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Overstaying Its Welcome: The Place of 'Uncharted 3' in the Medium

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Thursday, Nov 17, 2011
Unlike a video game hero, the action hero doesn't have to practice that tricky jump a dozen times, and he never gets wasted by a fluke grenade. The action and the story of a great blockbuster movie is designed to make the experience as novel and streamlined as possible.

The following post contains plot spoilers for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.


Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception dispels any doubt regarding the series’ aspirations.  Uncharted strives to step into the void left by Indiana Jones as popular culture’s premiere pulp-adventure series.  It’s an impressive effort. Nathan Drake is a roguish charmer with the capacity for sentimentality and violence.  He’s surrounded by memorable sidekicks, villains, and love interests.  The game’s plot darts about the globe, giving players an opportunity to virtually explore exotic lands and defy death in spectacular action sequences.  From tonal, thematic, and artistic perspectives, Uncharted is a welcome experience for those of us who have been waiting for another Indiana Jones since 1989 (like any rational person, I disavow The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘s existence).


Unfortunately, the series’s very existence as a video game often proves to be its greatest undoing.  For years now, I’ve argued that Uncharted‘s dual existence as a cinematic adventure is at odds with its devotion to the structure of a rigorous action game.  Uncharted 3 is the clearest example of this conflict.  Difficulty spikes and repetition clash with the story’s breezy cadence.  At around eight to ten hours, Uncharted 3‘s campaign overstays its welcome, mostly thanks to its gameplay.
  
Experimentation, repetition, iteration. These are crucial qualities for games and anathema to the action movies after which Uncharted 3 is modeled.  Games excel at allowing players to gradually hone their skills, repeating similar encounters and experimenting with different techniques.  Action movies function differently; they excel at the art of conveying a series of absurdly-successful close calls.  Unlike a video game hero, the action hero doesn’t have to practice that tricky jump a dozen times, and he never gets wasted by a fluke grenade.  The action and the story of a great blockbuster movie is designed to make the experience as novel and streamlined as possible.  Uncharted 3‘s dialogue and cutscenes stand alongside Hollywood’s best efforts, but their achievements are undermined by the gameplay’s predisposition towards repetition and player failure.


Who doesn’t remember the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indy is running towards the camera and away from a giant boulder?  It’s memorable for its novelty, but also its scarcity; it only happens once in the movie.  In Uncharted 3, Drake runs towards the camera and away from fires, floods, and spiders.  What starts as a neat trick becomes a repetitive task, especially if the player fails and is forced to play the sequence again.  Combine repeated deaths (off-screen obstacles are hard to predict, after all) with multiple instances of what is essentially the same scenario, and such scenes begin to lose their impact.


During the spider sequence in which Drake must throw torches to a series of distant braziers before he can safely advance, repetition stems from filler rather than failure.  Every brazier has a torch holder so that the subsequent brazier can be lit.  After a little experimenting, I discovered that these torches magically respawn after an errant throw.  Therefore, because Drake is safe from the spiders in the fire’s light, there is no impetus to complete the throws quickly or accurately.  Compounding this stagnation is the fact that the throws are very basic. There are no obstacles blocking the braziers, which remain stationary throughout the scene.  Had this scene come at the beginning of the game, I could understand its mundane structure as a disguised tutorial for the throwing action.  But at this point, the player has already been through multiple battles and become used to throwing objects at moving targets (enemies).  Instead of a challenge or a training experience, the sequence is busywork from a gameplay perspective and repetitive from a cinematic perspective.


We also see Uncharted 3‘s story and gameplay in conflict in almost every firefight.  Based on the number of enemies and the duration of the battles, it seems that Uncharted 3 seeks to please fans of its story and those looking for a challenging shooter.  In video games, especially shooters, challenge comes in the form of throwing an increasing number of progressively strong enemies at the player.  This tactic is problematic in Uncharted 3 for two major reasons.  First, seeing a well-developed character like Drake turn into a mindless killing machine during gameplay is jarring.  Second, the enemies’ AI and unpredictable spawn points will inevitably overwhelm the player and lead to “deaths” that are clearly contrary to the game’s strict story.  As the bar shootout in Raiders of the Lost Ark demonstrates, a fight can be intense without being a long bloodbath.  Trying to navigate a capsizing ship is dramatic (and implausible) enough without having to stop and waste two dozen dudes before advancing to the next room.


Over the course of the game Uncharted 3‘s action suffers from diminishing returns.  Whereas a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark has one hand-to-hand fight scene with a huge Nazi bruiser, Uncharted 3 throws one in every few chapters.  The size and scope of the environments if impressive, but after climbing countless towers, it becomes apparent that there is never any real danger of Drake losing his grip or making a bad jump.  Indy’s desperate jump across that first pit in Raiders is suspenseful because it’s the only time that he attempts such a maneuver.  As Drake’s journey progresses, the player encounters more and stronger enemies rather than novel situations.  Every repeated scene and cheap death simply draws attention away from the game’s strongest aspects: its scripted set pieces and wonderful dialogue.


It took me about eight hours to finish Uncharted 3‘s campaign, but I wish it had only taken four.  The idea that games should be mechanically challenging (an idea I usually support, it should be noted) does not fit such a cinematic game.  Punishing difficulty that forces the player to slowly improve their skills is a fitting approach for a game like Dark Souls, but this philosophy is incompatible with Uncharted 3’s mission.


Richard Lemarchand, Uncharted 3’s co-lead designer, has stated, “We wanted to make a video game version of the kind of summer blockbuster, action adventure movie that we all grew up loving, (“Naughty Dog’s Lemarchand Defines Uncharted’s Heritage”, Gamasutra, 11 November 2011).  He and his team were partly successful, but it is important to note that the types of movies he is talking about top out at around two and a half hours.  If Uncharted 3 came out with a four to five hour campaign, it would probably have been pilloried by a vocal subset of players, but it would have been a better game.  Cut out the repetitive set pieces and the more tedious combat sequences and you would be left with a game in keeping with the spirit of those classic action adventure movies.  After all, those movies weren’t about trial and error or slow skill improvement; they were about characters who routinely escaped the most dangerous situations by the skin of their teeth without looking back. 


Failure is never an option for Indiana Jones.  It’s not even a possibility, really.  The same should be true for Nathan Drake and, by extension, the player.  Of course, the absence of failure means that Uncharted would be venturing even further beyond the traditional definition of a “game” than it already has.  In Uncharted‘s case, I doubt shedding this designation would be any great loss.  Since its inception, the series has been struggling against the tenets of its medium.  Perhaps it’s time to chart a new course away from the realm of games and towards the land of “interactive experiences”?


 

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