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Opinion: Uncharted 4 Sets A New High Bar For Storytelling

by Matt Miller on May 08, 2016 at 09:30 AM

If you’re not already considering checking out Uncharted 4, Andrew Reiner’s recommendation and review should go a long way toward changing your mind. Naughty Dog has crafted a fitting send-off for Nathan Drake and company, and series faithful in particular are likely to find a lot to love. But for me, Uncharted 4 is more than the closing chapter to a long-running franchise I enjoy; it’s also a new benchmark for the way games can communicate narrative. In most cases, the storytelling techniques employed by Naught Dog aren’t new. These are the same tools that every developer uses to express narrative. But it’s the sheer variety and comprehensiveness of this team’s work that makes Uncharted 4 a master class in the art.  

I’ve written before about the line I draw between story and world-building, but there’s a subtler distinction within the world of narrative craft, and it’s the one between storytelling and story. A game’s story is the sum total of its characters, events, and themes; it’s the finished building that you examine after its completion. Meanwhile, storytelling is the work you undertake to construct that building, the way dialogue, character actions, visual stimuli, audio cues, artistic presentation, and setting all come together to communicate meaning along the way. And it’s through that very active feat of storytelling that Uncharted 4 sets a new high bar for the gaming medium. 

Storytelling in games is often different than in other disciplines, and that’s because of player agency. If a player doesn’t feel some sense that his or her actions affect narrative flow, the interactive fantasy is lost. Naughty Dog has long expressed a special talent for recognizing that agency, and giving players clear feedback about how the little things they do in the game shape and change the in-game world. In Uncharted 4, it feels like the team has taken a step forward, and it’s largely thanks to the integration of the game’s many technical and artistic elements into a unified whole. 

The animation and art team deserve a large portion of the credit. Moving Nathan Drake through the world, you can’t escape the ways he feels grounded and real within whatever place he finds himself. Swing across a gap on a rope, and you see the rope wind its way back up onto his belt afterward, rather than magically reappear. Climb into a jeep from the passenger side, and you see the front-seat passenger lean back to make room. Move along a rain-slick rock when your character is hurt and exhausted, and his steps are careful and uncertain. It’s the sheer variety and number of these animations (and the character art behind them) that astound, and provide a powerful immersion in the setting. 

Presence in the setting is reinforced by breathtaking environmental art and camera work. Time and again, Naughty Dog uses color, light, and an astoundingly large collection of in-game art to keep the visual palette fresh and ever-changing. Weather (not so subtly) reflects character emotions and tension, and environmental shape, contour, and props back it up, like sharp, angled rocks at moments of stress, or the casual detritus of a cluttered house to remind us of home. And as we move through these immaculately crafted spaces, the camera has an uncanny ability to pan, zoom, and tilt in such a way that these emotions are bolstered, and perhaps more importantly, the path forward is made apparent. 

Dialogue, sound effects, and music are equally responsible for the sense of presence in the world. Character banter stops and starts up again in a seamless fashion at important moments of discovery, with recorded passages to reflect the break in the flow. Music swells into exciting battle moments, and then shifts tonality and melody when the foes lose sight of you. A thrilling chase scene is punctuated by explosions and shouting, only to be followed moments later by an emotional relationship scene that strips away the raucous music and effects to focus on the interpersonal conflict. The sense is that of a well-realized cinematic script, but one that is responding to the actions the player takes.

People often think about storytelling as the province of the game’s writers, but Naughty Dog recognizes that the best storytelling is an integration of all a game’s many facets, all in service to narrative. The writing team for Uncharted 4 establishes the central beats that are required both for character development and pacing, but it’s clear that message doesn’t stay isolated to the writer’s room, and is instead broadcast to the rest of the team. A new character is given space at the start to become important to the player, rather than having the player simply be told that it’s time to care about them. Puzzle rooms are often followed by harrowing gunfights, with acknowledgment that those pace changes keep excitement high. The endless march of plot development is occasionally put on hold, and we get a scene where two brothers sit side by side to reminisce and consider how their lives might have been different under other circumstances. In each case, the natural dialogue and attention to character motivations form the bones of a scene, and the gameplay, visuals, and sound work to support the effort.

For anyone who knows the reality of game development, the detail and variety of art, sound, animation, and writing on display in Uncharted 4 is a testament to the huge investment of time and money that this kind of project takes. As you play, take a step back from the excitement of collapsing buildings and frenetic gunfights, and even away from the plot itself, and admire one of gaming’s most talented developers working in perfect coordination to tell one more tale with this charming treasure hunter. In game storytelling, it’s the many little things working in tandem that engages the player, and Uncharted 4 is a template for how to do it right.