The fallacy of universal authorship in games (and why Uncharted 2 isn't GOTY)

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Screenshot 

It's been suggested by critic emeritus Gene Park, staff critic Matthew Kaplan and others outside of the GC community, that adding more interactive choices/decisions to the popular PlayStation 3 title, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, would change the very thrill-ride nature and universal appeal of its gameplay. The argument is that the inclusion of such choice would result in something that was "not the point of the game".

Gene insists that: "...I've followed the game's development through media and it's been said time and time again (even in the game's in-game documentary) that the purpose of the game was never going to be about player choice, but providing the same experience for all players."

I disagree with this logic of thought for multiple reasons.

1. Games are by nature subversive

As indie game developer, Jason Rohrer, so eloquently expressed on the A Life Well Wasted podcast, games defy authorial control because they require player initiation and persistent participation. No matter what vision or parameters the game developers decide to impose on players, ultimately the gamer is free to do as he or she chooses within the construct of the game. As Jason remarks "you can play Mario just by standing there if you want to or jumping up and down over and over until time runs out. You don't have to go all the way to the end and that's a complete game of Mario."

Whether or not a game is linear by design or tries to impose authorial control doesn't mean a player doesn't make decisions. The act of moving forward is in fact a player decision. As I played Uncharted 2, I always preferred to use the grenade launcher due to its bigger punch. I would try to horde it at every opportunity and save it for tougher situations, but it always seemed like a constant struggle to keep the weapon because the game wouldn't give me enough ammo, insistently dropping all kinds of other weapons instead. Uncharted 2 worked against what I wanted to do in favor of what it wanted me to do and that didn't feel particularly gratifying. I understand that there's plenty of room for games that don't require choices and there's nothing wrong with the developers making such design decisions, but you would think that a more progressive and praise-worthy game design would acknowledge this inherent dynamic rather than fight against it.

Gene argues that such an acknowledgment in game design would go against "providing the same experience for all players." I believe this is another fallacy, which leads to my next point:

2. Gameplay experiences are interpretive

"Every Breath You Take" by the Police is a sinister song about the obsession and control, but is largely thought to be a haunting love ballad by the masses and later reinterpreted as a commercially crass memorial tribute to Biggie Smalls by P. Diddy. There isn't one correct interpretation. They are all valid readings depending on who is doing the interpreting. Video games are no different from music and any other art form in that its artistic, cultural and personal context is malleable.

The ending to Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty holds a deeper meaning for me as a New Yorker because the 9/11 terrorist attacks are something that impacted my life firsthand and the Wall Street Washington Memorial featured prominently at the end of the game is a symbol that I was intimately familiar with having walked past it so many times throughout my life. The development of MGS2 predates the events of 9/11, but that doesn't change its historical and cultural significance in my mind.

So the notion that Uncharted 2 is able to provide the exact same gameplay experience to every player and every player will derive the exact same meaning from the game, is simply unattainable since we all interpret the game differently based on our own world-view (Alex Raymond's feminist readings of Chloe and Elena in Uncharted 2, for example). Again, there's nothing wrong with the developer, Naughty Dog, attempting a one-size-fits-all model, but you would think a more thought-provoking and artful game would allow for more player interpretation rather than minimizing it.

3. Linear games with choice(s)

As part of this blog post, I wanted to provide three case studies of linear games that did provide choices to the player without having altered the nature or integrity of its game design and instead improved it tremendously.

Case Study #1 - Metal Combat: Falcon's Revenge

The Choice: Metal Combat: Falcon's Revenge is a 17-year old SNES light-gun game made up of 11 boss battles whose game mechanics are a close cousin of Punch-Out. Prior to the final stage, the game plays out close to what one might expect given its genre and premise. It isn't until the final stage that the game interjects an interesting dilemma to the player. The final boss uses the player's mission handler as a shield and the player has to choose between shooting and killing the handler to expose the final boss' weak spot or taking the more difficult road to victory by shooting around the handler.

The End Result: The subtle and seamless inclusion of choice in the final boss battle made an already exceptional game that much more memorable and unique for its time and genre. Rather than disrupt the traditional light-gun design, the choice only served to enhance the gameplay experience because players had to make an in-game moral decision whether or not the handler should be sacrificed and those who defeated the boss without harming the handler, felt more heroic and rewarded for doing so.

Case Study #2 - Super Mario Bros. 2

Super Mario Bros. 2 Character Selection Screen

The Choice: At the start of each stage, the player is able to choose between four characters, each with their own characteristics: Mario (well-rounded), Luigi (highest jump), Princess Peach (floaty jump) and Toad (strength).

The End Result: Rather than change the DNA of the side-scrolling platform genre, the inclusion of character selection in SMB2 was an evolution that made the game more exceptionally diverse and replayable since each stage could be approached differently by each character. Giving each player-controlled protagonist unique traits also started a legacy of memorable Mario character designs and gameplay characteristics that endures to this day.

Resident Evil 4 Merchant ArtCase Study #3 - Resident Evil 4

The Choice: Unlike previous Resident Evil games, the player had the option to purchase and upgrade weapons through the colorful Merchant.

The End Result: At the time of release, the Resident Evil franchise was thought to be creatively stagnant and in need of a serious make-over. While giving the player the choice in weapons and upgrades wasn't the only thing that was progressively overhauled in the trademark survival-horror series, it was an integral part in allowing a more personalized gameplay experience and gave the sagging franchise the creative boost it needed to stay relevant with gamers. The weapon choice feature is still a part of the latest entry in the series.

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In each of the vastly different case studies above, the inclusion of choice only served to improve the gameplay experience and make the game more distinct. So I'm not quite sure why this wouldn't apply to Uncharted 2 and how choice would irreparably alter what makes Uncharted 2 what it is. It's also funny to note that contrary to its reputation, Uncharted 2 is not a non-stop by-the-seat-of-your-pants roller-coaster ride that it's purported to be. Sandwiched between some of the game's explosion-filled action set-pieces are some tactical stealth- and puzzle-based stages where the player has to dial down the adrenaline and put on a thinking cap. So is thinking somehow inconsistent with the notion of decision-making? Don't the two usually go hand in hand?

I've maintained throughout this ongoing debate that I don't think Uncharted 2 is a bad game by any means and it's certainly notable for its technical implementation, visual design and character performances. I just think that a game that is deemed the best of what video games have to offer in 2009 should contribute more to interactive design because that is what makes video games unique as an art form. To suggest that any game would be better without choices is simply backwards thinking.