Uncharted 2: On pace
November 02, 2009
This post is part of a short series devoted to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. You can find the first two posts here and here.
We often talk about pacing in games, but I'm not sure we're all talking about the same thing. What exactly do we mean when we say a game is well or poorly paced?
Before I began writing about games, my understanding of pace grew out of my experience as a stage director. In the theater, pacing has mostly to do with tempo and rhythm; speeding up and slowing down. Good actors have an acute awareness of pacing and its variability from night to night with different audiences. Comedy, in particular, relies on carefully tuned pacing. Sometimes a gag fails simply because the audience didn't have time to process the setup. Slow it down a bit, and you'll get the laugh. Feel the laugh wave crest, then push the next bit forward. Advance too soon, and you'll kill the laugh; too late and you're milking it. Pace. Rhythm. Timing.
Lots of reviewers have praised Uncharted 2 for its pacing - and I believe it richly deserves such praise - but what does this mean, exactly? I think Uncharted 2's success in this regard can be traced to the same factors I described above, but the interactive nature of games adds a layer of complexity to the formula that's worth exploring.
The most obvious expression of pacing in Uncharted 2 is its elegant shifting from one style of gameplay to another. Just as the player begins to tire of climbing, swinging, and jumping - along comes a combat sequence or a dialogue scene or an environmental puzzle. In its most frenetic moments, the game throws a cocktail of gameplay options at you all at the same time.
Consider Chapter 12: "A Train to Catch." Up to this point the player has grown accustomed to shooting or climbing his way out of trouble, but here you find yourself unarmed and surrounded by bad guys. The preceding chapter concluded with a frantic escape. Now you and Drake must catch your breath, take your time, and find a stealthy route out. You can take cover behind a barrier and wait for a guard to come nearby so you can disable him and grab his gun. Or you can attempt to scurry unseen from cover to cover and avoid combat.
Either way, you've got time to deliberate and act. When you're ready to kick the action into high gear, start shooting and the pace rapidly accelerates. Before you reach your goal, the game will throw running, precision jumping and rope swinging at you, as well as a cutscene between Elena and Nate that cleverly explains (by doing rather than telling) why Elena is the woman Nate will choose at the end.
Here is where the interactive nature of games most clearly distinguishes itself from theater and film. The player retains a certain degree of control over the pace of the game. If I want to press forward and engage the enemy, I can play a fast and furious version of Uncharted 2. But if I need to collect my thoughts - or if I simply want to challenge myself with a tougher option - the game provides me with many opportunities to stop and assess the situation before pressing on. When I make my decision, the game resumes control of the pacing until I complete that section, then hands it back to me.
Such dynamic control of pacing - a give and take between me and the game - has no analogue in theater or film. You might say the audience has some measure of input in live performance, but certainly not to this extent or effect. To a great degree, Naughty Dog's successful management of pacing in this game is a cooperative arrangement in which my preferences and needs as a player mesh with my avatar's within a system that makes all this both fun and meaningful. Lots of games let the player decide what to do, but few games connect their storytelling to this dynamic system so satisfyingly well.
Pacing in Uncharted 2 is about more than gameplay shifts. It's also about tone and environment. Chapter 16: "Where am I?" contains almost no gameplay at all, and the player often has no control over Nate. This chapter introduces Tenzin, a character who speaks no English, and his Nepalese village. These arrive at precisely the right moment.
In terms of pacing, this chapter functions like an oasis, offering the player a chance to relax and explore without looking over his shoulder for an ambush. You can kick a soccer ball with a couple of children; you can listen to other children giggling at you behind a wall. You can watch a man chop wood. Nothing here advances the game or its plot, but I believe this section is pivotal to the player's experience because it feels so right; so necessary. Soon this contemplative moment will fade and these peaceful villagers' lives will be threatened, and your time here will make all that matter even more.
Pacing in games is an intricate balancing act, and Uncharted 2 manages it better than any narrative game I can think of. In my concluding post I'll discuss the game's marriage of cinematic and gameplay elements, both of which also contribute to the game's pacing. As always, your comments and observations are most welcome.