Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Does Uncharted 2 herald the future of storytelling ?

by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared on my weekly Game Invader Column for The New Indian Express

Naughty Dog's seminal PS3 game, Uncharted 2 : Among Thieves is already being hailed as an all-time videogame classic. It's a superbly immersive eperience that effortlessly slips between storytelling and gameplay, delivering the closest thing to being in an action movie we've ever seen.

 This video provides a glimpse into Uncharted 2's cinematic gameplay experience. This is actual gameplay, not a video. Word.

The significant thing is this : gameplay-wise, Uncharted 2 offers few innovations. The platforming and acrobatics have been done in the Prince of Persia trilogy and in Assassin's Creed. The shooting and cover mechanics are clearly inspired by Gears of War. Even the settings – ancient temples, mysterious ruins and the like – could arguably be attributed to games like Tomb Raider which came many years earlier.

If it's so derivative, what makes Uncharted 2 so damn special ?

Many things, mate. Many, many things.

Firstly, Naughty Dog has taken gameplay features that have been done before, but polished and improved them to deliver a gameplay melange unlike any seen before. Ken Levine, creator of the incredible 'Bioshock', once said that he considered himself a kind of Chef, who merely mixes together existing ingredients to create a surprising, delightful dish. This is exactly what Naughty Dog has achieved with 'Among Thieves' – while you will surely find many individual components familiar, the overall experience is wholly unique and thoroughly original.

Secondly, through a combination of skilful narrative, superb dialogues and expertly crafted set-pieces, Uncharted 2 is that rare game which effortlessly flits between being a  narrative and participatory experience. Many games have tried this, with varying degrees of success. Some of them have even claimed to be 'the ultimate interactive movie' or 'the most immersive virtual world' and the like, but Uncharted 2 has taken this to a completely new level. I've played lots of games, but this is the closest thing to being in a great action movie that I've ever experienced.

The absolutely top notch writing plays a major part in this. In terms of story, 'screenplay', and dialogues, Uncharted 2 is on par with the best action adventure films of recent times, and easily better than tripe like '2012' or all those stupid films featuring Matthew McConaughey or Nicolas Cage. Sure, it's tightly scripted and completely linear, but this works in the game's favour. At every point in the game, you really want to know what's going to happen next – and the plot twists and red herrings ensure that you're never disappointed. Essentially, the gameplay exists just to move you from plot point to plot point – but it's great fun on its own, and helps develop the emergent story that the player creates. Videogaming as a narrative form at its finest.

Which really makes you think how so many games might benefit from some good, professional writing from a storytelling standpoint. Games like Assassin's Creed or Halo, which had amazingly fun core gameplay but frankly boring, irrelevant and fairly ridiculous storylines. Wouldn't they have been immensely superior games if they had storylines that actually engaged you to complement their fabulous gameplay? I certainly believe so.

Uncharted 2 is a singular achievement that shows how games can contain world class narratives without sacrificing gameplay. It answers the age old gameplay vs. story question in an unexpectedly emphatic fashion – you don't have to choose. If more games follow this lead, videogames could finally hit that sweet spot between story and gameplay that can appeal to the widest possible mainstream audience, and put gaming on an equal footing with movies and TV. . And the venerable Roger Ebert would finally shut up.

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