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.


  • fanfundy - January 25, 2012 3:28 p.m.

    Dark Souls rocks!
  • codystovall - January 25, 2012 3:57 p.m.

    Dark souls doesnt know the meaning of the word....powse?
  • BladedFalcon - January 25, 2012 4:25 p.m.

    It does, it just doesn't care about it :P
  • Fox_Mulder - January 25, 2012 10:52 p.m.

    God the devs at From Software were SO lazy they didn't include a pause!? NOOBS. /end trolling
  • Andrew Groen - January 30, 2012 8:43 a.m.

    Soul Troll.
  • JMarsella09 - January 25, 2012 3:58 p.m.

    What's a gameover screen for? I wonder if it serves a purpose other then to mock you.
  • Andrew Groen - January 25, 2012 10 p.m.

    I've always assumed it was a symbolic, highly subliminal means of conveying to the player that their game was, in fact, over.
  • GAYMER - January 25, 2012 5:04 p.m.

    I have a cultural question thats game related. Why are Japanese so obsessed with youth? For example, a lot of Japanese video games have very young protagonists in situations where it doesn't make sense for them to be so young. Meanwhile American/ European video games have characters that look more age appropriate for there given situation. A battle hardened commando in a Japanese video game looks like a baby faced, spiky haired teenager. But in an American video game a battle hardened commando would be in there 30's and look like the Gears of War characters. I just think thats a strange cultural difference and would be interested to hear your thoughts about that.
  • Andrew Groen - January 25, 2012 10:02 p.m.

    That's an extremely interesting question, but I don't think we could cover that in this column. I do hope you look into that though. There's often something deep within a culture that influences those types of things even thousands of years later.
  • ncurry2 - January 25, 2012 5:22 p.m.

    Just how big are games nowadays? As in, how much space do they take up and how many lines of code are involved?
  • HamsterGutz - January 25, 2012 5:49 p.m.

    How important is the title of a video game?
  • Andrew Groen - January 25, 2012 9:57 p.m.

    That's an interesting question. But I can't think of how to quantify its "importance". Unless...GamesRadar paid for me to conduct a focus group that would rank game names from "lame" to "cool" and then cross referenced that with the sales of those games. We'd be able to determine how much a gamer is influenced by a cool-sounding title! But alas, I don't think I saw "focus groups" in this year's GR budget.
  • profile0000 - January 25, 2012 6:11 p.m.

    That was a really good question and article. Keep these up, they have all been excellent.
  • Andrew Groen - January 25, 2012 9:53 p.m.

    Wonderful of you to say so. I really appreciate that. :-)
  • meagaman45 - January 25, 2012 6:11 p.m.

    this isnt game related but how is talkradar done such as editing,sound effects,and maybe even a video showing how you guys do it like the south park one
  • AuthorityFigure - January 25, 2012 6:17 p.m.

    Phantasy Star Portable 2 doesn't let you pause, neither does Monster Hunter Tri. Tetris lets you pause, but removes the blocks from the screen. No cheating allowed.
  • McSpermie - January 25, 2012 6:21 p.m.

    Do people in the industry have time to actually play games? If so, do they even want to?
  • Hobogonigal - January 25, 2012 7:25 p.m.

    I've always wondered this as well! I think Ken Levine has said that he finds time to play but is this the same for most Developers?
  • quincytheodore - January 25, 2012 9:16 p.m.

    I second this. Sometimes I wonder how some games can be so poorly design, as if the devs didn't know what had happened in industry for the past years..
  • Andrew Groen - January 25, 2012 9:52 p.m.

    The answer is likely that they don't have much time to play video games. Game studios are notorious for working long hours. So if you combine long work hours with a commute, family life, friends, other hobbies, and sleep...there aren't many hours left in the day.

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