False Improvisation: One Way to Make Linear Games Feel More Interactive

If anyone follows my writing at all, they know that whenever I need an example of a great gameplay element or other great feature, I immediately turn to old faithful, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Once again, I turn to Uncharted 2 to discuss one great technique that isn’t being used enough in the industry right now. This technique is “false improvisation”. To illustrate what I mean by this, let me once again take you into the world of Uncharted.

Chase sequences have been a staple of games for years; players will often find themselves running from enemies they cannot fight. One such gameplay section appears in Uncharted 2, where a group of museum guards are chasing Drake through the sewers under a museum. In this sequence, the player feels like they have a large degree of freedom and are effectively picking Drake’s path as he runs away. This fantastic adrenaline rush is in fact a charade. The masterful camera work used in Uncharted 2 subtly points players in the correct direction, giving them the false feeling that they were improvising on the fly and that their quick thinking was the only reason Drake survived. Another similar situation occurs later in Uncharted 2, in a thrilling chase where Drake is running from a tank. While the game funnels the player down certain corridors, the player feels like they have the freedom to choose their own path. In reality, their chosen path usually is the “right path”, or the path the developer chose. In an industry where linear games are quite common, this false sense of non-linearity and freedom is incredibly effective at breaking up the pacing of the game, and making the player feel more like they are controlling the outcome on screen instead of just playing through a movie, so to speak.

While many open-world games promise and deliver on a multitude of options and situations ripe for improvisation, few linear games offer similar choices. While the cinematic, scripted set pieces of linear games are gratifying and effective, they threaten to stray away from the one thing that distinguishes video games from film or television: they are interactive. I love linear games as much as the next person, but techniques like false improvisation make these games feel like truly interactive video games, experiences that change based on your choices.

There are many other techniques like false improvisation that help make games feel more interactive, and Uncharted is by no means the only game that employs these techniques. As an industry, we must never let go of the interactivity that is unique to video games; we must celebrate it. By using these techniques like the Uncharted series has so effectively, we as an industry can continue to highlight why video games are such a distinctive and entertaining medium.