Why the Game is the Thing, Even for Uncharted 2S

Many have praised Uncharted 2: Among Thieves for its story and cinematics almost to the exclusion of its gameplay. But the latter is chiefly why it was one of 2009's finest games, argues one writer.

Brice Morrison, who writes The Game Prodigy, looks at Uncharted 2 and finds a triumph of action-oriented gameplay that gives players the kinds of things they want to and will enjoy doing, yet still advancing a story sensibly without requiring all players to actively participate in its incremental developments.

Some, myself included, had criticized Uncharted 2 for being a bit linear (hey, we had to criticize it for something.) But Morrison finds that to be beside the point. In a shrewd comparison to Indigo Prophecy, he argues that a good game serves what players want to do, not what designers want them to do. To that I'd add my personal perspective that Uncharted 2's use of linearity then is a marriage of both purposes - players shoot, run, fight, find treasures, while still being pulled in the direction Naughty Dog, and the story they wrote, need players to go.

But what Naughty Dog got right, Morrison said, is the gameplay, to which a video game's story will always be subordinate.

Gameplay is King: Story is Distant Second [The Game Prodigy, Jan. 29]

One of the easiest way to ruin a story is to try and haphazardly shove gameplay inside of it. The problem goes that if you have an interesting story, compelling characters, plot twists and allegory, that's all fine and good. But what you have are the ingredients for a movie or a book, not necessarily a game. It isn't a game until the player interacts with the story in some way. And even if the story is strong, poor gameplay will make it unbearable. Developers beware focusing on the story in your game to the detriment of gameplay. In games, gameplay is king. Always.

When you're making a game and need to have the player interact with the story in some way, then it makes sense to have them focus on the parts of the story they would enjoy. In a film, this means that you want to see the couple fall in love, fight, break up, and get back together. You don't need to see them use the restroom, get dressed, eat lunch, or turn up the air conditioning.

If designers don't pull this off correctly, the result is that the gameplay feels completely divorced from the story; the two have nothing to do with one another. Uncharted 2 did a fantastic job of this, which we will get to explaining in a moment. But before we get into how this is done right, let's first take a look at a game that did it wrong.

Back in 2005 a game was released for the Playstation 2 called Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit outside of the U.S.). It was a critically acclaimed mystery thriller where you played as a man who just came two after a murder. The game follows the footsteps of the murder, as well as the detectives who are trying to track him down. The production values were high: good voice acting, good visuals for the time, and the story itself was spot on.

However, Indigo Prophecy doesn't make a very good game. It sold fairly well, but that's not the point here. Out of all of the gleaming reviews, only one reviewer got it right. All the way at the bottom of its Metacritic, one reviewer gave the game a 33/100 amid 90's. I would argue that that reviewer was actually the most perceptive of the bunch.

The problem? The gameplay had nothing to do with what players cared about. What players cared about was the mystery, the moral choices the characters were making, the fight scenes and romance scenes. But what was the gameplay? None of that. The Indigo Prophecy designers realized that they didn't have any Base Mechanics to support these aspects of the story. So instead they force the player to perform mundane tasks. Want to speak to the police chief to learn about the killer? Well, first you need to walk upstairs and get the file. Want to woo your ex-girlfriend? First you need to get her belongings and put them by the door. The actual action was always a cutscene; the result makes the player feel like they're being robbed.

Uncharted 2 does right what Indigo Prophecy did wrong. Naughty Dog understood what players would think was exciting: the running, the jumping, the shooting, and the combat. They then built the Base Mechanics to support that. The controls were exquisite: you feel like you can do almost anything. Scale walls, find ways to climb up and down unreachable heights, sneak past guards, or take them out. You can actually get in the groove of the action and know that it is you who is deciding how to approach tactical challenges. These are action experiences that Hollywood movies dream of but could never implement.

- Brice Morrison

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