It's all about... emotional connection, the producer of an upcoming Sony blockbuster said in answer to a question that used to stress him out.
"There's a part where Drake has to snap to cover," Sam Thompson, producer for "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves," started telling me during a morning demo of the game last week in New York City. "The bullets are flying, and he's outgunned. Out-manned. You can see the sweat on his face." As Thompson was saying this the PS3 he was next to idled, "Uncharted 2" was paused, because this thing he was telling me was crucial.
Thompson was interrupting his own demo to tell me the answer to a question I hadn't yet asked but he knew I would: Why should people care about this game?
It's a cheap, unanswerable question that I had sprung on Thompson two years ago when he showed me the first "Uncharted." The question had thrown him back then. He admitted this to his bosses and so they trained him for its return. They had him prep an answer, shadow-box a reply.
And now he was giving it to me, telling me why "Uncharted 2" mattered -- before I even had a chance to ask.
He described that moment of series hero Nathan Drake under fire, Drake's face dripping perspiration. Thompson: "At that moment you actually feel what he's feeling in the game… the character connects with the player. And the game is full of moments like that."
We are him. We can imagine being him.
That's the hook.
The first "Uncharted" was already a game of intentionally stumbling animations. Nathan Drake was a mere mortal. He'd lose his footing, barely make jumps, and panic.
In his sequel he will be even more the human hero. In the short section of the game Thompson played through -- a gunfight down a cluttered Asian street -- I saw some of this. Drake stumbled. He hung dangerously from outcroppings. He was constantly outgunned. Thompson didn't show me, but described Drake's hand-to-hand combat skills as even more fallible than in the first game. Players will still have to time button-presses to fist-fighting animations, but in the new game, a missed roundhouse punch from Drake will lead to an enemy catching his arm or grappling a hold onto Drake. You'll feel that.
I watched Drake make a tough jump. The noise of an overhead helicopter gave him cover to do it and sneak up on a guard. Without the chopper Drake's leap would have caused a racket and alerted the guard. That's pure Drake: subject to the nature of the world around him.
He is still a video game character, of course. Nathan Drake is a more capable man than most of us. In the new game Drake's actually a better climber than he had been. He can shoot one-handed from any place he's clinging. He can even be more sneaky in the new game. More stealth options are allowed, though Thompson said there are no rewards other than player satisfaction for trying different tactics to get through a level -- no special powers gained, of course, or skill tree up which Drake can figuratively climb.
But Drake, at heart, is supposed to be ... just a guy, a grumbling, muttering, flirtatious guy caught in extraordinary circumstances under extraordinary pressure. That makes him different from many game heroes. That enables the connection.
What makes "Uncharted 2" matter? If Sony's right, the answer is an exciting one: that each bead of sweat on its heroes face will matter to us as we steer him to his destiny, that we'll feel his struggle as we cheer him to victory.