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Videogames aren't famous for telling stories. They prefer to engage heart and mind with agency and interaction. Uncharted 3 Drake's Deception folds this premise back on itself in an effort to combine storytelling and action. What results is a game that is about more than shooting, clambering and saving the world.
Uncharted 3 is the third in a series of games that follow an Indiana Jones style protagonist as he shoots, climbs and fisticuffs his way through all sorts of distant (and not so distant) locations to stop a variety of evil villains each of whom want to use magical artefacts to rule the world. In the videogame world this is pretty standard stuff. It's visually impressive, has a full orchestral soundtrack and needs a high degree of skill (and a good 15 hours) to finish it. This much you would expect.
What you might not expect is that the scenes that appear between the action are fully acted in front of a blue-screen stage as if for a film. This creates a game that is as enjoyable to watch as it is to play, something that makes Uncharted 3 stand out from its peers. It leans on both interactive and non-interactive moments to engage the player, rather than focusing on the former at the expense of the latter.
Although this muddying of the videogame waters with cinematic ambitions limits what Uncharted might have been in purely gaming terms, such is the commitment to the idea by developer Naughty Dog that the result is an interactive experience that offers more emotional engagement than we expect from a videogame.
It's an approach that leads to an unusual question not asked often enough about videogames. What is this experience about? Uncharted 3 answers this question surprisingly succinctly as it presents an intelligent, if flawed, study of its infallible hero Nathan Drake.
Like modern Bond films that are no longer able to bear the weight of James' unquestionable confidence in himself, his mission and his country, Uncharted 3 pokes holes in Nathan's unflinching belief in his own ability.
"What are you trying to prove?" asks Chloe, one of his female companions in the game. "Why Nate, why this obsession?" asks Elena, who knows him better than most with their implied failed marriage since the Uncharted 2.
An exchange of rings hints that this isn't the end of the story.
Both Chloe and Elena make the same point though; Nate has an unhealthy drive to win no matter the cost to him or those around him -- friend or foe. This is underlined painfully when Nate all too easy agrees to call Elena in to help, valuing what she can offer the mission over any feelings he has for her, or her personal safety.
While hints of a broken home and self sufficient childhood tell us more about Nate than we know about Bond's upbringing, Uncharted 3 wisely stops short of joining up these dots. It's left for the character who has known Nate the longest, since rescuing him from life on the streets, to lay it on the line for him at the end of the game. Sullivan leans in close and says in an uncharacteristically sombre tone "Just stop being a wise arse for one second. Real greatness is what you do with the hand you've been dealt." With half an eye on Elena in the background, Sullivan is clear that people are as important as artefacts in this equation.
Unlike a book or a film where we are unable to observe all this as an onlooker, being a game makes these moments all the more uncomfortable. It is our actions that drive Nate forwards, that steer him headlong into whatever doom the story demands. We may not be in control of the destination but we inevitably take some of the responsibility for arriving at it. We could after all stop playing at any point -- but like Nate find ourselves driven to complete the story no matter how many henchmen have to pay the ultimate price for our heroism.
However, this strength is also Uncharted's weakness. Alongside the exchanged glances and dialogue that ask unnerving questions about our protagonist's mental state, the gameplay often seems forgetful of such substantial gains. Even when lost in the desert for days there is no hint of self-doubt or fear, more of inconvenience. Nate meets each insurmountable obstacle, be that hanging from a plane, escaping a sinking ship or just dispatching the next round of enemies, with unflinching stoic determination.
If the gameplay allowed for even a scattering of moments where Nate refused to go on, or was simply debilitated by doubt it would feel more coherent. Forgiving this is possible though, because the nature of the gameplay itself is more than something to get us from one plot point to the next. Taking the reigns as the hero turns him from a two dimensional character into a physical three dimension person -- albeit in a virtual space. In a quiet different way to books or cinema Nate, Chloe, Elena and Sullivan feel real.
Would Nate realise that the real deception here was not that of his nemesis Marlow but a trick he had pulled on himself?
Because you control the action it becomes a story you have ownership of. While this doesn't make me comfortable with the violence in Uncharted 3 or enable me to forgive the lack of narrative follow from the gameplay, I find myself involved in a more intimate manner than books or films.
This was evident in a number of ways but none more so than how much the game's conclusion mattered. Not whether Nate won or lost, but whether he was able to admit his shortcomings and start to change. Would Nate realise that the real deception here was not that of his nemesis Marlow but a trick he had pulled on himself?
As the credits roll and the orchestra strike up Nate's Theme, an exchange of rings hints that this isn't the end of the story. The ring that led him into this hunt for treasure and revenge is lost and one that ties him to a much more human commitment is gained. It seems there is hope for Nate and Elena yet, and that is a much more important and emotional moment than I expected it to be.
First published on Thirdway in 2012.
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