Friday, July 9, 2010

The Brake Pad

Since I talked about conflict yesterday, I thought I should give mention to the Brake Pad. The Brake Pad is a delightful little term I've heard most used in relation to video games (no, don't click away - you can hone your craft by learning from ALL forms of storytelling). For those who play videogames, you have probably noticed that by necessity a lot of games ramp up the conflict by spewing danger at you. There's a rockfall, some bad guys, a scene where your dead daughter runs away from you, some bad guys, a puzzle that might eat your hand, some bad guys... A lot of first-person shooters are particularly bad with this. Those who never play videogames probably think that this is what gamers want in a game. That the pinnacle of a good game involves dealing with an endless array of monsters.

Not so!

Most of the best games, from humble shooter (Half Life) to frantic survival horror (Silent Hills) to RPGs (Final Fantasy) to action adventure (Prince of Persia) include what are lovingly referred to as brake pads. Short lengths of time when nothing jumps out at you. Where there are no puzzles. Where those flickering shadows hide nothing from you. Where there's no cut-scene or Non-Player Characters to distract you. There is nothing but you and the game world.

These are the bits where you begin to worry. You wonder what's coming up. It's as though the game world is holding its breath. Your finger twitches on the trigger. You slow your Avatar's speed. You look all around you. It's quiet ... too quiet. These are often some of the tensest scenes in the game. The horror games, in particular, seem to delight in them. The sheer contrast between peace and action make you sit up and take notice.

I think that some authors, upon hearing that there should be conflict on every page, forget about the silent conflict. It doesn't have to be something repeatedly rammed into the reader. It doesn't have to be introverted wailing. There is a silent conflict in someone doing the rounds at various shrines, consciously avoiding all thoughts of the Big Push over the trenches that is about to come (why do fantasy worlds with scorching rays never have trench ware fare?).

Remember, that sometimes it is in those moments of peace that we settle into the mind's of the characters. Keep the tension up too high and you'll jolt us out of any empathy for the characters. Yes, we might find it a page turning thriller, but too much conflict makes for painful empathy.

So, remember that in the peaks and ravines of higher and lesser conflict, there can always be a genuinely tranquil moment within the story.

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