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Gameplay is King, Story a Distant Second

2009's critically acclaimed Uncharted 2 set a new standard for gameplay that moves players effortlessly through a story -- they way it's supposed to be done. This article discusses why gameplay first is the way to make a great game, and story comes after

This post originally came from  Visit for more articles, resources, and intelligent analysis of game design.


It's been a while since 2009′s  most critically acclaimed game title: Uncharted 2 for the PS3 was released.  And so while this analysis may be a little dated in terms of the game title, my hope is that the design analysis is timeless for a game that I believe has set the standard of gameplay for the next few years.

Personally as a player, this isn’t exactly my kind of game; I’m not a huge shooter fan and, like Avatar, the story and premise seemed a bit simple.  However, as a game designer, I can’t excuse myself from a game so highly regarded among players and developers alike.  Even if it didn’t interest me in the name of my own entertainment, it certainly interested me in the name of my design education.

After sinking a good number of hours into it, I can definitely say that it is worth the ride.  The game has a captivating story and interesting characters, but that’s not why it’s a great game.  It is a great game because of the only thing that can make a great game: great gameplay.  Let’s step through two of the best points of this game’s design and execution.

Don’t Tell Me About It; Let me Do It

Let’s start with Uncharted 2′s biggest selling point: you get to play everything you want to play.  You do everything you want to do.  Action?  You do it.  Talking?  It’s just a cutscene.  This may seem obvious, but it’s more difficult than it sounds.

One of the easiest way to ruin a story is to try and haphazardly shove gameplay inside of it.  The problem goes that if you have an interesting story, compelling characters, plot twists and allegory, that’s all fine and good.  But what you have are the ingredients for a movie or a book, not necessarily a game.  It isn’t a game until the player interacts with the story in some way.  And even if the story is strong, poor gameplay will make it unbearable.  Developers beware focusing on the story in your game to the detriment of gameplay.  In games, gameplay is king.  Always.

When you’re making a game and need to have the player interact with the story in some way, then it makes sense to have them focus on the parts of the story they would enjoy. In a film, this means that you want to see the couple fall in love, fight, break up, and get back together.  You don’t need to see them use the restroom, get dressed, eat lunch, or turn up the air conditioning.

If designers don’t pull this off correctly, the result is that the gameplay feels completely divorced from the story; the two have nothing to do with one another.  Uncharted 2 did a fantastic job of this, which we will get to explaining in a moment.  But before we get into how this is done right, let’s first take a look at a game that did it wrong.

Back in 2005 a game was released for the Playstation 2 called Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit outside of the U.S.), the less-famous precursor to David Cage's more successful Heavy Rain.  It was a critically acclaimed mystery thriller where you played as a man who just came two after a murder.  The game follows the footsteps of the murder, as well as the detectives who are trying to track him down.  The production values were high: good voice acting, good visuals for the time, and the story itself was spot on.

However, Indigo Prophecy doesn’t make a very good game.  It sold fairly well, but that’s not the point here.  Out of all of the gleaming reviews, only one reviewer got it right.  All the way at the bottom of its Metacritic, one reviewer gave the game a 33/100 amid 90′s.  I would argue that that reviewer was actually the most perceptive of the bunch.

The problem?  The gameplay had nothing to do with what players cared about.  What players cared about was the mystery, the moral choices the characters were making, the fight scenes and romance scenes.  But what was the gameplay?  None of that.  The Indigo Prophecy designers realized that they didn’t have any Base Mechanics  to support these aspects of the story.  So instead they force the player to perform mundane tasks.  Want to speak to the police chief to learn about the killer?  Well, first you need to walk upstairs and get the file.  Want to woo your ex-girlfriend?  First you need to get her belongings and put them by the door.  The actual action was always a cutscene; the result makes the player feel like they’re being robbed.

Heavy Rain made great strides to fix these problems, but as the studio continues to learn and run to the top of the game design mountain, they'll find that the Naughty Dog team had been standing there all along.

Build the Gameplay Where the Player Cares

Uncharted 2 does right what Indigo Prophecy and many parts of Heavy Rain (preparing diapers and putting on ties, anyone?) did wrong.  Naughty Dog understood what players would think was exciting: the running, the jumping, the shooting, and the combat.  They then built the Base Mechanics to support that.  The controls were exquisite: you feel like you can do almost anything.  Scale walls, find ways to climb up and down unreachable heights, sneak past guards, or take them out.  You can actually get in the groove of the action and know that it is you who is deciding how to approach tactical challenges.  These are action experiences that Hollywood movies dream of but could never implement.

The result?  Whenever anything exciting was about to happen in Indigo Prophecy, I would put the controller down.  Whenever anything exciting was about to happen in Uncharted 2, I would pick the controller up.  What a change in Core Experience!

The trick is to focus on what the player will want to do in your game (Note: no guessing allowed.  You must know your player well).  If your game is about solving mysteries and tracking down a criminal, then make the gameplay actually solving mysteries, figuring out what to do next, and making choices based on evidence that affect the story.  If the most exciting part of your story is about gunfights and chases, then build the Base Mechanics around shooting and running.  And no, not having action isn’t an excuse for not having exciting gameplay.  You can make a conversation or researching a book exciting with the right design; it just takes vision of what you want to give your player.

Always Keep the Game Flowing

As we’ve mentioned, Uncharted 2′s Core Experience is feeling like you’re in an action story, and another way the game pulls this off is by keeping the game moving.  Playing the game gives the experience that you are actual in a classic Indiana Jones flick.  But remember, this is a game, not a movie, and in a movie, the good guys always win.  So how did Naughty Dog decide to handle the player losing without sacrificing gameplay or making the story stall out?

Neither of these two techniques are unique to Uncharted, but they were executed together particularly well.  First is the Hint System.  When the player gets stuck, then after a period of time a hint button appears.  The player can press this hint button and hear another character speak about and point to what they’re supposed to do.  And the game keeps on rolling without the player feeling like a fool.  Perfect.

Does this feature support the story, or the gameplay?  Well it is certainly woven into the story, usually via an interesting comment from one of your pals.  However that’s not why it’s significant.  It’s significant because it gets the job done from a mechanical standpoint.  You could have a hint that triggers a funny joke by a character, but obviously if it doesn’t help the player learn what to do, it’s worthless.  Gameplay first.

Next, Uncharted 2 doesn’t rely on ancient (read: 1980′s) conceptions of challenging to make sure the player doesn’t waltz through the game’s more trecherous challenges.  In many classic games, challenge is conveyed by sending the player way back to try again.  Get shot?  Game over.  Go back to the beginning of the level and do it again.  While this kind of Punishment and Reward System does have the effect of increasing the tension in battle, the negative repercussions of losing are often too frustrating to be worth it.  It’s a difficult problem: how can you get players to perform difficult tasks without making the punishment for failing unbearable?

Uncharted eschews those old coin-op design choices and instead opt’s for a good balance in their punishments.  Whenever you encounter an action sequence or a gunfire scene, then the game saves a checkpoint.  If you fail at the challenge, then the game just sends you back a few moments to the beginning of that scene.  This reduces frustration because you’re only set back to the point right before you were killed.  Additionally, it forces the player to actually perform the task again, hopefully successfully.  Even when Drake was killed multiple times at my hands, I wasn’t discouraged, because the punishment was so light.  Pulling the player back any further would almost certainly have broken the flow of the game and yanked me out of the action; keeping it tight pulled me in.

Both of these features keep the gameplay flowing at the pace you would expect to feel if it were a major motion picture — with (of course) the added experience of you actually playing through the action scenes.  Now that’s a win-win.

An Action Movie Come-To-Life


Uncharted 2 pulled off some incredible stunts, and was an fantastic example of a game choosing to be universal instead of original and avant-garde.  Well executed, well understood design decisions propelled this title to the top of the award charts for 2009.  Developers everywhere, indie, student, and pro, should be required to check it out.

This post originally came from  Visit for more articles, resources, and intelligent analysis of indie and student game development.

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