Charted

In my enthusiasm for the unique non-linear opportunities offered by videogame technology, and my desire to see this potential being explored, I sometimes forget how versatile this medium is. “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” demonstrates quite convincingly that the so-called non-linear medium can also effectively double as a vehicle for good old-fashioned story-telling.

A charming boys' adventure

It’s not difficult to imagine Uncharted 2 as a movie. Indeed, the story takes many of its elements directly from adventure films in the Indiana Jones style. But what’s more surprising is the game’s uncompromising linear structure. If videogames would be that abundantly creative universe that the potential of its technologies promises us, Uncharted 2 would be a revolution! The very idea that an interactive experience can be so linear is brilliant. It contradicts every instinct we have about the merits of the medium. And yet it works. Uncharted 2 is a very entertaining ride, with only a few bumps in the road that, while utterly destructive for the linear flow of the experience, we’ll choose to chalk up to lapses in concentration of the designer, carelessness of the quality assurance team, or simple habitual residue from videogame traditions.

But why does Uncharted 2′s linearity feel so fresh? After all, on the surface, its structure doesn’t seem to differ much from Donkey Kong or Mario. You control a character and move it towards a certain goal while overcoming obstacles set up by the designer.

One reason seems to be that the goal of the game is actually unknown to the player, crushing the assumption that linear games are always goal-oriented. In this way, Uncharted 2 is more similar to a suspenseful book than a game. In games your mission is to overcome challenges and achieve a certain goal. This is a perfectly linear construction as well. The difference is that the linearity is known, and is deeply felt as the top level of the structure that supports the experience.

On a train...

In Uncharted 2, you only really experience linearity at the micro-level. At each moment in the game, you know exactly what to do. Why you do these things is often unclear. You don’t need to know this as a player. As long as the hero you’re controlling knows. He knows where he’s going. You don’t need to. And the design of the game cleverly takes most of the guesswork out of the equation. It’s usually quite clear exactly what you need to do to fulfill your avatar’s -sometimes secret- wishes.

There’s not much skill required to get through the game. Nor much creativity either. This makes Uncharted 2 potentially very accessible to a wide audience. We can get the emotional effect of playing -triumph, progress, etc- without have to go through the difficult progress required by most other games.

The emotions of playing are very compatible with the nature of the adventure narrative that underlies Uncharted 2. Indiana Jones is also about overcoming challenges, being triumphant, sometimes frustrated but not for long because our hero is very smart and resourceful. Like its cinematic inspiration, there’s no need for expression of any other emotions.

This is why it makes sense that the characters in the story express no other emotions than the emotions one might experience when playing a game. These relatively primitive emotions fit the charming boys’ adventure fantasy well. Despite the existence of a love triangle in the game, for instance, the characters never express any real love or affection or empathy, beyond some clumsy, youthful innuendo here and there. This ensures that the little boy in all of us is never confronted with complicated issues, and the adventure can simply continue.

Love triangle?

Thanks to its smart application of linearity, Uncharted 2 is one of the first videogames that almost feels ready for breaking through the niche barrier and draw in the mass audience. If the designers of Uncharted 3 can find the courage to remove the awkward shooting sequences, and perhaps allow their characters a slightly wider range of emotions to express, videogames will have become a worthy successor to mainstream cinema.