Friday, July 16, 2010

Uncharted 2 Reviewed

Should I mention at the outset that I know and am close with one of the guys who made this game? Is that what's called full disclosure? Doesn't the FCC have a rule about this? Well, whatever.

Uncharted 2 is the game I have spent the most time with other than Fallout 3 in recent memory. Fallout 3 is designed to be a time sink. You spend about half your time walking from place to place in a wasteland, listening to your radio, waiting for something interesting to happen. There are almost no "cinemas." You play a cipher whose appearance and decisions are entirely defined by the player (within a set, and indeed often limiting, range). You talk to people often. The shooting is not very good.

Uncharted 2 is pretty much the polar opposite of Fallout 3. It's long for a high budget action game, but not very. It's meant to be cinematic, which is to say that it imitates an action movie. You have a character named Nathan Drake, who is like Indiana Jones + Ryan Secrest. He runs around in gorgeous environments (easily the most attractive/impressive I've seen in a game yet) and climbs on things, shooting and occasionally punching guys. That's pretty much the game.

Unlike most games that imitate the cinema, Uncharted 2 is actually about as good as the mediocre popcorn flicks from which it borrows, which means that in the world of popcorn flicks in which we live now -- one excessively derivative of video games -- it's actually much better than anything you'll see in the theater. You'll see fans online talking about its unprecedented characterization, dialogue, and etc., which mainly serves as a barometer of their collective insanity. American games with more likable or interesting characters are indeed rare, but this is largely because American game designers (much like American action filmmakers) write terrible characters -- as shallow as these people are, they at least say funny things sometimes, and the voice actors have a certain amount of chemistry, and occasionally your guy will respond to a particularly massive set-piece with a sort of overwhelmed horror/amusement that is pretty endearing. The truth is that the story and characters largely exist to get out of the way, to allow the player a certain experience of the game. They are likable enough and seemingly humane enough that I don't feel like garbage as I simulate brutally murdering hundreds of men. The game's creators presumably wanted to accomplish more with them, but for me that's where it ends.

The first time through I don't think I quite felt that way. Whatever the problems with the narrative, the logic of the game -- Nathan Drake (you) gets into trouble, and then things get worse, until it seems they can't possibly get worse, and then it turns out the world is in danger -- is strong stuff. And insofar as one is "playing a movie," or rather, doing what modern CGI-heavy movies are always implicitly promising me, which is having the physical adventure the characters are unconvincingly play-acting on the screen, the movie has a number of compelling scenes wherein one is shooting guys on a train, shooting guys in ruined temples, shooting guys in a convoy of moving trucks, fleeing (and then shooting) a tank in the middle of a village, fighting helicopters, etc.

But on replaying the game, one very quickly loses interest in the movie parts. One skips them as quickly as possible, so as to move on to the next scene. This destroys the narrative logic of the game, but it also makes it a purer experience. It turns out to be enough, when it comes to shooting guys in a game, that I basically believe I am a better person than they are. And the quality of my character in the game is determined by my ability to shoot; by triumphing over another AI opponent, I prove my right to that triumph. To me this suggests that most games would be better -- and possibly Uncharted 2 as well -- if we stopped trying to tell conventional stories with them.

I'm reminded of a game I played a lot as a kid, maybe the first one I ever played seriously. It was called Bruce Lee, I think. It was for the PC Junior, which, if you're wondering, is pretty much what it sounds like, but older. Perhaps comparable to the Commodore 64. In Bruce Lee you can run right or left. You can climb things that look like pink swiss cheese. You can jump. You can do a punch or a flying kick. There are two enemies: ninjas, and sumo wrestlers. The ninjas take fewer hits to kill. The sumos make this plaintive mooing sound when they can't get to you. Your goal is, if I recall, to fight some sort of demon king and win immortality. As you play further and further into the game, it makes less and less sense. A lot of your time as Bruce Lee is spent avoiding electric beams that look like Space Invaders. You do a lot of jumping. You never doubt that it's moral to kill the ninjas or the sumos because, well, they're ninjas and sumos. It seems like that's what they're there for. And of course it is! The fiction that you're killing people is never really applied. What I wonder is why we've got to apply that fiction to Uncharted.

Because there are moments in the plot, and in the movement of the villains as you shoot them in the neck, that reminds you there is a fictional moral weight to your decision to shoot all these guys.  Of course the decision is sort of false -- the only way to beat the game without shooting guys is to strangle them all to death instead -- but they remind you you're making it anyway, or that Drake is making it and that you're enabling him to do so. This seems like an unforced error (though it is, admittedly, an error made by every game company currently working, and one with powerful financial and cultural incentives behind it -- and the fact that Uncharted can be considered morally at all is a testament to the relative strength of their narrative, flimsy as it may be). What I want to do these days -- and what I have done by stripping the cinemas from Uncharted in my subsequent replays -- is to remove context from the experience. The narrative of Bruce Lee is not the narrative of the actor/ass-kicker's quest for mortality but the narrative of how the player learns to understand and move within a hostile world. The narrative of Uncharted is not the narrative of Nathan Drake, but the narrative of how I move from one chest-high wall to another, sniping snipers, tossing grenades at clustered enemies, favoring the one-hit kill of the pistole, the shotgun, or the Desert Eagle over less efficient (but safer) killers. It's the story of how I choose to climb the walls, statues, and giant ritual daggers. Without the cinemas I would not know "why" I did these things, but I would know exactly why: because it feels good. Because it's awesome.

And it really does feel good. I don't think I've had a more satisfying guy-shooting experience than Uncharted, which often feels genuinely tactical, and which is hard enough and complicated enough and right enough that it feels, after several times through, as if playing it well is a genuine skill, like playing an instrument or carving small creatures from wood. Video games are not, of course, very much like these things; not yet. (And especially not the games about playing instruments or making things.) In some ways plot is the point of the game in Fallout 3. In other ways plot is a way of hiding that Fallout 3 is not a very good game. Perhaps Uncharted's biggest problem is that it takes a genius to write a story as satisfying as sniping the rocket guy from across the level, then shotgunning his friend. That is, it takes a genius to write a story as satisfying as physics, as ballistics.

I often think these days that the problem with game storytelling is language. Language inherently demands justice -- the ability to say something requires us to say the right thing, and this leads inevitably to the pressure to explain oneself, to be able to explain why one decision is preferable to another. But think about pool. In pool the only moral imperative is to play by the rules. That's what makes it a game. If there is a second moral imperative, it is virtuosity. If you get too good at killing guys in Uncharted, it's possible you'll feel guilty about that. It's possible you will feel the need to explain yourself, especially at the end of the game, when the villain demands just that. What if you weren't killing people at all? I used to feel like it was a cop-out to make the Foot Clan in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles robots. It was just a way to deny that we were seeing real violence. Now I think it was genius. We weren't seeing real violence. It's insisting on the humanity of our video victims that seems counter-productive these days. I don't want to play a murder simulator.

There will come a time when games are capable of exploring a real moral quandary. This will happen when players themselves can make meaningful choices. Players will be able to make meaningful choices when computers master language, or when game makers abandon it -- when the characters whose lives I build and destroy can take me to task or thank me for something they never knew I'd do, or when the developers make scenarios and environments so rich with feeling and power that physics can seem moral in the way music does, that the collision of two inhuman things can be urgent in and of itself.

I'm not sure this has made a lot of sense. Let me try this again. If there is morality in Uncharted, then it's not in the cinemas, which happen outside my control, or even in the murder I commit, which is the basis of the game. The morality of Uncharted, of video games generally, is in the player's performance. It lies in how I live with the physics, just as the morality of real life is ultimately about how we operate within an often hideous, depressing system -- not in our ability to disassociate ourselves from the hurt and the fire, but in our manipulation of the hurt and the fire to bring happiness to as many people as we can. Perhaps the morality of Uncharted lies in the fact that it's a game you can happily watch as well as one you can play -- it can bring more people more pleasure than the average game.

I look forward to a time when those pleasures can be more complicated and strange, but I also love these.

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