Tag Archives: Uncharted

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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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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