This is the first part of a series I’m going to be starting on emotional beats. It’s not strictly related to games, but anyone who works on games needs to know how they work, because even though I like to think of them as part of storytelling you need them even in an abstract sort of game to understand how it is going. Tetris is so thrilling because it has managed its emotional beats well, even though there's no "story" to tell.
I visualize stories as being made up of three overlapping sine graphs; the world is going to play a major role only once in a while, with the characters and setting elements that draw people in changing infrequently. The plot becomes relevant more frequently, with the various significant events coming at a dependable pace to change things up. Emotional beats, on the other hand, are the constant pulse of the story.
Alternatively, you could picture it something like a fence, looking at a bunch of the discrete parts that flow together simultaneously.
None of these things are happening in absence of each other; the emotional beats should all work with the plot and help to maintain the feeling the audience is getting of the tone and mood of the story. The diagrams also create a sort of neat form of symmetry to everything.
In a lot of stories you wind up with basically three world beats; the start where everything's good, a moment about 5-10% into the story when everything goes wrong, and a moment maybe 80-90% through where the hero solves the problem. There's backstory going on and some of the world and setting beats are going on behind the scenes, and it's also where your big character moments come; when the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings meet Aragorn, that's a world beat, though it's not necessarily a major one.
Plot beats are the action of the story writ large, as opposed to the little pieces that make up the action. If you're playing Oregon Trail and one of the wagons catches fire and everything in it is lost, that's a plot beat as far as you're concerned as a player. Emotional beats are the smaller pieces within plot beats that make them interesting, and not every plot beat needs a whole ton. If the wagon catches fire, how do the people nearby react? What music or sound do you play? How much interpretation do you leave to the player?
A lot of emergent games leave a lot of the emotional beats to the players. If you're playing, say, Rimworld, you don't get lots of descriptions about how people feel as part of the regular course of the game, and the music probably only narrowly reflects what's going on. They do use some guidance (like different notification sounds and colors), but they've invested the player in their creation and that's how they deliver emotional beats: the impact on the player's world and their plans for that world. However, the reason why this works is precisely because it's their world. The game designer puts stuff there, but the player sets it in order.
If your story tells a linear storyline with characters you wrote, you need to make conscious use of emotional beats because it pulls them into your world.
One of the reasons why you want to learn to think in terms of emotional beats when telling a story is that they’re intuited, not interpreted. You have a broad array of tools to create emotion (visuals, dialogue, music, themes, symbols, etc.) but the audience interprets them very quickly and often even without having to be consciously aware of it.
If you push your plot beats up in frequency so that you’re putting in a new plot point at the same rate an expert storyteller puts in emotional beats, you’re going to confuse and lose your audience. I won’t even waste time to consider the further consequences of doing the same thing with characters and setting elements, because writers who even try to do that casually will usually intuitively sense that they’re pushing things too far (or they’re too blind to their weaknesses to use help).
I think of the game Cave Story as a great way to illustrate this. You have a very minimalist narrative, with a silent protagonist with a deep backstory that other people know (and he doesn’t), a whimsical world with animal people and flying islands, and a small cast of core characters including clear villains. This is all made clear really quickly, but still you get just a glimpse of things (silent protagonist, animal people who fear him, villains who are in opposition to both) at the very start. Over the course of the story, you have plot sections that unfold more quickly.
You awaken in a cave, find a gun, and work your way out to the village. These are three plot points within the single world development set, at which point you go from just having an unknown silent protagonist and get introduced to the mimigmas, the animal people who you come to befriend. You meet a few of them, befriend them, and try to earn their trust. Plot beats before the next world beat: the bad guys show up and start causing trouble.
The reason why I draw the distinction between plot and world beats is that as a game designer you can choose to add more plot beats in between the world beats, but the world beats are going to be dramatic, forceful things. You can have a side-quest that’s tied to a world beat, and with the next beat you’re going to lose that thread. Cave Story illustrates this tremendously well because it is tied to place; it’s a Metroidvania (or at least a platformer with character development), and you constantly go to new places with each place having two or three dedicated plot beats.
Defining Emotional Beats
Emotional beats are small. As a writer, you’d have to do every one intentionally, but as a game designer you have some that are a consequence of your design that unfold emergently. If you have a bad guy bearing down on the player and they’ve got a big axe and the player has a dinky little dagger, you’re building up quite an emotional beat because the player will have to fight. It’s a different emotional beat if the player comes back later with a fusion cannon, but it’s still a satisfying emotional beat even if it’s more focused on action than suspense.
Emotional beats flare and pulse constantly, they’re what bring people between all the other moments of the story without having them fall asleep.
I think of Pixar’s Up as a great way to illustrate this: the opening scene is full of emotional beats; a wedding, a pregnancy, a funeral. None last for more than a handful of seconds, but because it’s presented in a multimedia format they don’t have to.
Emotional beats in a game can be similar, or they can be longer and more drawn out. In written fiction, you can stretch an emotional beat over a fairly long amount of subjective time for the reader; I think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s unhurried pace in The Remains of the Day or When We Were Orphans. The important thing to realize is that emotional beats are the mode through which things change.
Star Wars comes to mind. One of the things that I think the old-school Star Wars films got right (and dare I say, the new trilogy is actually okay at this too at times, though it is replete with its own faults), is having a constant pacing of emotional beats. Compare this to the languishing pace of the prequel trilogies, where you’ve got grand fanfare so often that it becomes meaningless and long, slow overviews of Coruscant and other scenic vistas without any reminder of why we’re seeing what we’re looking at.
Now, Lucasfilm and Disney have a CGI budget that is seemingly inexhaustible, so the first few times you catch the views they’re astonishing, and they are conscious of the use of color and various other ways of subtly setting the mood, but these are still beats that don’t pace well.
Consider the opening shot of A New Hope, where you have a blockade runner fleeing a Star Destroyer. That’s a potent emotional beat. It cuts to a firefight in the middle of the blockade runner. Potent emotional beat. C-3PO and R2-D2 duck through the firefight, giving exposition. Not quite as potent, but at least it works. R2 gets a secret message from Princess Leia. Potent emotional beat. 3PO doesn’t want to get in the escape pod. Comical emotional beat. R2 coerces him by warning him of his fate if he doesn’t. Comical emotional beat.
Now, we’ll talk more about the role of humor as an emotional beat later, but this actually works quite well, especially since we already know a little of what’s going on from a pre-opening exposition, and because we have this heightened sense of plot tension. There’s some humor there, which is being used to control the tension so we can focus on who our characters are and the world they’re in, which is the big plot.
Now, let’s look at The Phantom Menace. Same pre-opening exposition crawl, with different words. The opening shot takes place in space, as is customary for Star Wars, and pans down to a vision of a ship approaching and docking with another ship, part of a blockade in orbit. There’s dialogue, with a lot of etiquette and the first funny-talking alien. The ship lands in the hangar, where there are a lot of iffy CGI droids, but we only see them for a moment. The Jedi leave the hangar, escorted by a 3PO-esque protocol droid, who tells them to wait. Then they talk about the Force and deliver a little dialogue. There’s politics too. We learn about Lord Sidious, who is as-yet basically unknown (especially if you weren’t paying attention to the crawl). Qui-Gon says that he senses fear, which is flat out exposition (though it does serve a purpose of showing us Jedi powers), and Sidious shows up to tell people to do the evil thing, as we will become familiar with once he becomes the Emperor.
Now, are there no emotional beats here? Well, we have the blockade, which is potentially scary. The droids have scary red eyes. But for the most part it’s gray and clean environments, and politics and exposition dominate.
There’s no action, and the emotional beats are suffering from at least low blood pressure. We’re watching Star Negotiations, not Star Wars. Action picks up later (the prequels are disappointing, not execrable, though I’m not exactly watching more to confirm this statement).
I like to set emotional beats into one of four categories: action beats, humorous beats, intimate beats, and suspense beats. You can theoretically combine more than one in a single thing (though you might wind up with some oddities), but if you spend much time on something that’s not doing at least one of the four functions you’re just slowing down the plot and boring your reader.
In A New Hope, we get all four types of beat within the first five minutes: action from the firefight, suspense from the chase, intimate from Leia giving the message to R2 (even though it’s sort of distant to the audience), and humorous from the exchanges between 3PO and R2.
in The Phantom Menace, we get suspense beats. Even then, they’re delivered through dialogue and a lot of the dialogue is exposition. Exposition is not one of the four types of emotion that I’m concerned with here.
Now, that’s not to say that you need to constantly be blending all four (and we’ll look at places that doesn’t work, particularly with humorous beats, tomorrow).
We’ll also talk about how they apply specifically to games.