a review of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
a videogame developed by naughty dog
and published by sony computer entertainment america
for the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by Theodore Troops
With Uncharted, Naughty Dog lays its cards on the table, and hedges (or at least shrubs) its bets that this moment in history, right now, is the one when realistically proportioned, ordinary human beings can exist in a videogame without shame, after years of spinning orange dreidel dogs and elves with limbs of a strange elastic composition. Squaresoft laid those cards in 1999 with Final Fantasy VIII, and swept them away in 2000 with Final Fantasy IX. Valve laid them in 2004 with Half-Life 2, and did their sweeping in 2007 with Team Fortress 2. (Well, Valve never actually removes any of their cards. They’re the kind of players with multiple decks, if you know what I mean.) Even now, with five hundred and twelve whole megabytes of RAM, and more cores than an applesauce factory, there’s a certain god-defying arrogance in men making men out of polygons. Consider that Pixar, a company housing the finest animators on earth, equipped with its near-unlimited computational and financial resources –– render farms that probably stretch farther than some real ones –– still hasn’t attempted to depict lifelike human beings with computer animation, so many years after The Spirits Within. I suppose the argument can be made, why spend ten million dollars per scene making what is essentially possible with a twenty-thousand-dollar camera and some million-dollar actors, and I suppose that argument would win out with just about everyone, including me.
If Uncharted were a movie, it would not be CG. It would be made with the filmiest film, all the stunts would be real, and the sets would be honest-to-god jungles and temples and airplanes. It would probably be a better Indiana Jones movie than that new one that’s coming up around the bend. But alas, it is a videogame. Thus it is about as good an interactive replica of a 30’s pulpy adventure serial as Rogue Squadron is of a Star Wars film. You’ll shoot a small country’s worth of pirates in this game. You’ll scuffle across chasms, and you’ll die half-way through and break the pacing because Ubisoft has a patent on The Dagger of Time®. There are gates to be opened by hammering Triangle. There are puzzles with statues to rotate between trips to GameFAQs. It all feels like it belongs, because the story is telling you what you should be doing at this moment or that, but we can’t help but wish the game would play itself for us; eventually, we wish it wasn’t a game at all.
The combat is a more desperate, slippery, improvised take on Gears of War‘s soldierly, methodical, almost Tetris-like, take-cover-and-kill mechanic. Nathan Drake is an ordinary man, an adjective so crucial to this game’s success that it’s there in big letters on the back of the box. He wears a white shirt and jeans, his hair is just kind of there. All his moves have little imperfections in them: he leaps onto ledges and scrapes his forearms, he flinches and winces when bullets puncture the rock he’s hiding behind. He peers out from safety, releases a few nine-millimeter clacks with the R1 button, and snaps back, amazed he’s still alive, as South Pacific accents taunt him with one of ten cocky phrases.
SCEA’s marketing department had the unenviable job of making this everyman character cool. We are used to commercials telling us YOU ARE THE PUNISHER, and “supersoldier” is, to us, as common a compound noun as “salaryman.” When the first trailer of Uncharted was released, back when it had no name, I read a post in which someone called the protagonist a “bland, candybar-looking motherhecker.” Maybe they were expecting the kind of half-knight, half-marine, half-quarterback heroes of Gears of War (three halves a man)? Maybe they just didn’t see enough zippers and buckles and asymmetry. (“Character Design” is an awfully limiting term. It reduces people to pewter statues.) Everyone in this game is as ordinary, and genuinely relatable, as Drake. There’s Elena, a videojournalist who’s chasing the story of her career, and Sullivan, Drake’s gentlemanly adventure buddy, with a mustache and a cigar, and debt. They are all perfectly cast, and act almost alarmingly like actual human beings. When Elena drops her camera into the abyss, the one that had been preserving hours of discoveries of El Goddamn Dorado, you can hear the frustration simmer in her teeth, before she just lets out an agonized “Shit!”
We don’t doubt for a moment that these are real people, and, more than anything, we wish the game wouldn’t keep throwing these gamey constructs at us so that we could just chill with them. Even just to walk from place to place, looking around. After all, the subtlety of just the walking in this game is breathtaking. (It makes jealous all those MMORPG’s in which walking comprises half of the gameplay.) With people and places that come off as so natural, it’s the game itself that gives off the biggest stink of artificiality. It’s not like removing the HUD would’ve made things any better. The constant need for twitchy little challenges and two-bit puzzles just isn’t realistic. Even on a cursed island. Even in an Indiana Jones movie.
Interestingly, all the cutscenes are of realtime footage, but exist in the form of compressed FMV. I understand they needed to fill the Blu-ray Disc, and this helps to reduce load times, with the bonus of making them all selectable from a menu after you’ve finished the game (effectively turning it into a movie). But seriously. In a game that’s already so disconnected from itself, it begs the question, why not just use some beautiful, beautiful CG. Fuck, why not use real actors, like they used to do back in the Command and Conquer days? Of course, going that far threatens to reduce this $25 million production to complete irrelevance. (It also makes the guy working on rock shaders really angry.)
To turn this game off after the credits and go play Team Fortress 2 to blow off some Steam is kind of a revelation. TF2 was built in the Valve tradition of functionalism: it was cartoon-like because online players do hilarious things to each other in multiplayer matches. The exaggerated proportions help players pick out silhouettes of the characters. They know big characters move slow and take a lot of damage, and thin ones can run really fast. All the characters were designed in such a way that the player is able to instantly see what team they’re on, and their eyes are drawn to the weapon they’re carrying. Only once they were all established as iconic little stamps, as elements of a videogame, did Valve go embellishing them with voices and animated personalities. It’s a bottom-up approach.
The best games are drawn this way. Mario’s design is a direct result of pixel limitations. In Halo, the grunts are tiny triangles with smurf voices to contrast them against their larger masters (whose deaths will send them scattering); the sniping jackels have big neon circle shields so that you can spot them at a distance. The very idea of cyborg player characters was done to excuse statistical elements on the screen — lifebars, radars — and things like batteries and recharging shields grew directly out of that. The Gears have weapon slots in the back of their armor that mirrors their D-pad assignment; their big meaty shape is such to imply that they can take so many bullets, and also so that they fit snugly in the blocky, geometric world in which they exist; their little blue lightbright highlights on their chestplates is so you can tell what team they’re on even in the shadows of the highest dynamic ranges. And their selectable races — The Nigger, The Spic, The Chink, The Supposed Midwest Racist, et cetera — are direct concessions to the Xbox Live userbase. (There’s no Jew, though. Gears of War 2 should give us a big-nosed, big-bearded Othodox Jew who says “Shalom, bitches!” when he curb stomps.) Even old fantasy archetypes like rogue, orc, wizard, and the like have staying power precisely because they are readable and understandable in an abstracted reality, whether textual or graphical.
Uncharted is a game that dares not to think about decades of videogame design heritage, and there’s no question that it’s worse-off because of it. Apparently, they’re working on a sequel. Maybe it should be direct-to-theater.