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 J. Jonathan Brett
How can we take issue with the mainstream portrayal of video games as murder simulators when a majority of them prominently simulate the act of murder? Here a detractor protests: what about Wanda and the Colossus, or the most recent Prince of Persia? A notion bewilderingly common among Internet-posting game enthusiasts is that the exception somehow vanquishes the rule; that the millions of heretofore observed white swans ought to politely blink out of existence in deference to the discovery of black. Well they don’t. And these pacifist black swans don’t remove from consideration their countless shotgun-wielding, grenade-launching, head-shot-prioritizing white cousins.
Case in point, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Uncharted is inspired by Indiana Jones, and let it be said that we at Action Button are, in fact, thrilled to see another top developer taking a crack at this fallow sub-genre. Now that the folks behind Tomb Raider have chosen to steer the franchise away from its adventure roots to focus on adapting it into a ball-dropping simulator, we had a real niche gap on our hands. The developers at Naughty Dog shrewdly took note of this gap, and we don’t question for a minute that these developers’ respective hearts were in the respective right places. Uncharted is a well-studied approximation: within the first hour and in the tradition of any good pulp-adventure yarn, players have unearthed a long-lost artifact, traveled to exotic and foreboding tropical locales, and debunked a widely-held myth.
They’ve also wasted enough people to staff a four-star resort hotel.
By the time a player has completed Uncharted, even on the “normal” difficulty setting, he’ll have blown away literally hundreds of human beings. We’ll be fair: that’s hardly anything in comparison to the number of people who were murdered by the machinations of, say, Joseph Stalin or Genghis Khan. Yet the fact can’t be evaded: were protagonist-slash-angel-of-death Nathan Drake a flesh-and-blood human being, he would be responsible by his own hands for a number of deaths qualifying him for membership in an ignominious club that includes, at best and over the full course of the history of the human species, a couple of hundred members.
Yes, even ol’ Indy (and the pulp icons that were his inspiration) kills his fair share of goons with each outing. Yet can you imagine a film with a supposed “protagonist” who, with hand guns, shotguns, grenades, automatic rifles, spike-tipped Rube Goldberg contraptions, his bare fists — and much much more! — murders hundreds of human beings? Forget about relating with; would anyone even like this character?
The developers at Naughty Dog seem to believe that gamers would. Nathan Drake is undeniably well voice-acted (so well, in fact, that when putting together the aforementioned present-gen Prince of Persia title, the developers decided, what the heck, let’s just get the same damned guy) and quite the charmer. We were willing to toss a tad more hydraulic into our suspension of disbelief as at least Nathan doesn’t supplement his killing spree with a running commentary of sarcastic asides. Perhaps in fear of disenfranchising sociopathic shut-ins with an obsessive compulsion to collect, Naughty Dog “fixed” this when they rolled out so-called “achievements”. Now, “I’m getting pretty good at this!”, Nathan remarks with discernible pride, as he is player-controlled to shoot his twentieth human being in the head.
It’s too stark a contrast, between the characters’ appearances and their actions. Uncharted has been duly lauded for the beauty of its presentation. In contrast to something even as recent as the Arkham Asylum demo, wherein Batman moves like the second stick up his rear he’d sent in to retrieve the first had also gotten stuck, Nathan and his companions look and move comparably enough to actual human beings to pass the “squint test”. (Even two years after its release, we would submit that, at least in terms of character animation, Uncharted compares favorably to Madden, the present high-water mark.) Yet, for all of the realism of their appearances, these are characters who go from being the sort of neophytes that nervously crack about how firing a gun is “…like a camera: you just point and shoot” to nonchalantly striding up and blasting a man in the chest without so much as a wince let alone a moment of hesitation.
We humbly wish to draw attention to this point: Elena Fisher (Nathan’s companion) goes from leading a fairly adventurous if otherwise normal life, to being a murderer — and never so much as remarks upon the fact. Yes, they were “bad people” who were, at the very least, guilty of attempted murder (seeing as they were rather inconsiderately trying to wax Nathan and Elena and all). They were still human beings. Even if it were in self-defense, how would you, good reader, feel about taking another man’s life? Hell, even in a stoner flick like Pineapple Express, the main character has a moment of abject dread as the full scope of the reality settles in upon him: I just killed like six people!
Is it unfair to hold Uncharted up to films for comparison? Not when the obvious intent was the make a game that feels like “playing a film”. There’s certainly no dearth of debate on the prudence of making games like playable films. We at Action Button (or at least the instance of the Action Button “we” hive mind typing out this review) are of the mind that, just as the summer blockbuster is a Thing That Can Be Done with film and will therefore continue to be done, so will the game intended to emulate the summer blockbuster. Just as is the case for film fanatics, what’s for we game enthusiasts is to hope for developers to periodically succeed in this format, and that entails characters who are as realistic in their actions and responses as they are in their appearances.
I’m certainly not proposing that killing and death as a mechanic be removed from video games entirely. (Another curiosity of Internet-posting game enthusiasts: for as much as they pride themselves on their intelligence, they frequently fall back on logical fallacies as basic as the slippery slope.) What I do propose is that in a game which seeks so painstakingly to recreate the “Indiana Jones” experience that the threat of death mean something, just as it does in the Indiana Jones films. If Indy takes a bullet in the gut, he’s dead, and the same goes for his enemies. This is an adventure game! Let’s have the focus on exploration and — dare I be so pat? — adventure! Keep the enemy encounters sparse; there’s brilliance in economy. And how about this for a unique fold: getting shot will kill your character. Nathan versus one, maybe two opponents, all of whom are equally vulnerable and all of whom scramble to take the best advantage of the terrain to come out on top (and alive). It would, of course, be a challenge, to create terrain and situations that make such a game mechanic enjoyable. We submit, while promising to hold off on the submitting for the remainder of this article, that the payoff for this additional think-work would be more than worth it.
The developers at Naughty Dog knew what they were doing. Uncharted is a well-researched exercise in the pulp action tradition. It’s not an accident that the protagonist kills hundreds though the protagonists of the sources of his inspiration kill perhaps ten. This was a conscious design decision, which had conscious antecedents. Why the contrast? There are only two reasons possible: (1) the developers themselves felt the game would be dull without the addition of copious bloodshed, or (2) the developers believed that the target audience of game enthusiasts wouldn’t support an adventure game that lacked copious bloodshed. Either way, the rationale remains the same: an appreciable group of gamers wouldn’t enjoy this game if it didn’t have enough bloodshed.
Which is exactly what the mainstream media says about us.
We’ve given Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune two stars because even though it is violence porn, it’s at least the violence analog of well-meaning, workaday “heterosexual couple of positionally advantageous giganticism” pornography, not leering, bodily function-involving Internet pornography that makes you want to become fantastically wealthy to drill a hole to the center of the earth and fill it with armed nuclear warheads. This review is partially to commemorate the imminent release of the sequel to Uncharted which, the word is, will feature a 80-to-20 action- (read: murder-) to-exploration ratio, in contrast to the original Uncharted‘s 70-to-30.
–J. Jonathan Brett