Uncharted 2: On pace
Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 26

Long live the author


Manifestos are fascinating documents. In the arts, they exist as snapshots of transitional cultural moments, offering insight into the ideas and motives of the artists who render them. Marinetti (Futurism), Breton (Surrealism), Zavattini (Neo-Realism), and Bazin (New Wave), were passionate advocates who urgently pointed the way forward, outlining a philosophical framework they believed would revitalize painting, sculpture, and film.

Manifestos typically require targets, so they often employ a persuasive strategy of invalidating the models they reject. The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, the Dada Manifesto, and The Cluetrain Manifesto differ wildly in their individual goals, but each call to action presumes the prevailing system is unjust, corrupt or irrelevant.

I write this as Clint Hocking wraps up his barnstorming Click Nothing Tour, spreading his message of change to game design students in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Savannah, and Atlanta. I don't know if Clint considers his message a manifesto, but I believe it essentially functions as one. He generously posts the texts and slides of his talks on his website, so I encourage you to check them out and decide for yourself. Here's the abstract for his most recent CN Tour talk:

The games of today unsurprisingly strive to mimic the linear, authored structures of previous generations of media largely because gamers and game developers have grown up in a world where those media are culturally dominant. That is changing. As our media become more richly interactive and as our experience of the world becomes increasingly fragmented and parallelized, a new media culture is disintegrating the old. Games of the future will reflect this cultural shift by themselves becoming more fragmentary, more parallelized, and less focused on rich simulation and traditional notions of immersion.

Hocking isn't the first or only person to talk about these things. As far as I can tell, Doug Church got the ball rolling with his  "Abdicating Authorship," talk delivered at GDC in 2000. Randy Smith has referred to authored narratives as "dead," and Jonathan Blow and Steve Gaynor, among others, have also written eloquently on the subject of storytelling and authorship in games.

I've listened to Clint Hocking speak at the last two GDCs, and I've interviewed him on my podcast. It's fair to say I've learned more about game design from him than anyone else - not mechanics or level design, but the fundamental symbiosis of game/player. His vision for the future of games excites me, and I'm convinced by his assertion that the true potential of interactivity lies in emergent player-driven narrative.

But I'm not ready to concede that authored linear narratives are the 2nd-class citizens of game design. My recent experience with Uncharted 2 suggests that there's plenty of life left in such games if - and it's a very big if - the storytelling and the game's delivery systems for that storytelling elevate the player's experience beyond the standard stuff we've seen from video games.

In other words, the problem with linear authored games isn't a question of core design, but a question of quality. If you want to make a game that relies on '30s serial action adventure movie tropes, then you must to do that extraordinarily well - with plenty of style, panache, and Hollywood production values to carry you over all the obvious pitfalls. You need genuinely smart (not just smart...for a video game), well-written and performed dialogue, and you need gameplay that feels responsive, fun, and connected to the story.

If all this sounds terribly formulaic, that's because it is. Formula can be the paint-by-numbers template that makes your project look wholly derivative, or it can be the sturdy container that holds something special. You'd be hard-pressed to identify a single genuinely original aspect of Michael Curtiz's Casablanca. Dozens of movies have told similar stories with similar characters. What elevates Casablanca is the way each of its elements: cinematography, music, performances, screenplay - so clearly surpasses the pedestrian work of other similar films.

The Casablanca parallel works on another level. Casablanca is a thematically simple film. It could have been a more ambitious meditation on pacifism or patriotism, but it's neither of those. It's a romance with action and intrigue set in an exotic locale with charismatic characters. Structurally, it's a linear narrative with an extended flashback sequence. I'm well aware of the apples and oranges objections when we compare video games to films; but in this case I think the parallel is apt. Uncharted 2 is a successful game because it doesn't try to box outside its weight. It's a ripping adventure that makes good on its wisely limited ambitions.

It's also a helluva lot of fun, and that's no small thing.

One more quick point about authored narratives. I hope we never lose sight of the fact that we humans love stories. But more than that, we love to be told stories. I'm thrilled by the power of video games to put the player in the driver's seat, but Uncharted 2 proves it's possible to do that while still appealing to our love of a good story well told. It functions beautifully as both story and storyteller. It's quite possible to see this distinguishing feature of games as no less compelling than their ability to immerse us in an emergent player-driven narrative.

Above photo: Amy Hennig, Creative Director of Uncharted 2.