How Integrated Action Affects the Story and the Player

The last several years have seen the emergence of the blockbuster video game, a game usually influenced strongly by the notion of cinematic presentation of story.  This line between video games and film will continue to blur, especially with the imminent release of Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, which, judging by early reviews, is shaping up to be an emotional roller coaster that entangles the player.  Thinking Heavy Rain is meant for anything other than a niche audience is naïve, contrary to whatever hopes both QD and Sony may have for the title.  However, in terms of blockbusters, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Modern Warfare 2 instantly spring to mind.  What interests me most is the execution of both games in terms of action set pieces and how they add up to vastly different experiences, at least in terms of satisfaction.  I’ll save the instant gratification people a read: Uncharted 2 stomps all over Modern Warfare 2 in how it handles the action the player experiences, and is the stronger of the two games because of it.

First, allow me to backtrack / cover my ass.  These two games have predecessors that I enjoy far too much.  Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Uncharted both rank near the top of my personal favorites from this console cycle.  I share this to show that I didn’t wander into the successors with unreasonable or inexperienced expectations.  Once the dust settled, I preferred Uncharted 2 to Uncharted, but ended disappointed in Modern Warfare 2 as it fell short of the near perfection for a run-and-gun FPS established in CoD4.   Upon further examination, I found it was the incorporation of the action pieces, those moments where the game excels its normal gameplay formula, that affected my overall opinion of the games.  Specifically, the motivation of these moments.

Both games drop the players in a variety of adrenaline pumping situations, from the scaling of a train car over the side of a cliff to an attempt to reclaim the White House from an enemy army.  However, the moments in Uncharted 2 feel, in my opinion, motivated by the game’s story, while Modern Warfare 2 feels more like a string of “wouldn’t it be cool if…” ideas generated at an Infinity Ward meeting.  Yes, it is easy to imagine that all great gameplay moments spring from those ideas, but actually incorporating them into the story takes skill, and both these developers have that skill.

   Call of Duty 4 worked as a whole because all the events contained within felt like they were working towards a greater story goal; namely, the prevention of a full blown war.  Modern Warfare 2 eschews this build towards a climax by having an unstoppable enemy force invade the U.S. in the comfort of a cutscene.  This moment in the plot is justified by my actions a few levels before, in which I participated in a terrorist act.  These moments, one of which feels like a more intimate (in terms of character / player relations) and personal moment (in case you’re curious, I am talking about the airport shooting) and follows it with an impersonal full blown assault throughout suburbia.  However, the first doesn’t feel sufficiently powerful enough to justify the second, thus leaving the player (in my experience) scratching their head and feeling unstatisfied.  Compare this to the moment in Call of Duty 4 when you are storming the bunkers and see the missiles launch.  It is such a heart pounding moment, since you’ve been working the whole game to prevent this moment, yet you’ve possibly failed.  That affects me more than random engagements set in historical locales.

Uncharted 2, on the other hand, makes you strive for payoff.  The game makes you want to progress, because you’ll be damned if all the events you’ve suffered through were in vain.  While you want to stop Makarov and the “surprise” villain in Modern Warfare 2 on the simple grounds that they’re “bad”, Uncharted 2 makes it personal by compounding hellhole upon hellhole, an almost unyielding build to a climax that you feel that you’re always progressing towards.  I’m actually trying to strive away from examples in order to avoid spoiling any moment of gameplay or story, which I feel is hurting my argument (though, if you haven’t played Uncharted or Uncharted 2 and you own a PS3, there is no excuse).  

In my experience with narrative driven games, the more you make the player feel like they’re interacting and experiencing the world and adventure of the character, the better the game.  Modern Warfare 2 is a fantastic FPS, but one I ultimately found disappointing.  Maybe it was because I played it immediately after Uncharted 2, or maybe it was because the sense of importance in my actions from the first game was so good.  There should never be a moment where the player questions why they’re doing what they’re doing in the story.  This isn’t to say that a game shouldn’t have questions in its plot, but I shouldn’t wonder why I’ve gone from one level to another that the game is telling me are directly related.  This moment never occurs in Uncharted 2, which brings to mind George Mallory’s response to the question of why he climbed Everest: “Because it is there.”  Uncharted 2 forces the player towards many mountains (some actual mountains), and I climbed them because they were there.