2009 Game of the Year Finalist Debate: Uncharted 2

I think Uncharted 2 was the best game of 2009. By a country mile. Why? Because Uncharted 2 was also 2009's best action movie.

See, for me, the main appeal of the first game was never, well, the "game". Sure, the platforming's version of "auto-pilot" was fun, and enjoying a spot of Gears of War in a tropical setting was a pleasant change, but what made me really love Uncharted were its lovable characters, its smart, funny dialogue and the fact it could put a Nazi submarine on the top of a waterfall and get away with it.

In other words, I loved it as an action movie, albeit one where you were controlling most of the actual action.

Uncharted 2 took all of that and gave us more. And the more was better. Sure, again, the "game" part was fun (amazing, even), but what makes Uncharted 2 my game of the year, and not just a great game, is that it was a better "movie". There is not a single video game in history that has such professional voice acting, such chemistry between its stars and such confident, capable senses of both drama and humour running throughout.

You may think I'm crazy to base my GOTY pick on a game's "trimmings", as many people believe story and characters to be, but my most memorable moments from the game came not from things I did, but rather things I simply saw.

Real, genuine, heart-warming humour. Intrigue. Betrayal. Fragility. The characters in Uncharted 2 weren't just avatars, they were characters.

Take Chloe. Straddling Drake on a hotel room bed makes you realise how few games are able to deal with sexuality in a sensible, mature manner. Sticking with the character of Chloe as an example, her departure at the end of the game (and Drake and Elena's closing banter) also proves Uncharted 2 could handle something even rarer than sex in a game: love.

So call me names for prizing Uncharted 2's "cinematic" aspects over anything else released this year, but I look at it this way: most games are just 1's and 0's. A twitch here, a test of reflexes there. It's the context a game is wrapped in that really gives it meaning, and no game of 2009 came wrapped in a better package than Uncharted 2.

Fahey's Reply
Eloquently stated, Mr. Plunkett, but in explaining your reasoning behind naming Uncharted 2 your Game of the Year, you also identify the reason I feel the game falls short of that coveted title. Can a game's story, voice acting, and characterizations take away from the game as a whole?

Uncharted 2 is an amazing cinematic experience, with a story and characters that brought to my mind the childlike thrill and wonder I felt when my mother took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark in theaters back in 1981. It's a story that could easily stand toe-to-toe with any action movie, with a cast that displays more humanity than most live-action Hollywood blockbusters can rarely pull off.

My problem lies in the fact that I found the story so compelling that I dreaded actually playing the game. While there were moments when the story and gameplay were interwoven to excellent effect, there were plenty of other times where I simply wanted to get the shooting over with so I could get back to progressing the plot.

In short, I wanted this game to be a movie.

I'm not saying that the gameplay itself wasn't solid. I just felt that it got in the way of an amazing story, instead of being equally entertaining. What Naughty Dog has accomplished with Uncharted 2 is nothing short of spectacular, but it is something short of grabbing my vote for Game of the Year.

Crecente's Reply:
Looking back over the past few years worth of games, I realized that the titles I enjoyed most were the ones that delivered an engaging story.

BioShock's gameplay, its willingness to tackle a subject as complex as Objectivism and its layered environments, were all great reasons to love the game. But it was its story that pulled me in. That moment when you reflect on who you are in the game, how you fit into the story, that revelation still gives me chills.

I loved the original Modern Warfare for the same reason. It pushed the genre forward, but it was the narrative, the way in which the story unfolded, the mortality of the main characters, that gripped me from beginning to end.

What Uncharted 2 does so well isn't just give us characters we care about and a story that intrigues and entertains. It manages to trick us into forgetting that you really don't have any control over what is happening.

Uncharted 2 isn't any more interactive a story than Indiana Jones or Star Wars. No matter what you do the story continues down the path created by its writers and reaches its inevitable, unchanging end. But the ride is so engrossing, peppered with funny asides, carefully planned camera work and graphics that highlight rather than disrupt your engagement with the characters and their story.

What makes this my game of the year is that it grips me from the second Drake awakens in a dangling train and doesn't let go until that final, heart-tugging finale.

Totilo's Reply:
Luke, I was hoping we could agree that, as good as Uncharted 2 is, it's no Art Style: Box Life. Still, I'm with you regarding the likable characters and the thrill-ride of a playable plot. The game deserves commendation also for its expert use of playable quiet moments.

I'm biased, however, toward games that feel as strong at their end as they do at their beginning. Uncharted 2's puzzles were less ingenious near the end and its combat more conventional. This wasn't because what was new became routine but because I think Naughty Dog put some of its best moments — helicopter vs. collapsing building, shootout while dangling from a street sign — in the first two thirds of the game.

I would recommend Uncharted 2 to anyone, but its diminished spark near the end keeps it from reaching the summit of my favorite of '09.

Owen's Reply:
Uncharted 2 is the best story of any game in 2009, if not ever, and it is an exceptional action movie in its own right. The rub is that you, the star, have to be willing to take direction.

Unfortunately, I prize immersion and I do believe it is achievable in the third-person action/adventure genre. Uncharted 2 most times felt like I was driving someone else's car, with them riding shotgun. The trial-and-error process of completing a difficult level is different when I feel like I own the decisions and participate in being this character, or at least when I have multiple means of resolving the scene, one of them always just dumb luck. Nathan Drake is top-to-bottom his own man. So Fahey's remark about the story being so good that he "dreaded" playing it speaks for me, too, because with the mounting challenges inevitably one thought I couldn't shake was, "OK, how am I going to screw up this production."

In a game this linear, with a character not my own, while I wanted to see the story through, I felt forced to arrive at it in the "proper" fashion. That makes it less of a game to me. And Crecente's remark - that Uncharted 2 "isn't any more interactive a story than Indiana Jones or Star Wars" - also works against it, if its strongest quality is the story.

Ashcraft's Response
Video games, at their core, are about immersion. But simply saying that because Uncharted 2, to a degree, runs on rails or follows a linear trajectory, the game is somehow less immersive than a title with multiple endings or customization, isn't fair.

Uncharted 2 immerses the players through gameplay, but also through story, the characters and mood — you know, the feeling you get playing the game, the smirk on your face. Yes, Uncharted 2 is a cinematic experience. Yes, it has a rip-roaring yarn. But to view these as minuses is an affront to story-telling in games and an oversimplification of what immersion means. Books, plays, music, movies, and, of course, video games have the ability to draw people in. Video games have the ability to draw people in further by putting the controller in the player's hand and having him or her make the decision.

Uncharted 2 is the complete package. As a video game, Uncharted 2 draws players in. As a story, it draws them in. And in 2009, it drew this player in, grabbed hold and didn't let go. Thus, the game is my choice for Game of the Year.

McWhertor's Reply
I cannot argue that Uncharted 2's "trimmings," as you described them, Luke, are the most impressive of the year. The game is a technical and artistic marvel, delivering stunning visuals that surpass any game I've ever played and treating the player to a compelling, genuinely funny and beautifully acted story. (Well, I cannot attest to the final quarter of the story, as I'm still scaling "Mountaineering.")

And that is how I spent much of my time in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, reacting to Naughty Dog's technical accomplishments, amazed that it was more elegantly performed, better crafted and much prettier than "last year's model."

It was the rest of the experience that left me wanting. Much of Uncharted feels like going through motions to trigger the next gun fight, the next tier of a platforming puzzle, the next deception, the next cinematic.

As a video game doing a impersonation of an action movie, it is unrivaled. All the trimmings are there. But the entree, the experience that I crave from a game, wasn't substantive enough for me. At least not enough to call it my game of the year.

Luke's Final Response
You're so right, Mike. At least on one point. The entire game is one long, predictable procession, each open area clearly a firefight, each empty arena clearly a platforming section. It's probably the one area the game failed to really improve upon its predecessor.

But at the end of the day, that didn't matter to me. No game is perfect, and if the only bad thing I have to say about Uncharted 2 is that it telegraphs its intentions through its level design, then it's doing very well indeed.

As for the game lacking something more "substantive" for you, that's understandable. It's not a meaty game. It lacked the depth of many of the year's other big titles. But in selecting my game of the year, I wasn't choosing a title based on its depth, its experimental gameplay or how "video gamey" it was.

I chose the game that, at the risk of sounding like a Nintendo executive, had me smiling the most. Not that which taxed me, or tested me, or pushed me to my limits. Just the one I had the most fun with. And because it played out like the best of action movies - one with thrills, humour and genuine character - no game was more fun for me in 2009 than Uncharted 2.