Overstaying Its Welcome: The Place Of Uncharted 3 In The Medium [Spoiler]

The following post contains plot spoilers for Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception dispels any doubt regarding the series' aspirations. Uncharted strives to step into the void left by Indiana Jones as popular culture's premiere pulp-adventure series. It's an impressive effort.

Nathan Drake is a roguish charmer with the capacity for sentimentality and violence. He's surrounded by memorable sidekicks, villains, and love interests. The game's plot darts about the globe, giving players an opportunity to virtually explore exotic lands and defy death in spectacular action sequences. From tonal, thematic, and artistic perspectives, Uncharted is a welcome experience for those of us who have been waiting for another Indiana Jones since 1989 (like any rational person, I disavow The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘s existence).

Unfortunately, the series's very existence as a video game often proves to be its greatest undoing. For years now, I've argued that Uncharted's dual existence as a cinematic adventure is at odds with its devotion to the structure of a rigorous action game. Uncharted 3 is the clearest example of this conflict. Difficulty spikes and repetition clash with the story's breezy cadence. At around 8-10 hours, Uncharted 3‘s campaign overstays its welcome, mostly thanks to its gameplay.

Experimentation, repetition, iteration. These are crucial qualities for games and anathema to the action movies after which Uncharted 3 is modelled. Games excel at allowing players to gradually hone their skills, repeating similar encounters and experimenting with different techniques. Action movies function differently; they excel at the art of conveying a series of absurdly-successful close calls. Unlike a video game hero, the action hero doesn't have to practice that tricky jump a dozen times, and he never gets wasted by a fluke grenade. The action and the story of a great blockbuster movie is designed to make the experience as novel and streamlined as possible. Uncharted 3's dialogue and cutscenes stand alongside Hollywood's best efforts, but their achievements are undermined by the gameplay's predisposition towards repetition and player failure.

It took me about eight hours to finish Uncharted 3's campaign, but I wish it had only taken four.

Who doesn't remember the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indy is running towards the camera and away from a giant boulder? It's memorable for its novelty, but also its scarcity; it only happens once in the movie. In Uncharted 3, Drake runs towards the camera and away from fires, floods, and spiders. What starts as a neat trick becomes a repetitive task, especially if the player fails and is forced to play the sequence again. Combine repeated deaths (off-screen obstacles are hard to predict, after all) with multiple instances of what is essentially the same scenario, and such scenes begin to lose their impact.

During the spider sequence in which Drake must throw torches to a series of distant braziers before he can safely advance, repetition stems from filler rather than failure. Every brazier has a torch holder so that the subsequent brazier can be lit. After a little experimenting, I discovered that these torches magically respawn after an errant throw. Therefore, because Drake is safe from the spiders in the fire's light, there is no impetus to complete the throws quickly or accurately. Compounding this stagnation is the fact that the throws are very basic. There are no obstacles blocking the braziers, which remain stationary throughout the scene. Had this scene come at the beginning of the game, I could understand its mundane structure as a disguised tutorial for the throwing action. But at this point, the player has already been through multiple battles and become used to throwing objects at moving targets (enemies). Instead of a challenge or a training experience, the sequence is busywork from a gameplay perspective and repetitive from a cinematic perspective.

We also see Uncharted 3's story and gameplay in conflict in almost every firefight. Based on the number of enemies and the duration of the battles, it seems that Uncharted 3 seeks to please fans of its story and those looking for a challenging shooter. In video games, especially shooters, challenge comes in the form of throwing an increasing number of progressively strong enemies at the player. This tactic is problematic in Uncharted 3 for two major reasons. First, seeing a well-developed character like Drake turn into a mindless killing machine during gameplay is jarring. Second, the enemies' AI and unpredictable spawn points will inevitably overwhelm the player and lead to "deaths" that are clearly contrary to the game's strict story. As the bar shootout in Raiders of the Lost Ark demonstrates, a fight can be intense without being a long bloodbath. Trying to navigate a capsizing ship is dramatic (and implausible) enough without having to stop and waste two dozen dudes before advancing to the next room.

Over the course of the game Uncharted 3‘s action suffers from diminishing returns. Whereas a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark has one hand-to-hand fight scene with a huge Nazi bruiser, Uncharted 3 throws one in every few chapters. The size and scope of the environments if impressive, but after climbing countless towers, it becomes apparent that there is never any real danger of Drake losing his grip or making a bad jump. Indy's desperate jump across that first pit in Raiders is suspenseful because it's the only time that he attempts such a manoeuvre. As Drake's journey progresses, the player encounters more and stronger enemies rather than novel situations. Every repeated scene and cheap death simply draws attention away from the game's strongest aspects: its scripted set pieces and wonderful dialogue.

It took me about eight hours to finish Uncharted 3‘s campaign, but I wish it had only taken four. The idea that games should be mechanically challenging (an idea I usually support, it should be noted) does not fit such a cinematic game. Punishing difficulty that forces the player to slowly improve their skills is a fitting approach for a game like Dark Souls, but this philosophy is incompatible with Uncharted 3's mission.

Richard Lemarchand, Uncharted 3's co-lead designer, has stated, "We wanted to make a video game version of the kind of summer blockbuster, action adventure movie that we all grew up loving, ("Naughty Dog's Lemarchand Defines Uncharted's Heritage", Gamasutra, 11 November 2011). He and his team were partly successful, but it is important to note that the types of movies he is talking about top out at around two and a half hours. If Uncharted 3 came out with a four to five hour campaign, it would probably have been pilloried by a vocal subset of players, but it would have been a better game. Cut out the repetitive set pieces and the more tedious combat sequences and you would be left with a game in keeping with the spirit of those classic action adventure movies. After all, those movies weren't about trial and error or slow skill improvement; they were about characters who routinely escaped the most dangerous situations by the skin of their teeth without looking back.

Failure is never an option for Indiana Jones. It's not even a possibility, really. The same should be true for Nathan Drake and, by extension, the player. Of course, the absence of failure means that Uncharted would be venturing even further beyond the traditional definition of a "game" than it already has. In Uncharted‘s case, I doubt shedding this designation would be any great loss. Since its inception, the series has been struggling against the tenets of its medium. Perhaps it's time to chart a new course away from the realm of games and towards the land of "interactive experiences"?

Scott Juster is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. He has an academic background in history and is interested in video game design and the medium's cultural significance. In addition to his work on PopMatters, he writes and creates podcasts about video games on http://www.experiencepoints.net/.

PopMatters is an international magazine of cultural criticism that reviews music, film, television, DVD, books, comic books/graphic fiction and video games. Additional coverage of gaming culture can be found in their Multimedia section.

Republished with permission.


Comments

    I really liked this article and agree with the majority of the points being made. It helped me realise the main issues I had with Uncharted 3, and they were the same as those written above.

    Why difficulty spikes seemed so incredibly out of place in this game. Why the set pieces felt somewhat underwhelming. It all makes sense to me now.

    If I may use another example, though one that is nowhere near as well liked.

    The Kane and Lynch series is a text book example of this. More so the second entry then the first, though the moment you go to Chile (Or Peru, or wherever) the game goes from not knowing what it wants to be to just silly.
    But back to Kane and Lynch 2.

    Its a movie about two just down right bad people who do nothing but dig themselves deeper into trouble, but they are both stuck with this mindset that all it'll take is just one more job or one big score and everything will be alright, Lynch and his girlfriend/defacto wife and Kane and his daughter.

    Its about half way through the story that both men end up on the run from corrupt Chinese officials, gangsters and their old business partner. They have been brutally tortured, they are stark naked and Lynch's wife has been brutally murdered right infront of him. They dash for safety inside a Chinese electronics store and its there that the scope of their situation hits them and they break down.

    And by god if its one of the best scenes I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. Because it just throws everything out there. The desperation of these two men is almost palpable.

    Then it goes and throws it all away by having you kill 2/3rds of Shanghai whilst hiding behind knee high walls and the corners of buildings and waiting for the tomato sauce to clear off your screen before you shoot some more guys.

    Its just such a waste of characters, who I believe should get a better showing, and a really gritty, morally bankrupt story.

    These issues can be applied to pretty much any game, and not just recently. As you get further into games, enemies generally get tougher, that's just Game Design 101, games need to ramp up, otherwise the challenge is lost within 20mins. Also, developers are already dumbing down games too much, eg: with "Press "A" To Win" situations..

    Deaths are a plenty with games that use trial and error, take Call of Duty for example, I'll try the left flank, get snapped by a tank that turns up. Reload and this time take the right flank, get further along.

    To remove the Uncharted shootouts though, really removes alot of the game aspect, it almost becomes a walking simulator and becomes an entirely different product altogether, for me it wouldn't be Uncharted then. I get the sense the writer just wants an Uncharted movie.

      Thats sort of the point of the article, though.

      Uncharted is the Game that wanted to be a Movie.

        This.

        It's all to do with balance.

        Uncharted 1 leaned towards game over cinema.
        Uncharted 2 got the balance perfect.
        Uncharted 3 leaned toward cinema over game.

          I think Uncharted 3 tried very hard to have cinematic moments (running towards the camera, the fights with the brutes, the brilliant desert sequence) but failed to be a cinematic experience because they relied heavily on those moments.

          Whereas Uncharted 2 really did manage to balance that line where those moments were there, but they worked well to break things up and pace the story.

          More importantly, it felt like the bits that made Uncharted 2 great (the elaborate temples, sequences like the train ride or the tank in the village) were not given as much focus (with the exception of the desert sequence). Yet the bits that didn't work, the increasingly difficult and fairly often frustration shooting sections, seem to be a much bigger part of the game.

          Uncharted 1 had a lot of those annoying difficulty-spike shooting sequences. Often with even more guys.

          Uncharted 2 mainly felt balanced, but toward the end (where they admitted they had not spent as much time on the game) there are some pretty nasty difficulty spikes. Two sequences in particular stood out for me, one when you're at the temple toward the end and you have a ruined building along one side, two guys with miniguns and some assorted assholes around - I had heaps of problems with that mainly due to lack of ammo. Later on in the final city (I'm being vague to avoid spoilers) after you get away from the jumpy yeti things there's a big open plaza bit where a bunch of guys drop in from one corner in about three waves, culminating again in some minigun guys. But at least there, all the guys appeared from logical spots and not just out of thin air.

          Uncharted 3 felt like the combat sequences were not thoroughly tested. They were done last, according to the developers, and I think a bit phoned-in as they're basically the glue to tie together the bits they had concentrated on. I'd have felt a lot less upset about a lot of the bits if there had been less 'you've killed 2/3 of the enemies so it's time for the next wave to magically pop in'. I don't mind multiple waves periodically, but not every sequence, and for the love of god make them come in from a side door or drop in from a helicopter or something, and not have them appear right beside / above me with no warning and no way to get there.

          (Not arguing that Uncharted 2 wasn't the better game, mind you - it absolutely was.)

          Don't completely agree to that, each game practically has the same formula and I felt as though there was only one chapter in Uncharted 3 that really went overboard on the film side of things, that being Chapter 18.

          I don't feel as though Uncharted is wanting to be a movie any more than Call Of Duty is, perhaps it's assumed that it does because the story and characters are better developed?

          All War games are built up to be Michael Bay style blockbusters, which get blitzed through in half the time of Uncharted, but we aren't wishing our time with those games were halved again because of the cheap deaths and/or grenade spam, in most cases we are looking for the games to be longer!

        I think that argument falls to The Metal Gear Solids Series and the never ending cut scenes.

    Awesome post, reminded me of the dead rising director's comment about games going from being 'challenges' to 'experiences'

    Disagree pretty much completely. I loved Uncharted 3 (although it didn't quite blow me away as much as Uncharted 2). There aren't really any criticisms there you couldn't apply to any other blockbuster videogame. Yeah, it uses the running-towards-the-camera bit more than Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it also has more shootouts, more chases, more fistfights than Raiders of the Lost Ark. One of the possible reasons for this is that IT'S NOT RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

    I loved the gameplay of Uncharted 3 (it's mainly the story and dialogue where I think Uncharted 2 has an edge over it), and I'd have been very, very disappointed if I'd only got 4 hours of it. The mechanics are absolutely rock-solid and polished to a mirror-like shine. I don't really see how halving its length would improve it any more than halving the length of a Gears of War or Zelda game would make those better. I think 8-10 hours is the perfect length for an action-adventure game in the style of Uncharted, and it hits that lengh perfectly - long enough to be satisfying, not so long that I got sick of it before it ended (hello, Assassin's Creed series).

    I also struggle to understand this criticism (that has been raised about previous Uncharted games, too) about how Drake is some kind of psychopath for killing all these people. It's a videogame, for crying out loud - there are guns, and people to shoot them at. Nobody (outside of the ALC and Fox News, anyway) complains about how many people get killed by John Marsten or Nico Bellic or Soap MacTavish in the course of one of their games. It's almost like people are complaining that the Nathan Drake character is TOO well developed - it's OK for those other guys to shoot hundreds and hundreds of people because they don't have as many funny lines and they aren't as well acted as Drake. It makes you wonder if people would rate Uncharted more highly if the story, dialogue and acting where WORSE than they are.

    I will say, however, that I thought they used the collapsing handhold/platform trick too often though - there were times in the game when it was a bigger surprise if a ledge you grabbed on to would actually HOLD your weight instead of crumbling away :P

      Oh good comment.

      Okay, I think the issue of past criticisms and the 'Drake as Psycho' arguement stems from the fact he is just, a brilliantly realised, well rounded character who you can easily attribute so many characteristics too. He's probably one of the best characters ever created in a game.

      But he kills folk, many folk, often and with, what seems like, uncharacteristic relish. Because instinctively we know killing is immoral, seeing Drake clearing out whole sections of the landscape like a one man khmer rouge bothers us. I know it bothers me.

      Sure Indy killed loads of people, but it was always in context, he was always fighting for his life, or on the run. In Uncharted it's often the case the enemies are just 'in your way' and rather than the real world possibility of an alternative path or a non lethal takedown (classic cinema frying pan/vase to the head type of thing) you straight out kill people. As a game situation they need to provide all that shooting action, because that's what games have right? But because it's an interactive experience they can't always provide that context.

      So it creates the impression that Drake is pretty damn ruthless.

      Could a game that allowed you to handle every situation in a humane or moral manner be fun? Deus Ex and Metal Gear Solid 2 make an arguement that yeah, these games can be kinda fun. I'm sure Naughty Dog could make a Drake game that was more adventure and running and leaping and dare devil escpaes and less ventilating mother flippers and it would be a great game.

      But would it be well received, or would those violence hungry young 'uns be put off by the lack of gun p0rn?

    What I think they need to do is have way less bad guys.

    But have way better AI.

    Bad guys shouldn't come running at me in the open when they know damn well I have an AK47.

    There's tonnes of awesome scenery for Drake to use for cover - but the AI doesn't use it.

    The biggest issue I have is the difficulty being controlled with enemy numbers and the number of headshots it takes to score a kill. That's not fun-difficult, that's pain-in-the-ass-random-death-difficult.

    Movies don't do it like this. It's all about getting one good shot before the other guy, the challenge/game should be in figuring out how to get that shot.

      /\ Absolutely this.

      News flash: Uncharted isn't a movie. And if it was a movie what would be the point of playing it if all bullets missed our protagonist and you could fire 8 bullets from a 6 shot revolver.

    The person that wrote this needs a kick to the head

      It's strange that the people often so quick to suggest others require a kick in the head, desperately need a kick in the balls.

    i completely agree with this article.
    all the difficulty spikes were jarring and certain scenes where you die because of a sudden unexpected camera change or obstructions that you cant predict because your not shown them until the last second are a pain in the ass.

    i firmly believe #2 was the superior game.
    certain scenes in 3 were awesome (nothing as good as the train though) but the stupid spawning enemies was so glaringly obvious to me.

    i genuinely got fed up with parts of the game and stopped playing for a bit where as with #2 i never wanted to stop

    To be fair, Naughty Dog have been doing that completely stupid Running towards the Camera thing forever.

    The Jak and Daxter games used to drive me mad every time the camera switched angles and some threat appeared behind you, compeltely robbing you of the simple act of looking forward for other dangers. Just awful moments of gameplay that they kept using and reusing.

    Uncharted 3 was pretty much the pinnacle of the series, they wouldn't be able to make another game without seeming derivative. They probably will, it just won't be as good as 2.

    Let's not forget the end scene where Drake has a moment to prove he isn't just a killing machine. Clearly the writers considered the "kill them all" attitude that was forced on the player and chose to place a scene in the end that ultimately proves Drake's real character.

    And the others are right: it's a game. It is supposed to be increasinlgy hard, there are supposed to be difficulty spikes. If you want to simply enjoy the story with minor challenge, play the thing on easy. They can't cater to everyone's skill level, that's why there are difficulty settings after all. When is there a game that doesn't do something wrong? It's all well and good to say you constantly want new things in it, new challenges, and for them to stop reusing mechanics - but wouldn't that frustrate a player just as much? Having a sense of familiarity in the gameplay lets you enjoy the scene alot more. You may know how you're going to have to respond with your gameplay, but that leaves you free to appreciate how much awesome effort they put into the story and the environments instead of sitting there trying to work out what you should be doing and missing everything worth enjoying.

    That being said, i think they should finish with Uncharted 3. I adored it, and as an artist i was foaming at the mouth at some of the stuff in the world, but as far as the character of Nathan Drake goes there isn't much more to say. His storyline should be ended now, at a relative high note. And really, you can't start out with a new character in this instance, because we'd all be sitting there at Uncharted 4 saying "Yeah, but he's not as cool as Drake was."

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