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10 Years Later: ‘Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’ Is Naughty Dog’s Most Important Treasure

‘Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’ skyrocketed Naughty Dog to its modern-day pedestal and has become by far the developer’s most important release to date.

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“I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed…” 

– Marco Polo on his deathbed.

Seeing Nathan Drake, Elena Fisher, and Victor Sullivan ride a boat into the sunset with a jackpot of Spanish plunder from El Dorado seemed like a perfect place to end off the story of the fortune-hunting heir to Sir Francis Drake back in 2007. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was considered Naughty Dog’s magnum opus after the standalone entry in PlayStation’s first-party later to be franchise released to critical acclaim and blockbuster sales that immediately sent the game into direct sequel territory.

There was one major lesson that Sony Interactive Entertainment should have learned after the groundbreaking Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter trilogies helped establish the PlayStation name during the previous two console generations; give Naughty Dog an even larger budget than before and the standards for action-adventure games will be pushed to a higher bar. As if the original Uncharted‘s thrust towards a technologically advanced future of games was not enough, the house that the marsupial built was prepared for round two during an age of young developer innovation.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves skyrocketed Naughty Dog to its modern-day pedestal and has become by far the developer’s most important release to date. The sequel became a precursor to the golden years of Naughty Dog by opening the gateway of opportunity that would later spring their most acclaimed spectacles, The Last of Us and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Naughty Dog embarked on a journey to become an entertainment creator whose games could rival the most popular adventure titles. Now 10 years later, Among Thieves is the reason Uncharted and Naughty Dog stand among the gaming industry’s highest standards for both game design and storytelling.

Breaking and Entering a New Age For The Industry

“Oh, crap.”

The opening chapter of Uncharted 2, ‘A Rock and a Hard Place,’ instantly sets the stage for part of what Naughty Dog had been attempting to demonstrate with their sequel. The developers were striving to break the proverbial gaming standards of action-adventure games by building massive ongoing edge of your seat cinematic set-pieces that players would feel a part of due to interactive moments involving quick-thinking climbing and satisfying gunplay.

Although the developers were already creating incredible action scenarios in Drake’s Fortune, no other game was slightly comparable to the technological marvel that the sequel presented in its mere opening minutes. The iconic derailed train sequence saw players escaping a cliffside in the Himalayas after Nathan Drake mysteriously wakes up to only the sounds of high winds and the feeling of laying on his back. The deceptive opening makes players believe that Nate was previously in trouble only to reveal that he is still stuck in trauma as the protagonist clings on for life moments away from falling through the back end of a collapsing railroad car.

Scenarios on a massive scope such as this were only possible thanks to Naughty Dog’s deep knowledge of the PlayStation 3’s internal architecture inherited through time spent with the first entry. Drake’s Fortune had previously only made use of a shy 30% of the Cell’s SPU’s that the system could potentially pump out; which provides realistic environments and animations. Naughty Dog’s lead designers, including head writer Amy Hennig, insisted on using the entire 70% left over for their sequel to create the most ambitious atmospheres to date in a game. Even by today’s standards scenes such as Uncharted 2‘s Nepal section still holds up to most modern games.

Desperate Times

Uncharted 2

“Oh, is that an ancient Tibetan ritual dagger in your pocket?”

The most important aspect of what made Uncharted into the massive franchise it is today was, of course, the characters that have become leading icons of the PlayStation brand, derived from an incredibly heartfelt and comedic script written by Amy Hennig, Neil Druckman, and Josh Scherr. The writers aimed to solidify a stronger feeling of adventure in the second story for the player while continuing to explore a previously established cast that could become just as memorable as those featured in adventure movies like the Indiana Jones trilogy.

The idea of Uncharted 2 was to create a globe-trotting adventure featuring a revolving cast of companions rather than having a group of characters who settle down in one stationary location. Instead of focusing on a remote location in South America containing El Dorado, Uncharted’s sequel saw the cast travel from Borneo to Nepal and even the Himalayas, allowing the player to see a variety of locations as Nate attempts to track down the Chintamani stone with the help of a group of old friends before the war-mongering criminal Lezaravic, and his previous thieving partner Harry Flynn, can gain eternal life.

Nolan North, Richard McGonagal, and Emily Rose returned to reprise their roles as the wise-cracking and captivating trio that was Nate, Sully, and Elena with the help of what was considered revolutionary motion capture at the time. While Sully did not appear for the majority of the game, during the time he is present the improv done between North and McGonagal throughout gameplay became the highlight dialogue interactions for many fans once again. Meanwhile, Nate and Elena’s complicated relationship would further be explored for the majority of their time spent together searching through Asia, after both characters unexpectedly split before the events of Among Thieves.

Fun fact: Chloe Fraser’s odd position during the meeting scene was not a design choice made by the animators. Actor Claudia Black naturally keeps her feet posed inwards while sitting.

Female fortune hunter, Chloe Fraser, played by Claudia Black, debuted as a second love interest to Nate, but the character quickly went on to be a self-served, independent treasure hunter who could even rival the protagonist. Chloe became so beloved by both Naughty Dog and the fans over time that not only would she be guaranteed a role in the sequel Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, but she would also later go on to be the star of the only current Uncharted spin-off that does not feature Nathan Drake, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy.

Keeping The Adventure Moving

Uncharted 2

“Any chance this is sector nineteen?”

While Uncharted 2 continued to build on the third-person cover-based shooter gameplay of Drake’s Fortune, besides refining firing mechanics through a more flexible camera, flashier hand to hand combat, and adjusted climbing controls the game’s sense of scale truly was the upgrade players received. There are still 101 collectible treasures to find throughout the game’s new locations and tons of extra nonsensical post-playthrough gameplay tweaks that can be used under the ‘bonuses’ section, but overall the snappier and swift gameplay updates have never been the series’ core focus.

The stories of Uncharted are the most important pieces of Naughty Dog’s quest to greatness. The addicting gameplay and meticulous puzzles are highlights for many people, but the Hollywood script and scenarios, on top of a strikingly realistic feeling cast that started with Among Thieves, is what built Naughty Dog into the studio it is today. The story and everyone placed in it is what fans cared — and still care — about the most from the developer’s games now. Nate, Elena, Sully, and Chloe became major action hero names because of the grand spectacle Among Thieves delivered on.

The game’s characters inspired an entire generation of third-person story-based games from both independent and triple-A developers, including Naughty Dog’s own Neil Druckman who went on to write The Last of Us after Uncharted 2 went gold. Without Nathan Drake’s cinematic journey to claim the Chintamani Stone from Shambala, the genre of action-adventure games would look entirely different compared to today’s landscape. All of the developer’s future projects have Among Thieves to thank for their existence.

Naughty Dog helped lead the charge to a future of cinematically engaging games and today they are still doing so because of the legacy they created shortly after Among Thieves‘ launch. Whether you are playing on your original release copy or The Nathan Drake Collection remaster, Uncharted 2 still shows how Naughty Dog became the leader of PlayStation’s storytellers through their most important treasure.

Journalist major and part-time film writer. I have always held high interests in the fields of professional writing and communications. You can find me with my head deep in the espionage genre, on a collectathon, or in a kayak upstream. I’ll always be first in line for the next Hideo Kojima or Masahiro Sakurai game.

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‘Death Stranding’: And Now for Something Completely Different

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Death Stranding Slow Connectivity

Video gaming as a medium has often been perceived as little more than a toy. Even with Nintendo pushing the NES as a part of the home and more than just a toy– a strategy they’d adopt again for the Wii– there are still many who see games as toys, rather than an expression of an art form. It makes perfect sense, though. If there’s one thing modern video game culture has pushed front and center this past decade, it’s instant satisfaction. As big-budget games embrace homogeneity, the medium’s priorities have shifted from capitalizing on its inherent interactivity to making sure gamers are never bored with their $60 toy. Reggie Fils-Aime famously said “If it’s not fun, why bother?” for a reason, but when every big-budget game is paced the same, structured the same, and plays the same, where’s the fun to be found? 

About Death Stranding…

It’s far too early to even assume what kind of impact Death Stranding will have on the medium & industry (if any), but as one of the last big budgets games to release in 2019, Hideo Kojima’s first crack at the “strand game genre” is a nice note to cap the decade off on– one that serves as an almost necessary palette cleanser as the medium heads into the 2020s. Death Stranding offers audiences a chance to breathe, to look at themselves in the mirror, and to reconnect. Not just with the world and others, but with a medium built on interactivity. 

Hideo Kojima is often criticized for his cutscene ratio, to the point where it’s not unusual to see critics suggest he just make a film, but the fact of the matter is that most games do need a story. Not just that, video games have the potential to present a story better than any other medium. Readers and viewers can place themselves in the shoes of their protagonists, but a game makes the player become the protagonist. How we control our characters, how we play, how we interact with a virtual world– all this is a reflection of ourselves, one that only the gaming medium can offer. 

Not that it often does, at least not meaningfully. Modern developers are afraid to lose consumer interest, and the increasing shift towards the “games as a service” model has ensured that gameplay loops are simple to pick up, simple to get into, and simple to stay into. Games are something to be played with– toys. And there’s immense value in that. Video games can be a fantastic way to reduce stress & clear one’s thoughts regardless of how they’re designed, but such an approach means that the average gamer is going to be accustomed to gameplay loops that are structurally derivative of one another. 

On the flip side, there are the games that prioritize narrative too much, or simply devalue their own gameplay with extraneous content. From Hideo Kojima’s own gameography, this is a mistake he clearly made with Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Even from this decade, it can be argued that what little importance Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain placed on the story ended up hurting it in the long run because it distracted from the core gameplay loop. There’s a reason so many developers follow similar game structures and build off similar foundations: they’re reliable, they get the job done, and it does result in great games. Both The Last of Us and God of War (2018) are clear examples of how mechanically homogenous & predictable games have gradually become this past decade, but they’re still great games.

Death Stranding is one of the slowest AAA titles to release in quite a long time.

Death Stranding is most comparable to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and perhaps The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but really only on the most surface of levels. Death Stranding has AAA backing, but it has the creativity and ingenuity of a modern indie. While AAA developers have lined up for uniformity, the indie half of the medium has arguably never been better. Those who grew up alongside video games are now developing their own, calling back to and even evolving forgotten genres. All the while, AAA games only move closer to the Disneyfication of movie production– hit all the key demographics, make it “accessible” for everyone, and make sure there are no real ideals or beliefs. No need to upset potential consumers, right? 

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Death Stranding was backed by Sony and developed by a massive development team, but Hideo Kojima’s direction is far more in-line with the modern indie scene than that of his AAA cohorts. Death Stranding is one of the slowest AAA titles to release in quite a long time. It’s slow to start, slow to pick up, and even the core gameplay loop is slow. It takes hours before players get their first vehicle, and even longer before they finally get a weapon. Death Stranding saves its actual core gameplay loop for so late in the experience that it’s not unreasonable to suggest the game sees an entire genre shift halfway through. But that’s missing the point. Death Stranding’s “genre shift” is only going to feel so for those who don’t want to engage with the first half’s crawl– those who just want to play with a toy. 

Of course, just wanting something simple and immediately engaging to play is fair enough. For working adults with limited time to play a game, in particular, but not every game is going to resonate with everyone, even if a game like Death Stranding is designed for anyone. Death Stranding seems inaccessible & foreign in a generation where every big genre release plays like the last, but between a myriad of difficulty options and an online system designed to make the player’s life easier– one that works & works well– Death Stranding takes the medium’s interactivity to its next logical step: connectivity. Real connectivity, though. A connection that goes beyond playing against or with someone for a few minutes. 

In Death Stranding, players can leave a tangible mark on, and in, the world. Players can build structures for others, share with others, and just do something as simple as “liking” others. Those opening hours are incredibly valuable as– without the means to kill or fight back– players are forced to interact with the game world on a deeper level beyond combat. Death Stranding takes its time developing its gameplay loop, drip-feeding weapons, and concepts. Even the online component opens itself slowly, forcing players to understand what it means to be alone before they can forge real connections– with the world, others, or themselves. 

This is what Hideo Kojima understands better than the majority of modern AAA developers: games can connect a feeling directly to the player. Death Stranding’s best moments (as any should be) stem from gameplay. Kojima’s storytelling is engaging as ever, but it exists to bolster the gameplay– as does the slow pacing, as does the aggressive enemy AI, as does locking out weapons for hours on end– everything in Death Stranding is ultimately in service of connecting players to Sam in a way that feels genuinely meaningful. Through Sam, audiences can observe an America that’s in ruins, but one that society is rebuilding.

As Sam reconnects America, opportunities arise to finish bridges for others, leave supplies in remote areas, or just warn of dangers ahead. It’s very Dark Souls-esque in nature, but with a gameplay loop that minimizes traditional action, Death Stranding is the rare AAA game that’s bold enough to embrace the medium and everything it represents, for better or worse. A video game interacts with an audience in a way that books and film can’t. Controlling an avatar is an intimate act and reflects us better than most might realize. Death Stranding recognizes this fact, turns its back on modern gaming mainstays, and attempts to reconnect the medium together. 

Death Stranding is a slow game, but the longer path walked only presents an opportunity to reconnect oneself to the heart of gaming: interactivity. 

AAA gaming and the indie scene shouldn’t be divided. A gameplay loop doesn’t need instant satisfaction to be engaging. Story and gameplay shouldn’t feel disconnected. Standard online multiplayer can be more rewarding when PvP elements are tossed to the wayside or even just outright ignored. Death Stranding resembles the average AAA title in many respects, but it allows itself to be eclectic, off-putting, & sincerely unfiltered– in regards to politics, human nature, video games themselves. Only time will tell if “strand games” will take off, but keep in mind that the stealth genre didn’t exist when the hit “action” game Metal Gear released for the MSX2 in 1987. As Death Stranding makes abundantly clear, everything changes with time. 

The 2010s have not been a bad decade for the medium, far from it. The past ten years have seen truly legendary consoles and games come out of the woodwork, but it’s impossible to deny the shift that occurred (and had been occurring) in AAA game development– one that’s driven the medium far away from meaningful interactivity, where flavor of the month games long to be played for all eternity, like Toy Story-esque monstrosities given form. Death Stranding is a slow game, but the longer path walked only presents an opportunity to reconnect oneself to the heart of gaming: interactivity. 

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From Escape to Inspiration: How Video Games Promote Creativity

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Video Games

Escape

The stresses of everyday life are often enough to put heavy strain on even the sharpest and most durable of minds. No one is immune to the pressures of work, school, or even the personal struggles that weigh down on everyone. Now more than ever, with advancements in technology and the increased prominence of fantastical immersion, video games have become more of an escape for people of all ages.

No longer are video games considered the medium for children looking to “waste time.” Rather, these virtual worlds have transformed into an integral part of how a grand portion of the globe’s population interacts with each other. Moreover, video games offer a much-needed respite from one’s struggles, drawing people into a fictitious realm in which they journey with a hero on their adventures in a compelling fable, or compete with other players worldwide.

Whatever one’s reasons for playing, video games are an outlet through which gamers alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and a myriad of other emotions, giving rise to joy and relaxation alongside a sense of accomplishment. This escape provides users with an opportunity to not only temporarily get away from whatever troubles them, but also inspires them and promotes creativity.

Inspiration

The old ways of acquiring inspiration (books, role models, school, friends and colleagues, etc.) are still tried and true. However, just as humans have evolved over millennia, so, too, have the means of stimulus and influence. Alongside these traditional sources of encouragement comes video games—visual, interactive stories and competitions that stimulate one’s mind and get hearts pumping and adrenaline rushing.

From betrayal to romance, the most traditional storytelling tropes have been plucked from novels and cinema to create these immersive, interactive worlds. Video games offer lessons in commitment, dedication, persistence, and so much more. Repeatedly, fans see their favorite heroes get knocked down, and then those same fans take control of those heroes and take them through the journey of picking themselves back up.

Assassin’s Creed II has players take control of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, even after they witness half the character’s family murdered before their very eyes. They join Ezio on his journey to avenge his family and develop into someone who refuses to give up, who uses ingenuity to learn and expand his own horizons to accomplish his goals—a tale of hope for anyone struggling to bounce back after trauma and tragedy.

Furthermore, from a technical standpoint, the advancement of video games in terms of how much they have evolved over the years is enough to inspire any aspiring video game developer. Taking one look at the beautiful worlds companies like Ubisoft, Bethesda, Square Enix, 343 Industries, and so many more create does wonders to convincing a plethora of gamers to learn how to code or write a compelling story.

Despite previous misconceptions that video games only give people a space in which to waste time, this hobby (or often profession, if one considers the earnings of the top eSports competitors) has shifted opinions to a more curious perspective. It’s difficult to ignore something so popular that promotes so much creativity.

Creativity

Initially, video games were a mere medium of entertainment. Simple games like Pong did little to foster the mental acuity of their users. However, since the 1980s, video games have surpassed their meager, albeit fun, precursors. Solving puzzles, exploring vast geographies, and overcoming challenging obstacles are just some of the facets of modern video games that force players to think a little deeper about the game’s objectives.

Sometimes, the direct path isn’t the answer, and video games teach players how to come up with alternative solutions to their problems. For example, titles like 2018’s Kingdom Come: Deliverance or 2001’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic give gamers the ability to choose how to complete certain missions, forcing them to deal with different consequences depending on the choices they make. Not all problems are easy, and video games can help equip players with the tools they will need to think about multiple possible solutions to a challenge.

Beyond ruminating about alternative solutions, the creativity avid gamers develop through video games will help them in other ways, such as their ability to think critically about certain concepts and form their own perspectives on complicated situations. Is the Dragonborn character gamers control in Skyrim defined only as the Dragonborn, or does that character bring more to the table than being a slayer who can communicate with mighty, scaly, winged lizards?

Video games keep fans’ minds churning with ideas for their own stories, whether those tales are reflections of their own lives or the inspiration for elements of their own literary or cinematic endeavors. Fans often draw courage from the heroes in their favorite titles, looking to them to help them out of a rut or learn how to deal with their own troubles. 

Whether learning how to use a little more diplomacy to negotiate through a bad situation or finding the gumption to learn martial arts to stay in shape or for self-defense, much of gamers’ motivation can be traced back to the inspiration they garnered from the heroes they see in all forms of media, and video games are no exception.

Evolution

Just as humans have to crawl before they walk, video games had to start small and gain traction before the world was ready to advance them to their current state. No longer are these virtual, interactive worlds a backdrop that people use to merely pass the time. Rather, they are the catalyst for courage, inspiration, creativity, and entertainment.

While video games have come a long way since the early days of Pong, they have still only progressed to a state of adolescence. Technology is advancing at a more rapid rate than ever before, and companies are no longer limiting themselves in terms of what they can achieve with one of the fastest-growing, financially prosperous, emotionally charged industries the world has ever seen. 

Dylan Warman

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‘Death Stranding’ Wants People to Connect Again

Underneath all of the standard Kojima weirdness and style, Death Stranding is really about just one thing: connecting. 

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Death Stranding

Death Stranding is a game about a lot of different things. It’s about couriers criss-crossing post-apocalyptic America. It’s about interdimensional ghosts called BTs and special babies who can detect them. However, underneath all of the standard Kojima weirdness and style, Death Stranding is really about just one thing: connecting.

While the more overt goal of the game is to reconnect a fractured future America by travelling across the country and extending a network of cities and outposts, this idea of connection goes even deeper. Death Stranding isn’t just about the idea of connecting, it’s about the process of it.

Death Strandin
Like Dark Souls before it, Death Stranding is a lonely game. Most of the time you spend playing it you’ll be alone, and fearfully vulnerable because of it. Also like Dark Souls, though, you’ll encounter other players primarily through how their actions have affected the world around you. Players are encouraged to leave helpful messages, donated gifts or leftover tools behind to help others, and doing so is a truly rewarding experience.

We’ve all been the person who needs help in our lives. Whether through money troubles, relationship problems or a more dire situation, all of us have had to ask for help in our lives. The more alone a person is, the less people they have to ask for help and that’s why Death Stranding always wants to remind you that you’re not alone. Even if it’s just a ladder or rope to help you scale a cliff or cross a river, players are always helping each other out, either outright or inadvertently.


This help fills the player with the spirit of generosity in turn, making them want to pay it forward by helping other players who are blazing their own trail behind them. Having been helped out plenty of times in their playthrough, Kojima and co. hope the player will turn around and help other players in need.

It’s a novel idea and one that forms the central theme of the game. Sam, the protagonist of Death Stranding, even suffers from a condition called aphenphosmphobia: fear of being touched. The metaphor extends itself into Sam’s past where he felt let down and abandoned by his family, and his body, covered with painful handprints of the BTs he’s encountered. Still Sam, like the player, is constantly encouraged to reach out and connect with others in this troubled world and cannot succeed truly without doing so.


As noted in interviews, Kojima was inspired by Donald Trump and Brexit to create this story. He noted how separated the US and Great Britain are under these divisive forces, and wanted to build a game where people would connect with one another rather than fighting over political and ideological differences. Kojima also noted the irony of the internet, which connects us all to one another, yet often leads users to withdraw from one another into smaller communities of like-minded individuals.

Hence the idea of uniting under a great threat and working together to overcome our differences. Death Stranding doesn’t want us to feel so alone, and thus, literally and metaphorically, encourages us to find and connect to one another, regardless of our differences. It’s not necessarily a major surprise to see Kojima come up with a story like this. After all, his Metal Gear Solid series often featured scenes where the heroes and the villains connected with one another over tragic confessions and professional admiration.

In some ways it’s a truly beautiful idea. While, again with some irony, the game itself seems to be dividing people in significant ways (some gamers have taken to review bombing Death Stranding on Metacritic) the notion itself is a powerful one, and makes Death Stranding one of the most interesting games to come along in a good, long while.

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