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Charting Through Pacing of Uncharted 2. Part 1 - Pacing Principles

Uncharted 2 has some of the most exceptional pacing in action/adventure video games. Let's take a look at what that means and how the game achieves it.

Stanislav Costiuc, Blogger

June 25, 2019

7 Min Read

The following are transcripts of my Uncharted 2 video series (parts 1-3 out of 5) from my channel Farlands. A second compilation with parts 4-5 will be put on Gamasutra once the videos are out.

1 - What is Pacing?

Uncharted 2 is widely regarded as having some of the most exceptional pacing in action/adventure video games. But what does that mean exactly? To answer the question, we will chart our way through the pacing of Uncharted 2 in this special In Focus video series.

Let’s start by defining what pacing actually is. Pacing is the rhythm and flow of a game that keeps players engaged throughout the experience. Doing the same thing over and over again will leave people bored, while raising intensity in a linear fashion will make them tired. Good pacing is all about varying things up through peaks and valleys, all while keeping true to the base rhythm of the game.

There are two facets to pacing - high-level and low-level. High-level pacing is more about the overall changes in intensity, relative to the genre of course. Broadly speaking, a lower intensity action sequence would have less enemies on screen than a higher intensity one. 

This intensity we are talking about is influenced by many things - from narrative set-up, to music, location, difficulty, how many stimuli and gameplay elements you have at the same time, everything influences how intense something feels.

As a general rule of thumb, you would like the high-level pacing to move like a heartbeat - increase the intensity until a certain peak, and then slow it down to allow for some breathing room, increase again, slow down. 

Now, low-level pacing is more about the variety of actions and parameters that players encounter from moment to moment. So in a game like Uncharted it would touch the variation between action, navigation and puzzle sequences, what kind of enemies appear and when, in which combination you have different mechanics, and so on.

Again, as a general rule of thumb, you don’t want scenes that are next to each other to have the same types of obstacles, enemies, or what have you. And in terms of production, with smart use of low-level pacing you can avoid creating hundreds of gameplay elements, as even a single one reused in different set ups and contexts can provide a lot of variety.

So to sum up, high-level pacing is more about feelings, while low-level pacing is more about mechanics and gameplay elements. And in the following videos of the series, we are going to look at how Uncharted 2 handles both.

2 - High-Level Pacing

Now that we have conceptual discussions out of the way, let’s take a look at how Uncharted 2 handles its high-level pacing.

This chart on one axis has all the game’s chapters, while on another has abstract levels of intensity from 1 to 5, where 1 is gameplay as calm as you can get, and 5 is some crazy adrenaline-pumping stuff.

In the last video we have talked about how high-level pacing needs to resemble peaks and valleys, something that Uncharted 2 has taken to heart. Now, I want to go over some points on the chart that are worthy of note.

First, you can see that the game starts with a bit of a bang, defining the base rhythm and hooking players with action straight away. We will actually talk about this particular section more in detail in a later video.

After the exciting beginning, Uncharted 2 slows down a bit to then gradually raise intensity to its first peak. It does this three times, with each peak representing some of the most memorable set-pieces in the game. 

There is only one chapter with intensity at its lowest, and it comes straight after the most prolonged high-intensity part in the middle of the game. This is another section that we will take a closer look at later.

Uncharted 2 doesn’t reach the highest intensity in the last chapters. That’s because when closing in towards the ending, you want to keep things varied enough, but also don’t want to overstimulate. Ending the game on an intensity peak could ironically lead to the effect of players feeling empty, while with a more gradual pace they can prepare themselves for enjoying the conclusion of the story, while still being excited. Of course, this doesn’t mean that those sections don’t or can’t have ‘wow’ moments, just that they don’t define the overall emotions there.

Speaking of story, you can juxtapose this whole chart of gameplay intensity onto the narrative structure that mirrors it. And taking things further, if you are aware of the three-act structure paradigm, you can see how the game essentially follows it.

The way Uncharted 2 varies its overall intensity throughout its 10-hour experience provides a very important foundation for good pacing. The devil lies in the details though, so in the next video we will talk about low-level pacing on the example of Chapter 6: Desperate Times.

3 - Low-Level Pacing

In the last video, we looked over this schematic of Uncharted 2’s overall pacing structure. Now, let’s zoom into Chapter 6, and talk about the game’s low-level pacing.

To recap, low-level pacing is all about varying the mechanics and gameplay elements the game uses to prevent players from getting bored.

If last video we had a chart, this one we have a whole table. But don’t worry, we’ll go over it together as I explain the most important bits.

So the first thing you might note is that this level has absolutely no puzzles. In an action/adventure like Uncharted, puzzles by their nature are usually lower intensity, so adding them to this chapter which is an intensity peak would go against the intended result.

Throughout the first half of the level, the game switches up between combat and platforming sections. And to keep the intensity feeling high, platforming mostly happens well above ground, and sometimes you still need to take care of a few enemies every now and then.

The real turning point comes in this middle cutscene where we learn that we are hunted by a combat helicopter. It doesn’t take too long for it to find us.

The helicopter becomes a constant threat and changes the whole context of the level. Platforming is unsafe - there’s a helicopter shooting at you, gotta keep moving. What could be a traditional combat arena on a rooftop transforms into a high intensity scenario as you gotta also keep hiding from the helicopter. And then, when you get inside and think you are safe, the helicopter starts blowing up walls, which eventually culminates in this sequence.   

After this set piece, you have just a very long set of stairs where nothing is happening. This section is very important as it gives you some time to rest. Once back on the rooftops, you get into a boss battle scenario. This time you can actually fight back against the helicopter and finally defeat it.

Now, there are other details that we didn’t go through, but feel free to pause and check the table more closely. It should give a very good idea how varying the gameplay elements throughout the level can lead to an engaging experience.

This covers the pacing principles part of the video series. Next we will talk about several specific techniques, starting with In Medias Res. Make sure to like and subscribe to know when it is out. A special thank you goes to my Patreon supporters, if you’d like to join them feel free to visit patreon.com/farlands. Thank you very much!

Follow me on Twitter @farlander1991

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