That State of Story: Uncharted 2

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I realize that in a lot of ways a good story is way down on the list of important gaming elements.  It is a largely visual medium that focuses primarily on interactivity, so it doesn’t necessarily supply the same blank tapestry fit for a compelling narrative like a novel or film.  The fact remains, however, that video games are no longer just “child’s play.”  As the age demographic of gamers skews ever upward, the demand increases for more meaningful experiences.  Strong storytelling is an excellent way to keep older gamers interested, and Uncharted 2 is an excellent example of how the industry is slowly moving from the old ways of game story as an afterthought to fully fleshed-out, engaging narratives. 
In the early days of video games, they were created by small, dedicated teams that had to put a whole package together: graphics, gameplay, sound and story.  These small teams put a premium on flexibility and multiple skill sets – dedicated writers didn’t really have a place.  It made sense in the early days of game development.  After all, how strong a story do you actually need for Super Mario Bros. or Tetris? 

As budgets and development teams have evolved, writers have begun to play a much more pivotal role, and the overall quality of the narrative in games has increased tremendously as a result.  Just take a look at some of the best games of the last six months or so, and you’ll see that good writing playing a pivotal role – Batman: Arkham Asylum, Assassin’s Creed II, Mass Effect 2, the list goes on and on. 

When I first played through Heavy Rain, I thought it would be the ideal example to hold up in order to address the state of storytelling, but I was wrong.  I got too hung up on some of the story’s foibles that were largely related to bad translation – then I played Uncharted 2.  (I’m late to the party, I know.)  The story of Nathan Drake has a great mix of believable dialogue, humor and thrills.  And while it doesn’t attempt to hit the same emotional highs as Heavy Rain, it also avoids any glaring missteps or massive plot holes.  The structure is also more advanced than your average video game yarn.  Rather than follow a typical linear plot, the game throws you in the middle of the action on the derailed train and fills things in via flashback as you progress.  This is a classic narrative trick used to great effect here. 
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For me, the real strength of Uncharted 2 isn’t about the story itself, but about how seamlessly it works.  The tale spun here by game director and scribe Amy Hennig is nearly perfect in the context of the overall gaming experience.   The action elements blend with the story elements to create a compelling, cohesive experience.  Everything just sort of made sense, and I never felt side-tracked by any of the cinematic interludes.

For comparison’s sake, let’s talk about Batman: Arkham Asylum.  While the tale of Batman’s quest to bring down the Joker was undoubtedly well-written and exciting, there were quite a few times where I hoped for a “skip” button during story interludes.  Frankly, I just wanted to get back to slow motion punching guys in the face (in the parlance of GB’s Ryan Davis) rather than watch Batman walk slowly with a finger to his ear. 

With Uncharted 2, I never felt the itch to skip a cut scene.  Even on my successive playthroughs (now up to 3 times through and counting) I often sit back and enjoy the interplay between Drake and co. unfold, even though I know everything that happens – that’s a testament to a wonderfully crafted piece of fiction.

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Moving forward, game developers need to realize that it isn’t solely about professional writing or voice actors.  A memorable story also has to work within the context of the overall gaming experience.  In the early days of Hollywood, film writers struggled with similar issues.  It too was a new medium for storytelling that was different from everything that had come before.  Much early film writing was simple or cribbed directly from the theatre.  It took screenwriters some time to gain a real understanding of the machinations of film and how they could be used to tell stories in NEW ways. 

As a medium, video games as an interactive storytelling device are in their infancy.  It will be some time before we come to realize the new and exciting ways we can tell stories interactively.  Video game creators need to learn to strike the right balance between narrative and gameplay, and look at new ways to incorporate the two.  They must realize that they need to be two parts of a single whole, not separate entities entirely.  In my opinion, Uncharted 2 walks this line better than any game I have played in some time, and I wait with bated breath for the next effort from Amy Hennig and Naughty Dog.