Dear Eisenstein
GDC for dilettantes

Uncharted: Golden Abyss


I consider myself one of the biggest Uncharted fans on the planet. More than any other series, these globe-trekking adventure games embrace the convergence of film and video games that many of us enjoy. While we may quibble about the aesthetic purity of games that rely on the language of another medium to convey meaning, I say there’s plenty of room in the interactive space for cinematic storytelling, cutscenes, and mo-capped performances - especially when they’re delivered with the attention to detail that’s become the hallmark of a Naughty Dog production.

Given Uncharted’s popularity and high critical regard, it’s no surprise that Sony made sure a new Uncharted game, Golden Abyss, accompanied the launch of its new Vita handheld system. Sony chose its in-house Bend Studio (best known for the Syphon Filter series) to develop the game, and Bend produced a game that looks, sounds, and plays very much like its console brethren.

“I think it would have been impossible for us to achieve that sort of Uncharted look and feel without their [Naughty Dog’s] help. They gave us their complete library to access for Uncharted 1 and 2, including all the mo-cap that they had done… That library of Drake animation represents six, seven years’ worth of work, thousands and thousands of animations, and there’s no way a studio of our size could have done it at that level of quality by ourselves.” –John Garvin, Golden Abyss writer and director

Relying on Naughty Dog assets may have helped Bend produce a game that looks and feels like an Uncharted game, but one pivotal element failed to make the leap from console to handheld: smart, character-focused writing. Amy Hennig, who penned all the previous Uncharted games, is missing from the credits of this game, and her absence is sorely felt.

In place of the warmth and sharp-witted repartee we’ve grown accustomed to between Sully and Drake - the best-written and best-developed duo in the history of narrative games - Golden Abyss introduces a fast-talking Joe Pesci clone named Dante, and the banter between him and Drake treads the tiresome “¿Qué es más macho” buddy banter worn thin by dozens of other games and films. Here’s a sampling:

Drake: (Referring to Dante’s sea turtle shoes) Those are fancy. They sell men’s shoes where you got those?

Drake: So now you’re a rock climber. This I gotta see.
Dante: Just don’t stare at my ass, and try to keep up.

Dante: (referring to a statue Drake is rubbing with charcoal) Don’t rub too hard. They’re gonna get excited.
Drake: Whooh. Jealous?

Dante: (climbing) Feel how worn these handholds are? What do you think? Three thousand years old? Four?
Drake: They feel like the ones at Mesa Verda. Remember? You were so scared. I thought you were gonna cry.
Dante: That was different. It was dark, it was twice as high, and I had a bag of pottery shards strapped to my back.
Drake: I saw tears.

This kind of misogyny-tinged dialogue may help fill the gaps between action set-pieces, but it does nothing to illuminate character the way Hennig’s dialogue so often does. When Sully finally arrives on the scene later in the game, he serves his purpose advancing the plot, but his dialogue with Drake lacks the familiar sharpness of Hennig’s pen.

More damaging than Dante, however, is the meager impact of Drake’s new love interest, Marisa Chase. She initially appears to be the kind of savvy, self-sufficient woman the Uncharted games have always featured, but Chase is no Chloe or Elena. Her sole function in the first half of the game is to be rescued repeatedly by Drake or wait for him as he climbs his way out of one problem after another.

When she finally reveals to Drake her long-withheld backstory, it feels more like a plot pivot than a character sharing a secret. Later in the game, Chase’s “will she or won’t she” dilemma about using violence adds a bit of drama to story, but she has had so little to do and makes so slight an impact on Drake by that point, the resonance of her decision is greatly diminished.

Hennig’s women push Drake, forcing him to consider his actions and his reasons for taking them. They complicate his life in dramatically useful ways, and their uneasy relationship with each other adds complexity to the story that’s sadly lacking in Golden Abyss. Chloe and Elena are women fully integrated into the Uncharted narrative and its protagonist’s life. Chase appears to be fashioned after them, but she functions more like a plot device than a developed character. She’s the granddaughter of a man whom the game is more interested in than her.

It would be easy to dismiss Uncharted: Golden Abyss as a glorified tech demo for the PS Vita. It’s certainly true that the touchscreen and gryo-sensor control options feels less intuitive (and often more irritating) than their simple button-press alternatives. Unlike Mario 64 or Wii Sports, which cleverly exploited hardware advancement as integrated game design, nearly all the Vita-specific additions to Golden Abyss feel tacked on.

But the Vita is a flashy new piece of kit, and Sony can hardly be blamed for developing a game that shows players all the cool new stuff it can do. I grow weary of swiping my finger across the screen when prompted, but most of the time I can play the game the way I want to play it.

What I can’t do is care enough about this Uncharted’s characters and story to make all the shooting, platforming, and hidden object hunting feel worthwhile. In the end, this game ironically proves Naughty Dog’s central thesis to be correct. Nathan Drake’s monkey-like climbing (except over objects he mysteriously can’t climb…like boxes), hordes of massacred victims, and uncanny ability to discover complex mechanical contraptions built by primitive civilizations - none of it makes any sense, really.

But it’s all so much fun wrapped inside a well-spun yarn with snappy dialogue, exotic locales, and sharply drawn characters we’ve come to know and love. Sadly, Golden Abyss is an Uncharted game delivered in a plain vanilla wrapper.