Time Pressure & Information Density

I don't have enough time. I know nobody has, but I don't even seem to have enough time to watch TV or films. I don't watch much TV, so this isn't normally an issue, but last week, I sat down to watch Prince Caspian. It was a great movie, no question. It was also a faithful rendition of the book, and I think that's where it fell down for me - I knew what was going to happen, and so I was impatient for it to, well, happen.

This isn't the first time this has happened. Leaving aside Battlestar Galactica and Lost, and a few episodes of Doctor Who (mostly by Stephen Moffat), I get bored by narrative TV and films all the time. The 'narrative' bit is notable there, though - I can happily watch documentaries, news programmes, and even the odd historical drama without feeling time pressure. With others, though, where I can predict plot twists and even dialogue, I get to feeling there are better uses for my time.

You'd think this would bias me against spoilers, but it doesn't seem to work that way - I love spoilers, and they increase my enjoyment of the narrative in question. So it's not actually knowing what's going to happen - instead, it seems to be something around how much information I can absorb from the medium. If I'm saturated - or more than saturated - I'm happy. If my attention has a chance to wander, that's it, I'll get bored. Reading isn't like that - my reading speed automatically matches my information saturation level.

This, too, is why I can watch and rewatch Lord of the Rings. Sure, I know the story. But the sheer density of that production is so far and away above anything in the Narnia movies that it will remain entertaining for years to come - even if I'm not paying attention to the story, then details of costumes, or swordplay, or landscapes will catch my attention.

Games don't usually suffer from this. Certainly, tabletop games I'm running occupy 110% of my attention, and in many ways are more exhausting than any part of a working day.

And there's a degree to which this explains why I haven't played any single-player computer games in a long time. I've tried, but in most of them, there just isn't enough going on. An exception here is Planescape: Torment, which I must replay soon, and again, even when the Nameless One is just walking from one point to another, there's enough in the environment, and in the actions of the NPCs, to keep me quite thoroughly entertained.

MMOs, likewise, occupy good chunks of attention - the more sandbox-ish the game, the better. I do run into issues with the theme park games, and I'm really only realising now that that's what happened with Wrath of the Lich King - I was making myself play through the quest lines because I was looking for the story, but it just wasn't dense enough to keep my attention. When I go back for Cataclysm, I'm probably going to be a very irritating player for others in my guild or household, forever bouncing off to somewhere there's more stuff to see and do. But I reckon I'll be an entertained irritating player.

Posted by Drew Shiel at September 1, 2009 12:27 PM

AddThis Social Bookmark Button