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Author Archives: John Kilhefner

About John Kilhefner

John is a freelance writer with credits in The Arcade Review, Five Out of Ten, Unwinnable, Pop Matters and many more. Follow him on Twitter @jkilhefner.

March 29th

March 29th, 2015 | Posted by John Kilhefner in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on March 29th)

What’s up, fellow crit enthusiasts? If you’re looking for Easter candy, you’re a week too early, but we’ve got plenty of goodies from a slew of amazing writers to keep you content until then. So, welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging!

What It Means to be Indie

Luke Pullen reacts to Offworld’s printing of Zoe Quinn’s Alt Games manifesto with jubilation for its recognition and a pessimism of historical sorts for how its artists cope in the future. On Gamasutra, Bryant Francis interviews several developers including Dan Cook, saying: “Let Get Real about the Financial Expectations of ‘Going Indie’:

“In another industry, we’d have labeled the folks making games on new digital platforms as ‘entrepreneurs,’ but because of the rush to be ‘art,’ mere discussion of business takes on a negative tinge. The result is a lot of very poorly-equipped folks trying to run businesses for the first time.”

Over at TransGamer Thoughts, Heather Alexandra talks about the lack of empathy dealing with the emotions and fears of trans people in games. Soha Kareem discusses “Games That Heal” at Offworld, noting how her work, and others of a deeply personal thread, facilitates a coping method for indie artists.

Trauma, Transcendence and Mental Illness

Bouncing off that last one, let’s dive into a few articles peeking under the curtain of themes of illnesses and healing. On PopMatters, G. Christopher Williams describes how mental illness in White Night allegorises American economic inequality, and At Madness and Play, Amsel Von Spreckelsen discussed the treatment of mental health in Darkest Dungeon:

It is mired in decades-old RPG design and all that the automation of putting it on a computer does is  make the bookkeeping easier; and when mental health becomes relegated to a bookkeeping exercise, when the advances are based on more efficient crunching of variables and modifiers, then it should be clear that this does not help us understand pain and dysfunction and joy and the life that you lead when you are mad.

Back at Offworld, Laura Hudson talks VR’s applications for immersion beyond marketing. Meanwhile Dara Khan, delves into profound spiritual experiences with games, and finds Dragon Age: Inquisition’s story at odds with its gameplay.

Laura Kate recounts a deeply personal trauma on Indie Haven, one resurrected by a scene in Life is Strange: Episode 2. (Content warning: discussion of suicide.)

Joe Parlock, inspired by Laura Kate’s post, tells of how his own feelings blinded him to an option in Fallout 3, and elsewhere, Taylor Hidalgo tackles morality in The Deer God.

Mapping Out Our History

Over at the Ontological Geek, James Hinton wrote about how game maps tend to ignore practical implications for interesting design in land masses, and Brendan Vance’s “The Ghosts of Bioshock” reflects on the Wounded Knee massacre of the Sioux and the framing of history in Bioshock: Infinite:

On one hand I feel [Bioshock: Infinite] appropriates: It snatches the juiciest, tenderest piece from a complex and valuable history so it can put that piece on display, neglecting to offer its historical subjects their due consideration. I think it telling that the game’s plot reduces the Massacre to a mere skeleton in the closet of its protagonist Booker DeWitt; I think it tells us that Infinite is a game about white experiences to the detriment of non-white experiences, greatly complicating any sympathy it may bear towards the myriad victims of white imperialism. Yet on the other hand I must consider in its defence that it uses Wounded Knee as shorthand because that is the most its matrix of contradictory constraints permit it to do; that in employing this shorthand it creates a tiny space for others to approach the game’s subject matter with more focus and more empathy (a space I now hope to cultivate).

On Offworld, Tanya D. gives developers a reason to be historically accurate by including more black characters and fewer stereotypes:

Even Vivienne de Fer, who gave me so much hope initially, disappoints. She falls head over hennin into the “Strong Black Woman” archetype from the moment she’s introduced. She’s a supposed “ice queen,” an untouchable woman who’s too good for the plebes around her. She says “my dear” like some women say “bless her heart,” and her words cut sharper than any spell. Any flirtation attempts result in her putting you down, emphasizing her own unattainability. Why can’t she just be a black woman with the romantic and relationship quirks we all have?

But what if we couldn’t choose race in games? What if race were parceled out at random?

Battlefield Hard Sell

Battlefield Hardline came out last week, and with it so did plenty of interesting writing. Let’s start with Austin Walker’s “Cop Out“, which takes Hardline to task in an incredibly thoughtful review:

And so Battlefield Hardline speaks to our context, too (whether or not that’s what the developers would like). It speaks a politics even as it flails in the single player campaign, desperate to avoid saying anything about the dead black boy on the pavement—about 75 unarmed black bodies on the ground. It flails in the multiplayer, eager to wave aside any critiques of police militarization. It flails and flails and flails. And the flailing is the message.

Carolyn Petit, too, takes on Battlefield: Hardline, both on KQED and Tumblr, finding its mechanics shallow and its themes underwhelming.

Meanwhile, Marc Prices believes Battlefield deliberately avoided social issues by disguising itself as a cop procedural, and our own Mark Filipowich explores his thoughts on crime gleaned through invoking literature, film and TV:

The player does all the friendship building questing that would be expected of an RPG, but it does so in the context of an urban world: they only have power with access to electricity, the internet, social conventions, architecture and guns; the power’s domain is the city and the city is everywhere. Most of the game the player takes on errands for cash, selling their bodies into violent labour to undermine the big-bad. And yet, the existence of magic always provides hope. As miserable as things may seem, there is a force beyond the city that promises equilibrium.

Finally, Anthony McGlynn at The Arcade talks “Battlefield Hardline and Politics in Games“…

Politics as Usual

…a point echoed by Leigh Alexander who argues “You can’t ‘just keep politics out of it’“, while Emily Joy Bembeneck discusses how even games like Cities: Skyline inject politics:

Games are engines of persuasion, and despite some common rhetoric that disagrees, they are delicious morsels of politics. They’re drenched in it, marinated in it, and just because it tastes good doesn’t mean it’s all ok. And the politics of Cities:Skylines is that education is the easy answer.

Keza MacDonald at Kotaku UK reacts to the strange desire to keep politics out of fiction:

It also makes me monstrously uncomfortable, because in a former life I was an academic (I did a Masters in German and another in Comparative Literature before ducking out of the first year of a PhD to do this video game thing full-time), and every time I see language like this it kinda reminds me of the Nazi attitude to art. They very much took the view that art should be “apolitical”, which of course eventually resulted in the extermination of all the art that didn’t fit THEIR politics. I feel like anyone who’s ever read anything about Entartete Kunst couldn’t help but feel deeply troubled by the notion that art “should” be unpolitical.

Whose Category is it Anyway?

Just because I failed to properly categorize the following doesn’t mean they aren’t compelling in their own right. Just look to Jorge Albor, who plays Earthbound as an adult and finds it a compelling piece of children’s literature:

Playing Earthbound now, it is easy to find moments of satire, when the game criticizes the strange and mysterious elements of adulthood. At the Stoic Club in Summers, Ness and his friends encounter a room full of adults who have meaningless verbose conversations with each other. One denizen exclaims, “You guys can’t envision the final collapse of capitalism? Incredible!” This isn’t just a silly in-joke for adults. This is the “kids’ table” perspective of adult conversation. Earthbound is the closest piece of fiction that I have seen to induce the feeling of being a child.

In keeping with Brendan Vance’s “death and photography,” Rowan Kaiser re-articulates his 1UP article, “The 80 Most Influential Videogames of All Time,” and Doom still tops the list, while Jillian of FemHype elaborated on her love for the original Lara Croft:

While her clothes were laughably ill-suited for raiding caves and deep-sea diving, the Lara from the earlier Tomb Raider installments was never a pawn to be neatly directed by the hands of the men she encountered in-game. That Lara faced some pretty tough shit, too. A couple hundred cultists armed with guns and grenades? Pfft. Oh, please. The original Lara faced down a T-rex with only two pistols and lived to fight another day. Don’t even play, folks. She’ll mess your dinosaur ass right up.

Auke Peters listed “Ten Fierce Female Game Characters That’ll Blow Your Mind“, and yes, Lara Croft is in there.

Last, but far from least, we have some video for you by way of Innuendo Studios, “Who Shot Guybrush Threpwood“, giving a compelling explanation for why adventure games died and why that was a good thing.

If Every Pork Chop Were Perfect, We Wouldn’t Have Hot Dogs 

Welp, that’s it folks! Thank you for reading, and please continue to support and send us underappreciated voices; whether it’s your work or a writer you’re keen on, send it via Twitter mention or our email submissions form.

And don’t forget to submit to this month’s Blogs of the Round Table and This Month in Let’s Plays.

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January 18th

January 18th, 2015 | Posted by John Kilhefner in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on January 18th)

Hi! For the sake of avoiding that awkward conversation where you pretend to remember the stranger enthusiastically greeting you, it’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

GamerGate: Picking up the Pieces

It’s 2015 and GamerGate is still in the conversation, so let’s start this week off with Ian Miles Cheong’s interview with developer Caelyn Sandel discussing the nefarious hate campaign that is totally not a hate campaign (it is). Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu appear on Nightline to discuss sexist tropes in games and the impact GamerGate had on their lives. Damion Schubert, however, reminds us that GamerGate is far from over as it leaves a wake of orphans in its path.

Reference This

Our own Mark Filipowich likes Brendan Keogh’s book Killing is Harmless more than Spec-Ops: The Line, even though it’s totally Coppola’s seminal film Apocalypse Now and by extension Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness novel.

Wait, that’s it for this section? OK, moving on!

Identity Report

Jessica Conditt offers a multi-faceted look at the representation of black gamers, from the troubling lack of prominent black voices…

“The games industry is hurting badly as a creative medium in terms of diverse voices,” Treachery in Beatdown City developer Shawn Alexander Allen told me. “We don’t see many prominent black or Latino (or really any other minority populace) representation in protagonists, critics, marketing or creators. I mention prominent because while many other cultural forms like music, movies and writing have a dearth of black voices, they at least have people who are out there making their culture better at all levels and are very visible.”

…to the disheartening lack of positive black characters in games:

These virtual worlds tend to reflect the white male majority found in their development and audience, meaning representation of black characters in games is also anemic. A 2002 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 56 percent of human characters depicted in games were white, and 22 percent were black – but 87 percent of all human heroes in games were white. The seven top-selling games specifically designed for children starred only white human characters, the report read. A separate study from University of Southern California Professor Dmitri Williams in 2011 studied 150 games across all platforms and ratings, and found that 10.7 percent of characters were black, though they were mainly athletes and gangsters.

Over at IGN, Jesse Matheson discusses a project in an isolated mining town in Western Australia providing indigenous youth a digital space to preserve their cultural identity.

Gil_Almogi of Game Revolution looks at the dating sim Coming Out on Top:

The player character cannot be changed, so very much like the majority of video games, you can only play as a conventionally attractive, white, cisgender man. Although this was as advertised, it leads to an awkward moment when the player utters, “I’m not racist, but…” Thankfully, this doesn’t segue into terse conversation with either of the men of color in the game, but I couldn’t help but feel this could just not have been a thing. Later, when Jed is thrown a racist remark and physically threatened by a random person, it drives home the idea of the privileges white, gay men experience that their brethren of color do not benefit from.

Robert Yang’s Succulent makes for a particularly tasty social commentary for Jess Joho to deconstruct gay male culture:

But by the end of Succulent, sex is the last thing on the player’s mind. Finishing the game with a final blow to the Queer as Folk, consumer-driven lifestyle he sees as so prevalent in the media representations of homosexuality, Robert explains that “after consuming the carrot/popsicle/corn dog and hypnotizing you, [the character] has nothing left to feed upon, so he reveals his demonic nature and proceeds to consume you.”

Finally, Alisha Karabinus wonders where we might be if Mass Effect‘s Commander Shepard had been exclusively a woman:

That’s not a choice. That’s not equal presentation. It never has been, and as best as I can tell, was never meant to be, because the industry is geared, in every way, toward male players of a very particular type.

Form and Politics

Stephen Beirne expresses his thoughts on ludo-fundamentalism and ludocentricism, offering insight on how we use language to mean, but also how the application of concepts can become a prescriptive de-valuing of aesthetic experience in digital spaces:

It can be done by associating general concepts like ‘form’ or ‘interactivity’ to only mean specifically ludic form or mechanical interactivity as a matter of fact, for example, which erases all other aspects of form and interactivity from the equation. When self-identified formalists say they focus on form to mean they focus on ludology, this is the removal of non-ludic parts from the scope of what could constitute a game’s form, illustrating ludo-fundamentalism.

Brendan Keogh stepped out to toss the ol’ formalism ball around, calling out himself and other “humanities based videogame critics” for a lack of interest in form:

I want more critics accounting for videogame form. Art critics can talk about a type of paint used and film critics can talk about camera work and lighting and actors and scripts, and we definitely struggle with that as videogame critics. More account for videogames as things that are touched and played with and not just worlds that are magically entered is what we need. That means we need a more coherent language to talk about form.

Elsewhere, Jake Muncy plays Metro 2033 and discusses the poetics of urban agoraphobia:

Subways are naturally orderly spaces, each corridor and tunnel built with a purpose, moving people and property in a mechanical, logical way. Transfigured here into the home of a new human society, they are a hope for order, a place where control can be measured along the length of the train tracks.

And Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander attributes 80 Days‘ success to an avoidance of preconceived notions surrounding text games. Still, even the developers felt the pressure of an ever-present exclusionary mechanic-centric discourse:

Money and luggage made a natural inventory system, and the relationship stat suits the interaction between Phileas Fogg and Passepartout. Time, of course, is the most crucial resource in a story about rushing to circumnavigate the globe in record time. “In general when you’re looking to make a narrative game, as a developer you’re often looking for excuses to shove a bit of ‘gameplay’ in….a few quicktime events maybe, to give you the sense there’s a skill element involved. 80 Days just gave us this gameplay element for free, and that was handy.”

An Inquisition into Meaning

Our winner of 2014’s Blogger of the Year, Austin Walker, writes about choice and meaning in Dragon Age: Inquisition, while Todd Harper pens a weepy confession to the narrative beats induced by flirting in Dragon Age: Inquisition:

I think most of us understand how painful unrequited love can be. If you grew up queer (as I did), there’s an additional layer to that experience: being in love with someone who you know not just doesn’t return your affections but, really, can’t. In many cases, these feelings are for the people in our young queer lives that are our support network. As a wee gay in the mid-90s, my close allies were very, very few and I was assuredly in love with at least one of them. It’s a feeling you learn to bury, or at the very least, to try and transform into a different kind of closeness, so that you don’t lose something very important in the process. If you’re lucky, you can deal with it all on your own.

Jorge Albor doesn’t cry (in this case –ed), but he does wonder about the ontology of meaning created through mechanics centered around choice:

Maybe it would help to explore how some choices mean differently than others. Take for example, my friend’s statement that your choices don’t matter in The Walking Dead? When, exactly, does “mattering” take place? Is meaning created in the moments leading up the decision? In the decision itself? Or in the repercussions of that decision? When is the deadline for a choice to matter that, when passed, signifies an earlier decision’s futility?

Over at Tumblr, Heather Alexandra gives some thought to “The Meaning of Meaning” while also making us curious about a multi-verse reality branched off from a really fucking hungry Isaac Newton:

But this comes with a very clear and obvious issue: meaning is not a formal quality or status that is achieved. It is not some apple on a tree that we can just pluck down and eat if we reach a little higher. It is a happy coincidence of circumstances, a by product of interactions which then must be filtered through the lens of the individual. It is not the act of plucking the apple; it is the observation of the apple falling. Newton allegedly saw an apple fall and found a window to the cosmos but if he had been really fuckin’ hungry that day, all he might have seen was a snack.

Lost to Time 

Over at Gamasutra Lena LeRay’s reality gets shattered by the historical perspective of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s lore:

In one swell foop [sic], BioWare has changed everything. So often in fantasy stories, The Legends turn out to be True, but they have just knocked the bowling pins of legend over with a bowling ball made of reality and revealed that the pins were all just a facade the whole time. But it’s not a retcon. Everything points, now, to all the myths and legends in the lore being based on a series of actual historical events seen from different perspectives, but with details lost and twisted over the centuries. Some of the things in The Legends may very well be True… but not all of them.

Simon Parkin reveals how lackluster curating efforts is a death sentence to contextual experience:

Still, their social, political, and cultural context remains hidden. Few contemporary explorers of the archive will recognize, for instance, that Wanted: Monty Mole is a riff on the U.K. coal miners’ strike of 1984 — you play a courageous mole who breaks the picket lines in defiance of his union leader, a character modelled on the real-world National Union of Mineworkers president, Arthur Scargill. Nor are today’s gamers likely to sense the Cold War paranoia that suffuses Atari’s Missile Command, which reputedly caused its designer, David Theurer, to wake at night in panic sweats.

Reality is Artificial, Survival is Insufficient 

G. Christopher Williams talks Jazzpunk and its achievement of comedy through reference, abstraction and interactivity:

Jazzpunk feels different than Schafer’s games. It isn’t a game that solely tells jokes in cutscenes and through dialogue. It more often involves the player in the jokes and depends on the player to complete actions necessary to complete those jokes. It is a comedy that hinges on the fact that games are more interactive than other media. The comedy becomes a collaborative act between the game and its player.

Meanwhile, in Kill Screen, Chris Priestman discusses how The Stage removes the player from center stage in favor of the artists:

To Jack, this is what the stage is all about. It’s the symbolic opposite to the multi-million dollar videogame industry. The stage is raw, mistakes can happen, will happen, and are part of the show. This is why, as he told me, The Stage is ‘not a project about finished products but more about process’…Importantly, the distinction that The Stage makes from other types of game performance is that the centerpiece is not the player, but is instead each artist that shaped it. Crucially, the player only interacts with The Stage to incite the show, they do not control what happens. This is best demonstrated when an episode starts, plays a song and some repeated animation, and then ends abruptly, with the player only having moved around the stage wondering if there’s anything more they can do—there isn’t. They are not calling (or firing) the shots here.

And Hannah Peet of Videodame, in a review of Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things with Videogames, reflects on a better reality where games are the “cornerstone of media conversations and artistic reflection.”

Perhaps it is time to insert these small, movement-less scenes of reflection into the player’s instinctual gaming mannerisms. I can feel these reverent pauses in many games, but the player must be willing to listen for them in order for them to happen. Similarly, non-players should be willing to find this metaphor by spectating the fiction, actions, and environment. The player or spectator should appreciate such a positive moment of reformation for cultural beliefs and values. Games often don’t force players to pause in-game as games are inherently a lean forward activity. Reflection on player choices should happen periodically while working through a game, but it’s also time to implement reverence outside of the video game itself and into the conversations we have about the medium, its participants, and the symbols involved.

Douglass F. Warrick provides an account of forfeiting his autonomy to fall in love with a sex ninja in Apocalypse World:

By actively affording control over character creation to the other players, Apocalypse World encourages players to explore levels of experience outside of their usual frame of reference and to approach the narrative from a position of collaborative improvisation.

If you’re still wanting more, ask Emily Short about games of co-authorship, she’s got what you need.

Whew, we’re almost there! Now let’s wind down with a touching poem from Dalton Day exemplifying experiential interplay. And while you’re at Cartridge Lit, check out this preview of their forthcoming Chapbook, “An Object You Cannot Lose” by Sam Martone.

It’s Been Real: The Existential Crisis

Now that you’ve had your weekly dose of reality-reaffirming criticism, we won’t be mad if you take a break from reading and sharing our findings to read and share with us via Twitter mention or email.

There is still some time to participate in January’s Blogs of the Round Table topic, Player’s Choice.

And remember, we’re funded entirely by our readers so please consider signing up for a monthly donation to our Patreon.

Until next time!

Uncharted 2

March 16th, 2012 | Posted by John Kilhefner in Critical Compilation: - (1 Comments)

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.”

Uncommon Women

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?