Some games truly take advantage of the medium. Uncharted 2 is one of them.
Warning: This post contains intensely minor spoilers.
Many have described Uncharted 2 as ‘cinematic’ without actually qualifying what they mean. One might assume they’re insinuating that the game is perfect for watching while sitting back with a box of popcorn big enough to feed a developing nation. Or it could be that it looks great. I’m not quite sure. And I’m not clear whether those that use the term are either. If they’re referring to the game’s grand styling, which extends beyond its beautiful looks, then, for once, allusions to a scope as grand as cinema’s are warranted. But if it’s simply the cutscenes in isolation from the rest of the game that they’re focusing on, their view is incredibly myopic.
It’s hardly a revelationary point, but generally cutscenes are as useful at affectively advancing story as it would be to throw a one-clawed mudcrab at a bushfire in an attempt to extinguish its flames – even if the little guy was dressed in cute crabby yellow overalls and had a tiny crab sized high pressure hose. Don’t get me wrong, Kojima’s epic longwinded works of virtual cinema are great pieces of cinematography – though not even close to the best that film offers – but what they rarely do is take advantage of the events of game you’re playing, let alone interface effectively with its gameplay.
Uncharted 2 opens with Marco Polo’s famous last words, “I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.” It’s a quote that is meant to hint at the supernatural mysteries held within the game, but it’s also one that could just as easily be used to describe its storytelling ethos. The game avoids ‘telling’ us about its characters and events, unlike many that use their cutscenes as a way of ramming narratives and personalities down our throats and almost ignoring story during their gameplay (see GTA IV for example). Instead, the game uses these cinematic devices sparingly, and for the most part, tells us about its characters in-game. The game’s cutscenese work so very well not just because they’re skillfully written and acted – although that is part of their success – but because they’re great in tandem with the game. Skipping around the locales of Drake’s adventure hand-in-hand, gameplay and cutscene playfully work off each other’s skills to create a cohesive mix of passive and active storytelling.
In Uncharted 2 we learn about its protagonists the same way that we would learn about others in our real lives, by spending time with them. It’s the small seemingly inconsequential discussions that reveal their personalities, their standing within the group and how they’ve gotten to be where they are in the game. And after these have finished feeding us story through gameplay they feed into our experience of the game’s cutscenes.
The character of Elena is introduced in cutscene, but we learn about her character through gameplay. Her past involvement with Drake is hinted at. “You still doing this?,” she yells out, as enemies come rushing in to one area. “Pretty good shot for a journalist,” Drake quips back as she takes out a soldier. “I’ve had some practice” Elena replies, hinting at their previous adventure. It’s a cheeky seemingly inconsequential exchange, but it’s one that illustrates their relationship and it runs cohesively alongside the fun, well-written script used in the cutscenes. Drake’s in-game animations also aid in building his rough-yet-fallible character, bringing him in line with the same individual that you observe in non-interactive intermissions. There’s an absence of the dissonance between game and cutscene that so many games suffer from.
Similarly, wandering around a Tibetan village hidden away high up in the snow covered mountains not only offers up fantastic looking locations but also multiple chances to interact with the non-English speaking locals in a warm, cheeky way, such as blowing a raspberry at some mischievous kids. Again, it appears trivial, but these moments also interact with the breaks in action. So when the cutscene comes in which we see the same village aflame, ravaged by invading forces, we feel more of a sense of horror at what has happened than if we had simply watched the character muddle his way through exchanges with people from a different culture and been had ‘told’ how it felt to be placed in the situation.
As a result of all these things, there’s generally no jarring jolts from the usual personality-less cipher and action that we see in most games into sudden story and character when a cutscene begins. The virtual actors that we see playing out the predefined moments in the game’s movies feel like the same people that we’ve grown to know over the entirety of our playtime, fleshed out and believable.
For the most part, cutscenes do not feel forced in between the cracks in the gameplay. Instead, when they begin it they’re natural, and required. The one time in which there is a harsh transition to cutscenes is after defeating the final enemy. Its problem is the reason why so many other game’s non-interactive moments fail. The feeling, tone and timing is completely separate from the ‘game’ that we’ve been playing. The awkward transition makes you realize just how well put together the rest of the game is and how much you’ve been learning about the characters throughout both gameplay and prior cutscenes.
Naughty Dog, the game’s developer, seems to understand that a cutscene is a tool that should be used sparingly and not only feed into gameplay, but off it too. All too often, these non-interactive moments provide a game with its key narrative drive and stand outside it, rather than within it. But in the case of Uncharted 2, cutscenes are used to advance story, not necessarily to tell it. And that’s why the game goes beyond simply being ‘cinematic’, and instead, should be acknowledged for taking advantage of the strengths of its own medium, not someone else’s.
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