Tag Archives: Uncharted

Guns.

Let’s talk about guns. Particularly the way we relate to them in fiction, particularly how I relate to them through the fiction I consume.

First, however, real life. I’ve handled guns before, fired shotguns and rifles with friends in the American South, and trained with an assault rifle on a range. I mention this to say that I’m very aware of what these weapons can do, I’ve felt the recoil and smelt the gunpowder, I’ve watched a machine gun obliterate a tree trunk. There’s little doubt in my mind of what these awesome and terrible machines can do.

I’ve been thinking about violence in video games for a long time. In light of certain recent events, I’ve been thinking about guns too, and the relationship I have with them — particularly the way I interact them with most: video games.

Guns are also a big part of many video games, especially the First-Person Shooter genre and its cousin, the Third-Person Shooter. By being, well, a shooter, they feature guns. Sometimes it can be simple, as in Halo where there’s a single assault rifle, pistol, shotgun, etc; or more complex like in Borderlands where there’s a whole cornucopia of different shotguns, rifles, and what have you. Different games treat their guns differently.

In the Uncharted series, guns play the same role they do in a pulpy action movie like Indiana Jones or Mission: Impossible. They add tension, what with offering Nathan Drake a good deal of peril as he and his allies galavant around the world. To get from A to B, Nate’s gotta fight his way past these mercenaries with a combination of stealth, fisticuffs, and gunplay. Of course, guns aren’t the only way for the player to interact with the world in these games, there’s also finding treasure, solving puzzles, and a lot of death-defying climbing. The tension here comes from a lot of places, and the gun-based violence is only one, admittedly big, facet of it.

Come Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, though, guns take something of an optional back seat. Yes, you can still shoot your way through things, but there’s a bigger emphasis on exploration and avoiding conflict altogether. The wonderful chapter “At Sea” is all about Nate and his brother treasure hunting in a small archipelago, with nary a gunfight in view.  The game has a more mature approach to violence, one that shows just how far the series has come in the nine years since its inception.

In between the third Uncharted and A Thief’s End was The Last Of Us, an entirely new game by developer Naughty Dog. In a strong departure from the pulpiness of Uncharted, The Last of Us is absolutely brutal in its violence. Enemies beg for their lives, the infected weep as they shuffle around. Killing is not fun, and when you do get a hold of guns — and their all too little ammo — the brutality of it all borders on horror. I suspect that A Thief’s End’s less cavalier attitude towards gunplay was influenced by Naughty Dog making The Last of Us, but that’s another thing altogether.

The Uncharted games feature a mix of real-world guns (like the FAL and AK-47) alongside fictional ones. They add a measure of ‘realism’ to the game, not terribly like how an action movie would use specific guns for specific situations — an American soldier would probably favor an American assault rifle, while that gun-for-hire might have one made by a foreign manufacturer. Metal Gear Solid realized this and peppered its world with real weapons, like the French FAMAS, German PSG1, and American FIM-92 Stinger. MGS is a far more serious military game than my prior examples, so it makes sense they’d wanna get super real with it and talk about the nitty-gritty of the guns. The later games expand on the assortment of weaponry, getting up into having dozens of different guns. But as they do, so too do they discourage you from wanton violence: using non-lethal methods of taking out enemies can net you a better score or provide you with more personnel for your base. Just because there are a whole bunch of guns there for you to use, doesn’t mean you have to actually run around shooting people. The Metal Gear Solid series is profoundly anti-war, in the sort of way only someone who grew up in post-WW2 Japan could create.

Which brings me to the Call of Duty games. A series of military FPS, the fourth game Modern Warfare brought them into contemporary warfare and, with it, the associated guns too. Though the original Modern Warfare did a lot of really cool things with its setting (hey, ever experienced a nuke going off while playing in first-person? It’s terrifying), the series got steadily more pulpy as it went on. That said, however, the game’s attitude towards its violence remained very rah-rah kill-the-bad-guys-yay! in ways that Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid never were. There’s a point where the games, and the marketing around them, started to become unsettling with how gung-ho they were about the variety of weaponry the games offered to be a soldier from a Western nation shooting up the third-world. I stopped following the series some time ago, its celebration of militarism and what went along with it becoming something I really didn’t like engaging in.

On the totally opposite side are the Borderlands games, wonderful shooters set in the distant future on the distant planet of Pandora. I’ve been playing a lot of Borderlands 2 with my brother lately, and the game’s such an utter delight. Part of the game’s appeal comes from its core loop: shoot enemies, get better guns, level up, repeat. Guns are procedurally generated, and in addition to the more traditional sort of weaponry, you can get an assault rifle that shoots rockets, shotguns that hurl balls of electricity, and a cursed submachine gun that screams when you fire it. It’s bonkers, and the guns are a big part of the game; it’s always exciting to find a new, unique gun and take it for a spin. But I think that unlike Call of Duty, Borderlands doesn’t fetishize guns. Sure, they’re cool, and a big focus of the game and marketing, but narratively they end up ancillary to the crazy characters and quests that populate the world. Maybe the fact that the guns are procedurally generated plays a part in it, but honestly, I’m willing to bet that it’s just the way the developers think. The guns are, ultimately, tools, and not the focus of the game — all this despite it being a First-Person Shooter.

Honestly, I wish I had a tidy and pretty answer to all this, especially after eleven hundred words. Yet I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. I love how Destiny’s exotic weapons are treated like Excalibur and Andúril, only guns instead of swords. Portal has a gun but it shoots portals instead of bullets, really screwing with assumptions of the FPS genre. The guns in Horizon Zero Dawn are terrifying weapons in a world of bows, spears, and robot dinosaurs. It seems like just about every single video game has a different relationship with guns, just as every player probably has a different relationship with pulling the controller’s trigger. 

But I don’t believe that video games and their violence have much in relation to real-world violence — and neither does the science. Granted, something like Call of Duty is far more popular in the US than elsewhere, but that’s arguably more a reflection of the militarism that is part of American culture. I know that for me, a lot of these games are a great way to relieve stress; the catharsis of mowing down Psychos and Nomads in Borderlands 2 with my brother offers an odd sort of zen following a week of depressing news. Perhaps I’m good at compartmentalizing, in that I can easily differentiate between fantasy and reality, and am happy to dive into one to escape the other. My brother and I have killed each other hundreds of thousands of times in virtual deathmatches, but I’m sickened to my stomach by the idea of holding a real rifle against him. 

There’s a lot at play here, and the culture around guns certainly does involve video games (there’s a fascinating article on the Barret M82 rifle and how it’s placement in games has affected the real world), but it’s one that applies to other media too. At the end of it all, though, these games have given me experiences unrivaled. Uncharted took me on adventures, The Last of Us left me a sobbing wreck, Metal Gear Solid has given me eerie chills with its storytelling (even as I go on joyrides). I’ll always love playing Halo, Borderlands, or Army of Two with my brother, cracking jokes and drinking beers as we shoot bad guy after bad guy. They’re fun, a lot of fun, but I owe it to myself to interrogate why they’re fun and be aware of the relationship between fiction and reality.

Ultimately, though, when it comes to real life, video games don’t kill people. Guns do.

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Of The End

Reaching the end of a good story is always a bittersweet affair. There’s no doubt a sense of joy in the catharsis of resolution, that sense that the story has been completed and all is well. In a good story, its ending will pay off all that came before. But an ending means it’s over; the story and characters that you’ve spent several hours with are done. You don’t get to be a part of their lives and adventures anymore.

It’s certainly kinda weird: these characters are fictional, this world, no matter how similar to our own, is an artifice. Yet there’s such a want to spend more time there. I want to spend more time with the Pevensies in Narnia, I wanna join Luke Skywalker for more of his adventures, I’m really happy that Nathan and Elena got their happy ending, but man, I would love to have another story.

These stories are decidedly done. Uncharted 2 comes to a close and so too does Nate’s adventures in Nepal. Sure, the series counties in its sequels, but there won’t be more of Nathan Drake exploring the Himalayas with Elena and a chronically side-switching Chloe. That moment, that particular dynamic is unique to this story.

Maybe there are stories to be told. There are a couple years between Avengers and Age of Ultron, presumably filled with stories as the Avengers hunt after Hydra. But there’s not gonna be a big movie about that time, featuring the original six doing their thing. That time is past, those stories are told.

Now there is space for those stories to be told; consider the books, games, and comics of the old Star Wars Expanded Universe. They filled the gaps between the movies, introduced new characters, and expanded the world to a ridiculous degree. But even the best books aren’t the same as getting to see and hear Luke, Han, and Leia traipse around the Death Star. Stories lose part of their jazz when translated into a different medium. Maybe it’s the change in budget or creative team; in any case, it’s just not quite the same. Could be good, really good, it just won’t really be the same.

Could the continued Avengers films have maintained the status quo and told more stories of the six saving the day together? Sure. But we’ve already heard that story – it’s the climax of the first movie. There’s little to be gained when retreading old ground, it’s far more interesting to push these characters in wholly new directions. A Thief’s End sees Nathan Drake going on yet another adventure, but this one isn’t after another mystic artifact or following an adventure of Francis Drake. There are the familiar thrills and witticisms — it wouldn’t be Uncharted without ‘em, but Nate’s on a different journey yet again. It’s not the same story as the one before.

It’s frustrating, sometimes. I love the third season of Chuck, and I wish the show could just stay there forever. But at the same time, I’m so glad the series has the chance to grow and for characters to change and so on. It’s one of my favorite shows perhaps because it had the space for that change and progression. I’m sure that had it stayed as its season three self for the entire time it would be tiring and lose what makes it so special. It’s precisely because it doesn’t last that it’s so special.

To all this, Avengers: Endgame is the, uh, end, of the MCU as we know it (give or take a Spider-Man movie coming out in a couple months). It’s quite the feat to resolve ten years of storytelling, but somehow the movie actually does. With that, it’s done. There’ll probably be another Avengers movie, but it ain’t gonna be one too familiar (for a whole variety of reasons), just as no sequel is quite like the original. The old ones can be revisited, yes, and replayed, reread, and rewatched; but they’re over, the story had to end.

Maybe that ephemerality is what makes stories so special. Just because something doesn’t last forever doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

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What’s The Point of Movies?

I’m replaying Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (and it is wonderful) and I can’t help but to be reminded that there’s supposed to be a movie adaption of this game happening. Like, it’s been in development since 2010. Every now and then there’ll be some announcement (apparently Tom Holland is playing a young Nathan Drake now?), but then it fizzles out into the background. Kinda like how film adaption of The Last of Us went, there was a bunch of buzz, and now we’re three years later aaaand… nothing.

But video games are being made into movies. There was that Assassin’s Creed film last year that nobody saw and meanwhile Alicia Vikander looks pitch perfect in the upcoming reboot of the Tomb Raider movies (this time based on the reboot of the Tomb Raider video games). This isn’t a post about development hell. This is about adaptions.

A Thief’s End takes around fifteen hours to play through. Now, I bring up Thief’s End because it doesn’t have as much gameplay-and-story separation as, say, Halo. Exploration is part of the narrative in A Thief’s End, both for the dialogue between characters as it happens, and for it being part of the game’s central quest. Basically, it’s not filler. It’s a fifteen hour game and a  fifteen hour story.

Fifteen hours is, obviously, thirteen hours longer than your typical movie. It’s about the length of a full season of Star Wars Rebels, or the final season of LOST. It’s longer than the entire extended Lord of The Rings trilogy.

In other words, why bother compressing it into a two hour movie? What’s about movie do better than other forms of story? Let’s ignore the fact that big movies get budgets several orders of magnitude bigger than tv shows or whatever, why two hours and not more? Books give you hundreds of pages to explore character and plot, tv shows a couple dozen episodes a season, and video games hours and hours of gameplay. If you’re telling a story, these mediums offer you much more space to explore it. More time to hang out with characters and experience this fictional world.

But too much of a good thing can be bad. It’s why you don’t eat a pound of bacon. Crazy Rich Asians has five-hundred pages to tell its story and ends up meandering around and having little plot, if any, until the last hundred-odd pages where it’s a rushed jumble of half-rate melodrama. There’s a film adaption coming, and maybe compressing it into two hours will do it some good.

‘cuz that’s what happens when you set a limit on the time to tell your story: you gotta focus on the important stuff. The film adaption of The Princess Bride dispenses with a lot of the satire and sideplots in favor of a great love story and the relationship between a kid and his grandfather. Movies, good ones, have to zero in on what really matters to a story. Fundamentally, Guardians of The Galaxy Vol 2 is about family, and by only have two hours, the movie is able to home in on it. Every character confronts the notion of family in one way or another. Even thought the movie’s plot does waffle a bit, it knows full well what it’s about. The runtime of a film forces a cohesiveness to the story, if it’s, y’know, done well.

A Thief’s End isn’t a great example of a game-to-movie adaption, since the structure is so wonderfully tight (seriously, I’m taking notes). There’s not as much narrative fluff to trim as, say, the new Tomb Raider or even Mass Effect. The abounded film adaption of Halo could have done interesting stuff by zeroing in on Chief and Cortana’s relationship set against the fight against the Covenant and the Flood. Movies feel whole, more complete than a tv show (which, by nature, needs to have room for one more episode) or video games (which tend to be longer because, dude, they cost sixty bucks).

I don’t think A Thief’s End should be directly adapted into a movie, and the only reason I have any want for Uncharted to become a movie at all is so non-gamers like my parents can fall in love with these characters. But I don’t think a cinematic adaption’s gonna ‘elevate’ it more than it is. Movies do some things great, but so do video games (and tv, and books, and comics, and plays…). Maybe we should let some games just be games, and let movies do their thing.

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Creative Exchange (and Video Games)

Video games borrow a lot from movies. Snake, on the original box art for Metal Gear, is played by Michael Biehn. Or at least someone who looks just like him. Contra’s box makes it look like you’ll be playing John Matrix and John Rambo taking on the Xenomorph from Alien.

But then there’s Halo, which drew much of its aesthetic wholesale from Aliens. Look at their portrayal of marines in space: the video game’s UNSC Marines sport body armor and helmets almost identical to the Marines in James Cameron’s sequel. Even Halo’s venerable Sergeant Johnson is very much inspired by a sergeant from Aliens. Both forces are fighting against a creepy, parasitic alien that starts out as a small thing that attaches itself to a host.

As much as Halo uses elements of Aliens, however, it never feels like its copying it for lack of better ideas. The game’s plot adds concepts like the genocidal Covenant trying to wipe out humanity, Cortana the glowing blue AI who helps you along your journey, and the mysterious titular Halo ring. Halo also wears its inspiration on its sleeve, making no attempt to cover it up. There’s an affection to its homages and you can tell that Bungie really liked the movie.

Which is kinda how it goes with video games. Gameplay-wise, Halo introduced and popularized several mechanics we now take for granted. In Halo, damage taken isn’t permanent pending a health pickup, rather you have shields that recharge over time. This encouraged players to experiment more, to take more risks – if you got shot too much you could just run off and wait for your shields to recharge before trying again. It changed the way shooters were played, because now almost every shooter has rechargeable health. Halo justified it through your character’s shields, but later games like Uncharted or Call of Duty make no effort to give a narrative explanation. It’s just become the way games are.

I like to talk a lot about how games are a nascent art form, what with Tennis for Two coming out a hair under sixty years ago, and Pong is barely forty-five years old. Since then we’ve seen games grow from basic pixel-ly lines to real-time rendered games that give CGI films a run for their money. Mechanics, too, keep changing. Consider the idea of a cover system, which allows for the player to hide behind something while still shooting. Wikipedia tells me Kill.Switch was the first to implement it, but games like Gears of War and Uncharted really brought it into popular consciousness. There’s an exchange of ideas in video games, one to an extent you don’t really see in other, more established, mediums.

We know what a movie is; there’s fiction, documentaries, and variations thereof. We know what a book is, what a comic is. But what exactly a video game constitutes is kinda left in the air. We’ve Halo, a sci-fi shooter, but That Dragon, Cancer is a game by two parents whose son had terminal cancer. You play a Call of Duty game by running around shooting people, the Sims is pointing and clicking at people and objects, meanwhile Johan Sebastian Joust is played by holding the controller and pushing each other around in real life. The special thing here is that games borrow ideas from each other no matter the genre. An action movie borrowing techniques from an arthouse piece is seen as being daring and cultured, but an early chapter in Uncharted 4’, “A Normal Life,” clearly draws on the exploratory narrative games like Gone Home. This isn’t just happy coincidence; Neil Druckmann, who wrote and directed Uncharted 4, tweeted about the game back when it came out. People who make games play games, like games. Even though there’s a massive variety of types of video games, there’s a cross-pollination amongst them that gives games influences from all over the place.

Look, I like video games a lot. I grew up playing them and find their evolution to be absolutely fascinating, in no small part to taking influences from all over the place. There doesn’t seem to be a ‘wrong’ place to get inspiration. There’s no one correct way to tell stories, so there’s something to be learnt no matter where you look. If video games continue this anything works mindset, I can’t wait to see where we are in ten, twenty, thirty years.

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Experiencing Life

I really really liked 2013’s Tomb Raider. I wasn’t much of a Tomb Raider fan prior; Lara tended to be a little too sexualized for my tastes. Too much like if Indiana Jones had T&A than, well, an adventure story. The reboot, though, was more interested in Lara as a character than her figure. Plus, y’know, I’m a sucker for survivalist story on an island with crazy fanatics. Gameplay was a lotta fun too. So yeah, I really liked the game.

Hence my disappointment when it was announced that the follow up, Rise of The Tomb Raider (…with a questionable name), was going to be exclusive to the Xbox One for its first year of release. A PlayStation man myself, this meant I couldn’t play it until, well, recently.

All this to say, I’m finally playing Rise of The Tomb Raider.

And I am short.

Okay, so, in real life, as someone who hovers somewhere between 6’1 and 6’2, I’m considered tall. Over the years since reaching this height, I’ve gotten used to being tall. I’m the same height as Nolan North, who plays Nathan Drake in Uncharted, so there’s nothing unusual to me as I see me-as-Drake standing next to other people. It’s, y’know, normal.

But when me-as-Lara stands next to someone, sometimes I’m a head shorter. Which is unusual for me. Now, sure, I may be projecting a bit here – but that’s what fiction is, it’s a two-way street; you get what you put in. So me, I suddenly felt a little vulnerable, out there in the Siberian wilderness with the only people not shooting at me these probably-friendly men a bunch taller than me. Sure, I’m Lara Croft, a badass with a bow and guns, but, well, I’m smaller. And maybe this guy underestimates me? Which in turn makes me wonder how much height affects how we perceive and are perceived. Like I said, new experience.

It’s a small thing, and something I didn’t dwell on since there were deer to hunt and tombs to raid, but that’s a thing about video games, isn’t it? You get to live lives you normally don’t.

In video games, I’ve carved a path of vengeance to reclaim my throne (Dishonored 2), been the customs agent for an ersatz Soviet nation (Papers Please), defended Earth from genocidal aliens (Mass Effect and/or Halo), and woken up from a one night stand trying to put together what happened last night and figure out who I woke up next to (One Night Stand). Sure, the main characters of these games may have been people not named Josh, but I was the one doing the things. They are my experiences. It’s me doing all that.

Tom Bissel, in Extra Lives, declares that the big thing video games have given him are experiences, “not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as real memories” (182). For Bissel, he references Grand Theft Auto IV and all the weird crap he got up to between missions (eg: causing a traffic jam and then tossing a grenade into the gridlock). For me, I have memories – real memories – of saving the world a few times over, pulling of a sick getaway after assassinating one of my usurpers, and, yes, feeling short and vulnerable. Video games, like a good book, let you live another life (or an extra life). I get to experience a whole new life. It’s why I love those weird indie games; games like This War of Mine where I scrounged for survival in a war zone as part of a band of survivors or Passage where I walked through a life from birth to death.

And so that’s the thing about fiction; particularly novels and video games which require you to be an active participant in the narrative. You step into a new life and experience it from a point of view unlike your own; be it a little girl in Maycomb, Alabama or a treasure hunter gallivanting across the world. Read a book. Play a video game. Learn about being someone other than yourself.

Live another life.

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Being There

It’s a stormy night in 1995 and you’re a college student just returned from a year abroad. During that time your family moved to a large house on the outskirts of town. A house, you discover, without anyone home that looks like it’s been stolen.

That’s how Gone Home opens, a game where you assume the role of Kaitlin and explore your new house, trying to figure out what happened during the year you were away.

Now, Gone Home toes the line of being a video game. Sure, it’s ‘played,’ but there’s little in the way of actual choices to be made; you’re essentially walking around. There’s no proper conflict, no goombas to stomp nor Russians to shoot; you’re exploring a house and trying to discover what happened to your family. It’s a cool experience rife with environmental storytelling that sits somewhere as a first-person adventure game where the emotional heft comes from a sense of being there.

But that’s Gone Home, a game built entirely around that experience by an independent developer. It’s not something you’d expect to see in a Triple-A video game, the blockbusters of the gaming world. These games, much like movie blockbusters, focus on the action with the story being told through brief cutscenes (or, in the case of the Metal Gear Solid series, radio calls that last a quarter of Gone Home’s playtime). There’s a distinct separation of gameplay and story.

And this is where I talk about Uncharted.

Now, the Uncharted games have made a reputation for themselves by allowing you to play an action movie. Meaning that you don’t just watch Nathan Drake trying to grab on to a falling cargo container or running through a crumbling city; you, the player as Nathan Drake, get to try to grab on to falling cargo containers and run through crumbling cities. Big moments that would either be a cutscene or ignored entirely are made playable. It makes the action in Uncharted feel that much more visceral, you get to be the action hero.

Story, though, has mostly been done through cutscenes and bits of banter interspaced through gameplay. In that sense, Uncharted wasn’t really doing too much besides telling great stories.


Then, earlier this month, came Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Still a grand action-adventure story that would make Indiana Jones jealous, this entry took the time in the story’s downbeats to really let you be there.

Much of the central tension stems from Nathan being persuaded to leave the normal life he’s built with his wife, Elena. But the game doesn’t just tell you this, because that’d be obvious and boring. Rather, once we’ve caught up to Nathan in the present, we get the beautiful chapter “A Normal Life.” In it, the player can explore Nathan’s house, starting in the attic where they can look at notes and mementos of Nathan’s prior adventures before exploring the rest of the house where they can flip through a book of wedding photos and look at to do post-its on the fridge before sitting down with Elena to talk and play a video game (yes, in a video game; it’s awesome). What this delightfully quiet chapter does is put the player in Nathan’s shoes, establishing what he’d be walking away from were it to go on another adventure. Rather than just having Nathan say “I have a good life” in a cutscene, A Thief’s End employs Gone Home’s technique and has the player explore a space, using the clues to form their own narrative.

In other words, “A Normal Life” has the player playing a cutscene, only instead of an action one, it’s a purely story and emotional focused beat. You don’t fight anyone or climb a rockface, instead you just get to be there.

Which is pretty friggin’ fantastic.

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Signs of the Times

The Uncharted games are what got me really into gaming as an adult (well, them and Metal Gear Solid). With the release and my subsequent acquisition of the Nathan Drake Collection, I’ve spent the past couple days replaying Drake’s Fortune, the first game in the series, for the first time in a few years.

And the game still holds up, because of course it does. Drake’s Fortune still looks great eight years after it came out (due in some part to the Remastered nation of the Collection) and it still plays great. Punching and shooting bad guys is as fun as ever and the platforming remains surprisingly deft.

It’s certainly different from the later two Uncharted games, though. Drake’s Fortune lacks the wide variety of verticality that became a hallmark of the series. The game’s firefight arenas are oddly linear. Sure, sometimes you have to shoot up to kill a pirate-mercenary-baddie, but climbing around to flank them from above isn’t so much an option as is continuing on down the differently-dressed corridors of gunfire. Also of note is how oddly lonely Drake’s Fortune seems, especially compared to Among Thieves. Where the later games would have you running around and exchanging banter with someone throughout the game, be it Elena, Chloe, Sully, or Charlie. Drake’s Fortune has Nathan Drake on his own for huge swaths of the game, to the point where it sometimes feels that Naughty Dog was deliberately setting him up to be alone. Sure, we still get him talking to himself now and then, but the lack of banter is noticeable. It also does a disservice to Elena and Sully, who frequently opt to sit out a part of the adventure for some arbitrary reason. Or maybe Among Thieves just isolated Drake more organically. I’m replaying that next.

But what’s most striking about Drake’s Fortune is the parts where it seems so old. The video game landscape looked very different in 2007 than it does now, particularly in narrative-focused adventure games like this. For example, there are a few glaring quick time events where you literally push x (or o) not to die. It’s obvious where the mindset comes from, trying to add some new actions to the game. Drake can jump off a falling ledge now (if you push x at just the right time). These quick time events, besides being annoying (dude, I don’t wanna have to push x not to die randomly during the final showdown!), are jarring when you look at the steps taken in Among Thieves, where the player is in control as a building explodes or a city crumbles. Drake’s Fortune’s quick time events feel lazy and, well, unimaginative.

They do add variety, though, but Drake’s Fortune was clearly born out of an era where gameplay variety meant a couple jet ski chapters and one where you manned the gun on a truck. And sure, it does succeed in switching up gameplay from the usual run-gun-climb, but it feels like a crude method to do so, once again something later Uncharted games have improved on by changing up the area where you run-gun-climb. Not to say it’s bad by any means, rather it’s very much a sign of when it was made. Drake’s Fortune is very much a video game from 2007.

I suppose then that it shows the growing pains of video games like Uncharted went through. Some concepts and features feel have-formed in comparison to what they would become and others feel downright old. All that to say, I can’t help but to wonder how games will look eight years from now; what mechanics that games employ now will be old hat then?

Oh please let it be micro-transactions.

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Another Life

I’m me. That’s pretty obvious. I’m a biracial guy in my mid-twenties who lives in New York. I’ve had my own relatively interesting life, but at the end of the day it’s mine. Barring some crazy The Matrix or Total Recall-esque invention, I’m only ever going to live my life. It’s the only experience I’ll get.

Well, outside of certain kinds of fiction. Fiction offers a window into someone else’s life. The thing is, it’s hard to really make someone experience that life. Doesn’t matter how expertly crafted the movie is, at the end of the day you’re watching someone else’s life, not experiencing it first hand. You’ve no actual involvement.

Books can be a little better, as can let you actually into a character’s mind. Something like Ulysses is an exercise in empathy. There’s very little actual plot to the story, rather the catharsis and enjoyment of the story comes from being someone else. I got to spend a day in the head of an Irish man in his thirties in 1904. It was weird, somewhat long, but a completely new experience. Few books can really make you feel like you are someone else, let alone at this level.

So ‘normal’ narrative isn’t really that good at giving you another life. But video games are. Video games are an experiential medium, rather than being a spectator, in a good game the player experiences the narrative. In The Last of Us I got to be a father trying to protect his daughter. Hopefully, I’ll never have to carry my daughter through a crowd of zombie-esque people, but the game gave me that experience. And because I ended up so invested in the action — after all, I was the one trying to protect her — the ensuing story progression was that much more visceral. I got to be Joel.

It’s part of what makes action games like Halo or Uncharted such fun. You’re not vicariously taking part of the action, like when watching Bruce Willis Die Hard his way through Nakatomi Plaza, instead you get to be the action hero. Halo has you fighting off aliens while Uncharted 2 lets you run across the rooftops escaping from an attack helicopter. The player gets to be the action hero.

But it’s not all fireworks and zombies. Papers Please has the player as an immigration officer in a country that’s not unlike a Cold War USSR. Gameplay centers around making sure travelers have the right documents to cross over, and then rejecting or allowing them. This means double checking stamps and forms with a precision that gave me too many flashbacks to my time as a temp at a law firm. There are some choices too, like whether you help the resistance or if you’ll let the old lady with the sob story over even though everything’s not quite in order. But the strongest aspect of Papers Please is the experience. Suddenly I found myself caring a lot more for immigration officers at the airport, since for a few hours at a time I’d gotten to be them. I wasn’t just told their story, I got to live it for a while.

It’s fun to be someone else for a while, to not just be told someone else’s story, but to actually experience it. When games give you choices (from small ones like how best to get through a group of guards in Uncharted to major ones in Mass Effect where which squad member you assign to a task risks their death), they let you take an active part in the narrative. Storytelling then stops being a spectator sport and lets the audience be a part of it.

So yeah. Games are a fantastic method of telling stories.

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Linear Versus Open World

E3 was this week, which means most major video game companies were showing off the upcoming games they have lined up. There’s a lot to be excited for: Star Wars Battlefront looks great, Dishonored 2 is getting Emily Kaldwin as a protagonist, Kingdom Hearts 3 is finally in development. But me being me, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and the glorious gameplay demo they showed off is what I cared about most.

The game looks great, showing again why Naughty Dog is one of the best in the industry. Telling too is the discussion surrounding the game The Uncharted games, like the more recent The Last of Us, is incredibly narrative focused. More so than role-playing games — traditionally the story based game — Naughty Dog’s recent slew of action adventure games have been all about the story. Furthermore, the games are very linear. Where Final Fantasy VII had side quests, Uncharted keeps going in one direction. You’re basically playing through a movie.

It’s a direction that Neil Druckmann, A Thief’s End’s creative director, deeply believes in, even if that’s not where many other major studios are going. There’s a tendency towards the open world, where games put players in a massive world for them to explore. Bungie left Halo, a very linear shooter, to make Destiny, something that looks a lot more like an RPG with hints of an open-world. Ubisoft’s flagship Assassin’s Creed series lets players roam the ancient world, finding their own fun and pursuing optional objectives. The player doesn’t have to have Ezio continue pursing the Borgias, instead they can recruit more assassins or collect money to improve equipment. Unlike Uncharted, they aren’t forced along a single, linear path.

This is arguably one of the great potentiality of games. Players can do whatever they want and craft their own narrative out of a sandbox. Rather than being shepherded along a preset path, players can strike out and find their adventures. Games, after all, let the consumer have a lot more interaction with the story than a movie or book. Letting players explore takes full advantage of the medium.

But it doesn’t always work narratively. Pacing is incredibly important when telling a story. The audience can’t get bored halfway through or even distracted from the central core. I think this is where open world games come up short. I enjoy the Assassin’s Creed games for what they are: relatively mindless adventure games with some great conspiracy theory set dressings. But more often than not I get waylaid by exploring or doing side-missions and going after treasure. It remains fun enough, but they don’t exactly bring me in closer to the main character’s arc. I couldn’t care less about what Ezio was up to in Turkey, it was more fun to explore Constantinople.

Naughty Dog is instead opting to bring players into a narrative and let them experience it first hand. Games can let you live as someone else and experience things you usually don’t. What Uncharted and The Last of Us do so well is let players live a different life. The Last of Us had me feel like a father, Uncharted 2 let me be an action hero. More than that, though, these are characters we care about. By keeping the narrative and the action zeroed in, the players isn’t allowed to be distracted by side quests. Rather, the character and story remain front and center and with them a genuine emotional experience.

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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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