Pacing in overdrive

Good pacing is important in movies.

An obvious statement, I know. A sentiment most cinema-lovers would agree with, no doubt. But is it still true to the general movie audience? Because I’m wondering if directors still use pacing as a tool to the extent that they once did.

A few days ago I saw “The American” at the cinema. Yet another great movie by Focus Features. The picture was well shot, directed and acted (George Clooney doing a good job as usual). The storytelling was subtle, the kind of narration where much is told through a simple glance or the length of a shot, rather than by a bombardment of music or obvious dialog. The pacing was deliberate, because the atmosphere and story required it.

It was simply a well-made thriller.

Afterwards, checking out reviews through Metacritic, I was surprised by its reception. A lot of critics didn’t like it. It hardly had a plot, some felt. The main character’s feelings or motivations weren’t communicated, according to others. Most thought it was way too slow.

This brings me back to thoughts I had a few weeks ago when I finally saw Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Unlike pretty much all other recent thrillers, it was filled with the sharp tension of old Hollywood, reminding me of Hitchcock’s best work. It accomplished this by allowing the well-crafted storytelling to take its time, slowly building up tension scene by scene, shot by shot. The end result was one of the most thrilling thrillers I’ve seen in years.

The American was even slower. And apparently it was too slow for the critics. Yet I never felt bored or frustrated by it. It was properly paced for the feelings it attempted to evoke.

But looking at most other contemporary thrillers, I think I know where the critics are coming from. They’re simply no longer used to anything but movies rushing to the end like it was a 100 meter sprint. Movies that don’t have the confidence to use scenes for building tension, with plot points telegraphed in the most obvious of ways. Modern thrillers have the pacing of action flicks, with the gas left in full throttle. Obviously they don’t work well as thrillers, but the audience is so used to quick pacing and snappy editing that anything else leaves them feeling bored and confused.

It is pacing in overdrive, and I wish this trend would end. It has gutted a genre, and I want it back.

How do I love thee: Limbo

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

The first sign of life is when his eyes light up. The little boy wakes up all alone in the midst of a dark, omnious forest. The only other light in this monochrome, nightmarish world comes from somewhere beyond the forest. A background glow, a contrast to the ever-present darkness, will be our companion until the end. You see the same light in his shining eyes, and it’s clear he’s not from this shadowy realm. Throughout the entire journey, I wanted to take the boy to that light. I wanted to bring him home.

It’s a puzzle platformer, but that description doesn’t come near to capture the feeling of playing Limbo. The levers and gears and traps are at the core of the game, but the atmosphere is just as important.

The game has a two sentence story, communicated through the Xbox Live description, but we do best in forgetting all about it and allowing the game experience to tell it’s own tale. A tale of waking up in a nightmare, a strange and fearful place, with the only goal of getting the hell out. A goal communicated by the traditional mechanic of going left-to-right, where going forward is the only measure of progress.

The progress is rewarded by a childlike sense of discovery. Although I would have liked to have longer stretches of it without interruptions by puzzles, the discovery feels somewhat like a twisted take on Hayao Miyazaki’s wondrous movies.

After a while the gloomy trees are replaced with other environments, but the forest is well above the others in mood and in how well integrated the puzzles are. That’s not to say that the early puzzles are the best (they get increasingly interesting the further you get), but unlike the later puzzles they’re not abstract and appears as natural parts of the environments.

The boy seems so fragile among towering trees and enormous spiders. But the slow pace, minimalistic audio and the sheer beauty of it all gives a strange sense of peace. Among all this darkness, all these harrowing situations, there’s a calm and perhaps even a sense of serenity.

When crushed, pierced, decapitated, squashed, the little boy does not scream or struggle. He just dies, illustrated by the light of his eyes fading to black. So while there’s tension, and fear, there’s no panic. The peace remains even as our avatar gets torn apart by a beartrap.

The many different deaths, drenched in a dark sense of humour, are funny – and they’re designed to be. You die often, time and time again. This could be frustrating, if it weren’t for the fact that the deaths themselves are entertaining, and because there’s hardly any death penalty. If you die, you will start again at an invisible checkpoint just a few moments away.

There’s a reason why they’ve approached death this way. You explore the boundaries of most puzzles by trying and dying. But it’s not tedious trial-and-error, as some has critized it to be. The deaths merely communicate the rules, and then it is up to you to solve the puzzle with the newfound rules as your tools.

We’re all different, but I experienced the puzzles as perfectly balanced. Once you’ve gone passed the early part of the game, each puzzle is a real challenge. It’s never too easy, and never too hard. Most puzzles were just about to become frustrating, when I saw the solution. Time and again, I found the solution in the right moment.

I have never seen that level of balance in a puzzle game, and neither have I encountered a similar atmosphere. If you haven’t played Limbo, you are missing out.