You’re sitting in the theatre watching a fast-paced, high-octane action thriller as the heroic protagonist takes out an innumerable slew of bad guys. You watch in awed jubilance as he shoots, punches, and kicks his way through the enemy onslaught as bullets whizz passed his head and too-close-for-comfort explosions cause you to feel the heat from the ensuing flames even as you sit idly in your chair munching on popcorn. Yet as the hero showcases his talent for cheating death and his accuracy with an assault rifle, he cannot help but make an idiotic decision that lands him in deep trouble and puts his entire mission in danger. Maybe it was deciding to not take out the bad guy wielding the RPG immediately, or opting to turn to his mate to make a witty, sarcastic remark after a clever maneuver which gives the enemy precious time to reload and regroup. Regardless of its nature, it’s the kind of facepalming error that causes you to turn to your friend sitting next to you in the theatre and comment on how unrealistic that moment was, and how if you were personally in the same situation you would have handled the scenario in an entirely different manner.
In this way, watching certain films can often be a frustrating process. We vicariously put ourselves in the shoes of the hero and may internally, or in some cases, externally criticize him or her for not approaching a given situation in a particular manner. This is where the progressing advances of technology and the medium of video games come into play. The realm of interactive games grants us the power to approach these types of situations in the way in which we see fit, and that is undoubtedly one way that gaming differs so heavily when compared to every other area of entertainment.
But as video games become ever more advanced and complex, the medium itself inevitably undergoes transformation as well. The Uncharted franchise are works that have come to epitomize this very change in which games cease to be 2D pixels that give players a series of challenges to overcome and instead become a new form of interactivity altogether. Yet even so, I have had countless discussions with people in regards to Uncharted’s place in the medium of gaming who incessantly criticize Naughty Dog’s action/adventure as being less of a video game and instead more of an “interactive experience.”
I then came across an article written by Scott Juster of PopMatters in which he develops a similar argument, criticizing Uncharted 3 for not being enough of a video game and for being what he sees as a work perpetually stuck between game and movie. Some of Juster’s criticisms are very valid and definitely warranted. Yes, Naughty Dog employs the “running toward the camera” technique once too often. Yeah, there are too many redundant fist fights with bruisers who look all too familiar throughout the game. I myself actually wondered for a while whether I was fighting the same dude multiple times. Yet even with these minor faults taken into consideration, I find Juster and his fellow dissenters to be dead wrong. Now having over two months with Uncharted 3, I can definitively say that the Uncharted series are phenomenal video games. Not phenomenal films, nor a new breed of “interactive experiences”, but video games.
On my second playthrough with Uncharted 3, I discovered moments in which it truly proves itself to be an extraordinary game. The shipyard sequence in particular, right after Drake escapes the captivity of the pirates and continues his quest to find and rescue Sully, showcases how and why Uncharted works as a product of the gaming industry. You merge out of the water. Before you in plain sight are two ships and three pieces of “wreckage” with a visible number of enemies on each. Also standing in your way is a fortified stationary gun at the far end of the map as well as multiple enemy snipers set up in strategic positions. Oh, and a couple of shotgun-wielding heavies are hanging around there somewhere also. In what is probably the most difficult portion of the entire game, this very sequence is perhaps its best in demonstrating why Unchartedis in fact not better as a film or as some sort of hybrid entertainment.
Why? Because there are countless ways to approach this scenario, each with varying degrees of success. You could take the stealthy route, trying to navigate the wreckage as you’re submerged in the water and methodically take out enemies as quietly as possible. Should you decide to come up guns blazing, you have to decide whether or not to focus fire on the stationary gun that rains shells upon you, or instead deal with the snipers first and subsequently take cover from the bullets of the turret. There’s no sense in describing each and every way to progress through this portion of the game because the possibilities are endless. How I chose to go about beating it might be extremely different than someone else’s. How many times I died trying to beat this particular segment might be, and probably is higher than the number of times of that other guy. Yet it is this process, this method of calculated strategy which includes trying and failing that gives gaming an upper hand over other mediums.
What if this same sequence was played out on film? Well, we could expect a shot of Drake silently taking out that first enemy by pulling him into the water followed by him climbing the ladder and taking cover. As he surveys his environment, the camera would slowly pan from left to right showing the enemies and their various locations, seemingly unaware that he was in their midst. Drake might then utter something along the lines of, “At least I have the element of surprise worki–” before he is interrupted by an incoming rocket, to which he humorously replies something like, “Ah shit!” and is forced to dive out of the way in the nick of time. You can guess how it would play out from there. Drake dodges a host of grenades and bullets as he punches and shoots anything and everything that stands in his way, all while Uncharted’s epic score plays in the background. The difference here is that when we play, we can come across this same situation ten times and never play it the same way. Because Uncharted is a video game, the player always has a choice and an option in how they choose to play, regardless of whether they succeed or fail or how unconventional their playstyle is. If we were watching Drake on the silver screen, he would have but a single option, and it would play out the same way every single time.
The same argument can be made in regards to the various puzzles that the player is required to complete throughout the game. The chateau emblems puzzle for example works as a fine addition in contrast to the game’s action sequences. Again, it forces you to go through a process of trial and error and in order to progress to the next area you have to walk on a series of emblems which must be walked on in a specific sequential order. Utilizing Drake’s notebook here is almost necessary as one misstep can send you back to the beginning to try another combination. The same goes for the two puzzles in Yemen at the bottom of the underground tomb which contains the location of Ubar. These sequences test you in an entirely different manner, challenging your analytical thinking rather than your reflexes and aim, and they work as a result of being segments of a video game rather than of a film.
Films have the disadvantage of having to portray an elongated plot in the limited timeframe of about 2 and a half hours. As such, screenwriters often have to “cut to the chase” if you will, in the sense that they would not be able to include the protagonist’s entire thought process and strategy planning as if he/she were solving these types of puzzles in real time. On film, it would take the character two, maybe three times to solve the puzzle, certainly not for the sake of realism, but because that is all the screenwriters and director have time for. But within the context of the gaming industry, developers can make these puzzles as complex and time-consuming as they so choose. As a result, being able to control Drake in this way, whether it be taking the time to solve complicated puzzles or finding the best way to take down a seriously armored heavy, we become more emotionally invested in his outcome because we are an integral part of it. Because Uncharted is a game, we are not simply watching Drake objectively as a character on screen as he performs these actions, we are in fact performing them ourselves.
This isn’t to say that an Uncharted live action film wouldn’t kick ass. Such a film absolutely could given the right script, director, and cast. But Juster argues that action/adventure films trump their video game counterparts in the sense that “unlike a video game hero, the action hero doesn’t have to practice that tricky jump a dozen times.” I would argue that this is actually the action/adventure film’s fatal flaw, and whereby the gaming industry holds a distinct advantage. Juster claims that Indiana Jones’ “desperate jump across that first pit in Raiders is suspenseful because it’s the only time that he attempts such a maneuver.” From a purely analytical perspective, how suspenseful is the jump, really? How suspenseful is anything we see in the Indiana Jones movies after we watch them for the first time? Even during our first viewing we are well aware of the realization that Indiana will always make that jump, ten out of ten times. The film cannot go on without him, nor can the franchise itself. This is Hollywood we’re talking about, not Italian neo-realism. As viewers, it is difficult for us to entirely differentiate between Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford. Within this context, the actions of Indiana are never as exhilarating as the actions of Drake because the audience knows that Indiana will make it. They cannot say the same for Drake.
Juster himself says that failure is never even a possibility for Indiana. For Drake however, failure is alwaysa very real, very plausible possibility. Yes, player failure and repetition are fundamentally intertwined with video games. But because of this, every time we take control of Drake and make that desperate jump, there is a significant chance that our hero will not make it. Take the chateau fire sequence for instance. If it were Indiana in the same situation, the surrounding flames would be but mere scenery. We could never thoroughly fear for him, because we know that he’d make it out even if it took some form of deus ex machina to do so. With Drake on the other hand, the engulfing flames are a tangible danger. If we do not make each jump and frantic leap at exactly the right moment, our protagonist dies, and we’re forced to repeat the sequence until we can do it correctly.
As for the argument that “seeing a well-developed character like Drake turn into a mindless killing machine during gameplay is jarring”, I ask you to take a moment of pensive thought. Is it really all that jarring? Firstly, Drake is a thieving grave robber who is heavily involved in the criminal underworld. Secondly, for those paying even slight attention to Drake’s character development throughout the course of Uncharted 3, it becomes clear to us that Drake is not the character we’ve been introduced to during the first two games of the series. Drake is a manipulative, scheming personality who uses those around him to his advantage in order to get something out of them. After he and Sully escape the chateau fire, he snaps at a tired Sully for being hesitant to go on. The fact that Sully is getting older and that his health may be deteriorating is of no interest to him. The nature of their relationship is explored in-depth during the flashback sequence. Although Sully’s intents may have been pure (he sought to gain the son he never had), Drake’s are definitely up for debate. His reward, his goal are the only thing of any importance in the end. He constantly puts those he cares about in compromising and often dangerous situations just for personal gain. His motives are questioned by Sully, Chloe, and Elena, and his very background is thrown into question during the scene with Marlowe at the café. There remains a possibility that Drake is not who he says he is and that he has manipulated his allies and drawn them into his exploits. Drake’s Deception, the very subtitle for the game, may in fact represent his ability to completely control those around him. He is attractive and charismatic, sure, but he is in no way an upstanding guy.
What the Uncharted series probably suffers from most is the fact that nothing like it in the industry currently exists. No other games blend breathtaking set-pieces with a cinematic narrative the way in which the Uncharted games have grown to. Almost similar in fashion to how Final Fantasy VII was initially criticized for employing non-interactive CG sequences, FFVII is now often solely credited as being the game that popularized the RPG genre outside of Japan, and its CG sequences are still lauded today as being a leap forward for the medium in terms of narrative within gaming. Uncharted 3 and its predecessors are that next step in gaming’s metamorphosis – one that combines seamless combat, brilliant narrative, and astonishing cinematic sequences, and of course, one that is appealing to the explorer inherent in each and every one of us.
There will always be those who will argue that Uncharted fails because of its dual existence as both a cinematic adventure and action video game. I ask, why can it not exist as both? If these two structures are truly that far separated from one another, then it is time we accept games that are willing to bridge that gap instead of rejecting them, and join Naughty Dog and Drake in taking that desperate leap to get across to the other side. Yes, there is a chance that this gaming sub-genre might fall from the ledge, but that very chance of failure will always be half the fun.