Gaming on a Timer

In The Spotlight – The Pacing of Persona 5

Ever played a game where a particular aspect drew your attention? Some specific minutiae you felt like talking about, to the exclusion of all else? In The Spotlight aims to discuss just that! This week, we’ll be checking out how the pacing of 2017’s JRPG smash hit, Persona 5, works.

In case you’ve never experienced a Persona game, here’s a brief breakdown: Persona 5 is the latest in the long-standing Persona series of JRPGs (naturally), best known for their use of urban contemporary settings (as opposed to the genre “defaults” of fantasy or sci-fi), with underlying themes based in Jungian psychology, as well as a focus on character-driven narrative.

In addition, main series games from Persona 3 onward have their game structured upon two main elements – dungeon delving (where the game follows the more traditional JRPG recipe of turn-based combat, stat-building and exploration) and in-between sections centered on the protagonist’s daily life (which borrows heavily from the visual novel genre and is where most of the dialogue and character development takes place).

These two elements are compounded by a calendar mechanic; the story takes place over the course of a single year, with each event or dungeon visit expending a certain amount of time. In Persona 5, this calendar is further broken down into individual days, which are usually split into three segments – morning (with scripted sequences where the protagonist attends school) and afternoons/ evenings (where the player gets to choose to spend either by visiting dungeons or focusing on social life aspect of the game).

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The calendar system, stylish as any other part of Persona 5.

With this baseline established, let me get on with the actual topic of the post: in my opinion, Persona 5 has some of the best pacing I’ve seen in a game lately. Over the course of 87 hours (which, with my current work schedule took around 3 months), the game rarely felt like it was struggling or rushing with its story and event flow; a major accomplishment considering how much there is to do and see (currently, gameplay length aggregate site HowLongToBeat clocks the 100% completion rate to around 160 hours – that’s a lot of content).

I believe there’s two reasons the pacing works so well.

First, the contrast created between the high-action, often frenetic combat in the dungeon segments and the mellow, almost relaxing day-to-day encounters with the protagonist’s friends and social circle (appropriately for a game themed around heists, each one of these is called a Confidant) ensures that game’s pace is kept in check, with quiet moments used to great effect in building up to the eventual action segments and those in turn allowing the player to appreciate the lulls in activity all the better (this, of course, is also aided in part by the game’s excellent soundtrack, a mixture of acid jazz and J-Pop that pack a serious aural punch).

Second, and as I’d argue more important, is the amount of agency  Persona 5 gives the player in moderating their own pace throughout the game. Utilizing the aforementioned calendar system the game is structured upon, players are left to decide their own timetable for each day – be it spending time with Confidants, exploring dungeons to strengthen their party, partaking in social activities such as fishing or working a part-time shift at the florist’s, the game lets them experience its content at their own pace (and yes, there are some time limitations, especially during unskippable events or deadlines for completing each story dungeon, but those are few and lenient enough to not cause particular annoyance).

 

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Combat is only half of the game.

This is especially noticeable for players with less free time to devote to a game – evident in my case, where I could only afford maybe half an hour per session, two or three times a week plus one or two hour-long ones during the weekend – as it allows them to tailor their experience to their needs.

Second, and as I’d argue more important, is the amount of agency  Persona 5 gives the player in moderating their own pace throughout the game. Utilizing the aforementioned calendar system the game is structured upon, players are left to decide their own timetable for each day – be it spending time with Confidants, exploring dungeons to strengthen their party, partaking in social activities such as fishing or working a part-time shift at the florist’s, the game lets them experience its content at their own pace (and yes, there are some time limitations, especially during unskippable events or deadlines for completing each story dungeon, but those are few and lenient enough to not cause particular annoyance).

This is especially noticeable for players with less free time to devote to a game – evident in my case, where I could only afford maybe half an hour per session, two or three times a week plus one or two hour-long ones during the weekend – as it allows them to tailor their experience to their needs.

Only have half an hour to spare before calling it a night? You can go explore the city for a while, maybe get to know your allies a bit better or work a shift or two at the local grocery to build up your cash reserves. Got an afternoon free for gaming? Might as well delve into that dungeon, grab some new gear and experiment with the game’s fusion system (a complex function where you can combine your summoned allies – Personae – into more powerful forms).

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Social interactions are the other half.

From my own experience with the game, however much time you can spare, there’s always something meaningful to do or see in Persona 5’s version of Tokyo.

So what is the key takeaway from all this? I believe it’s a high rate of modularity in the game’s writing and structuring. This is evident in the way that Confidants, activities and main story elements work so well together, but without depending on one another to a great degree – letting the player choose their own actions in the game without feeling like they’re missing out on part of the experience or being punished for not planning out their time efficiently enough.

Ultimately, I think there’s a lesson to take away from Persona 5 – with a bit of planning, there are ways to let the player decide the game’s pace, allowing them to enjoy the experience on their own terms by utilizing a modular approach during the design phase. If I had to make an assumption, I’d say that while it would increase pre-production time (in order to design the systems needed for such functionality), it should conversely save time during testing (i.e. tuning and tweaking the experience based on player feedback, as this seems to be a self-correcting system, provided it was planned correctly).

Addendum: If you’re interested in a more in-depth explanation on pacing in games, I would recommend this Extra Credits video, titled “Pacing – How Games Keep Things Exciting” (and in general, if you’re interested in seeing what makes games “tick”, Extra Credits is a very good channel to subscribe to).

What are your experiences with pacing in games? Got any interesting examples to share from favorites? Tales of pacing done badly? Share them in the comments section below!

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