Friday, October 16, 2009

Charting the Untold Potential of Video Games

Before Mr. Keeley posts his (appropriately) epic, two-post review of the anxiously awaited "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" next week, I feel that we should take a look back at the game's predecessor, "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune."

Back in 2007, calling yourself a Playstation 3 owner was not saying much. The console's price was through the roof and its game library did little to make it more attractive. Those who had owned previous Sony consoles, however, knew that one bright spot was guaranteed to appear: the next franchise from game developer, Naughty Dog. Ever since the mid-nineties, this company has consistently created franchises that were brilliant, fresh and thoroughly well-made. The launch of "Uncharted" not only turned things around for the PS3, but history will likely prove that its innovations marked a shift in the way video games are made.

Naturally, a lot of the buzz "Uncharted" had at the time was based on its graphics. Any gamer knows that this is damning with faint praise, as good graphics only make good games great; if the game was a mess, pretty pictures would not save it. Still, this was to be expected, as the PS3's big selling point was its power. "Uncharted" did not disappoint in the visuals, either. In fact, approaching this topic with a purely technical mindset will lead one to underestimate just how much Naughty Dog achieved with the graphics in "Uncharted."

Anyone who has played an older game set in a jungle knows how hard it is create one. Video game environments work like film sets – they are not so much concerned with being realistic as they are with seeming realistic. With video game jungles, this generally results in optical illusions, backdrops and conspicuously solid walls of trees, designed to suggest the density of a real forest. It rarely works. With "Uncharted," however, a key innovation was made: the chaotic layout of a forest directly influenced the gameplay. Jagged rock walls, fallen trees and ruins all became platforming puzzles, not merely scenery. This way, the game often benefited from what inhibited past games. Of course, the PS3's power did not hurt; one promotional video boasted that each leaf on each tree cast its own glossy reflection of sunlight. Significant? Hardly. Impressive? Definitely.

Naughty Dog's art design must be praised, as well. The team did not take the PS3's power, then naively pursue photorealism, like so many do. "Uncharted," in all its facets, is punctuated by wonderfully heightened realism. When a bad guy gets blown up, the physical reaction is not entirely realistic; he fires high into the air, then seemingly hangs there as his animation ever so briefly enters slow motion, then he abruptly slams into the ground. Would a real grenade victim do this? Hell no. Do you wish a real grenade victim would do this? Hell yes. This applies to areas beyond animation. The color palette in "Uncharted" is bursting with bright greens, blues and, in the later acts, reds. Even an abandoned Nazi compound is punctuated with subtle hints of color, reminding the player that they are most certainly not playing "Gears of War."

Nothing, however, was aided by Naughty Dog's technical prowess more so than that one element that just about every game sorely overlooks: story. The story is the heart and soul of "Uncharted." Like "Metal Gear Solid 4," which came shorty after it, this game sought to use next generation technology to blur the lines between story and gameplay more so than ever. This is the greatest innovation in "Uncharted" – a quality so elusive and intangible that it often gets overlooked. After all, publisher cannot put "Oh yeah, and this game has a story that actually bothers to try," on the back of the box, no matter how truthful it may be.

"Uncharted: Drake's Fortune" tells the story of Nathan Drake (Nolan North). He is a treasure hunter that claims to be the descendant of Sir Francis Drake. He heads to a remote Caribbean island, on a tip that the lost treasure of El Dorado is there, courtesy of documents attributed to his supposed ancestor. Once there, hoards of pirates, greedy businessmen, bounty hunters and questionable friends stand between him and the treasure (which is not all it seems, either). To add to the fun, the snarky Elena Fisher (Emily Rose), a TV host, is brought along for the ride.

It may not sound like Oscar bait, but this story is all you want it to be: full of twists, turns, narrow escapes, tense standoffs and sharp dialogue. The story is everything the latest "Indiana Jones" should have been yet, somehow, these video game developers easily bested George Lucas; they resisted the urge to let their technology get in the way of the story. Here, the technology allowed the story to flourish – to be told with a striking, new level of personality and cinematic flair. If any one work represents video games' succession of film as the next great storytelling medium, it very well could be this one.

So many things are done correctly here. First, the game's writer (Amy Hennig) was the project's director, top to bottom. This means that the person who is responsible for the story saw its creation through to the final product. Failure to keep the writer involved throughout the process is a fatal flaw for many video games' stories. Second, the actors reportedly enjoyed a privilege unheard of in the game world: an openly collaborative role in the game's production. Many of Drake's in-game comments, for example, were ad-libbed by North. Making actors actively engage with the material is a vital step toward creating convincing characters, and the final product bears proof of this. Third, the Naughty Dog team had the wisdom to supplement motion capture data with animation. I am not sure how typical this is, to be honest, but that obnoxious, "floaty" quality that so many games' mo-cap performances suffer from is absent in this one. The characters move with genuine weight and astonishing fluidity, facilitating the wonderful performances from North, Rose and their castmates.

Video games may yet become an actors' medium, if "Uncharted" is any indication.

Some readers may notice that I have discussed little about the gameplay thus far. "Uncharted" has its weaknesses in this area. The duck-and-cover gunplay mechanics are ripped straight from "Gears of War" and, many times, the player finds him or herself trapped in an area, fighting off seemingly endless hordes of enemies. (Incidentally, the enemies are every race but White. It makes the game feel a bit strange, once one notices this...) Yet, it is difficult to fault Naughty Dog here. The gunplay may be unoriginal, but it is extremely polished and, often, quite fun. "Uncharted" blows "Gears" away in terms of personality, and discounting personality's affect on gameplay would be unfair. Also, the copious platforming sections suffer from no such deficiencies; they are wonderful feats of subtle and entertaining level design. With the aid of some very adept in-game camerawork, the game makes scaling ruins and rock walls challenging, tense, visceral and satisfying.

Ultimately, the gameplay in "Uncharted" tends to get sold short because it borrows so heavily from other games for inspiration. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find many games that execute these gameplay mechanics so incredibly well as Naughty Dog's. It is another instance of a sort of quality that is not tangible enough to be boiled down to a bullet point; "Uncharted" truly must be played to be loved (or, at least, seen in person). It does not help that your typical, jaded gamer will roll his or her eyes at the suggestion of playing a game for its plot, either.

Two years later, however, the release of the game's sequel seems to have garnered quite a bit of excitement. This has manifested itself in surprising ways (surprising to those who do not know the game, at least). The game's cast is beloved, as their packed Comic-Con panel earlier this year proves and, when the gaming press interviews Amy Hennig, something interesting happens, as well: she is asked the sort of in-depth, script-related questions usually reserved for film directors.

"Uncharted" may utilize time-tested gameplay mechanics and storylines but, through incredible digital alchemy, the developers create a truly unique entertainment experience of unquestionable quality. The men and women at Naughty Dog are easily some of the biggest talents in their field and the work that they are doing is not only a feather in Sony's cap, but it is the stuff of creative revolutions. Games like "Uncharted" are forcing people to reassess where games stand in the ranks of storytelling media and, with the sequel releasing this week, the revolution is surely just beginning.

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