Thursday, January 12, 2017

Notes on Uncharted 4

Cliche sad nerd story time:

On some level Uncharted 2 is the reason why this blog exists in the first place. Not because I think Uncharted 2 is particularly critically interesting, but because that game changed my life when I was 13. For better or worse, Uncharted 2 marked a beginning of my life on the Internet, as I joined the mini-community/message board on GameSpot called the Naughty Dog Collective right around the time of its release. It also happened to be my first “adult” game since my parents were pretty strict about ESRB ratings at the time, my first shooter, and my first online multiplayer game. This mini-community gave me the chance to grow up with folks who cared about games as much as I did, and the older kids in the group inspired me to write amateur reviews of games. And we formed these close friendships around Uncharted 2, the hype before its release, and hours and hours spent in its multiplayer.

And Uncharted 2 blew my young innocent soul away with its quippy characters, tight and intense combat, gorgeous settings, and awesome set pieces, just as it did almost every reviewer in 2009. Because it was my Baby’s First colonialist adventure media, my Baby’s First character-driven game narrative, I ate up all the praise reviewers threw at the game largely because I had no Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones to compare it to and not much critical or cultural knowledge to speak of. That game was conceived as a storytelling achievement for the medium, and my 13-year-old self certainly thought so. But I’m not entirely sure how to think about or relate to Uncharted 2 (or the rest of the series) anymore.

A lot has changed in the seven years I started playing the series. I no longer think that quips about bringing a hooker to church are endlessly funny for instance. And I don’t have any misgivings about staring at Nate’s butt or stubbly jaw anymore. But more importantly, I don’t play games for experiences like Uncharted anymore. The series doesn’t offer the quieter, queerer, more thematically intense games like the ones I gravitate towards these days. It’s a white, straight colonialist romp and the most AAA game of AAA games. And I don’t know if its protagonist is as cool as I once thought he was.

Like many, I hated Uncharted 3 and soon after thought I wouldn’t want to play another one. I went into Uncharted 4 with low expectations, looking for nothing more than a fun romp with beautiful vistas. And Uncharted 4 is very much that. But it turns out I’m not the only one who’s changed. As ridiculous of a character as Nathan Drake is, Uncharted 4 provides a thoughtful meditation on his past, his identity, and his future. It’s a story crafted with so much care for its audience and fans, and even though it’s not perfectly executed, I appreciate the game’s existence. The game closes out Nathan Drake’s story and points towards games of recent memory that offer an alternative to Uncharted’s hegemonic action/shooter tropes, suggesting that games like Gone Home and Life is Strange are videogames’ future, not more Uncharted. Uncharted 4 is no revolution but a skillful conclusion that finally lets its man-child protagonist and the series itself grow up.

Let’s start with the more obvious before moving on to spoiler territory. **Gameplay spoilers start at #2 and Story Spoilers start at #4.**

1. Holy shit, this game is beautiful. I’m usually not one to squeal over technically proficient visuals, but the Uncharted series has always impressed me with the diversity and detail of its settings. Uncharted 4 is most impressive in that its levels are both much larger than before and include even more attention to detail. The sweeping views are predictably gorgeous--from a sunrise over a snowy Scottish cliffside to the mountains looming over the muddy fields of Madagascar. The outside levels are as breathtaking and diverse as the interior spaces, from derelict opulent mansions to Nate’s own intimate home. Everything in this world moves and sways in response to Nate’s movements, giving your character a real sense of presence in the space, especially when Nate sneaks through high grass or slides down a muddy slope. The facial animations are particularly impressive, as they’re able to communicate a wide range of the characters’ complex emotions from world-weary exasperation to performative happiness. There’s some pointed silences in the script that are carried perfectly by facial expressions with surprisingly no Uncanny Valley terror.

Everything in Uncharted 4 looks picture perfect. And fittingly, they’ve added a Photo Mode that lets you pause the game and mess around with camera controls, field of view, depth of field, filters, and other elements to take expressive screenshots. I spent plenty of hours messing with this tool trying to capture the prettiest or goofiest images possible. I don’t think it’s weird to say that Photo Mode is easily my favorite addition to the series.

2. Uncharted 4 is the first game in the series to make me feel like I'm actually on an adventure searching for clues to piece together the pseudo-historical narrative of a lost treasure. Whereas previous games in the series funnelled the player through the tightly controlled pacing of combat encounters, traversal, simple puzzles, and set pieces, Uncharted 4 gives the player more input in solving the mysteries of Henry Avery’s pirate treasure by taking cues from The Last of Us’ brand of level design. The game is still very much linear but includes expansive environments to explore with plenty of hidden structures both natural and man-made that may or may not hold some journal notes, treasure collectibles, or items of interest. (Just suspend your disbelief that those 17-18th century notes exposed to the elements are still legible and written in 21st century style of English.) Some chapters have you drive a vehicle around an environment with plenty of opportunities for detours to scattered islands, caves, and crumbling structures. These elements and level design give the game a much broader sense of scale and develop the intrigue of the history of the game’s spaces and their place in Henry Avery’s tale.

My friend Amr recently published a piece on negative space in videogames, both in terms of physical space and ludic space. Their thesis holds that what is absent or “unoccupied” in games is just as important as the focal points featured in games. And I think Uncharted 4 uses negative space very well in its level design. There are plenty of nooks and crannies and even some larger, more complex and detailed spaces that appear perfectly designed to hide treasures and journal notes, but they often hold nothing. Videogames have trained me to play as if any meticulously crafted area of a level must be home to some point of interaction or interest of the player, whether that be a collectible or a shortcut. If it’s here--if the developers designed it--the player must be able to do something with it or in it, right? But in Uncharted 4 a cave might just be a cave, and a centuries-abandoned house might hold nothing more than the degraded remnants of lives long past. The levels’ negative space supports the illusion that these spaces exist on their own terms and not just to satisfy the player’s or Nathan Drake’s interests. This design effectively evokes the feeling of a treasure hunt as not every obvious place for a clue or collectible holds one.

3. Amr in their aforementioned piece also notes that puzzle sections in action games can constitute as the “negative space” of a game’s structure that breaks up the constant stimuli of combat encounter and action sequences. The Uncharted series is perhaps famous for this structure and its tightly controlled pacing that mixes shooting with platforming and puzzles so that the player isn’t beleaguered with the same kinds of interaction for too long.

Uncharted 4’s control of its pacing dips quite a bit with its new focus on larger levels and deemphasizing of combat encounters. Several chapters of the game long overstay their welcome, and the game could be several hours shorter. I don’t necessarily think that the game has too much “negative” space in its structure but that there’s too much space in general, especially when it comes to platforming sequences. These sequences shouldn’t be replaced with more combat but simply trimmed down to less fatiguing lengths.   


4. Now let’s talk about the narrative. The premise is that Nathan Drake is living a “normal” life now, as a husband to Elena with a nice home working for a salvage company. You’d think working as a deep sea diver to retrieve materials from sunken boats would be an interesting job, but a man so “addicted to danger” and thrills as Nathan Drake finds little but boredom in such a life. The vehicles he salvages aren’t Francis Drake-old and the cargo he brings to the surface is mere copper--no jewels granting immortality or supernatural powers.

But Nate’s previously unknown brother Sam, who Nate thought died in a Panamanian prison 15 years prior, comes in to drag Nate back to the life of adventure. Sam claims he needs to find the treasure of Henry Avery that the brothers have been looking for before their separation in order to pay back the drug lord who helped Sam escape. Nate agrees explicitly to save his brother’s life, but on the inside it’s clear that he’s excited about the return to dangerous adventure all the same. He brings Sully along to help and lies to Elena about being off on a Malaysia job.

The premise works as a way to challenge Nate’s character and motivations. The narrative asks what Nathan Drake really wants in his world and what kind of life he is “destined” for. Nate has changed in some ways from 3 to 4 and in some ways stayed the same. His family life puts his adventuring in a completely different context; he searches for Avery’s treasure on the pretext of familial duty to his brother rather for his own desires of greatness and thrill-seeking. But beneath the surface he loves every bit of following Avery’s convoluted trail. Even though this side of Nate is certainly self-destructive and puts his life and others in danger, I feel similarly about the game itself. I played Uncharted 4 partly out of an obligation to finish the series, but I also enjoyed the hell out of it.

The foil of Sam and Nate works really well, as Sam shows his excitement throughout the game while Nate shows a little more self-awareness and restraint from an obsession with the treasure. Sam is ever-impatient to hit the finish line, but Nate is used to being delayed and dragged around the globe--solving puzzles that arbitrarily lead to more puzzles and new locations. Sam thinks Nate was born for this life of thrills, but even Sully wants Nate to settle down and retire from this life for his and Elena’s sake. As Nate tries and fails to reconcile his life of adventure with Sam and normal life with Elena, the game eventually condemns Sam’s behavior and attitude. He lied to Nate about his debt to the drug lord in order to lure him out of his life, and he risks the characters’ lives after everyone else had decided that the treasure wasn’t worth it.

Our characters’ story smartly parallels with the narrative of Avery and the founding of secret pirate utopia Libertalia. A group of pirate captains along with Avery settle on an island off the coast of Madagascar to escape their oppressive governments and live with their wealth and treasures intact. But pirate libertarianism quickly falls apart when the colony’s original collectivism quickly dissolves as the Founders steal the wealth for themselves and create a new town for the elites on the other side of the island. The Founders’ community itself falls to ruins as each pirate captain conspires against the others in a downward spiral of paranoia, egotism, and greed that ends in the extinction of the colony and the abandonment of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of treasure. Avery’s tale cautions the Drake brothers by pointing to the logical conclusion of obsession with adventure and ambition at the expense of others.

The game’s metatext seems to lament its own existence and the existence of the series. Drake comments at the end that after finishing each of his previous adventures, he felt a sense of emptiness and hollowness that Sam experiences for the first time in A Thief’s End. The game seems to criticize the series’ own excess and its relative meaninglessness. It’s a strange wretched existence for such a game, but instead of drowning in its own existential dread, it completes Drake’s story staying true to the series’ style for its fans while at the same time pointing towards something new and better for videogames. In the end, Nate returns to his normal life, but Elena brings more adventure to it by purchasing the salvage company using treasure from the island in order to start an archeological venture with Nate. Together, Nate and Elena reconcile normal, legal life with adventure of satisfying proportion. I’ll talk more about the ending and other specific details in the narrative later, but in general it’s a mostly competent story and easily the best of the series.

5. Quips.

The quips are not good.

But they convey a sense of familiarity and comfort to me, if only because they remind me of how I grew up listening to Drake and co’s quips and one-liners while boosting friends to higher ledges.

6. Combat takes a backseat in Uncharted 4, and I know a lot of people who hated Uncharted combat would be very happy to hear that. But not only is there less combat in this game, encounters are much more forgiving than before. That’s thanks a focus on stealth mechanics. You can now mark enemies and sneak through tall foliage to take them out silently. The stealth isn’t particularly good, and coming right out of Metal Gear Solid V’s excellent stealth, it’s somewhat disappointing. You have to be in an enemy’s line of site for a few seconds before they investigate, which leads to some incredibly dumb AI behavior. They also can’t “see” you even as the foliage parts as you make your way through it.

As someone who loved the challenge of intense cover-based shootouts, I’m somewhat disappointed by the ease of the combat. But the changes to the systems make perfect sense with the character change that Nate has gone through. Nate doesn’t quite want to go in guns blazing all the time because he’s more rational now and plans to finish his adventure with his and his friends’ lives intact. There are still forced firefights in the game, but some encounters even allow you to sneak past enemies entirely. Even when you make a mistake and are found out by the enemies, you can find your way back into hiding easily, unlike in previous games where once an enemy spots you, they magically know your location at all times. While this system may be too forgiving for me, the level design of the encounters that lets you swing on ropes and punch dudes from above before shooting a few others and disappearing beneath the brush is exciting and satisfying.

It’s too bad Naughty Dog can’t seem to make the guns feel as good as they did in Uncharted 2, but at least A Thief’s End’s gunplay is a step up from Uncharted 3’s.

7. Now I’d like to talk about the women in Uncharted 4 because I think that the depictions of these characters in the game show both the narrative and script’s greatests strengths and weaknesses.

So the problem with Elena throughout the Uncharted series is that she is both an excellent character in her own right (or at least has the potential to be) and is always written to fill the role of falling in and out of Nate’s love, which doesn’t do her character justice. Every Uncharted game before 4 has a “will they, won’t they” underlying romantic tension between Nate and Elena, and Nate always loses Elena’s love before winning it back in the next game. In these previous games, Nate is an immature man who puts himself and his sense of adventure before others consistently. He clearly has issues committing to Elena, but he’s also a hunk, so I don’t quite blame Elena for falling in and out of love with him. But the pattern of their relationship over the first 3 Uncharted games is incredibly tiresome. The writers seem to constantly want to maintain that she is a “strong female character” while also dramatizing her as Nate’s tentative love interest, and it just doesn’t work well.
The same problem with Elena appears in Uncharted 4 but in a new perhaps more acceptable form as Elena and Nate are married and live together. Early on, what is perhaps the best level in the game has Nate explore his own home right before dinnertime. His attic is home to the keepsakes of his past adventures, while the rest of the house tells the story of his normal life with Elena as his wife. The two characters talk to each other about their day and challenge each other to Crash Bandicoot to decide who does the dishes. It’s an incredibly cute and touching sequence--perhaps the best acted scene in a videogame I’ve played. It establishes their relationship as one that is actually functional this time, while hinting that something seems to be missing from their lives.

...Then Nate lies to her and goes off to shoot a bunch of people for treasure again. And we’re back to “will they, won’t they” fall out because of this. There’s no reason for Nate to lie to Elena as he clearly believes Sam’s story about owing the drug lord, and considering how much Nate and Elena have been through, she probably would have come around to it. Instead, Nate seems to put her into the “woman who’s holding me back” box. Elena has proven herself plenty capable and smart and able to “magically” track and find Nathan since
Drake’s Fortune, so it’s obvious that she would find out about the lie sooner or later. The lie seems to me a plot contrivance to get Elena out of the way for a few chapters, so the narrative can focus on Nate’s relationship with Sam.

Several chapters after Elena arrives at Nate’s hotel in melancholic disappointment, she shows up as a deus ex machina to save Drake after a fall. Only after this scene does her character shine again. The two gradually make up (because of course they do--Nate gets everything he wants), and they work their way through the jungle together just as they’ve done since the first game. But it’s the first time the two work together romantically on screen. This new context makes their chemistry much more interesting to watch, and I can’t think of another game that portrays a protagonist with a partner rather than a protagonist with a “potential love interest.” Uncharted 4 explores how a romantic relationship can actually work and as far as I know is the first action game to actually do so. Better yet, it succeeds for the most part! Elena proves that she is no woman holding Nate back and actually explicitly says that she missed the adventure too, but she emphasizes their need to trust each other and act as team through big decisions. For the first time, these characters feel like they’re actually in love and have meaningfully romantic interactions, instead of just being romantically interested in one another because Nate is the boy and Elena is the girl of the story.

8. Late in the game, you play as young Nate in a flashback sneaking into a mansion with Sam to find their mother’s lost journals. It’s the Gone Home level. Through notes and photos in the mansion, you learn the story of the owners Kenichiro and Evelyn, two historians who fall in love, get married, and have a son Edmund. You learn that Evelyn could not reconcile her domestic life with the life of her archeological adventures, and the couple split. She doesn’t go to Ken’s funeral, and Edmund cuts Evelyn out of his life despite her feeble attempts at reconciliation. It’s an obvious parallel to Nate’s failure to reconcile his home life with Elena with his adventures with Sam. But I found myself wishing that this story about two academics who explicitly struggled for recognition and credibility in a 20th century patriarchal and white supremacist academic environment was the focus on its own game, not a backdrop and a parallel of the white man’s central narrative conflict.

As Sam and Nate find their mother’s journal, they find themselves staring at the barrel of a gun held by an old woman--none other than Evelyn. After explaining why they’re in her home, Evelyn realizes the boys are Cassandra Morgan’s sons. She tells them that their mother was the most brilliant historian she’s ever known--that they both believed in spite of “history” that Francis Drake had heirs. She says that her work on Henry Avery would have been her greatest legacy, but she died before she could finish it. Evelyn suggests to the boys that they can pick up where she left off.

Again, I wished this game were about Nate’s mother and her own journey searching for Avery’s trail. I wanted to know more about her relationship to Evelyn and what her motives were for her work--fame and fortune? spreading knowledge? But Nate’s mom is sadly just an absent dead woman that defines the backstory and motivations for the young white men. Even worse, neither Nate nor Sam mention their mother outside of this flashback. They don’t seem to want to find Avery’s treasure to carry on her work or to do something in her memory, but instead out of their own greed and sense of adventure. Cassandra’s impact on the brothers is totally absent from the rest of the game and a complete waste of potential to humanize Drake’s seemingly pathological thrill-seeking.

Also, the first thing I said to myself when Evelyn appears onscreen was, “Please don’t die for no reason.” And of course after the police show up, and she tells the boys that she’ll take care of them, she collapses and dies for no reason! Of course, this might represent a cautionary tale to Nate--that failing to reconcile two parts of your life can cause you to die alone--but this lesson is executed so poorly and just dramatizes Nate and Sam’s escape from the house. Instead of being able to quietly walk out of the mansion, they are chased by the police (who of course don’t shoot at them because they are white boys). They escape and somehow never have to fear being found and brought in for questioning about Evelyn’s death and their presence at the mansion. Videogames!

9. After all this disappointing use of female characters as motivators and cautionary lessons for Drake, we get the ending. It’s shockingly well done, both in its thorough, satisfying conclusion to Nathan Drake’s story and in its recentering of the narrative on a young girl. The player finds herself suddenly in control of a girl about 12 to 14 years old, and it’s clear that this is Nate and Elena’s daughter. Her name is Cassie, and you play as her to search the property for her parents. You learn that Drake and Elena have been successful archeologists and writers during these years and have even taken Cassie on some trips. Her curiosity leads her to open up Nate’s locked cabinet of keepsakes from old adventures, and when Nate and Elena catch her with her grandmother’s journal, Nate eventually caves in to tell her the stories. The whole sequence reminds me of Life is Strange from the interactions with household items and Cassie’s curious and sarcastic commentary. It’s a sweet surprise that suggests recent titles like Life is Strange and Gone Home are the adventures of the future of videogames, not more stories of shooty white guys. I wonder what “adventure” will mean for Cassie. For Sam and Nate, because of their environment, it seems that “adventure” was always tied to crime, but under a loving family, will Cassie’s adventures hold something more healthy and fulfilling?

Uncharted 4’s fantastic ending only makes the announcement of The Last of Us Part II all the more disappointing for me, but here’s to hoping, along with Danielle Riendeau, that Naughty Dog make that game super gay.

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