Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception – An Evolution?
Warning: Spoilers ahead. This is not a review; it’s an analysis. Therefore, I highly recommend that you finish UNCHARTED 3: Drake’s Deception before proceeding.
There is a moment in UNCHARTED 3: Drake’s Deception, the third installment of developer Naughty Dog’s highly successful UNCHARTED franchise, where I had to put the controller down and stop… really stop… and realize the magnitude of what I had just witnessed.
After an (amazing) action set-piece which saw Nathan Drake (portrayed by Nolan North) fight his way through a sinking cruise-ship full of pirates, the game shifts over to a quiet scene of Drake’s estranged love interest Elena Fisher (Emily Rose) in her apartment. As she goes over her plans to rescue a kidnapped Victor Sullivan (Richard McGonagle), Nate bursts in, and all the tension that had existed between them evaporated.
And as she invited him to rest for a few hours, he lay his head on her lap, took her hand in his, stared at her wedding ring (he wasn’t wearing his) and whispered “I’m sorry.”
She, in turn, patted him affectionately, and said “I know.” In her eyes, in her voice, the weight of months—if not years—of regrets and ghosts filtered out from the screen.
My mind flashed to prior scenes involving the two. I remembered their reunion scene where Drake’s shock at her still wearing her ring raised questions. I thought back to a revealing scene in a dusty chamber where she implies that she has grown and is no longer the desperate adrenaline thrill-seeker she once was… and in her expression lies the hope that he would do the same.
That led me to harken back to the first game, where, given an opportunity to escape, Elena actually dove deeper into trouble and Drake had to rescue her. And I thought back to the end of UNCHARTED 2, where Elena actually came so close to death that it spurred Drake to finally admit his love for her.
What happened between then and now? Did Drake walk out on her because she grew up and he didn’t? Or did he do it because he knew that his journey wasn’t finished, that if she stuck with him he could potentially lose her forever? Did he even know why?
As Elena closed her eyes, Drake’s head gently resting on her lap, I put the controller down and realized just what Naughty Dog had achieved with this game, and indeed with the series as a whole.
Across the internet, the game is getting perfect score after perfect score with reviewers praising just about everything that deserves praise. But there is a small segment of the online community wondering if this game is just giving us more of the same; content to rest on its laurels and not innovate.
We can question the validity of the complaints from a gameplay point of view, but I’m not interested in doing so. In my opinion, rather than just stay stuck in a rut, UNCHARTED 3 marks the moment where Naughty Dog has finally given us the missing key ingredient in furthering the advancement of storytelling in gaming.
One could also argue over the quality of the specifics of the plot itself. Was it too episodic? Were the villains well developed enough? Were there too many plot holes? Were the plot holes even plot holes, or subtle implied storytelling that asked players to apply a bit of thought to clue presented to them?
I have my own opinions on the plot of the game, and I do have some problems with certain plot elements, but they are not the point of this analysis. Suffice it to say, I applaud Naughty Dog and creative director Amy Hennig for doing something a lot of games don’t: not spoon-feeding the players and actually asking them to apply a bit of rudimentary literary thinking and analysis without slapping them in the face with melodrama.
No, the overriding element that stuck with me about this game was the strength and depth of the characters.
Here, before me, were two of the three most fully realized characters in the medium. At the end of the game, the pair is rejoined by the third, Drake’s mentor and father figure Victor Sullivan.
Through this trio, UNCHARTED 3 gave us a video game that examined the core of humanity that exists in the relationships we have with one another. In that, it borrows from its celluloid and prose brethren extremely well and gives videogames a new way of dealing with that subject matter.
The best stories connect with us, the readers or the viewers, by presenting characters distinct from us undergoing transformation in the context of a story that utilize themes and relationships we can relate to. UNCHARTED 3, indeed the series as a whole, does this in a way few games can.
Now, I don’t want to turn this into a “this game versus that” juvenile slugfest, but when examining growth in a medium, comparisons are inevitable.
Mind, storytelling in videogames is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, many a great story has been told throughout gaming’s history, including such gems as Gabriel Knight and The Longest Journey.
This latest generation has seen some incredible stories told as well, from Bioshock to Mass Effect. I am a fan of both franchises; I’m looking forward to Bioshock Infinite and have already pre-ordered my copy of Mass Effect 3. I’m going to be one of the first people in line to buy the third chapter in Bioware’s magnum opus and am excited to see where it leads my Commander Shepherd.
The storytelling in both franchises differ completely from one another, and indeed from UNCHARTED as well. Mass Effect is an epic sci-fi RPG that invites you to create a character of your own imprint while adhering to some strict choices made available to you. Whether you are an earth-born lone survivor or an all conquering space-born hero, you are Commander Shepherd, a human tasked with defending the galaxy from evil. The stakes are big, with the survival of several alien races directly in your control.
In addition, Bioware gives you a chance to make a direct impact on conversations, which then affect the relationships Shepherd has with those around him (or her). Are you a jackass when dealing with Turians? Do you have similar racist tendencies to Ashley Williams? Are you a paragon? A renegade?
Choices. That is what most of the character gameplay in Mass Effect boils down to. At the end of each game, you end up with a Commander Shepherd of your own making, ready to take on whatever the galaxy throws your way.
But your Shepherd isn’t my Shepherd. And my Shepherd isn’t anybody else’s either.
The illusion of choice that wide-open RPG’s like Mass Effect, Fallout, and Elder Scrolls gives players is a core conceit of their design and makes them excellent games. But the end result of having so many personal decisions effect so many different outcomes is that you never once feel like the characters in those games are real. Oh, your Shepherd is real to you and mine is to me, sure, but that reality doesn’t extend past the boundaries of your own consciousness and your save game file.
Similarly, the same condition exists in the cases of the supporting characters in these games, as the choices you make affect them too. One of the brilliant gameplay conceits Mass Effect employs in its second installment is the loyalty system. Basically, if you manage to fully make your party members loyal to you, they survive the massive end battle. This means that if you want so-and-so to live, better make sure you finished their loyalty mission. If you didn’t, just reload a previous save file and do it.
What this does is that it, as well as other small choices such as whom to have a relationship with, adds a certain replayability factor to the game which allows you to have other paths to explore.
What it also does is reduce the NPC’s to elements of gameplay mechanics, rather than full realized characters in their own right.
UNCHARTED makes a different choice. Rather than providing players with a way to affect the characters’ destinies, Naughty Dog ensures that Nathan Drake always chose Elena Fisher over Chloe Frazier… and always proceeded to leave her behind when his obsession with adventure got the better of him.
And, once he found the answer he was looking for, he always went back to her, enabled by the sentimentality of Victor Sullivan.
Some players may be frustrated by the lack of impactful choice in the UNCHARTED series, but I’m not one of them. I think that by limiting the player’s impact to “playing” Drake through the story rather than shaping the story in some other way, it allows Naughty Dog to tell a narrative in a way that permits literary analysis in a way other games do not.
Through the hard work of the animators, designers, Amy Hennig (creative director at Naughty Dog), the actors, and many more dedicated individuals, Nathan Drake, Elena Fisher, and Victor Sullivan leap off the screen as fully realized persisting characters who exist in the general public’s collective consciousness. Like Indiana Jones or Eddard Stark in George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones on HBO) series, these characters are stuck with the choices they made and can be judged and analyzed endlessly for having done them.
In Martin’s epic fantasy masterpiece, Eddard Stark is a man caught between doing right by his king and by his family. When his king asks too much of him, Stark is sent into this introspective choice of choosing between what is right as a family man, and what is right as the loyal servant of the king. The story presents him as a man who knows exactly what kind of harm will befall him once he makes that choice, but his honor will not allow him to do otherwise.
The lessons we learn about him because of who he is and what was done to him allows us to vicariously live through the circumstances surrounding him and then examine ourselves and how we feel about his actions. Would we do the same things he did? Would we choose another way? His exact set of circumstances trapped him, and although we feel we might choose differently, we cannot help but respect him for what he chose.
The themes and lessons presented in literature and films are mirrors for us and our society. They present us with people making irreversible choices and cajole us into judging or sympathizing with them, into analyzing and learning from them. The irrevocable nature of choices such as Thelma and Louise’s liberating fall or Indiana Jones’ decision to let the Holy Grail go drive home the lessons they teach and remain poignant and memorable because they cannot be undone.
UNCHARTED is the first game franchise that allows us to apply a literary or cinematic analysis to the medium in that way because of its rigid structure and real characters. Through Drake’s actions, we can ask questions like “What makes a man so obsessed with finding answers that he would risk his only father figure and the best relationship that could ever happen to him?”
The mileage of the effectiveness of the answer, as with people’s preferences with movies, may vary per player. But what is impressive is that the question is asked at all.
In Mass Effect or Fallout, I can cheat on my girlfriend who thinks I’m dead (or not) and destroy a small community by detonating a dormant nuclear bomb (or not). And if I don’t like the outcome, I can always reload or do another playthrough and change all of my decisions until I find the outcome I like.
Again, that makes for valid and interesting gameplay. But because the power of the choices is negated by the fact that I can change anything I don’t agree with, I posit that it limits the power of the storytelling in a way that UNCHARTED doesn’t.
This is why you see in message boards post after post talking about whether Sully should have died or whether Chloe and Cutter should have featured more or whether Elena left Drake or the other way around.
By giving us limited choice, Naughty Dog made these characters real. By giving us thrilling gameplay mixed with a fast-paced plot, Naughty Dog made these characters vibrant. And by casting actors at the top of their craft and directing them with passion, Naughty Dog made our collective consciousness care for these characters in a way that Mass Effect or Fallout can’t do with their player-generated ciphers.
The UNCHARTED series makes you feel like you’re playing a movie populated with real characters whereas RPG’s or shooters never let you forget you’re playing a game. In a similar way, the series has an advantage over other genres that restrict player choice like point-and-click adventures. Those games have well realized characters and strict plotlines, but because of the segmented nature of its gameplay, you never forget you’re playing a game.
Naughty Dog has mastered the art of blending gameplay and cinematics in a way those games never did. Add to that the technical brilliance they employ (Nathan Drake physically reacts to the environment in subtle realistic ways), the wonderful performances by the cast, and the superb job by the animators.
And by avoiding mini-games, broken mechanics, customization, and other “game-y” devices, UNCHARTED keeps the focus firmly on story and character. This is an important factor in this argument. For example, Assassin’s Creed, another big budget franchise doing interesting things with storytelling, has a main overarching plot and it’s an interesting one. But, while they blaze their own trail, their story is nowhere near as focused because it does shoehorn in some distracting sidequests. Fun times, for sure, but it still reminds you that you are in very much a gaming milieu.
Harking back to the story criticisms alluded to earlier in this piece, I would actually argue that they are a sign that UNCHARTED and Naughty Dog are doing something right. For too long, we have seen reviews constantly speaking of stories in games as “well written… for a video game”. We don’t, for example, dock review points from a game like Mass Effect 2 for giving us an epic story fraught with pressure… and then allowing us to essentially meander around the galaxy mining for minerals or resolving familial frictions for your henchmen.
And we’ve also seen so many reviews speaking of the characters in as “well crafted… for a video game”, and thinking there’s nothing wrong with that. Fair enough, considering that the point of those games is to offer players more choices rather than focusing on a story.
But UNCHARTED has shown that one can critique a video game for its story and characters without having to add the cautionary “…for a video game” label. The polish that Naughty Dog applies to its franchise, and the fact that we’re arguing over whether or not certain heroes should have done certain things, or about the meanings behind iconic symbolisms or, something rare in video games, subtext, shows that we can analyze game narratives the way we do for film, television, comics, and novels.
Now, some would argue: “Why play a movie when I can watch it?”
The answer lies in the brilliance of the central conceit behind UNCHARTED. By allowing you agency over Drake without making you ever BE Drake, the games give you a connection to the character different from that you when you watch a movie. The silver screen acts as a barrier… putting a controller in your hand bridges that gap, thereby giving a completely different experience.
To that end, I’d also like to address some gamers’ harping on its replayability. For me, gaming is an experience, whether the game in question is a 60-hour open ended game with billions of choices or a tight 10-hour narrative that gives you the exact same thing everytime. So for me, the question is always, “Do I want to relive that experience?” rather than “Do I want to replay that?”
In the case of, say Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls games, I want to relive the experience of either beating the system or customizing my character in different ways. I want to relive the thrill of making choices and seeing what they lead to.
In the case of UNCHARTED games, I look at it like books or movies. I own hundreds of DVD’s, Blu-Ray’s and thousands of books. I own them, rather than rent them, because they are experiences I want to re-live over and over again.
Sometimes it’s a simple matter of wanting to experience the story again. Sometimes I want to delve deeper, to see if I learn anything new from a craft or literary perspective. And sometimes, I just want to experience that cathartic burst of emotion when Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman finally meet again as free men, free friends, at the end of The Shawshank Redemption.
With UNCHARTED, it’s all of the above. I like the stories enough to relive them, I love hanging out with the characters and want to hear their jokes again, and I love that wonderful feeling at the end of UNCHARTED 2 when Elena tries to convince Drake that the scariest moment in his life was when he thought she was dead. And he counters with clowns.
The series is eminently replayable, for me, because I can relive those experiences over and over again. This is why I find it odd that some people complain about it considering these same people probably have DVD’s they watch over and over again sitting on their shelves.
These games are just as replayable as those 100-hour epic games that offer infinite choices.
I’m not promoting one style of gaming over the other or saying that two styles cannot coexist. In fact, I’m saying that gamers should rejoice that we even have the choice between playing open-world RPG’s, first person shooters, or cinematic adventures that create living breathing characters. After all, at the cinemas you’re given a choice between Spielbergian adventure romps and Tarantino-inspired indie flicks, right?
In that sense, I believe that the otherwise valid review by Eurogamer, suggesting that UNCHARTED 3 isn’t innovative or different enough is not looking deep enough. By giving us characters we care for, characters that exist independent of the choices we make, the UNCHARTED series gives gaming an evolutionary jolt that I hope more developers pick up on.
In my case, as I pick up the controller again to play through the first UNCHARTED game for the 5th time, I prepare myself to look for the clues to Drake’s character in this first installment and determine if Elena could have seen what was coming a mile away. And I hope that, wherever they are, Nate and Elena have resolved their issues once and for all and will name their first kid after Sully.