"The best thing about games doesn't have a proper name"
8th Dec 2012 | 18:00
One of the very best things about videogames doesn't even have a proper name. Not a definitive name, anyway: not one that everybody agrees on. Some call it the freeze. Some call it the impact break. I've always called it the hit pause, because I once asked a developer friend what the technical term was and that was the response I got. You may not have heard any of these phrases. That doesn't matter. You'll still know what I'm talking about.
I'm talking about that moment in every good action game where you swing your sword, throw your fist, or lash out with your foot and land a blow. Your enemy goes sailing across the screen, of course, but just before that part - at the very instant of impact - everything stops for a millisecond.
During that millisecond, the action halts, the soundtrack stutters, and the bullets cease to fly. Then, before you can even think about blinking, the moment passes and the mayhem starts up again. You ready your sword - or your fist or your foot - and you're back into the fray. That was the hit pause.
It's not uncommon to mistake a hit pause for a graphical glitch; for the engine hanging as it deals with too many particles and too many calculations in too short a space of time. In fact, though, it's a tactic that smart designers have been relying on since the days of the arcade.
The origin, as far as my game developer friend could tell me, lies with the very first Pac-Man, which froze whenever you munched a ghost in order to quickly display how many points you'd just earned. It cued players in to what was going on with their score, perhaps, but it also made them feel good - good in a way that had nothing to do with leaderboards.
Since then, the hit pause has spread from game to game, and the duration of the pause itself is often different. In Devil May Cry, it's vanishingly quick, whereas in Street Fighter IV, it's gorgeously slow, providing each intricate battle with the rhythm of a briskly scanned comic strip. Throughout its journey, the essence of the hit pause has altered very little, however - and the reason it works hasn't changed at all. The hit pause is a chance to reflect.
It's a moment in the midst of videogame chaos to savour the fact that you just did something brilliant. It's a split-second breather for you to forget about tactics, and just enjoy the thought of your blade sailing through the flesh of your enemy, and it works so well because it makes virtual combat tangible. It delivers the kind of violent super-powered connection that graphic novels have to resort to text in order to convey. It puts you into the moment in a way that only this particular medium can.
HIT OR MISS
This would normally be the point where I talk about all the games that get the hit pause wrong - fluffing the timing or bodging the crucial animations. In truth, though, the hit pause is such a simple idea that it's really hard to mess up, and the only games that lose out are the games that decide not to use it in the first place. Shooters can be excused, of course: the hit pause is primarily a trick for close-up combat with its swift interplay of arms and legs.
When guns come into it, the whole thing can morph into the slow-motion world of the kill cam, where skulls come apart and brains splatter against walls. These moments are cousins to the hit pause, perhaps, but they're the distant, rather depraved cousins you only see at weddings and funerals. They're about excess rather than precision, and they focus on the grisly aftermath, instead of the singular moment of contact.
In recent years, you'll probably have seen the hit pause in both Japanese and Western games, cropping up in the furious two-fisted brawling of Asura's Wrath, say, as well as the rhythmic freeform combos of Arkham Asylum. Best of all, it's even come home, returning to the neon mazes of Pac-Man Championship Edition with their endless chains of enemies and twinkling power pills.
If you want to experience the hit pause at its best, in fact, Pac-Man is probably still the best place to do it. Pick your moment, corral your ghosts, and then chew through the entire horde in one gorgeous points-spewing motion. Feel that corrugated rumble juddering through the palm of your hand? That's the hit pause - and it's never been more satisfying.