A good narrative is built up of superbly crafted moments, and a structured, well honed pace. Sure, there are many more things that make a good movie or a game – tone, characters, heck even songs. Yep, the much maligned narrative tool that is the Indian movie staple is a tool of such precise measurement in the right hands, few people realise it when done right. Sholay for example – the pacing and sine-perfect undulations of the narrative are nothing if you take the songs out. Whether it is to build anticipation or to provide respite after tension, there’s a reason the quieter moments, or in this argument, the songs exist.
A good narrative is only as good as it’s pacing.
So confident are developers Naughty Dog of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and the narrative/gameplay structure they have created, even they can’t resist the item number. About 2/3rds of the way in, protagonist Nathan Drake has been double-crossed, blown up, continuously shot at, been in a train wreck, and come within inches of dying by falling off of the Himalayas. He has also murdered two gunships. After the wreck, and after he has been saved by death from a bullet wound and the cold, the game allows you to simply be – you take a stroll in a little Tibetan Village stripped off your running and acrobatics – with the game lavishing it’s details upon you quite matter of factly.
There is nothing to do for 15 odd minutes (5 if you’re impatient and are entirely missing the point, in which case might I direct you to your Haloz?) except move around the village, taking in the breathtakingly beautiful landscape, the immaculately detailed cottages complete with every household implement and embellishment (and I’ve spent my share of time in sub-Himalayan mountain houses to tell you the detail is indeed authentic), and interact with the scenery. Pat a yak, watch as the roosters flock around, and see a bunch of kids play football. Participate, and you are rewarded with a totally superfluous and yet utterly disarming scene of the kids blushing, giggling and holding on to the ball, unsure of what you are saying.
The game is a masterclass in pacing (everything else is fantastic, yes. The action packs a wallop, and the said murder of gunships is brill. The set-pieces are something Hollywood would aspire to.) and narrative. It is up there with Half Life in terms of how to tell a story, create characters and make you live them. On the face of it, it’s just some running and gunning with a few cutscenes. But the production values and presentation take it that one step further. If I was the kind of person who rated games on the IGNs or the Gamepots of the world, crassly breaking down each individual component, I’d tell you that the platforming isn’t thrilling throughout – the danger of falling off almost does not exist – but then I was too busy gaping at the bloody structure I was scaling. I’d tell you about the occasional animation glitch, but that would be remiss if I didn’t tell you how birds fly realistically away from you, and how snow makes real bootmarks and paths as you trudge along.
But talking about that would miss the point – rare is the film, comic, book, game that realizes the potential of a well structured narrative. Where every ebb and flow of tension, relief and thrill is maintained to keep you entertained and along for the ride, and where at the end of it, despite the foreknowledge of the formula, you care for the characters. Damned be the discussion about art, sometimes all you need is the craft at display. Uncharted 2 is the developer at the top of their craft.