Warning: Contains spoilers for Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception.
I think we’re all agreed that Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception nails the interactive movie feel pretty well. Depending on what you want out of a game, that might be a crowning achievement or a disappointing choice on developer Naughty Dog’s part, but it’s tough to say they failed to reach the intended goal. Or maybe they did.
Here’s the thing: Despite Uncharted's cinematic aspirations, every review I’ve read still judges Uncharted 3 solely as a game.
I lick my finger, stick it in your ear, wiggle it around, and then we're married!
Fair enough…technically, it is a game. But we’ve come to expect more from this franchise. Sure, we want something fun to play. We also want a thrilling popcorn movie with a brain and a heart, featuring people we love to hang out with struggling against a nice boo-hiss villain. So let’s momentarily forget the gameplay, ignore the multiplayer modes, disregard controls, combat, and even the graphics. Does Uncharted 3’s story hold up?
Well, kinda…if you’re willing to help it along.
Credit where it’s due, a punchy script by Naughty Dog Creative Director Amy Hennig doesn’t hand-hold like a lot of others — game and film alike — do. You're expected to step up and read between a few lines like a responsible viewer should. In fact, the characters spend a lot more time explaining the plot than they do explaining themselves. Sometimes that works. Sometimes not.
So then, the plot. Nathan Drake’s turned back to his old hobby of proving crazy theories about his supposed ancestor, 16th century English explorer Sir Francis Drake. That means roping in all Nathan's old amigos to flush out his very first adversary, Katherine Marlow, and steal back the code-breaking artifact she took from him two decades previously. It's all part of the roadmap — with several entertaining detours — following a secret mission Sir Francis undertook for Queen Elizabeth. Only it quickly becomes clear that he lied to Her Majesty about the results and did his best to cover his tracks completely.
Naturally, warning signs like those don't slow Drake down one bit.
This time, however, a lot of his compatriots actually call Drake on his obsessions. Everyone asks the same question — “What are you trying to prove?” — only to get a fast brush-off. But "Drake's Deception" covers Sir Francis' lies, the lies Nathan Drake feeds to his friends, and the lies he's told himself for years, because yeah…he's out to prove something big.
Man, do I have to pee!
A flashback to scrappy, orphaned teenager Drake in Columbia sets up his guiding desire to be the "great thing from small beginnings" spoken of in Sir Francis' motto. Then, right at the halfway mark, things take a brutal turn as everything in the world sets out to prove he's just as insignificant as he fears. Hallucinogenic sequences, a naval graveyard, running battles on a sinking, capsized boat, an open-ramp, cargo-plane fist fight in mid-air…Drake takes an incredible pounding, physically and emotionally. Everything feels more desperate. The crescendo hits in an amazing desert sequence where Drake comes face-to-face with his own limitations.
Adding to the crushing starkness of his situation, Drake spends a lot of time in the back half of the game completely alone. That's a nice contrast to the bantery first half, which sometimes gets a bit crowded. Some characters, like Chloe, feel more obligatory than necessary. That said, I love the addition of Charlie Cutter to the team…a smartass foil for smartassed Drake. Thuggish but smart. Tough but extremely claustrophobic. If all the bad things that happen to Charlie don't win your sympathy, check your heartbeat, because you don't have one.
If only the baddies got the same attention. In and of themselves, Marlow and henchman Talbot offer a classy contrast to our grubby working-class heroes but don't really have much else going on. Their unnamed organization — is it theirs, or are they lieutenants? — supposedly wants more power on top of its already powerful resources, if that's a vague enough agenda for you. Worse, the gold at the end of this rainbow turns out to be a bioweapon that works identically to drugs Talbot repeatedly uses on our heroes. Why do they need the ancient version? What do they plan to do with it? No idea. That's a major lost opportunity to define the stakes, to the point where it almost feels like a mere prelude to future run-ins with these people.
This is the last time I pay big bucks for GWAR tickets.
Too bad, because Marlow makes a good villainess. Not a moment goes by where she doesn't have Drake's number, and her deliciously condescending sniff only adds to her menace. Never moreso than when she reveals that "Nathan Drake" isn't Drake's real name.
That opens up a wealth of thematic possibilities, none of which are explored. Does Drake want to prove he really is Sir Francis’ heir? That he’s not just some half-clever schmuck running around and getting shot at? Unfortunately, the story never really goes there.
It does confront him with the human cost to the things he's chasing. Old flame Elena shows up mid-game with a ring on her finger; it's strongly hinted that the ring around Drake's neck — an heirloom from Sir Francis — took a higher priority in Drake's life. And when Sully goes missing, Drake abandons his search for ancient lost cities, limitless treasure, and personal vindication, and just tries to get the people he loves out of this mess alive. In that way, Uncharted 3's very much about Nathan Drake reaching a point where he really doesn't have anything to prove.
Which leaves an interesting question about Uncharted 4. A Nathan Drake who doesn't constantly strive to punk his competition? I don't know what that looks like. But it might be interesting to see him operating under motivations that start as noble as his adventures always end up. Things will still go horribly wrong, of course. That's half the fun.
Regardless, the holes in Uncharted 3 might annoy me, but they don't overpower the whole experience. This still stands near the top of the pack when it comes to game storytelling, and if if fails in a few key areas, that's only because we hold this franchise to a higher standard. Anyway, maybe it's better that a few spots invite wide interpretation and speculation. If games are an interactive medium, maybe it takes an interactive story to truly resonate.