Uncharted 2’s Sloppy Fiction

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is the highest rated game of the year, winner of more than a few publications' Games of the Year awards. But that doesn't mean it did everything right.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin, assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz and author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies, pokes some holes in the game's seeming perfection.

The design of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves should make integrating gameplay and fiction easier in two particular ways. First, it's linear, so there's no need to worry about unexpected traversals of the fictional space. Second, it's almost entirely scripted - a matter of how adeptly things are accomplished, rather than what approach is taken or what tasks are attempted - so there's little chance of unexpected emergence from game mechanics coming into play in places, times, or combinations other than what the developer intended. Given these advantages/limitations, the game's creators shouldn't have much trouble making sure that gameplay action is solidly motivated by, situated in, and consistent with the fictional world.

And it appears to have worked, at least from the game's reception. As you probably know, the game has been getting great reviews that call it "a rollicking good yarn" that "gives up nothing to the biggest action films you can think of."

I've just started playing myself - thanks to winter break - but I'm actually a bit disappointed in Uncharted 2. It seems as though the gameplay and fiction have more disjuncture than even in the first Uncharted, much less a well-written movie.

Consider, for example, the first major chunk of action (after the prologue in the snow). This is set in a museum, and Nathan Drake (the main character) takes pains to explain to his accomplices that he doesn't want them to bring guns, because they're just going up against museum guards - and he doesn't want to kill anyone. This leads to a bunch of non-lethal hand-to-hand. Next it is revealed that one of the accomplices has brought guns. But they're non-lethal dart guns, so it's okay, and a bunch of museum guards get tranqed. Then, in the midst of this, Drake is hanging from a roof edge when a guard walks toward it. The game prompts the player to hit the square button - which results in grabbing the guard and throwing him to his apparent death. An accomplice makes a joke of this and Drake makes no mention of this completely out of character action. Others have also found this strange. But the associated joke (the one that starts, "There's a guy above you!") also appears to be one of the game's most-quoted.

The next big chunk of action has an even-odder break between the fiction and the design of the gameplay. Here the scenario involves a set of explosive charges that have been placed around a camp. The player character must arm them so that they can be used as part of a diversion. But the process of arming them requires fighting a camp of men armed with automatic weapons - an accomplice says we'll have to "clear the place out" - and the game neither prompts nor seems to provide the possibility of doing this via stealth. So the only way to play is to have a large firefight against people armed with automatic weapons and presumably aware of the route back to the main camp to warn their fellows. This seems likely to create at least as large a "diversion" (at the wrong fictional moment) as blowing up a few explosives mounted to the sides of the very platforms around which the firefight takes place. It's as though the fiction authors said "Let's have them arm some charges" and the gameplay authors said "Let's have the associated challenge be a firefight with several waves of goons" and no one checked to see if the gameplay made any sense with the context and motivation of the fiction.

Starting the game this way was leaving me a bit dispirited, though wanting to press on, given the Edge review's reassurance that the "opening chapters do not see the game at its very best." But then I heard the questions I was asking myself. "Did they put that guard's death in there just so they could work in that joke?" "Why didn't even a single one of the many goons we fought think to run the short distance to the main camp, if they were cut off from their radios?" I realised - these are exactly the sorts of questions I find myself asking after seeing the same blockbuster action movies on which the Uncharted games model their experience.

Arguably this is a sign that the Naughty Dog developers are right on target. It wouldn't have occurred to me as a goal, but it might be a sign of perfection to have emulated not only the globe-hopping spectacle and history-mashing treasure hunts of well-loved action films, but also their sloppiness in integrating action and fiction. Let's hope, however, that Uncharted 3 can reconsider this aspect of devotion to its inspirations.

Reprinted with permission from expressiveintelligentstudio.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin is an assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz, where he teaches in the University of California's first undergraduate computer game degree program, co-directs the Expressive Intelligence Studio in the Computer Science department, and founded the Playable Media project group in the Digital Arts and New Media MFA program. His most recent book is Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies.


    The level set in the museum is a tutorial level for the stealth mechanics of the game, it’s the very purpose of the level to show you all the ways you can dispose of a guy quietly, and one of those ways is pushing him off a building. I absolutely disagree that the situations in the game were set up just for a joke, infact nothing in Uncharted 2 feels like a “wouldn’t it be cool if” moment were the developers had one idea or one joke and expanded it into a whole level.

    I don’t get how this guy can compare Uncharted 2 to a blockbuster movie then call it out for these small things, Big time action movies very often have huge flaws in their internal logic, and not just that but huge gunfights start on the drop of a hat with almost no motivation whatsoever. Sure it probably would have been more realistic to sit down and talk to the guy and his army of 50, but this is an action movie I’ll let the guns do the talking.

    Much like MGS, you get into the alert status, go into caution and the next thing, its like you never happened.

    Journalists love doing this... nothing makes a journalist happier than trying to find holes in whatever happens to be the flavour of the month. Uncharted 2 is an amazing game; best game of 2009 and quite honestly my all time favourite but OF COURSE ITS NOT GOING TO BE PERFECT. There is no such thing as perfection when it comes to storytelling... why? Because you have 100+ people doing their own thing, every day for 2-3 years and there are bound to be crossovers. It happens. Journalists being journalists; get over it.

      I don't understand what you think a journalist is supposed to do.
      His job was to generate discussion and he has done that, despite getting the guard-killing thing wrong. Not every article is going to kiss Uncharted's ass and it's interesting to see someone say more than just praise, instead taking another approach at critiqueing the game.

    What a sourpuss, enjoy it for what it is- a game. We're not talking about a Oscar worthy feature film here.

    As far as games go, UC2's story telling, atmosphere, etc etc are second to none.

    "Then, in the midst of this, Drake is hanging from a roof edge when a guard walks toward it. The game prompts the player to hit the square button – which results in grabbing the guard and throwing him to his apparent death."

    I keep seeing people bring this up, and apparently I was one of the few people who actually looked down during this scene, to watch the guard swimming away.

      Indeed, I also noticed him splashing around down in the water. Oddly enough if you let go the drop is quite fatal to Drake :)

    All games have faults, but it's hard to coordinate plot writers and the gameplay guys to create action that corresponds with the motivation and reasons behind the characters' actions. Still, Uncharted 2 was an outstanding effort from Naughty Dog, and the few faults it has does little to tarnish the excellent game.

    I'd be more disappointed in plot holes in a blockbuster movie, as good time is spent on the plot and characters, more than game development.

    Cerzal, you beat me to it the guard does fall in the water and swim away, I watched it myself too. Someone should smack this sloppy journalism lol. That and the scene with the explosives is cut off to some degree from the other camp which is why sully gets left behind for a moment so it may be sloppy but not outright dud!

    I was under the assumption that when you threw the man off the edge he fell into water and survived. and the joke even helps that idea. i could be wrong though.

    HAHAHA at the comments pretty much nailing this guys article on killing the guard! I never noticed it but thats so funny!

    Reading the article, it does make you look at some of the things and think yeah, it kinda looks like they didn't THINK that far ahead when putting it into the game.

    But lets make one thing clear - Uncharted 2 has never been labelled or tried to be labelled as one of the most realistic and believable games developed.

    Sure critics are universally praising the game and mentioning how great the dialogue is, the combat and its action-packed features. But even playing the game without coming across such "issues" as this article suggests, players know that Uncharted 2 isn't trying to be the realistic and believable experiences ones had playing a video-game.

    The climbing and jumping alone would prove a statement of its realistic nature completely wrong. I find this guy is just trying to look for the tiniest things to complain about. Sure the game has its negatives, as all do, but its still a VERY enjoyable game to play and even watch.

    I mean, GTA IV has a Metacritic score of 98. I bet a lot of those critics NOW wouldn't rate it that high when looking at the big picture. I know i wouldn't. BUT its still an enjoyable game. However, that BIG gunfight, i thought something similar but didn't let it get in the way of my experience with the game. Sometimes you gotta just TRY and enjoy the experience with what you are served.

      But compared to your Halos, or even the fan favourite GTAIV, this game is miles away.

        Such a Sony fangirl, it's cute.

        But yeah miles away - behind i would say.

        I absolutely love Uncharted 2, but it will never be given the amount of hours spent on Halo or GTA, even though I don't really speak highly of GTA IV in my comment nor mention Halo.

          Spoken like a 360 fanboy...

          The closest comparison for a game on the 360 is Gears of War, and I think even ardent fans would agree that storyline and characterisation in either GoW is far more simplistic than in either Uncharted. I think that there's certainly an argument to be made that the Naughty Dog devs knew exactly what kind of film they'd be emulating, but setting that to one side, I think it should be acknowledged that when your criticisms are as small and nitpicky as this, then the game is clearly a strong one.

          No game should be above criticism, but I think we should retain a sense of perspective - we're arguing over the difference between great game and masterpiece here, not okay game and crap game.

    This is like the most nitpicky article I've ever seen on Kotaku.

    As everyone has already said, the guard doesn't die, he swims away. And as for the guards not going to warn Lazaravich, you can make up as many reasons as you want for this, but it's a stupidly petty complaint.

    Maybe they want to kill the intruder before reporting to their psycho leader who might kill them for being cowards, maybe they don't want to turn their back to their attacker for fear of being shot, just MAYBE they think they can beat Drake.

    Also, the camp level you are complaining about offering no stealth option, actually does let you go through doing stealth kills. You can kill all but 1 guard and set all of the charges without being noticed; I've done it before, and it's not that hard.

    You are right that Uncharted 2 takes a couple of shortcuts with it's story due to it's canon and action movie style, but these are not those shortcuts.

    Wtf is this guy on.

    Uncharted 2 is a great game. But just to point out something thats not realistic, When Drake jumps out and grabs on too snow covered edges or rocks in damps forests he would in RL not be able to grip, slip, break his back and that would be it.....
    Wouldnt that be a fun realistic game

    I really disliked Uncharted 2. It seemed that the characters were continually 'almost' failing off ledges only to be saved at the last minute and engaging in Mexican standoffs that resulted in the good guys giving up their leverage for no apparent gain (although the villains weren't smart enough to take advantage of their stupidity.)

    If ever any character was in a apparently unresolvable dilemma I knew that it would be resolved in some implausible manner (even taking account of the game's fantasy setting) and that ruined any tension. Plus, why would the bad guys keeps sticking by their boss if he had no concern for their life?

    Don't take it so seriously, it's just a game.

    Quite frankly, I was disappointed with Uncharted 2 in retrospect because its story is about as generic as any action/adventure spectacle. Had it not been for it's great characterization, it surely would not have been praised the same, at least not in the story department. 'Perfect' is an overstatement considering.

    I guess games are a more special medium for story telling than anything else, because it actually creates the world for you to explore and while it certainly was a delight to explore Drake's world, it still lacked the the epic feel of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, or even God of War. These two games sink you into their worlds so deeply that they become wholly unique, and it just makes Uncharted feel generic.

    To backtrack back to the characterization department, Among Thieves doesn't really stand out either, I mean you have a hero who for the entire experience is basically the same guy; he's good, gets tricked, gets angry, goes along on another adventure, meets Elena, Jeff gets shot, doesn't want to leave Jeff behind (still the good guy), adventure, adventure, adventure, kills millions of people, meets old man Schafer, shows a tinsy bit of self-doubt, still the good guy, falls in love at the end; never once does Drake cross the line and does things out of personal desire. He has almost no flaws whatsoever. It's really quite boring after a while. The best stories out there involve characters that are flawed but are inherently good inside.

    If Drake had some sort of obsession with treasure hunting, some semblance of greed that he maybe is willing to sacrifice lives for the sake of it, that would make Uncharted infinitely more interesting.

    I mean, Kratos is more interesting than Drake and we only know two things about him; he kills lots and lots of things (and wants to kill more), and he lost his family, for god's sake.

    Dudes, your comments here have TOTALLY missed the point.

    1. Author is an "assistant professor" in A RELATED FIELD, not just "a journalist picking holes".
    2. The author makes no case for ultra-realism, merely for consistancy (if a distraction is needed, why are 2 distractions created?).
    3. Concession is made in the article to this being a common issue in blockbuster movies, the very same thing the game is trying to emulate.

    This article seems to me to be aimed at inspiring conversation regarding standards of storytelling prowess and marriage with gameplay, not just to rip on Uncharted 2 like some seem to have taken it.

      I agree with you, 'CMRD Bones'. I didn't read this excerpt as an attack on Uncharted 2 so much as an exploration of the disjoint that often happens between scriptwriters and game designers.

      And let's face it, nitpicking or not, wouldn't the game ring truer (and be more fun) if it was logically consistent, which IMO increases immersion?

        ‘wouldn’t the game ring truer (and be more fun) if it was logically consistent’
        I don’t think so, because most ppl I think don’t actually pay attention to the small things like what this guy is talking about in this article, most people will simply sit back and enjoy the action. Obviously some logical things have to be set aside for the sake of gameplay or narrative. Obviously Nate can’t be shot 5 times only to sit behind a box for 10 seconds to get healed, or jump from building to building and have no lasting effect. But honestly who cares?, they did it to make the game fun, and that’s exactly what it is.

        And think about this, the guy who wrote the article is just plugging some book he is selling, meaning more than likely he was playing the game looking for things to talk about in connection to logic and consistency, after playing the entire game these are the two are the best examples he can come up with?, if anything I think this shows just how well Uncharted 2 has been thought out.

    You can always play Uncharted while you wait for your "IS IT STILL UNDER WARRANTY"box to be repaired...lol..

    The guy in the museum doesn't die. If you look down after you pull him you see him swimming away. it's odd that Drake says nothing especially since he is so vocal though out the game. However some of these issue are part of the evolution process of a interactive medium. Perhaps the guy getting pulled off the balcony was added late in development (to teach the player this early on) and no line could be recorded to add context to drakes contradiction.
    The part with the explosives I agree with that area was not designed well for the narrative. Game play yes but not narrative. And again this is part of the evolution of the medium. There is plenty of movies that have these same issues, and that is a casualty of picking whats more important. narrative, action, plot device, or game play.

    I wish people wouldn't get their panties in a bunch over some one's observation. It's not right or wrong it's just something that some one notices.

    what the player does during gameplay, and what the story says are two different things. Hey, Niko from GTA is actually a pretty nice guy, in the context of the narrative (he only kills people who want him dead). It IS THE PLAYERS DECISION to run people over in cars, shoot innocent civilians etc.
    In uncharted, it is the players decision to kill in those stealth missions.

    I agree on example one. It was simply out of character for him to just kill that guard like that . Also it made little sence he was released from turkish prison so easy after being involved in killing a guard. It also seemed raher silly as naughty dog first put so much effort in showing drake as a nice guy not wanting to kill the guards and then letting him kill someone so casually. This mistake by the naughty dog bugged me a lot. Don't get me wrong enjoyed playing the game. I would have just enjoyed it more if they hadn't put in such a sloppy inconsistency .

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