Combat is expressive. You can tell a lot about a character based on the way that he fights. I wrote about this idea some time ago regarding Assassin’s Creed. I considered how the fighting styles of Altair and Ezio changed over time and how those changes reflected on each character.
In retrospect, I wrote that piece based on an assumption that went unspoken at the time. Combat is at its most expressive when it changes. Seeing Ezio’s techniques, arsenal, and skills evolve over the course of three games was far more interesting than simply analyzing Altair based on one game.
Combat is often a tool of blunt characterization, a means of quickly establishing personality. It’s obvious at a glance that Kratos is angry or that Bayonetta is flashy or that Nathan Drake is reckless. However, the problem with us as players is that we rarely update our perception of a character beyond that initial introduction, so Kratos is always angry and Bayonetta is always flashy and Nathan Drake is always reckless. These are iconic characters, and we’re reluctant to let them change. However, they have to change if they’re to stay relevant and interesting.
Last week I wrote about my conflicted feelings about the stealth mechanics of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and their prevalence throughout the game. I didn’t want to play stealthily. I wanted to play recklessly because that’s how I played the previous Uncharted games. That one combat style defined Drake as an adventurer.
But stealth? That’s not what an adventurer does. It must be out of character. And it is, but that’s the point. The change in combat reflects a change in Nathan Drake. This is combat at its most expressive.
The choice between stealth and action reflects on Nathan’s maturity. On one side, you have the reckless, roguish, brawling boy of his youth, a man who lives for the thrill of the treasure hunt. On the other side, you have the smart, clever, methodical man of his adulthood; a man who wants to limit the danger that he faces.
Nathan Drake is no longer so reckless with his life because now he has a life that he doesn’t want to lose: a happy and loving marriage with Elena, a life beyond the next treasure hunt. The game makes stealth a very attractive option — so much tall grass to hide in, all so perfectly placed for ambushes — because that’s now Nate’s default mode of thinking. I wanted to play as Nate the adventurer, even as the story and the cut scenes tried to push me away from that characterization and what I failed to appreciate at the time was that the combat design was doing the same thing as the story.
It’s important to point out that the game still let me play recklessly. There was, in fact, a choice to be made at the start of each combat encounter. Nate may be trying to change, but he’s struggling against an inherent need within himself. He may want to be careful, but it still makes complete sense for him to be reckless.
In retrospect, my decision to switch from stealth to action when I did added a nice touch to the character, one only possible thanks to the give and take of storytelling control that comes from combat options like these.
Spoilers for Uncharted 4
When the game begins, Nate has made an honest life for himself with Elena as a salvage operator. The reappearance of the brother that he thought was long dead puts him back on the road to adventure in search of the pirate utopia Libertalia and the supposed $400 million worth of treasure within it.
I played the first half of the game as a quiet killer. It made perfect sense. During this time I was just searching for clues to a treasure that might not even exist anymore. Why risk death for something so flimsy and unknown? Nate has too much to lose to do that.
Eventually and inevitably, he finds Libertalia. The first fight here is the one that disappointed me and made me want to fight like a reckless fool, but this is also the moment that it makes the most sense for Nate to totally backslide into his old ways. Being in the presence of an ancient forgotten city, so close to a mythical treasure, seeing sights no other living person has seen — he’s fully in it now, fully committed to the treasure hunt, fully ensconced in his old life. He can no longer pretend that he’s a changed man, so it’s back to the shootouts and rocket launchers.
It’s a nice character moment because it’s not written by the developers. They certainly encourage a change in tactics, as this is also when more fights start automatically, preventing any kind of stealth approach, but this just further reflects how expressive combat can be when it changes.
Naughty Dog understands this concept well. Uncharted 4 changes up the combat compared to previous games because Nate has changed, and when things do go back to those old ways, it means so much more than just a chance for an extended action scene. It’s a return to form that shouldn’t be celebrated. Each action scene becomes more than just a struggle to survive, it becomes a struggle for Nate’s soul.