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Uncharted 2: An Unfortunate Difficulty Curve

It’s only logical that, in a medium that prides itself upon interactivity and developing player skill, games would necessarily get harder as they go along, peaking in difficulty at the end of the game in the ultimate test of what the gamer has learned.

In the olden days this was less complicated. Beating a game was its own reward. There was no complicated story to worry about, only overcoming the series of obstacles and seeing the Game Over screen.

But now that games are starting to tentatively poke their feet in the water of competent storytelling, a new element is added to the mix. A vital part of proper storytelling, and a big reason why the interactive medium of gaming has so far sucked at telling good tales, is momentum. Interactivity screws with momentum. It’s a nightmare to maintain a compelling pace when the player has full control of what’s going on.

This is even more so in a gaming landscape where “linearity” has become a negative buzzword. The best method games possess for taking control of a story as much as possible and delivering a well-paced experience that’s consistent for every user is through linear game design, which is something a game will almost invariably be criticized for in today’s marketplace, despite how effective this technique can be. 

It’s perhaps obvious that difficulty can have an effect on the pacing of a story, linear or not. Frequent deaths and getting stuck on obstacles necessarily means the player can’t progress.

Where this issue becomes most profound is in a game’s final moments. In that last stretch, when a game is throwing everything it can at you to test your prowess, a good story can, surprisingly, get in the way. If a developer has managed to put enough effort into their storytelling that the player is perhaps most interested in seeing that story to its conclusion, an incredible and admirable effort mind you, then this gauntlet of trials at the end of the game is likely to produce more frustration that it otherwise might, as it is keeping the story from meeting its end.

Worse yet is if the player is forced to quit at this stage in the game. If the gauntlet proves too much and a player takes a break from the game, the all-important momentum that the game may have worked so hard to build up might be utterly destroyed when the player picks the game back up in the midst of the chaos, plays it only long enough to beat the short final bit he was stuck on, and then experiences the ending out of context of the fantastic buildup the game strived so hard to construct.

The balancing act is tenuous, however. It’s important to note that gameplay is not always the antagonist here. This is, we shouldn’t need to be reminded, an interactive medium. That final stretch of trials, when done right, can be immensely satisfying. In addition, there are players that get more satisfaction out of this aspect of gaming than the stories. Neither approach, story- or gameplay-focused, is wrong, they’re simply different.

The issue is, at that crucial moment in the development of both the gameplay and the story, the two mindsets are in opposition to one another. Developers face an unenviable balancing act lest one of the two groups be left horribly unsatisfied.

If a game focuses too intensely on the story and lacks a proper challenging test of the gamer’s skill in its final moments, it will suffer the fate of Fable II, a game burdened with one of the most laughably unsatisfying endings of this console generation. 

Of course, Fable II’s ending was unsatisfying on the level of both story and gameplay, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. Its complete lack of a boss fight or final challenge is the important bit to note here.

If, on the other hand, the developer becomes more obsessed with testing a gamer’s skill, you’ll end up with, I’m saddened to admit, Uncharted 2. This was a game that put forth a truly fantastic effort at building a story and characters that were among some of the most compelling and likable yet created in the medium, only to beat gamers unfortunate enough to have chosen “normal” difficulty over the head with unfair challenge after unfair challenge right at that point where things should be moving at their swiftest, bringing the tale of high adventure to a satisfying end.

In other words, Naughty Dog shot the pacing of its tremendous experience in the foot. Say all you want about the dumbing down of game difficulty over the years, but when story progression and seeing the next set piece is so clearly vital to maintaining player immersion and interest, as it is with Uncharted 2, then the focus must be on maintaining that pace for the average player, not pushing their skills to the limit. After all, besting impossible challenges is no longer the only compelling reason to play games. Difficulty options exist for a reason, and Naughty Dog’s choice to make their default difficulty so filled with forced restarts due to death is the only thing standing between Uncharted 2 and pacing perfection. 

There is a workaround in the form of easier difficulty options, of course, but as normal is the default, most are likely to find out the hard way that they face a frustrating wall of challenge at precisely that moment where they want progress to be quickest.

It should be noted that Uncharted 2 did manage to reach that satisfying end, despite all odds, but this is a testament to how good the rest of the experience was. A lesser game would have crumbled under the frustration induced by the pacing missteps.

As games continue to dive deeper into the realm of competent storytelling, we are bound to uncover more of these issues unique to tales set in an interactive environment. Working them out is certain to produce annoyances and mistakes, but we should take comfort in the fact that we are paving the way for smoother experiences in the future. I am, as always, anxious to see what the future of interactive storytelling has in store for me.

Admittedly, this does not make dying 15 times in the space of an hour while trying desperately to finish Uncharted 2 any more fun. Drat. 

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