Friday, July 10, 2009

Nathan Drake in: The Curse of Ludonarrative Dissonance!

With Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Naughty Dog presents the player with Nathan Drake, a character designed as an alternative to super-powered space marine heroes so often found in games. In the game's "making of" featurette, the development team repeatedly mentions their commitment to fashioning an "every-man" hero.

Michael Abbott sums up Drake's appeal:

"Much of Uncharted's success can be traced to its hero, Nathan Drake - a regular guy with no special powers or skills (well, he is a pretty good climber). Nate's ordinariness helps explain the game's overarching structure. Nate is basically in it for the ride, tracking a story he does not control, figuring it out as he goes along."

Based on the voice acting and cutscenes, this is accurate. Yelling "Aw crap!" when a grenade rolls in front of your feet seems like a natural reaction. Grunting and panting while scaling a sheer cliff is something I could see myself doing. And who really makes sure their shirt is tucked in at all times? Drake's characterization suggests he could indeed be one of my drinking buddies.

However, when it comes to actively playing the game, I feel as though I am controlling a completely different character. Why? Because, when faced with an obstacle, this plucky, fun-loving, regular dude morphs into a frighteningly efficient killing machine.

Things started getting weird when the trophies came rolling in. Every so often, I'd hear a chime alerting me to my latest accomplishment, the majority of which were tied to weapon proficiency. Soon, I began to wonder just how lethal Drake was, so I collected some data:

Drake's Body Count
TrophyConfirmed killsEstimated kills
Brutal Slugger (kill 20 enemies with brutal combo)20-
Stealth Attacker (20 stealth kills)-5
Steel fist (melee kill after dealing bullet damage)-2
Grenade Hangman-0
50 Kills: PM - 9mm50-
50 Kills - 92FS - 9mm50-
50 Kills: Micro - 9mm10-
20 Kills: Wes - 44-5
20 Kills: Desert - 5-3
30 Kills: MP4030-
50 Kills: AK-4750-
50 Kills: M450-
30 Kills: Dragon Sniper30-
50 Kills: Moss - 12--
50 Kills: SAS - 12--
30 Kills: M79-20
20 Kills: Mk-NDI grenades20-
Totals320 (confirmed kills)358 (conservative total estimate)

Note that these numbers are a conservative estimate of how many enemies were slain over the course of my play-through. Although I cannot substantiate it, I would guess that the actual body count is closer to 500.

I soon realized I was controlling a character whose cutscene persona clashed with his gameplay persona. Cutscene Drake was a smooth talker who tried to bluff his way out of jams, lived to solve historical mysteries, and was not immune to accidentally bumping his head on low doorways. Gameplay Drake shed his conventional charm, instead becoming an expert marksman proficient with over a dozen firearms, a stealth assassin whose first move against an unsuspecting enemy was to kill rather than incapacitate, and a juggernaut who slaughtered his way out of predicaments. Unfortunately, this Drake was unable to kill that infamous beast we call "ludonarrative dissonance."

Naughty Dog was actually too successful in casting Drake as an every-man. The writing, acting, and directing did help me identify with the character, so much so that I felt like I was betraying their creation when actually participating in the game. Uncharted is one of the few titles in which I have given any thought to how many people I/my avatar killed in a game. Based on his personality and competance, Drake simply did not seem like the kind of guy who would (or could) pick up any random gun and use it for large-scale seem like the kind of guy who would shrug off large-scale manslaughter. While interesting, I do not think this was the developer's intent.

I am hoping that in Uncharted 2, the Drake that shows up in the gameplay will be the same Drake I got to know in the cutscenes. A shift of focus towards "action" rather than "combat" could provide big thrills by emphasizing ingenuity in the face of danger rather than blood-lust. Implementing more complex platforming or chase sequences would both show off the game's wonderfully crafted engine while also preventing Drake from becoming a sociopathic killer.

Since the game so successfully relies on cinematic techniques, why not look to the master for inspiration?

Despite its low body count, the scene conveys is full of hazardous excitement. The fighting showcased is not that of trained warriors, but that of desperate people in an extraordinary circumstances . Indy's admission, "I'm making this up as I go," also serves to remind the audience that he is not a superhero; he's just a guy trying his best to stumble through ridiculous situations.

An action/adventure approach would mesh well with the character Naughty Dog created. Gameplay that downplays gun fighting in favor of more physical and environmental challenges would better complement the Drake we meet in the cutscenes. Additionally, this approach would give the game some much-needed separation from the ubiquitous run/shoot/cover gameplay popularized by Gears of War.

As an added bonus, limiting the amount of explicit killing could clear the way for more prudent, meaningful, and hilarious violence:

Talk about an everyman: Who among us cannot sympathize with Indy's decision? I have a feeling Drake would.


  1. As much as I respect the argument towards Drake's character I feel that I must disagree. (I can't believe I'm aruging Ludonarrative dissonance again.)

    Yes he kills alot of people and is decidedly deadly in the end result. But it is the method in which he goes about it that's important. When we have a look at his backstory. I don't read him as your use of the word everyman nor Naughty Dog's implied definition. He is the everyman in the sense that he is not the ubermensch as so many other games present you as. He can only jump so high, lift so much, and fears death like anybody else. But the story reveals tidbits of a past where he's killed people as part of the job. His referenced many encounters with Eddie Raja, his association with a shady character like Sulley and even in the cutscenes he knows his way around weapons just like his opponents.

    I think the key is that he isn't the bumbling hero nor is he the umbermensch. He falls somewhere in between. He is skilled with firearms, but no more than anyone with practice at the fireing range could be.

    You have to give Drake some slack when it comes to his abilites. You and I may grunt and pant when swinging on the outside of stone castles like Drake, but frankly I don't think I'd ever put myself in that position in the first place. I have neither the training nor expirience for such a feat.

  2. Prototype exacerbates this issue even more. In the cutscenes, Alex Mercer is supposed to be somewhat sympathetic, intent on "finding out what happened." He's trying to save Manhattan, in a roundabout kind of way.

    But in the gameplay, you can literally devour hundreds upon hundreds of civilians (and way more soldiers beyond that). The two are completely incongruous and it ends up making it really difficult to connect with Mercer at all. At least Frankenstein's monster (think Shelley, not Karloff) had no confusion about what he was.

  3. I don't think you guys ever come to a certain conclusion on your theories on game play which scares the shit out of me because it is you, the young, who are our next generation of design. You don't make any points or come to any conclusions that are constructive, or even informative. At the end of the day you have vague ideas about why certain games work and why some don't, but really, you don't get it.
    While Nels understands a lot about people and their interactions with games, I still wonder just what you guys get out of this. I don't see anything constructive. You're still blue sky.

  4. TheGameCritique, you have a good point, but I don't think that fully solves the issue. I read Drake as something of a scoundrel, as much Han Solo as Indiana Jones. He runs with a dangerous crowd, sure. He knows how to defend himself with his fists and use a gun. But there's still a huge gap between that and the supermercenary he plays as. He single-handedly rushes in and takes out waves of enemies. The Drake the cutscenes inspire in my mind is more of a fast talk as far as you can kind of guy, but one who's willing and capable of resorting to a shooting retreat when it all hits the fan.

    I remember being bothered by this when I was playing the game. I didn't understand the point of putting Drake in a room where he had to kill 15+ dudes to get out. And don't get me started on how unarmored mercenaries can take a whole frickin clip to drop. All this added up to something where I felt like Drake as a character was misused, and the combat felt artificial and unnecessary. When the core of your game, while entertaining, feels artificial and unnecessary, you know we've got a problem.

  5. @TheGameCritique

    New rule: every time someone drops the "LD bomb," everyone takes a shot! :-)

    You bring up an interesting point about Drake's character: we don't know much about his past. Maybe the "everyman" moniker is wrong and he is more like a Jasaon Bourne-style character: human, but highly trained.

    I'm looking forward to seeing which direction they take the character in the next game. Exploring his backstory or simply showing us another deadly adventure might prove your theories correct. A Nathan Drake origin story, perhaps?


    ACTUALLY, Mercer consuming citizens in Prototype is a layered metaphor used to comment on the indiscriminate "consumption" found within a society in which democracy has been overrun by the military-industrial complex. :-P

    But seriously, any game where you can karate-kick a helicopter and body-slam a tank is going to have a rough time fleshing out the nuances of its characters.

    I wonder if a Frankenstein-esque story would work in a game?


    Sorry if us young whipper-snappers seem to have our heads in the clouds. :-)

    Here's clarification of this post:

    - Problem: Uncharted is a fun game, but the gameplay's tone doesn't match the story's tone.
    - Solution: Naughty Dog seems to have crafted a strong character whose integrity they care about, so instead of changing the character, why not instead put him in gameplay situations that fit his personality? One way to do this would be to de-emphasize deadly combat and instead emphasize platforming or environmental challenges. (This is where the Indy scenes come in.)

    I'll agree that we have a lot to learn from people like Nels. That's part of the reason we created the site: our analysis is constantly improved by what we learn by both creating content and interacting with others who create content.

    I'll have to disagree concerning the claim that we don't know why "certain games work and why some don't." While we might periodically lapse into theoretical abstraction, we always strive to ground our arguments with specific examples from games. Whether we are criticizing Lego Star Wars, exploring politics in Far Cry 2, or investigating the game-design of Mirror's Edge, we work to illustrate our thoughts through the use of specific examples.

    Of course, opinions are relative; what may come across as constructive to one person may be useless for another. At the end of the day, if we can get ourselves and others thinking critically about games, we feel successful. After all, we must have said something that spurred you to comment, right? ;-)


    Sounds like we are on the same page. I think it will be interesting to see how the subsequent games treat the gameplay as well as Drake's backstory. If they reveal Drake's past as one rife with killing, it may retroactively make the first game more logical (as TheGameCritique suggests).

    I think that Uncharted had the misfortune to come out in the aftermath of Gears of War. The "run and gun with cover" style action got really popular and continues to show up in many games, regardless of its necessity. Unfortunately, this kind of gameplay ties in-game progression to killing, which something that makes sense in Gears but feels odd in Uncharted.

    I have to admit, I muttered my fair share of obscenities while pumping bullets into those super-powered mercenaries. Maybe they had regenerating health as well? :-)