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The Implicit Promise and the Uncharted Series

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Tuesday, Aug 14, 2012
Setting our expectations about what a story is going to be is important to storytelling. The Uncharted series sometimes fails to meet the expectations that it establishes for its players.

An implicit promise of storytelling is the concept that the beginning of the story sets up the expectations of the audience with regards to tone, basic concept, and generally the broad strokes of the areas that that story will and will not cover. It’s not so much a rule rather than just how things work. It’s why a creator spends so much time with the beginning of a work over the middle. First impressions matter because it tells so much of what is yet to come. It tells us what to expect and puts us in the right frame of mind for what is to come. Works that betray such a promise feel shoddy, unfocused, or an overall mess. Sometimes without anything being technically wrong with anything that comes afterwards.


There is no set amount of material for how long an implicit promise of this sort takes to set up. It can be the first 10 minutes of a movie or the first half hour. Maybe it takes one or two chapters or the first 50 pages in a book.  Some works can get it done in just the first line. The same is true for video games. Maybe our expectations and understanding of what we are going to experience takes only the tutorial level to set up, or it can be several levels before things get going.
  
The stipulation of the Uncharted series is that it is Indiana Jones—but for video games. It’s a simple enough concept, but each game has its own specific promise that it is going to deliver on. Each game starts with a quote by a famous historical figure that the adventure is based around. Drake is always following in someone else’s footsteps and that is where the adventure lies. However, despite having the same basic structure, the adventure that will be experienced is different in every game.


Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune begins with a quote from Sir Francis Drake: “There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory.” This is our first impression of the game and the series as a whole. This puts us in a mindset in which we expect that we are in for a great adventure, and that at the end, for sticking through the trials and tribulations we will be rewarded. That could broadly apply to the whole series but is more specifically tied into Drake’s Fortune’s themes and also sets up revelations about Sir Francis Drake later in the game. It perfectly encapsulated Drake’s position once we learns what El Dorado really is. Does he look for fortune or glory in saving the world?


The quotation is followed up by action, a pirate attack that gets us used to what we’ll be doing for most of the game, shooting pirates. Then Drake and Sully are off to the jungle in search of El Dorado where we get used to the second half of the game, the exploration and platforming. By the end of the second chapter, we understand what the game is going to consist of: jungle environments, lost civilizations, pirate enemies, and a hunt for gold. It’s simple and straightforward. The implicit promise of this game is about the broad stroke, the twist endings, and revelations are not given away.  Instead, they still work because they remain consistent with the tone that the game has established. It’s light hearted and a little ridiculous but still full of serious danger.


The second game, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves,  also begins with a quote.  This time it is from Marco Polo: “I did not tell half of what I saw for I knew I would not be believed…” This quote is less concerned with what the game is about than it is with what the player will experience over the course of their playtime. It sets the player up to expect fantastical sights or situations that have to be seen to be believed, but also that what will be experienced is a journey spread across many countries. Whereas the name Sir Francis Drake brings up images of pirates, jungles, and lost gold, the name Marco Polo brings with it images of long journeys with huge caravans, Kubla Khan, and Shangri-La. The opening sequence then has us learn the basic of platforming by climbing out of a train about to fall over a cliff in the middle of the Himalayas. Once on solid ground, the game moves into a cut scene that juxtaposes those snowy peaks with a tropical beach. Now we want to know how we got from one locale to the other. It is a huge leap with no apparent explanation made about how these two polar opposite locations are connected other than the clue of Marco Polo and the grand multi-country spanning journey that he embodies. The player is ready for anything, so long as we keep traveling from clue to clue to find Shangri-La on the trail of Marco Polo.


Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception changes things up by having Drake narrate a quote made famous by T.E. Lawrence: “All men dream—but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.” Those last two sentences are presented on screen just as they were in the last two games. Immediately, we are thinking of deserts and sand. We are thinking of Arabia because that is who T.E. Lawrence was, Lawrence of Arabia. This notion is even further enhanced when Drake’s team sneaks into the villain’s London lair and end up reading Lawrence’s diary. A character named Charlie Cutter even name checks the movie. The third game takes a lot longer to set up its premise than the previous two games, maybe a little too long. The urban setting doesn’t quite meet our expectations, since it doesn’t quite gel with the target treasure, the Atlantis of the Sands.


This is where the third game falls apart; it fails to live up to what it promised the player. All throughout the beginning of the game we are given hints that foreshadow a grand Arabian adventure, even the opening menu shows an AK-47 half buried in the desert. Instead we go to France, a Syrian Museum and a pirate cruise ship before ever getting to the desert. Long after our expectations are set for sand and genies do we finally arrive. The game delays and delays, getting sidetracked at every plot point and leaving much of the potential of the promise of the initial quotation squeezed into the last third.


Drake’s Fortune kept us localized in the jungle among the ruins of a lost Spanish colony, keeping our attention by showing us different locations all around the island, building up to how it met its demise. Among Thieves jumps from locale to locale stringing these places together in true Indiana Jones fashion by the ever forward moving journey. Both of these match up with what was initially promised. Drake’s Deception keeps taking us on side trips. We take a side trip to a French château, we take one to Syria, and then to a cruise ship that seems especially pointless. It is as if Naughty Dog didn’t have enough material for the main adventure and had to pad it out as much as possible. They took the wrong lesson from Among Thieves. It wasn’t the huge set pieces in different locales that made it great. It is that the player is given huge set pieces to experience in different locales because that’s what the story called for that made it great.

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