Take 3 - Uncharted the Director
November 10, 2011
The history of narrative game design can be fairly summarized as an ongoing effort to enable the player. Games enable choice, strategic thinking, moral deliberation, mechanical mastery, etc., all designed to make the player feel smart, powerful, responsible, or otherwise connected to a world where the player’s actions and decisions matter. In one way or another, all the major game franchises aim at this same brass ring. Mass Effect, GTA, Bioshock, Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Assassin’s Creed, Fable, Fallout - each unfolds a story (apparently) driven forward by the player. Each enables the player to impact the world…or at least delivers an illusion of impact.
But not Uncharted. From its opening moments, Uncharted 3 establishes a cinematic sender-receiver relationship with the player. Advancing the story is the game’s prime directive, and it also functions as the player’s reward. The game presents a steady stream of prompts (timed button-presses) action challenges (climbing, gunfights and hand-to-hand combat), and puzzles, each requiring the proper response. Get it right, and you get more story. Get it wrong, and it’s rewind and try again.
In this way, the player activates story sequentially, bit by bit, not by choosing sides or navigating branching dialogue options, but by earning it like Mario coins. The Half-Life games work similarly (sans cutscenes), but the Uncharted series builds such pot-boiler suspense and character intrigue into its narratives that the player feels swept up in a globe-trotting page-turner that insists on steady progression. If I don’t keep going, who’s going to rescue Sully? Missing a jump means I’ve delayed the story, which somehow feels more consequential in these tightly-paced games. Cutscene as carrot; Rewind as stick.
In this ‘play the movie’ system, cinematic fidelity is paramount, and each game has raised the bar higher in this regard. Uncharted 3 retains the colorful adventure-movie look of the previous games, but this time the virtual camerawork has a Paul Thomas Anderson feel, relying heavily on constant-motion Steadicam cinematography. As cinema, Uncharted 3 feels at once old-school-Hollywood and art-house edgy. Pay attention to the “camera” in this early scene to see what I mean. It never stops moving.
So, if cinematic interactivity is Uncharted’s raison d’être, how does this affect the player’s experience? I believe an apt parallel can be found in the relationship between a lead actor and director on a film set, with the Uncharted player as actor and the Uncharted game as director. Playing Uncharted 3 is less about watching a film than shooting a film.
The actor must hit his marks and deliver his performance within a tightly constrained set of parameters. Autonomy is secondary to precision in this environment. I may have my own ideas of how to ‘play’ a scene, but if my approach violates the director’s (or cinematographer’s or art director’s, etc.) plans for how the scene must be executed, we have a problem. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. It’s simply the nature of filmmaking, and the Uncharted games rely heavily on this paradigm, both as presentation and as player experience.
Like a good movie actor, my job is to make what I’m told to do look like it was my idea all along. When I hit the triangle button to dodge a punch, or jump at just the right moments to escape a building crumbling beneath me, Drake looks fabulous doing it. When I deviate from that script or miss my mark, Drake dies in a pathetic rag-doll heap. Film actors quickly learn that a skillful performance matters, but nothing matters more than what the director (and editor) do with that work. A good director may redeem a bad performance; but a bad director usually makes everyone look bad. Uncharted 3 is a very good, but very prescriptive director.
Alfred Hitchcock famously remarked “Actors are cattle.” If you’ve watched a film being shot, especially on location, it’s a nasty, but mostly fair observation, at least in terms of what’s required to get film into the can. Hitchcock later amended his observation: “I never said all actors are cattle, what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle.”
So, does Naughty Dog treat Uncharted players like cattle? Well...maybe Hitchcock’s notion that we should be treated as such isn’t far off the mark if we see mainstream narrative game design as a certain kind of cow-herding: moving a mass of players from point to point, keeping them fed and happy, and trying hard not to lose any strays. This is the general feeling I get from Uncharted 3. At the risk of issuing damning praise, I believe the game is a spectacular exercise in interactive cinema. No game comes closer to delivering a truly playable movie, with AAA production values and a craftsmanlike grasp of film language.
But the total experience falls short for me, not because Uncharted isn’t enough of a “game” or because it relies heavily on cutscenes. There are lots of ways to tell stories in video games, and Naughty Dog executes its way better than anyone else. I just wish this director trusted me a little more with my performance. I’ve worked with him (I could as easily say "her") three times now, and I think he's terrific. I love the studio, and I love the ethos. But I need a little more creative input now. I need to feel less like a cow and more like a collaborator.
A couple of examples highlight my point. A pirate named Rameses attacks Nate in Yemen, knocking him out with a piece of wood. He then takes Nate prisoner, transports him to a dry dock, and tortures him for information. When Nate refuses to cooperate, Rameses replies, “Perhaps your friend Sully will be more grateful for his life,” and departs.
Later, Nate is re-captured by Rameses’ men, but Nate manages to escape, steal a gun from one of the pirates, and shoot Rameses in the chest...with no input or interaction from me. Hey, Mr. Director! I could have done that! Given Rameses' treatment of me earlier, it would have been a pleasure. Why couldn’t you trust me to take care of the job?
A few chapters later, Nate staggers through the Rub’ al Khali desert - lost, alone, and dying of thirst. This section of the game is reminiscent of the Nepalese village portion of Uncharted 2: a tonal and mechanical shift occurs, and the player is free to explore and make sense of this apparently incongruous section of the game. But unlike the village, the desert in Uncharted 3 directs me ways that confine and confound me.
I admire how the control system breaks down in this scene, making it difficult to manipulate a staggering, hallucinating Nate. But all too soon, the game extracts me from the situation and moves the narrative forward, long before I’m ready. I wish the game had trusted me to explore, even aimlessly, perhaps encountering hallucinations that tell me more about Drake’s obsessions and fears. It’s a missed opportunity for me as Nate to wander confused, disoriented, and face myself. I might have learned something here. You gave me a place and situation to do that, but you didn’t trust me enough to make that time of wandering meaningful. Forty days and nights might have been interesting…
I like the Uncharted games. I'll begin playing Skyrim tomorrow, and I'm guessing I'll like that too. I don't need one game to be like the other. Vive la différence! But I'm a restless actor. I’ll happily accept another gig as Nathan Drake if the director wants to cast me again. But let’s talk about how to make that next performance more valuable for me. I’m happy to let you run the show. I just need a little more room to breathe. Work with me here, ok? :-)