Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

By Will Ross

I don't really, truly enjoy many games. When I played the Gears of War games, I found that I enjoyed the game less and less as I progressed. It wasn't that the gameplay was monotonous - beyond dull, shabby visual design, the environments and gunplay were always new and surprising. The problem was I didn't care about those people. And then I disliked those people. The grunting, "Let's kick ass!" caricatures' clear roles as unflappable badasses were no help, nor were their inhuman fearlessness and cliché characterization. By the halfway mark, I could no longer convince myself to play, because I really didn't give a shit if the aliens did destroy humanity. What I saw of it wasn't human enough to be worth saving. Not all games' characters are so unlikeable, but rarely do they inspire genuine affection and concern.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is different. Nathan Drake and co. are human, worth saving, and a hell of a lot of a fun to save.

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Even games with more focus on story and characters often ring hollow, with no more character development than a saturday morning cartoon. I don't think the problem is that these games don't try to make their characters as involving as movies do, I think they don't know how. The video game industry was not built on a foundation of storytelling, and as such good writing and acting is in extremely short demand. What little of it there is is rarely truly married to gameplay - cutscenes tend to explain it more than they reinforce it. My favourite games tend to be the ones that do this well - and while games like Metroid Prime have grand storytelling, their stories themselves are far from masterful.

Video games have always seemed to be far away from the narrative respectability that always finds the form justifying itself to cinema, but Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has finally done it. It has risen to the status of such a towering, unquestionable achievement in craftsmanship, artistry and entertainment, and by doing so establishes video games as a medium as legitimate as any other. Its narrative is perfectly integrated.

This true and flawless merging of interactivity and story is, in fact, is Uncharted 2's sole true innovation. Many games have pushed the narrative envelope - RPGs have introduced mature, complex storylines, but they rarely gel as more than a compelling framework, as one can be too often easily detached from their primary motivation in all the sidequests and dungeon crawling. Action games have attempted to bridge this gap, but even the most ambitious and effective attempts like Half-Life 2 (before Uncharted 2 this was my favourite game) can become wearying in their constant demand for the player's attention and input. And let's not even begin to discuss Metal Gear Solid's disastrously uneven delivery of narrative, pretending sophistication but really only amounting to the sharp dividing line between playing and story that the use of cutscenes has too often entailed.

But Uncharted 2 takes careful pains to remind you constantly of your goal and the people who are important to you. Take, for example, Chapter 11, one of the many exemplary sequences in the game. In a cutscene, we see that one of Nathan Drake's allies has been badly wounded. At one comrade's behest and the other's protest, Drake picks him up and helps him walk. Back in the game, and with one arm holding him up and the other holding a gun, you must stagger him through the wartorn streets, limping and shooting from one building to the next as the bullets and grenades fly. After finding temporary refuge, a cutscene ensues in which Drake is discovered, and, after losing his weapons, someone screams "RUN!" and the game quickly puts you back in control, running for your life, feeling as though one stray bullet could mean the end.

The reason the game flows so well between cutscenes and gameplay isn't by downplaying either in favour of the other: The cutscenes are so well directed and acted from a filmmaking standpoint that they don't need jarring, confusing quicktime button presses to keep the player interested, and the shootouts and platforming sequences are all informed by the previous cutscene and flow into the next.

That the characters' performances are far and away the greatest in any video game is no small help. Each character rings with a truth of wit, desperation and history that finds them laughing nervously more than growling one-liners after close calls. The dialogue is so well-written and the facial animation so detailed that the characters take on a charisma and believability miles ahead of any acting we've seen in recent summer blockbuster movies. Each character has a rapport and history with the others that they need no explanatory flashbacks or exposition on their backstories - the tones and looks at each other tell us all we need to know.

Uncharted 2 has no philosophical pretenses, taking many of its narrative cues directly from the Indiana Jones movies (particularly Raiders of the Lost Ark). It races from one location to another using a bizarre trail of artifacts and ancient clues with insane logic, but it relies on its jaw-dropping set pieces and characters' relationships to move the story along. It's glorious pulp entertainment, that hooks its audience by placing likeable, involving heroes into intense, absurd situations that are seemingly impossible to escape, always in close company with the game's excellent musical score. It's perfectly executed, a thrill ride so cinematic that it's impossible to look away and so stunning in its technical accomplishments and design that it's impossible to stop playing.

The fact is, Uncharted 2 is on the bullet point list of why to own a PS3, right next to Blu-Ray playing and free online service. One of the issues with trying to sell you Uncharted 2 is that it's impossible to fully communicate how joyous an experience it is because there's nothing to compare it to. I can't hook you any better than the game does with its first cutscene - just watch the first minute of the video and realize that you take control of Drake at the exact moment the first scene ends. (Note: These are only the earliest cutscenes in the game and serve merely to introduce premises. No twists here, but if you're determined not to spoil anything, stop the video at 1:15.)

Anyone who prefers Chloe to Elena is wrong. Just wrong.


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