One thing to know about me is that I’m extremely bad at video games. Whoever was making my character neglected to put any points into dexterity, so I’m pretty hopeless at anything that requires quick reflexes or precise hand-eye coordination.
(You might think it’s weird to spend most of your career working in video games if you’re bad at them, but I’d counter that most of the games I’ve worked on have been more modest, story- and puzzle-driven adventure games. You might then go on to assume that I must be better at adventure games, then, but I have to say that I’m bad at those, too).
I’ve been reminded of how bad I am at games, brutally and repeatedly, because I’ve gotten the chance to put some more time into Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order over the past few days.
Jedi: Fallen Order is just an extremely well-made game. It is fantastic at Star Wars storytelling and world-building. Everywhere you go is immediately recognizable as “feeling like Star Wars,” but it doesn’t feel like it’s just a retread of what you’ve seen before in movies and TV series.
But somebody involved in the game’s development decided that surfing needed to be a key part of the experience. I’ve been surprised by how much of the game is spent sliding down slippery slopes, leaping over gaps, jumping onto ropes, running on walls, and wondering who out there considers any of this really fun.
This means that I’m on my third playthrough of a game (for various reasons that are too uninteresting even for this blog, if you can imagine) from 2019, and I’ve only just inched farther than I’ve ever been before. I finally finished the main objective on the third planet you visit in the main storyline, and it felt like a victory four years in the making.
But instead of opening a single shortcut that would take me back to the start of the level, it invited me to retrace the steps I’d taken, but backwards. Enemies were reconfigured and repositioned, alternate paths that seemed baffling on the way in suddenly made sense on the way out, and obstacles seemed place to give me some time to practice the new ability I’d just learned. But in terms of story and pacing, it felt “off.” There’s a reason action movies rarely show the lead fighting his way to the center of a dungeon, defeating the villain, and then quietly walking back to the entrance.
I don’t want to spoil anything in the game, even if everyone else interested in it has already finished it multiple times over by this point, but I will say that it fairly quickly became clear why the level was structured the way it was, and it all made perfect sense. Even if, again, my being bad at games took what should’ve been a satisfying coda to the mission and stretched it into a clumsy and punishing affair of my stumbling around and getting killed repeatedly.
I’ll also say that the sequence that starts with your first going to the Wookiee planet Kashyyk is one of the coolest Star Wars things I’ve ever seen, video game or otherwise. I was grinning like an idiot the whole time, not quite believing they went so hard.
Anyway, there’s one idea that kept being driven home every time I died and had to start over: I’m getting a very different experience from everyone else. I already realized that interactive storytelling means giving control over to the audience — even when you’re not giving up control over the plot with branching narratives and the like, you’re still giving the audience control over the camera and pacing. But seeing it in this game really makes you appreciate just how un-cinematic that is.
My experience with this game is so different from that of a competent person that I’m not even sure whether the moments I think of as “climaxes” are even intended to feel like significant events (“Hooray we shot down a bunch of TIE Fighters and escaped the Death Star!”) or if they’re still just setting the stage (“Hooray I just found a mysterious recording in this R2 unit!”)
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because it’s a hard enough problem in traditional media. I have a ton of respect for when I read a book or watch a movie or TV show and the story feels “in sync” with me: when I get an appropriate feeling of “a-ha!” from the revelations, and I don’t feel like I could see them coming from a mile away. It’s such a difficult balance, having to take into account the audience’s aptitude for picking up clues, remembering details, or even familiarity with the genre. Then add the fact that a scene that was intended to last about one minute could actually be playing out over an hour or even a week.
Another thing I’ve noticed while stumbling through Fallen Order is how much I’m meta-gaming it. I feel very aware of the structure of the game vs the structure of the story: what’s building up to a boss fight, what’s intended to teach or reinforce a game mechanic, where the game is moving forward on rails, where the game is paused and waiting for me to move into a new area. That kind of counteracts the pacing issues caused by my bad playing — even if the time dilation has ruined the surprise, I can at least tell how I’m supposed to react to a new big set piece or battle.
I doubt that I’m ever going to Get Good, but I would like to see some games that take this extremely unpredictable pacing into account. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time famously took advantage of it by incorporating your accidents and mishaps into the storytelling. Are there different ways to lean into it? Do more than just comment on it, but actually incorporate it into the storytelling?
Or am I overthinking it, and it’s one of those conventions that is simply ignored, like gutters between comic book panels, or montage sequences in movies? Is it just the case that player time isn’t the same as game time? An hour’s worth of fatal falls, swearing, and throwing the controller across the room, is just a few seconds in the main character’s life?