Tag Archives: Among Thieves

Sorry Nate, There’s No Princess In This Castle

Let’s talk about damsels, because the idea of the damsel in distress goes way back and ‘cuz damseling female characters (especially in video games) kinda has to stop.

So what is a damsel in distress? Anita Sarkeesian succinctly describes it as “a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character…” This has been a staple of video games since very early on. In Super Mario Bros, Mario quests to save Princess Peach. This wasn’t necessarily bad, but it becomes a problem when the save-the-girl trope becomes systemic. It becomes old when I’m still saving Peach again nearly three decades later.

But let’s not focus on what games are doing wrong, since that’s plain depressing. Uncharted, in each of its three games, utilizes the damsel-in-distress trope, but in different ways each time. Given developer Naughty Dog’s near-legendary know-how of storytelling, it should come as no surprise that they know how to use and subvert this trope with great mastery.

The first game, Drake’s Fortune, seems to play the trope mostly straight. Reporter-of-sorts Elena, protagonist Nathan Drake’s sidekick/tagalong, gets captured early on in the story. The first chunk of the main story has Nate trekking to a castle to free Elena — only to get himself captured. It’s then Elena who busts him out, nicely turning the male-hero-rescues-imprisoned-female dynamic on its head. Elena does get captured again towards the end, and Nate sets out after her (and the treasure). It makes enough sense in context — and Elena is far from a helpless hostage, she fights her captors and effectively sets up the final confrontation of Nate and the villain. She’s damsel’d, yes, but she’s hardly helpless most of the time.

Elena shows up about halfway through Among Thieves, the second game; this time she meets Nate gun in hand, on her own (investigative) hunt for warlord Zoran Lazaravic. Not only does she not need saving: she’s now a fighter in her own right. This game doesn’t damsel her, and even getting caught in an explosion towards the end doesn’t make her the villain’s helpless captive.

But Among Thieves introduces a new character in Chloe, an old flame from Nate’s past who constantly  flips sides between good and bad. Nate, feeling like he’s dragged her into this mess, is eager to rescue her from Zoran’s camp. To do so, he fights his way along a train traveling through Nepal (that he got on with Elena’s help, which is also worth noting). But when he finds Chloe it turns out she doesn’t want to be saved: this ‘damsel’ has her own agenda. Nate — and by extension the player — may see Chloe as a damsel, but she’s hardly in distress. Here Naughty Dog subverts the players’ expectations that the damsel awaits the heroes with open arms. Instead, Chloe saves Nate’s ass when they reunite and then calls him out on his stupid heroics. Nate’s princess isn’t in another castle: Nate’s princess plain doesn’t exist.

So come the third game, Drake’s Deception, it’s almost expected that no female character gets damsel’d. And they don’t, at no point is Nate trying to save a captured woman. Instead, his best friend and father-figure Sully is captured. A good chunk of the second act has Nate trying to rescue Sully. Having an older man as the damsel rather than the typical attractive young-woman is a fun twist in and of itself. But Naughty Dog doesn’t let it end there. Nate’s unrelenting quest to rescue Sully gives us a glimpse into his own psyche. Sully being captured doesn’t just serve as an arbitrary goal for Nate; instead his capture forces Nate to confront his own inner demons, demons that only a smack on the head from a father-figure can cure him of. Dameseling a male character not only avoids unfortunate implications, but also lets us a see a more vulnerable Nate.

We need more video games like the Uncharted games. Hell, we need more stories like this. It’s wonderful to see women in an action-adventure genre who aren’t reduced to set dressing. Characters who, like Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, can hold their own and are fantastic in their own right. What Uncharted does is show that stories with strong plotting and motivation can be written without resorting to creating damsels in distress. It’s time to stop being lazy and to work on storytelling.

Postscript: Gameplay-wise, Chloe and Elena are useful allies in firefights, never becoming a burden. Furthermore, these games fantastic to play and not just for the narrative, they’re solid all around. Also Drake’s Deception is an example of what I was talking about last week, where we have a mixed cast but also bits of intimacy between Nate and Sully. See? It’s doable.

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Of Ludonarrative Dissonance

I say again and again on this blog that video games are a truly unique medium especially when it comes to storytelling. Thing is, storytelling in games is inherently weird. What you do in the game doesn’t always quite line up with the narrative it’s telling. Clint Hocking dubbed it ludonarrative dissonance, TV Tropes calls it Gameplay and Story Segregation.

As narratives in gaming become more complex, this dissonance becomes steadily more pronounced. Much of Among Thieves, the second Uncharted game, has Nathan Drake chasing after war-criminal Zoran Lazarevic (and Shambala too). Drake, the wise cracking treasure hunter, is the clear good guy since, well, Lazarevic is a war criminal. At least that’s what the narrative says. During gameplay the player will wind up shooting quite a few bad guys. And by quite a few I mean easily a couple hundred. See, Among Thieves is an action-adventure game and, like many games in its genre, a frequent obstacle for players comes in the form of enemies. There’s some platforming, some puzzles, and several bouts of shooting. It’s fun, but it does make it weird to have Drake calling Lazarevic out on him being a ruthless killer at the end. To the game’s credit, Lazarevic responds by calling Drake out on it too. But that’s not much, seeing as Drake’s, y’know, mowed through a small army.

There’s a lot of writing on this, actually, a quick google of “Uncharted body count” brings up as much. I always justified it for the most part by using the cutscenes as the actual story and the gameplay bits as more gamey bits. When Nate, Lazarevic, and the others prepare to enter Shambala there are only a handful of henchmen in the cutscene, despite the several dozen you encounter in firefights. The gameplay and story are segregated. Is it a perfect solution? No, not at all. Is Among Thieves still a phenomenal game? Yes, but the argument is no less valid.

Some people feel that this dissonance is a big problem with stories in games. Way they figure, for a game to really tell a good story, gameplay should be story and vice-versa. An open world game, like Skyrim, attempts to reconcile all this by giving the player a ridiculous amount of freedom in their actions. Though there is a main story, the player is under no rush to complete it and can even ignore if they wish. Skyrim becomes a sort of choose-your-own-adventure story, wherein you tell your own story through your actions.

Journey takes the opposite route. In the award-winning independent game, the player can only do a few things (jump/glide, move, and chirp; compared to jump, move, roll, climb, shoot, hit, etc in Among Theives) and follows a very linear path. The story is simple, but incredibly heartfelt. The simplicity of the narrative and gameplay allows for little ludonarrative dissonance. It works, but it just doesn’t have the depth that Among Thieves has.

So what’s the solution? There are some who say that video games are simply ill-equipped to tell stories at the present (I believe Johnathan Blow said something to the effect of to truly reconcile gameplay and story we’d need an incredible AI to be able to adapt to player input much the way a Dungeon Master would in tabletop). Steve Gaynor, who did Gone Home, thinks that one of the most unique ways games can tell stories is through the environments. Exploring a virtual space can be a story in its own way.

I think ludonarrative dissonance is something that has to be accepted. Among Thieves would be a very different game were it have only a few firefights. They have to be accepted as part of the game. Furthermore, to remove the game’s linearity (something that does come up) would wreck the finely crafted narrative. Games are, and I say this a bunch, a very nascent medium. Designers and players are finding new ways to tell stories and hear them told, be they procedural like Among Thieves and Journey or emergent like in Skyrim and The Sims. Unlike much of film, tv, and books, wherein the strength of the work is primarily found in the story; games are not beholden to it: Pacman and The Last of Us are both great games, one has no plot and the former has one that rivals — and beats — what you see in theaters. Video games allow for works all over the ludonarrative dissonance scale; what’s wonderful is that they can be good no matter where they fall.

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Defying Conventions

I’m still not done spitballing this essay (which is problematic, seeing as it’s due on Monday) but I’ve narrowed in my focus to make it more relevant to the class. Rather than comparing Mass Effect 3 and The Last of Us, I’m going to look at the latter game and how it does away with many of the accepted conventions of narrative video games.

Academically. Because I can.

See, for the most part narrative video games have taken on three very common tropes. Now, these aren’t bad. Phenomenal games like Mass Effect 3, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and Halo 4 employ these to great effect. What The Last of Us does is dare to do away with these.

Take saving the world. We see it everywhere in games; just looking at my shelf we have Mass Effect and the Jak and Daxter trilogy, all about saving the world (or community or what have you) from some evil. Within these games a lot of the drama comes from the need to save the world. Look at Mass Effect 3, in it Commander Shepard has to save the galaxy from the apocalyptic Reapers. There is great tension in the game due to the ever-present threat of the reapers. Every action Shepard takes, particularly with diplomacy, is heavier because if he fails the galaxy then the galaxy is lost. Commander Shepard must save the day.

Joel, the protagonist of The Last of Us, does not have the world at stake. The story is not about Joel saving the world, it is about Joel bringing Ellie to a destination. It’s a video game about a journey where the goal is almost irrelevant. The tension in the story is steadily born not out of any grand importance but out of the relationship between the two main characters. The Last of Us goes smaller and far more personal and manages to pull it off. Here we have a video game with a comparatively small focus, one unlike many of its contemporaries.

So then what is the central tension of The Last of Us? In most video games (and even several books and movies) it boils down to the fundamental conflict of good versus evil. And why not? It’s a universal conflict. The central theme of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is such. Will Nathan Drake do the right thing? It’s handled with a deal of nuance better than other games (say, any Final Fantasy), going so far as to have each love interest in the game embody one side of Drake’s duality. Among Thieves is a stellar game about good and evil. Sure, there are a few shades of gray thrown in, but still; a story about good versus evil is not bad.

The Last of Us is built on shades of gray. Joel is not a good man. We hear hints throughout the narrative of what he’s spent the twenty years since the outbreak doing. He was a raider, he killed people, he’s been a thief. He is not a nice man, if anything, he’s a hollow man no better than the others in the wastes. So what then of Ellie, the fourteen-year-old you’re charged with protecting? In any other story, no matter the medium, she would be Joel’s morality pet. Instead, Ellie is a fallen character unto herself: she’s willing takes up arms to kill others and will fight to survive no matter what. She is by no means an objectively ‘good’ character in the way Nathan Drake or Shepard are. What we have in The Last of Us is a story that hinges not on any sort of morality. Instead it is a story about surviving at any cost.

Which brings us to the third trope. Video games are more than about survival, they are often power fantasies, whether it is mowing down terrorists or fighting off invading aliens. Again, this, along with the other two tropes, is not bad. Video games, like many other mediums, are a form of escapism. In Halo 4 you are the Master Chief, an incredible super soldier who can stop the Covenant and The Didact and his Prometheans. You singlehandedly take on entire armies, thereby defeating evil and saving the world. In Halo 4 you get to be the hero and you are capable of being a one man army.

In The Last of Us you are constantly on the run. You never have enough ammo (it’s the only game I’ve played where having seven bullets is considered a lot), you are frequently low on health, and any more than two enemies usually means you’re in trouble. Rather than making you feel powerful, The Last of Us makes you feel desperate. If you miss this shot you won’t have enough ammo to kill the other soldiers hunting you. Unlike many other contemporary games, your health in The Last of Us does not regenerate, meaning if you take damage you have no way to recover beyond expending a valuable medkit. You are not all powerful: you are vulnerable and doing what you can to survive.

Though it discards many of the accepted norms of its medium, The Last of Us does it with a finesse seldom seen. The game does not subvert these tropes just for the sake of them, but rather to drive home the theme. The comparatively small stakes, the lack of a grand morality, and the vulnerability all work together to create something unique. The Last of Us is a AAA-studio game unlike many others before it, due in no small part to it daring to do something different. Neil Druckmann, creative director of the game, wanted something to raise the bar for the industry as a whole. It’s arguable this game has helped elevate the medium.

Now then. Let’s write this essay.

 

What else do I do for school? Make movies. Watch my newest short, “The Mysterious Glowy Object” now!

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Heroic Motivation

I’m gonna do something a little different this week. A few weeks ago I wrote a post as a sounding board for a Research Paper I had to write for a class. Now I figured “hey, why don’t I post that research paper?” So I am. It’s much longer than a usual post (nearly 5 times as long), but I feel like it’s one of the best things I’ve written. So here it is, in all it’s A-, MLA-ish glory:

Heroes. There’s no such thing.” So says Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin in Iron Man 3 as he threatens the titular hero and, to an extent, the villain is right. Lately, heroes, particularly in adventure narratives, have taken a turn for the unheroic. Where once there were heroes like Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins who, through and through, were good to the core, now heroes are of a murkier sort. Even Iron Man is not a clear cut hero. In the past, protagonists were motivated to do their heroics simply because it was good. They were the good guys; the prince saves the princess and slays the dragon because he’s good and the dragon is evil. But time went on and fiction began to explore princes who weren’t so clean cut, heroes who weren’t good for the sake of good. Yet these protagonists remained heroes; they would still ultimately rise up to do the right thing and save the day (even if saving the day had little effect on the outside world). So what is it that motivates these protagonists who aren’t strictly heroes to heroism? Perhaps it would do to examine reluctant heroes from books, movies, video games, and television as diverse as Pi Patel, Tony Stark, Nathan Drake, and Malcolm Reynolds in the hopes of finding some commonality between them. What drives characters who are ordinary teenagers, irresponsible playboys, selfish treasure hunters, or lawless rebels to acts of heroism?

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