This article contains spoilers for Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception.
Nathan Drake is flung from the burning wreckage of a rapidly crashing airplane, launched into a freefall toward certain death in the middle of the baking desert.
Burning wreckage falling around him, our dashing protagonist is able to make out his only chance for survival: He's careening toward a cargo crate the plane had been carrying. Thinking quickly, he remembers from a prior altercation that the crates have parachutes attached. He clings to the box, desperately clawing at a handle to release the chute and fall softly to earth.
Except when I was playing, that is. In my version of events, Drake saw a hulking great wooden box heading toward him, and he naturally assumed he should be wary of said box clobbering him in the face. Threat deftly avoided, he was free to careen toward the dunes below unhindered.
Critics have largely lauded Uncharted 3's story, which, judged solely in videogame terms or not, is an entertaining romp. Its characters, both familiar and new, are well formed, and it understands how to pace of key moments to make them memorable, which is something so oft forgotten.
After the game's release, though, more dissenting voices arose. Disgruntled types never felt in control of proceedings, or when they were in control of the sort of out-of-the-screen chase sequences that Naughty Dog really doesn't seem to have been able to let go since the Crash Bandicoot days, they felt a Stuntman-like frustration, requiring rote memorization to progress.
Uncharted always seems to be a franchise about dichotomy. Two years ago, I (like many others) was at a loss to how good ol' man of the people Nate Drake could be quite such a psychopathic, mass-murdering bastard and get away with it. It seemed then necessity had birthed violent invention — drama has to arise from conflict, and the only way we're trained to deal with conflict as gamers is to shoot things in the face. Perhaps saying so is underestimating the audience, but not by much. I accepted the counterpoint at the time.
That Uncharted 3 is, broadly speaking, similar to its ancestor has me feeling somewhat more critical. Uncharted 3 is very much a game of two parts…and the part where you're actually playing it is by far the weaker one.
It's a harsh comparison to make, but Uncharted 3 feels very much like any number of mid-1990s CD-ROM ventures, including the pictured Digital Pictures "classic" Supreme Warrior. Suckers that we were then, screenshot spreads of computer-generated spaceships in magazines and clips of poorly acted full-motion video in TV ads would send us gallivanting off to the shops. What we brought back was actually a steaming turd of a game knocked together by the programmer who also just so happened to be playing the lead role in said video sequences.
The terrible "gameplay" was irrelevant to the plot of the piece — just something you had to suffer through to reach the next cutscene, so you could pretend that this medium was going places and proclaim how cinematic it all was.
Of course, Uncharted 3 isn't a terrible, hastily knocked-together adventure, but it isn't a good one. When navigating his environment, Drake blunders hopelessly into walls and jumps into corners because handholds aren't always clearly pointed out to the player. Stealth sequences end with failure in seconds in because our hero has a tendency to leap and barrel roll with merry abandon rather than slink to cover. Firefights are interminable trials of error against endlessly cloned bullet-sponges, each encounter feeling approximately five minutes too long.
Uncharted fans cry in protest: Why say you "don't feel in control"? More than any other game, Uncharted tries to put you in Nathan Drake's shoes while stuff blows up all around them. Even five years ago, the crashing aeroplane would all be in a CG cutscene. Here, you're playing.
The thing is, the sort of tightly regimented scripting in these sequences is wearing thin after three titles, and people are starting to see through the attempt to masquerade viewing as playing. Just because Uncharted doesn't put hulking great button symbols in the middle of the screen (it saves that for hand-to-hand fights) doesn't mean you're not engaging in a quick-time event. Linearity is no bad thing, but even when given full control, you'll find several instances where a drop of a height you know from prior experience Drake can survive with a wince or a parkour-esque roll will kill him because the game wants you to take the scenic route to a destination first.
Unjustified failure in gameplay sequences isn't the only thing that can break your suspension of disbelief in Naughty Dog's storytelling. Dozens of little instances consistently make you feel the designers think of gameplay as an obstacle the epic piece of cinema they want to create.
In his book Everything Bad Is Good for You, author Steven Johnson talked about modern films having less need for sign-posting. In the past audiences might have needed a close-up of a unlocked door and an ominous soundtrack to emphasize a babysitter in a dangerous situation. Today's audiences are better trained and can clue in more easily.
Gamers go one step futher; they're taught to evade anything that might possibly be a hazard or impede progress (even if that progression is rapid and toward the ground). What would work on the big screen doesn't translate to the small controller.
Minutes after the parachute scene, a glorified cut-scene shows Drake struggling to keep his eyes open and stay alive, finally gulping down the barest drop of "undrinkable" water. As control is totally returned to the player, Drake is as spry as he ever was, snapping the neck of a patrolman, proudly exclaiming "nice" when stealing the poor fellow's shotgun and hand grenade, and jogging off without even taking a swig from the dead man's hip flask.
It's not quite as jarring as the cut between movie and gameplay that we all were experiencing nearly 20 years ago, but it's close, and the message is clear. Never mind the game part, just listen to Harrison Ford: "It's so cinematic."
Having recently started living with my significant other, the time I've spent playing and writing about video games has decreased, and as I look at more recent blog posts, I'm concerned that what I do write is largely of the curmudgeonly nature. So I feel it important to end not on a sour Uncharted note but a happy Rayman Origins one.
In many ways the antithesis of Uncharted, Rayman is similarly a feast for the eyes, but it is also handled with such precision, energy and outright fun that it's become a firm favorite with both of us. It's not confused about cinematic leanings; it's a video game, and very proud of it. And that is something to marvel at.
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