Editors note: This is the first Critical Compilation we’ve hosted in a long while, and it comes to us from our newest contributor, John Kilhefner.
It’s been called visually stunning, a revelation in character writing and the greatest movie ever played. Regardless, the real meat of the Uncharted 2: Among Thieves experience isn’t in the game at all, but in the writing surrounding it.
In “Naughty Dog’s Lemarchand Defines Uncharted‘s Heritage,” Leigh Alexander examined Naughty Dog’s desire to “capture and reinvent the spirit of the pulp action genre;” the same well from which Indiana Jones sprang. What they ended up with was a game with a story we’ve all seen in one shape or another: Treasure hunter searches for mythical treasure through a revolving door of double-crosses and ancient landscapes. No biggie. In fact, the story of Among Thieves is neither remarkable nor does it try to be. Alexander’s piece sheds light on Among Thieves writer Amy Henning’s prep work involving classic pulp fiction stories and established conventions such as “running, jumping, bare-fisted brawls and chases.”
As Michael “Brainy Gamer” Abbott sees it in “Long Live the Author“, Uncharted 2 “isn’t a question of core design, but a question of quality,” insisting that making a game relying on “’30s serial action adventure movie tropes” must be done with “plenty of style, panache and Hollywood production values to carry you over all the obvious pitfalls.” Additionally, the characters have to feature naturally smart dialogue, gameplay directly connected to the story and, above all, enjoyable play mechanics. “If this all sounds terribly formulaic, that’s because it is,” said Abbott.
Formula can be the paint-by-numbers template that makes your project look wholly derivative, or it can be the sturdy container that holds something special. You’d be hard pressed to identify a single genuinely original aspect of Micheal Curtiz’s Casablanca. Dozens of movies have told similar stories with similar characters. What elevates Casablanca is the way each of its elements: cinematography, music, performances, screenplay — so clearly surpasses the pedestrian work of other similar films.
Dean Takahashi at Venture Beat also spoke with Richard Lemarchand about the research undertaken for Among Thieves, where Lemarchand looked to classic heroes like Robert Louis Stevenson, Robinson Crusoe, Doc Savage and Tintin for inspiration. In some ways it’s this classic sense of heroics that makes Nathan Drake instantly appealing. But, “Dude Raider he is not,” says Ian Miles Cheong in his piece for Hellmode, “Ancient Temples to Ice Caves: Discovering Uncharted“. “Unlike Lara Croft, Nathan Drake is a multidimensional character — one full of personality,” Cheong says. Drake is questionably moral, undeniably heroic and absolutely relatable. Love him or hate him, we can all agree that Nate and his adventures if nothing else. “More than just a simple treasure hunter,” says Cheong, “Drake was apparently gifted with the skills of an assassin (albeit a slightly clumsy one) who could have given Batman a run for his money; he didn’t have to resort to stupid tricks or a tool-belt full of toys. When his fists weren’t enough to do the talking, a gun could open diplomatic channels.”
Between the classic adventure elements, everyman quality of Nathan Drake and cinematically executed gameplay, Among Thieves Uncharted 2 positioned itself as the definitive bargaining chip for PS3 owners, one that didn’t begin with “Metal Gear” or end with “Solid.” Metacritic named Among Thieves the most critically acclaimed game of 2009 with a score of 96 out of 100; IGN gave it game of the year and a near perfect score of 9.5; and most every publication you could think of drooled over its blockbuster production values. But beneath the surface there were more interesting opinions bubbling, with some critics unafraid to toss the critical fat on in the fire.
The Little Things
It’s “The Little Things” that intrigue Michael Abbott: from the subtle changes in “Nate’s Theme” from first to second game, nods to classic serial adventure tropes, naturalistic facial expressions, witty banter and character chemistry. Similarly, in Alex Raymond’s review for Game Critics, she cites the attention to detail as key to propelling the game to “masterpiece” status. Trains creak before crashing down and stones and bridges wobble and then crumble, all serving to move the game forward at a “breathless pace.”
In “The Minimalism of Uncharted 2,” however, Mitch Krpata attributes the notes that aren’t played as the reason for Among Thieves‘ success. The intuitive analog stick to run control scheme, the lack of a crouch button and the subtle auto-assist when climbing are a few of the small things Krpata feels helped rather than hindered the game. Naughty Dog’s ability to leave out exceptional but unnecessary components is a rare quality in all art forms, let alone video games. He likens this to an imagined developer who makes an awesome water effect and decides to “put water freaking everywhere.” Uncharted 2 is different. It doesn’t milk its golden moments dry, but practices minimalism over obnoxiousness.
Chris Breault fails to find Krpata’s minimalism, speculating in “Don’t Call Uncharted 2 a Film” that “maybe Uncharted is aimed at Alzheimer’s patients.” Blowing up trucks? Yawn. Falling off cliffs? “It’s the Uncharted handshake.” When it comes to the little things like planning, choreography and stunt work that give action films their blockbuster quality, “Uncharted 2 has all the charm of an assembly line.” Tristan Kalogeropoulos’s “Beyond Cinematic,” however, congratulates the marriage of cutscene and gameplay as “a cohesive mix of passive and active storytelling.” The in-game characters agree with the cutscene characters without the “dissonance” often observed from cutscene to game.
What’s In a Character?
Alex Raymond writes that “characterization is one of the areas where Among Thieves is head and shoulders above nearly every other major game out there.” “If everything comes together just right, Nathan Drake could very well be heading into the upper echelons of videogame character fame,” says Sinan ‘shoinan’ Kubba in “Drake, The Icon.” He makes an interesting point of Nate’s “everyman” quality, pointing out traditional video game icons such as Link, Solid Snake and Lara Croft, each of whom standout by their silhouette alone. Nathan Drake doesn’t standout at all. He’s just some guy. Several notable games journos had polarized takes on the character of Nathan Drake. In his article “Extra Punctuation: Uncharted 2,” Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw sheds light on Drake’s motivations of greed, his depravity and the “no prisoners” attitude he showed his enemies by comparing him to the ideal Indiana Jones. In his 300 Word Review, Charles J. Pratt points out that “There’s a reason that Indiana Jones uses a whip: it is very hard to feel for the plucky, underdog hero if he spends most of his time mowing people down with an automatic weapon.” Nate’s film counterpart, Indiana Jones, relinquishes vital bits of character through sequences showing him flustered at a particularly striking student’s advances, condescending to authority and fumbling over writing on the chalkboard in front of his class.
Meanwhile, Snake Link Sonic finds Drake’s adventure more National Treasure than Indiana Jones, going so far as to say relating Among Thieves to Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones is “just the game becoming self-victimizing.” Breault thinks Nate merely spends “a lot of time commenting on women’s asses as they go up ladders.”. Banter during the adventure and action segments allows the player to get to know the characters and portrays a sense of camaraderie (or rivalry) as appropriate. And Kalogeropoulos feels that “spending time” with the characters reveals a great deal of their past relationships and personalities. Cheong believes that while Drake is “in it for the loot,” his appeal is that of a regular guy rather than a Superman.
Scott Juster’s take on Drake in the first Uncharted still holds true for the second. In “Nathan Drake in: The Curse of Ludonarrative Dissonance!” Juster contends the gameplay–Drake who slaughters hundreds throughout the game–is at odds with the cutscene–Drake, an “everyman” hero.
In “The Fallacy of Choice” Justin Keverne puts “everyman” Drake under the microscope: “A real ‘everyman’ would have fallen to his death within the first few minutes,” he sayd, commenting on the audience’s longing for a relatable hero but a hero nonetheless. It’s precisely this paradox that make Nathan Drake the character he is, and the game makes no bones about it.
Borut Pfeifer’s “The Spatially Driven Story” concludes that the flow of the game’s locations is symbolic of Drake’s internal struggles–rather than making Drake simply a character that “is,” the developers Naughty Dog made his internal conflict visible through external motivators. Pfeifer points out that “the purpose the other characters serve isn’t to bring you to a specific location, it’s to change Drake’s motivation for going somewhere.” He doesn’t just do things because the game needs him to; he does them because he is manipulated into doing so, whether for the right or wrong reasons. “Story elements that at first glance seem like they are there to superficially highlight exotic locales serve a deeper purpose to communicate internal character motivation.” Regardless of his internal and external conflicts, the classic hero in Nate always comes out of a predicament unaffected, whether it’s his ex and current fling facing execution right in front of his eyes or a mythical beast stalking him. These events don’t show the emotional weight we saw, say, Snake take on when Meryl was picked apart by Sniper Wolf in Metal Gear Solid. Though Uncharted is precisely the kind of game that calls for this kind of impenetrability, Croshaw “want[s] to see more of Nathan Drake than a wisecracking bubble that grunts a lot.”
Perhaps it’s this same sentiment applied to the Lara Crofts of gaming that prompted Naughty Dog to approach the female leads in a less cliché way than other games. Raymond highlights the characters of Elena and Chloe as two examples of remarkable writing of independent female characters who don’t stoop to stereotypes so present in game portrayals of women. Brinstar, writing for the Border House, examines the “interesting, believable, three-dimensional personalities” of Elena and Chloe. Rather than plot devices designed to push the player forward, they have their own motivations which intermingle and entice/intrigue/mystify a curious Drake. On the other hand, Snake Link Sonic acknowledges the strong female characterization but felt that “the game would have functioned just fine without [Chloe].” G. Christopher Williams’s “Sorry, But Our Princess Wants To Be in Another Castle” likens Chloe to the more provocative side which Elena lacks, using sex to play the game from Nate to Flynn as her assets allow — an effective way to piss off the player with an emotional connection to Drake. At first seeing her as a princess in need of rescue, Williams found surprisingly found Chloe “is one ‘princess’ that has no interest in being saved.”
Playing a Movie: The Cinematic Action Genre
Practically every critic has gushed over the game’s visual production values. “You’ll spend much of your time playing Uncharted 2 with mouth agape, staring slack jawed at the glorious vistas spread out before you,” said Susan Arendt in her review for The Escapist Magazine. Former Editor-in-Chief of Kotaku Brian Crecente commented that “More than most games Uncharted 2 looks like a movie.” In “How We Talk About Games: Graphics,” Grayson Davis reveals how in-the-rut our collective descriptive vehicle is when it comes to discussing visuals. Picking apart the Among Thieves reviews from IGN, 1UP, Giant Bomb and Eurogamer, Davis concludes that graphic writing still “sound[s] like they’re writing for the back of the box.”
Snake Link Sonic wrote his piece without even playing the game, but instead by watching a complete YouTube play through. In “Values and Characteristics of the Cinematic Action Genre” Michael Clarkson attempts to define the values found in such interactive films or as he puts it, “Cinematic Action” games. Cinematic action characteristics include filmic realism, seamlessness, a developer-controlled narrative and emotional engagement. “Uncharted represents not a new kind of game unto itself but an exemplary actualization of certain values in game design,” game design that the HD generation is capable of producing effectively and possibly on-par with motion pictures. According to Jorge Albor, the Hitchcockian use of set pieces inch it along the gap between game and film.
“If a game features a well defined protagonist then the notion of including the option to behave in a way that goes against the nature of that protagonist is foolish,” says Keverne. “The very appeal of such a character is that they are already defined, often as a heroic character. Why introduce the seconding guessing and evaluating that comes from the inclusion of choice?”
Like the characterization, the gameplay also polarizes people who either feel immersed or disengaged by it. Snake Link Sonic perceives the comparison to Tomb Raider as an unfair one representative of the lack of games of its kind, and that Among Thieves more closely resembles Prince of Persia in terms of its linearity. Williams, meanwhile, finds the dissonance from Tomb Raider jarring, particularly the laid-on thick gunplay in favor of exploration. This same gunplay Pratt finds “unimaginative” and lacking the strategy of other third-person shooters like Gears of War: “It’s the mix of the movie and the game that makes Uncharted a little unsettling.” On a similar note, Brad Galloway’s Game Critics review penalized Among Thieves for being “a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.” While Galloway concedes that the production values are top-notch and if the player is in the mood for a pot-boiler it alone would suffice, he feels the all too often gunfights, lack of direction and simplistic puzzles bring the game down.
“Nearly anyone playing Uncharted 2 wasn’t in it for the shooting,” says Gameranx writer Matthew Stewart in his article “Uncharted Series: The Gameplay Gets in the Way of the Story.” Instead of the gameplay serving the story, Stewart feels it did the opposite: “The obstacles in the game can be like someone who knocks the book I’m engrossed with out of my hands.” He illustrates his point with comparisons to games such as Ninja Gaiden, Quake 3 and World of Warcraft in which the story is created by the player rather than pre-determined by the developer. Crecente talks about the narrative pushing the ludic qualities of Among Thieves the way a good book makes you rush to the next page.
Daniel Bullard-Bates calls Uncharted 2 the “best movie-based video game of all time.” Breault, however, challenges these highly regarded movie qualities: “as much as Uncharted 2 imitates the movie aesthetic, it remains a game; if you judge it on the same terms you would a film’s narrative, it comes up short.” Hammering the point, Breault compares two similar chase sequences in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Among Thieves. In the former, he notes how the editing breaks up the action by alternating perspectives among all parties involved, giving the cannon fodder a touch of humanity and allowing for some hilarious gags. Among Thieves‘ chase sequence, however, simply sees Drake trading gunfire with depersonalized moving targets, blowing up trucks until the entire scene becomes an exercise in redundancy.
Abbott’s “On Pace” article uses his stage director experience as a lens through which to gauge the pacing of Uncharted 2. “Pacing in games is an intricate balancing act,” says Abbott; “And Uncharted 2 manages it better than any narrative game I can think of.” Abbott notes a “dynamic control” of pacing not seen in theater or film by allowing the character the freedom to slow down the pace or engage the game at full-throttle.
“…Uncharted 2 is a successful game because it doesn’t try to box outside its weight,” Abbott writes. “It’s a ripping adventure that makes good on its wisely limited ambitions….[Among Thieves] functions beautifully as both story and storyteller. It’s quite possible to see this distinguishing feature of games as no less compelling than their ability to immerse us in an emergent play-driven narrative.” And isn’t that why we play videogames in the first place?