Ask GR Anything: What is pausing, anyway?

Ask GR Anything is a weekly Q&A column that answers questions submitted by readers (as well as questions we're particularly curious about ourselves). Got a burning question about games or the industry? Ask us in the comments below and you may just get it answered!

Save for online games, arcade games and Dark Souls, just about every game that’s ever existed has included a truly brilliant feature that we all take for granted every single day. The ability to freeze the action in place seems like a given at this point, but do most gamers actually know what’s happening when all the action in a blockbuster shooter suddenly stops and starts on command?

Last week, reader TehWise asked, “What is really the ‘pause’ in a game?” Which we’re choosing to interpret as “How does pausing work in a game?” We at GamesRadar feel a compulsory need to pay homage to this most sacred of gaming features, which has allowed us time to make countless sandwiches, and countless bathroom trips. And so we’ve selected this question as the topic for this week’s column.

To answer it, we got in touch with an indie designer and programmer in hopes he could fill us in. “Games and applications at their core level are effectively state machines,” said Martin Caine of Retroburn Game Studios, which makes games for Xbox Live Indie Games, Windows Phone, iPhone and Android platforms. “At any particular time, your game is running in a particular state. The game logic will continue executing while the game is in a certain state. When you pause the game, you are changing the state of the game and the logic behind the game can carry out other tasks.”

Caine explained that the act of pausing is about instructing the software to stop processing new information. All information flow is stopped and diverted to the menu that pops up. “Pausing is a very simple state to implement. In its most basic form, you would have a game state which shows a paused screen, and the logic on that screen waits for a user input before returning back to the previous game state,” said Caine. “When switching states, your game simply stops executing and processing input (and stops AI and other things that happen in your game's update loop) while a new screen shows on top. Resuming the game simply returns to the previous state and continues executing from the point where you stopped.”

So no matter what you’re doing, pausing will cause the game to freeze up. Even if you’re in mid-air, the computer won’t be able to process the animation of your character falling. However, some games have had more complex pause systems, which prevent players from pausing in certain situations, such as being in combat or mid-jump.

You’ll also see that in other games that would be broken by giving the player so much power over the state of the game. (Or in online games, where the ability to pause would simply be too obnoxious a tool to trust griefing 13-year-olds with. Though some online games, like StarCraft II, allow limited pausing.) Dark Souls, on the other hand, is a great example of a game that revoked the ability to pause as a gameplay tool in order to heighten fear and uneasiness.

Above: Dark Souls doesn't allow you to pause because that would be somewhat merciful... and Dark Souls doesn't deal in mercy

“At the lowest level, you have your update loop, which may call functions such as HandleUserInput(), ProcessAI(), UpdateWorld() and Draw(),” said Caine. “When paused, the state is changed, and these functions do not get called, so the game will not update until you return back to the game state.”

In other words, it’s a bit like taking the chain off the gears of a bicycle. You can keep pedaling (or pressing buttons) all you want, but the game/bike isn’t going to respond to your input. It’s not a perfect example, but you get the idea. 

So the next time you’ve got to take a pee break, take a moment and appreciate that somebody had to actually program the function that allows you to take a wiz.

Thanks to Martin Caine of Retroburn Game Studios for helping us out with this week's question. You can check out his upcoming Xbox Live Indie Game Positron at the studio's official website.

Submit your own questions in the comments (or Tweet them to @sciencegroen) and we may tackle them for a future Ask GR Anything.


  • TehWise - January 27, 2012 11:18 a.m.

    Thanks Andrew for answering my question, now I have a better understanding of how game developers implement this feature.
  • t-mixx - January 26, 2012 5:22 p.m.

    Do guns actually add anything to games?
  • r200reviews - January 26, 2012 2:12 p.m.

    I think I might actually know the answer to this, but what's the point of having a "Press Start" screen in modern video games?
  • Andrew Groen - January 28, 2012 10:17 a.m.

    That's a neat question. My suspicion is that it's just a holdover from ancient times. Though a few games have tried to get around the Start Screen thing. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (or Return of the King, I can't remember) on Xbox/PS2 didn't have one. It just started with a cinematic and the gameplay automatically blended into it and you started hacking up orcs without ever seeing a menu.
  • RyoonZ - January 31, 2012 7:08 a.m.

    GTA San Andreas also
  • Martin Caine - January 30, 2012 12:18 p.m.

    On most modern games that screen is used to identify the player. Imagine playing on an Xbox for example and I have two signed in profiles in controllers 1 and 2. Whichever pad presses Start determines which player has signed in to the game and which controller is being used to play the game. Even on older consoles this was the case as the player could have their controller plugged in to any of the ports and the game had to detect which controller was being used. When programming for Xbox it also provides a convenient location to query the player for their storage device selection (most games will ask which storage device you want to use immediately after pressing A/Start).
  • Andrew Groen - February 1, 2012 11:36 a.m.

    Hey! Quiet you! I do the question-answering around here (and Sinosaur, but he purchased a special license). I was totally gonna say all that stuff.
  • Mama G - January 26, 2012 7:42 a.m.

    need help, how do i save whatever it is my daughter was doing on the the anyone here?
  • Fruitbat - January 28, 2012 5:11 p.m.

    We'd need a lot more info than that... Was she playing a game, using a feature built into the 3DS, and if she was playing a game, was it DS or 3DS? You can't be too specific in giving info, and every application/game does things differently depending on how the developer programs it, so give every last detail and we can work from there.
  • Y2Ken - January 26, 2012 4:25 a.m.

    Great article Andrew. I admire the beautiful simplicity behind the pause function, it's nice to see how it operates under the hood almost exactly as it appears, and why developers might choose not to permit pausing in certain situations. I constantly have an issue (not entirely pause-related, but kinda) in Skyrim where I have a habit of jumping prior to hitting the map screen - which then means fast travel doesn't work as I'm in midair (presumably to prevent avoiding falling to your death by travelling somewhere).
  • Andrew Groen - January 26, 2012 10:15 a.m.

    Thanks, dude! Hope you keep stopping by to check these pieces out. They're a ton of fun to write. I'm curious by nature so being able to work on these articles as part of my job is just perfect. And yeah, I do the exact same thing in Skyrim all the time. I jump/skip pretty much everywhere so 9 times out of 10 of my attempts to quick travel are thwarted.
  • gwozdic - January 26, 2012 3:25 a.m.

    who knows what is the name of game from the first picture,...? i recently remmembered the game, but not its name,.. can anyone help me,..? thanks...
  • DICEs - January 26, 2012 4:10 a.m.

    It's Streets of Rage from the Sega Mega Drive(Genesis). Played it forever when I was a kid.
  • gwozdic - January 26, 2012 5:50 a.m.

    thanks man, this really helped a lot, i used to play this too, but forgot.. btw, you probably don't know, how to play it on win7, do you,..? (:
  • ObliqueZombie - January 25, 2012 9:51 p.m.

    I was actually just thinking this the other day! Some games are truly amazing when paused. I can't remember for sure, but I think The Darkness II had something where, no matter what was happening, the game would pause and an opaque screen would come on top. It allowed me to view the game in a frozen second, and it was truly remarkable. So good timing on the article! Pretty interesting stuff, too. Too bad I never liked programming.
  • Andrew Groen - January 25, 2012 10:13 p.m.

    Yeah! I know exactly what you're talking about. I think Valkyria Chronicles did something similar too. Only it was a pencil sketching type of thing. At least I think that was VC.
  • Will.E 304 - January 25, 2012 10:51 p.m.

    Batman Arkham City had a similarly styled pause menu. Though it wasn't as stylish as the one in Valkyria Chronicles
  • Andrew Groen - January 26, 2012 10:15 a.m.

    To be fair, nothing is as stylish as Valkyria Chronicles.
  • BALLSTOTHEWALLET - January 27, 2012 7:02 p.m.

    This is true

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