worth getting acquainted with the narrative principles of logic, time, and space that rule the plot’s structuring:

– Logic addresses how plot and style convey causal, spatial, and temporal links.

– Time is about the duration and frequency of plot and style.

– Space concerns the information of surroundings, positions, and paths through plot and style.

The principles concern the basis for understanding, which is the first step to motivate by enabling the receiver to navigate and orientate through time and space. And to engage someone’s meaning making you need to make sense of causal, spatial, and temporal links so the receiver will ask – Who? Why? When? Where? What? How? – because they are curious and not because they are confused.

Making sense

Being said, your opportunity to engage the receiver’s senses and meaning making through plot and style can be found in the drive behind our desire to understand and learn. To demonstrate how balance and control are accessed during the pacing of motivation by making sense of the meanings presented before the receiver’s senses, I will again use the example of the horse and the carrot. The image was introduced in Part 6 to illustrate how you employ the dynamic forces behind the desire to understand and learn from how you provide and withhold information.

The carrot symbolizes how information is presented before the receiver’s senses, triggering meaning making, illustrated by the horse’s movement. Since the horse represents how our mind is processing information, rule number one is to clarify the causal, spatial, and temporal links when putting the motivating forces behind our desire to learn into play.

Referring to the horse’s condition above as harmony by how you are making sense of the meanings that generate flow based on how the receiver understands and learns. In that case, you can call the condition below dissonance.

Harmony is a musical term that expresses a blend of tunes that is appreciated for its pleasing sound. Dissonance is the contrast of harmony. The terms can be used as metaphors of sense-making, describing how rhythm, tempo, and volume flow through every single element in the pacing and balancing of plot and style, bringing cohesiveness to the receiver’s experiences and feelings. In the example from the last part of the slow movement of the old wooden carriage that takes people to their execution in The Elder Scroll V. The slow movement of the wheel makes sense as a part of a whole. Accelerating the rotation speed could cause dissonance to the overall rhythm of flow as the behavior of the wheel adds meaning to all the other elements whose causal, temporal, and spatial networks build experiences and feelings.

From a perspective of pacing, harmony and dissonance can describe engagement and motivation in regards to the receiver’s sense- and meaning making. For example, if the meaning doesn’t make sense, reduced speed in the receiver’s information processing will result in dissonance. When dissonance occurs, it can be hard to engage/encourage the receiver as the dissonance impacts motivation.

Keeping the terms harmony and dissonance in mind, you can distinguish the differences between engaging and motivating the receiver. As you want the experiences and the expectations, the receiver builds to be in balance. Based on the goal of what you want the receiver to experience or feel: harmony is your control value to the flow by how you present the plot and style before the receiver’s senses.

Since the condition of flow and the engagement from systems that lack consistency can both generate a scream, it is the control value of harmony that helps you to differentiate between a flow brought by plot and style or inconsistency from a system, which causal, spatial and temporal networks don’t make sense.

Harmony is often balanced with the help of your gut feeling, having a strong sensitivity to inconsistencies and discontinuity of causal, spatial, and temporal links. Within game development, feeling good can be seen as a translation of harmony, which captures the engaging and motivating forces’ balancing. Another statement of harmony is the condition of feeling fun, which is more related to the style of the theme. As the expressions are used mixed, you could say that when the game designer Fumito Ueda creates a mood, it doesn’t have to be fun, but it can feel good. This doesn’t mean that the player can’t have fun when interacting with the feathered creature Trico in The Last Guardian. The flow can contain a scale of feelings and moods from the dynamic changes between laughs and tears, despair, and hope.

Among the multitude of terms that expresses the balance of flow, harmony as a metaphor clearly reflects the opposite of dissonance, which will help you pace and balance the overall feeling flow. So, in short, the formula of harmony is achieved…

…when cause and effect are elaborated by the constructor towards a set premise and adapted to the media at hand, and when the effect of the composition supports the set goals for the receiver.

Regarding the formula of a premise, see Part 4 and Part 6

Tracing harmony through the narrative systems

When stripping the dramatic story structure in the previous part, I left the standard features of the rising and falling actions to be dealt with later. To illuminate how you obtain harmony in structuring engaging and motivating experiences, we need to add the last narrative system concerning the receiver’s meaning-making. Seen from the receiver’s interpretation of causal, spatial, and temporal links, it is easier to discern the uniting and dividing forces in the structuring of a story and gameplay.

The reason why converting a story structure from a movie to a game can be a mind-bending process is due to the fact that the canonical story format (exposition, complication, outcome) only displays logic and time. The absence of space that encompasses information of surroundings, positions, and paths explains why the dramatic story structure easily leads to advancing the characters’ actions and the fictionalized world, anticipating them to automatically engage the receiver’s desire to participate. But to trace the motivating forces of the receiver’s sense- and meaning making you need to unveil the spatial networks.

Attaining harmony by how you make sense of the causal, temporal and spatial networks that motivate the receiver’s meaning making, spatiality refers to how the receiver learns (conceives information) about an environment and makes use of knowing where he or she is and how to move forward. To illuminate how the narrative systems of plot and style give access to the navigation through time and space in regard to the receiver’s understanding and learning, I will replace the standards of the rising and falling actions with rising and falling learning.

By shifting our focus towards the learning curve, I will return to the plot pattern of The Lord of the Rings from the previous section, to trace where the receiver’s sense- and meaning making within the dramatic story structure resides.

Since the canonical story format only displays logic and time, which explains why the predefined structure entices the focus on creating the character’s motivation, I will start showing with a green dotted line how the hobbits’ motivation evolves along the duration axis.

As there were no hobbits in the store, I hope you don’t mind the stand-in. 

To illuminate how the causal elements (meanings) are withheld and provided through the plotting to engage the receiver’s understanding and learning, I will bring the team interpreters from the previous part, and let a purple cogwheel point out the interpreter’s building of experiences from learning about the world and the hobbits.

By following the purple cogwheels in the illustration below, you can see how the receiver gradually builds an understanding (awareness) from navigating through space along the duration axis. Based on the contrasts and cause and effect from the global conflict (1) and the life of the hobbits (2), you can perceive how the receiver’s experiences and expectations are increasing by how the plot and style provide and withhold meanings through the pacing.

Seen from the perspective of the receiver’s interpretation (purple cogwheels) the contrasts brought by the plot and style are based on the receiver’s awareness about the global conflict (1) and the causal contrast of the hobbits’ unawareness (2), who lives in comparison to the global conflict a peaceful life. The contrasts between the receiver’s awareness and the hobbits’ unawareness, who haven’t learned about the conflict (yet), trigger the receiver’s sense- and meaning making and increase engagement (1-3).

While seeing the hobbits gradually learn about the world conflict (3-4), the receiver’s engagement rises from the building of experiences, deepening the motivation to see how the hobbits will manage to meet the conflict (4). When the motivation from the hobbits’ learning is in level with the receiver’s understanding, the awareness is shared between the receiver and the hobbits (4-5). The experiences and motivation to see the conflict end unite the receiver’s and the hobbit’s learning (6).

In short, the plot pattern (1-6) can be described as a development from initial contrast in awareness to a final solution of a collective understanding of the situation. When looking at how the receiver’s and the hobbit’s awareness and motivation are united at the end, it raises the interesting question regarding the standard feature of the “falling learning/action” of whose learning is actually falling?

As we all know, especially if you work with game development, there is no such thing as a decrease in learning, since the experiences, feelings, and expectations that are built up during a movie or a game constitute the core of a mood that follows the receiver after the story ends. The craft of ending a dramatic story structure is expressed in the pacing of contrasts in regard to the engagement and duration axis.

Since the style of the movie directs time and frequency of triggers, balancing harmony, in this case, means that you, as a designer, need to hold on to the contrast (the trigger) between awareness and unawareness. This is how you use plot and style to either provide or withhold meanings.

As you approach the point of climax (4), you stop fueling the engagement with contrasts by making the experiences shared between the receiver and the hobbits (5). By doing this, you can leave the rest to the motivating engine of learning (and the hobbits) to bring home the expectations and put an end to the movie. I.e., you release the receiver from the pressure of being omniscient.

Tracing harmony in video games

The “falling learning/action” illuminates how the plotting of a story and gameplay differ in style by how the game mechanic behaves. The game mechanic has no end and works according to goal-states. Which rules how the mechanic provides and withholds components are controlled by systems. The behavior of the mechanic suits very well with how the receiver’s meaning-making and learning work. When applying a story structure to games, dissonance from the closure/ending easily turns into a trap, unless you look beyond the story structure to find the core to the motivating forces of learning. An example of how the ending in the making of “Journey” caused dissonance to the player’s motivation can be found in an earlier series Don’t show, involve.

In the merging of a dramatic story structure, dissonance from the falling action (the ending) used to be solved by imposing progression to the experience to counter the mechanics’ advancement and movements. The gains from focusing on progress by how the receiver/player arrives at new states from completing tasks bring the motivating forces from the player’s learning to the surface.

The player’s learning is attained by advancing through a space of activities. The translations of a conflict like in The Lord of the Rings are commonly organized around the themes of combat and survival to meet the mechanics’ style and the player’s behavior. Progression and completion of tasks are usually based on the causal contrasts of weak and strong that are conveyed to engage the player to act on getting strong by improving equipment and weapons.

The space of activities wherein the process of learning is gradually advancing towards new states is built in regard to the goal. How you sequence the space of activities to meet the goal-states of going from weak to strong can be depicted with the help of the causal contrasts of “lock and unlock”. Meaning, each sequence (level) withholds contents that gradually unlock along the duration axis when a goal-state of getting stronger is completed.

There are two standard approaches to how you engage and motivate the receiver/player by how you withhold (lock) and provide (unlock) contents within the space of activities.

1. The progression structure (also called scripted) prompts the drive-state of curiosity by directing the receiver to pick up calls from contrasts in the building of experiences and expectations. Through the pacing of the tempo by changing between fast/slow, and the intensity of the activity of being easy/hard, motivation is built in regard to the player’s learning and actions.

2. The emergent structure (also called open world) leaves the pacing to the player to choose which “call” (content) to pick up in order to meet the goal-based elements of going from weak to strong. Through choices, the player builds experiences and expectations from contrasts, cause and effect, along with the duration and engagement axis.

Let’s say the illustration above depicts the progression structure and how the content is strictly withheld and provided, prompting the player to act. In its purest form, the emergent design could be described as below, showing the freedom of the player’s choice and decision regarding what content and sequence need to be unlocked. To bypass the fact that there is a design behind the player’s intentions, the term affordance comes in handy due to its reference to an environment that provides content that players can understand by its appearance and choose to utilize.

Many games combine the progressive and emergent structures to pace and balance the content to achieve a dynamic feeling from changing tempo (fast/slow) and intensity (strong/soft) between the player´s activities. An example of this is Red Dead Redemption 2 (see Part 1), which plotline prompts the receiver to advance but where the receiver also has the opportunity to pace the experiences by choosing to explore, improve skills and equipment.

Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games

The survival game The Long Dark is another example of an emergent structure that implemented progression by prompting the player to change behavior. At the game’s release, the player’s activities to achieve the goal were to hibernate in a safe cottage to survive an environment of extreme cold. To change the player’s behavior, the team implemented “cabin fever,” which forced the player to leave the house after four days and stay out for a whole day. In addition to the “cabin fever,” the player needed to be active in order to get tired before going to sleep (see also Part 3, Narrative bridging on testing experiences).

The example shows how the pacing flows through the player’s behavior and movement by how the style dynamically mobilizes the plot pattern. Harmony is controlled by balancing the causal contrasts of surviving or dying. The rhythm, tempo, and intensity from feeling safe/unsafe transmit to the player’s actions, showing how the pace of sleeping can have a substantial impact on emotions.

Hibernating in a safe cottage in “The Long Dark”, created by Hinterland Games

The control value of harmony in games

Seen through the lens of the narrative systems, the top-down perspective on the deconstruction of a story structure shows how the standard features focus on the learning curve’s physical actions. The building of engaging and motivating forces empathizes competence and the control value of flow proceeds from the perspective of the player’s performance.

To visualize the control value of harmony of flow in the pacing of engagement and motivation from a competency-driven perspective on performance, I will bring the constructor team from the previous section.

The green cogwheel represents the meanings you present as a constructor to trigger the player’s engagement and motivation. To balance the harmony in regard to the player’s learning from which the actions emerge, the focus is on the player’s sense of competence by balancing the difficulties in relation to the player’s skills.

Let’s say we situate the player in the hobbits’ role to defeat the threat from Mordor, it goes without saying that you can’t overload the player’s learning by bringing on all the mechanics to teach all skills needed to defeat Sauron.

Neither can you expose the player to difficulties that are too hard to manage as it will prevent the player from advancing.

By focusing on the player’s learning, the feeling of competence is balanced by encouraging the player’s ability to interact by how you provide and withhold the mechanics to not lower the player’s motivation.

In the example of The Long Dark, the implementation of the new mechanics (cabin fever and staying active to get tired) increased the tempo and intensity of the player’s actions. Dissonance would occur if the player’s learning curve wasn’t regarded as balancing the causal contrasts of surviving and dying.

The learning curve is central to balancing harmony in regard to space by preventing the player from feeling that they can’t understand what to do, where to go, and how to manage the controls. This means the harmony, your control value of flow, proceeds from making sense of how to play the game.

The focus is on balancing the different levels of the player’s abilities, skills, needs, and expectations. Expectations can vary significantly between those who have played a lot and those who haven’t. Here, the control value of flow concerns the balance of the motivation regarding how low expectations, as well as the high expectations, can lower the player’s motivation.

An example of how you pace experiences to prevent players from the dissonance of feeling a lack of competence regarding the expectations of playing a hero can be found in a GDC talk from 2018. In this talk, the game designer Jennifer Scheurle shares the magical tricks that designers employ to prevent players’ motivation from dropping. To make the experience equal for all, regardless of different levels of difficulties and skills, Scheurle shows an example from the Uncharted series (provided by game director Kurt Margenau) where the tension from playing a hero doesn’t affect how you reach a result (see link on YouTube at 38:00).

Making sense of merging engaging and motivating forces

Just as there are conventional techniques when structuring stories, there are standards in game development that come to light when looking at the craft of pacing by how you structure the space of activities to engage and motivate the player.

Comparing the dramatic story structure with gameplay structures, it can seem like a perfect match if you remove the falling and ending parts of the story structure to allow for the learning curve to come forth. Where the story structure lacks a spatial framework, gameplay structures will compensate by focusing on the player’s actions and learning about the space. Regarding the narrative principles of logic, time, and space, it is essential to elaborate on space, so the player understands how to navigate and orientate by grasping the spatial networks. In the merging of a story structure to video games, the gameplay structure focuses on time and space that settles the control value of flow, describing how to play. Utilizing the causal (logic) and temporal framework of the story structure explains why and when the player needs to act.

The narrative systems reveal how the dramatic story structure lacks a spatial framework, explaining how the structures generate different functions. The spatial networks refer to how the players obtain (understand) information about an environment and make use of knowing where they are and how to move forward. When stripping the conventional structures from standard features, it is easier to see how the gameplay structures compensate for the story structure’s lack of defining space by focusing on the player’s learning about space.

Regarding the player’s understanding and learning in games, harmony (the good feeling) is achieved in game design by encouraging (prompting) the player’s competence in the pacing and balancing the rhythm of flow. The curiosity-driven perspective of the player’s desire to understand and learn is pretty much left to the gut to handle in converting and merging structures in regard to the style.

The gap between the story and gameplay structures can be found between the space of activities, connecting the player’s thinking and meaning-making to the physical activities. This gap has nothing to do with the division between writers and designers. It can be traced back to science that has had a complicated relationship to the human imagination, which explains why phrases like suspension of disbelief are still used to describe the player’s bonding with furry-footed Middle Earthers and feathered creatures.

The gap can be bridged through connecting the curiosity-driven desire to learn with the feeling of competence from learning. This gives you a learning curve that captures the motivation by how the player is gradually building experiences, feelings, and expectations, which remain in the memory after obtaining the goal.

Hierarchically, the learning curve shows why the feeling and experience should always come first when organizing the plot and style to meet the player’s ability to think, feel, and learn. Meaning regardless of a scripted or an open-world, or the player’s skills, the sum of the experiences and feelings should meet the expectations provided by the plot and style. Based on the goal of what you want the player to experience or feel, attaining harmony of the control value to the flow experiences needs to be balanced with the player’s expectations.

Instead of breaking down structures, it can be beneficial with a bottom-up perspective to access the core to the engaging and motivating forces when setting the goal of the experiences and feelings. In the next and concluding chapter, I will return to the hobbits and Gandalf and the boy and Trico in The Last Guardian to look into the details of how a bottom-up approach assists the pacing and balancing of a game’s mechanics and systems.

Don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like to share your thoughts and questions. If something is unclear, I’m always ready to revise to reach harmony.

Until next, stay safe and curious,


Illustrations by Linnea Österberg

Continue to Putting into play – The Hidden Art of Pacing 3 (3)

Return to Putting into play – The Hidden Art of Pacing 1 (3)

Part 1 Putting into play – A model of causal cognition on game design.
Part 2, Putting into play – On narrative from a cognitive perspective I
Part 3, Putting into play – On narrative from a cognitive perspective II
Part 4, Putting into play – How to trigger the narrative vehicle
Part 5, Putting into play – On organizing thoughts and feelings
Part 6, Putting into play – On organizing engaging and dynamic forces


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