This post contains spoilers for both Avatar and Uncharted 2.
Sometimes, the Fates conspire to bring us exactly what we need, even if it is not what we want. This was the case last weekend, when I played Uncharted 2 and saw Avatar.
Both works are profoundly flawed for a variety of reasons. I already got into a huff on Twitter about the colonial wet dream that is Avatar, and those who listened to this week's podcast heard me call Uncharted 2 the most dangerous game in recent memory. I'll offer a more detailed critique of Uncharted 2 in a subsequent post. For now, I want to expand on a problem that Avatar and Uncharted 2 share.
While technically and artistically impressive, both works are hampered by the same basic mistake: both works picked the wrong medium for what they are trying to accomplish.
Avatar strives to convey being in both a foreign environment and a foreign body. The world of Pandora is full of mysterious, wonderful, and terrifying flora and fauna, all of it rendered with a level of realism that facilitates the viewer's suspension of disbelief. The viewer enters this world vicariously through the experiences of a man who in turn experiences Pandora by inhabiting the body of another species.
Putting aside the morally-questionable action of cloning biological beings in order to use them as tools, in both name and function, these Avatars are used exactly the way most video game characters are used. Since the earliest days of gaming, players have been inhabiting virtual avatars in order to explore foreign lands. Our avatars give us the ability to survive in dangerous environments, to gain inhuman powers that we could only dream of possessing, and let us live out fantasies of interacting with people and worlds that would be unavailable to us otherwise. Like us, Jake Sully uses his avatar to escape both the figurative and literal confines of his world to experience an otherwise impossible existence.
The audience is forced to utilize Sully as a passive, limited Avatar through which to vicariously experience the film's world. Why not cut out the middle man? One of the film's main themes is that understanding a foreign world is only attained through direct interaction. By transforming a passive viewer into an active player, Avatar: The Game (the hypothetical one I just created, not the licensed movie tie-in currently for sale) would allow the viewer to experience Pandora's geographic and social landscape on a much deeper, personal level than the movie conveys.
In one scene, Sully, in his Avatar body, encounters human-size flowers that instantly retract into their bulbs at the slightest touch. While startling at first, he becomes amused and begins playing with him, only to inadvertently reveal a large angry, beast hiding behind their cover. This sequence, based on curiosity and the unexpected consequences of personal action would have worked exquisitely in a game: Not only would the player be experiencing the surprise, they would be the one who set it in motion.
While by no means perfect, games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect exemplify the ways in which virtual avatars and dynamic stories create nuanced, layered stories. By giving the player options in crafting their own avatar and choices as to how to conduct themselves in a foreign world, an Avatar video game could easily surpass the film's plot. Affording the player agency through character-creation and branching plot options could easily transcend the insipid Pocahontas myth that the film offers.
Superficially, Uncharted 2 appears to synthesize the agency found in video games with the grand set pieces and charismatic characters found in Hollywood films. To its credit, Uncharted 2's visual magnificence and character performances outshine quite a few games and movies. Initially, Uncharted 2 appears to be the perfect melding of film and games, however, its filmic veneer holds not the core of a game, but rather a film that is a captive of the video game medium.
While Uncharted 2 affords its players (or viewers) more agency than a film, the game obstinately forces the player through what is best called a "screenplay." The opening gameplay sequence in which Drake breaks into a museum is designated as a "stealth level," in which being detected means automatic failure and a mandatory restart. Clearly, Drake has enough wits and combat training to disable a group of thugs non-lethally, but this is not what the game wants you to experience. Instead of implementing a functional alert and cool-down system (something that has been possible at least since 1998's Metal Gear Solid), the game forces the player to experience the scene exactly as it was written.
This focus on linear, single-outcome scenarios crops up repeatedly throughout the game. At key points, Drake is given unlimited ammo with which to fend off specific enemies. This choice clashes harshly with the gameplay, which is focused on keeping a watchful eye on both enemies and the ammo supplies. The necessity of unlimited ammo during a Yeti attack betrays the scene's purpose: The encounter is not connected to exploring gameplay dynamics, it is episode meant to showcase a Yeti. Running out of ammo was not in the "script" for Drake, and thus must not be allowed to happen.
At times, the player is sharply punished for trying to make their mark on the screenplay. After the train crash, Drake must make his way to the far point of a circular arena patrolled by guards. Personally, since Drake was injured and outnumbered, I thought it smart to sneak past the guards and quietly scramble up the cliff face, leaving them none the wiser. My audacity was punished by a contrived auto-death in which enemies were magically teleported behind Drake to gun him down instantly. Thinking that I had made some tactical mistake, I proceeded to replay the same scenario two more times with identical results. Ultimately, I realized what the true problem was: I was attempting to subvert the game's script, and being punished for doing so. The one and only way to deal with that situation was to mow down a dozen enemies, and I was ultimately fed down the one true path as surely as a roll of film is fed into a projector.
When Uncharted 2 gives the player control, it runs the risk of straying from its strengths. Uncharted 2 is a post-Quentin Tarantino response to Indiana Jones: Drake is a hero who indulges in both witty repartee and self-aware meta-comments; he is a struggling everyman and a sociopathic killer; he walks the line between affable bumbler and ruthless professional. The game features lush-looking environments and textured characters, but does so by enforcing the rigidity of film onto a medium based on malleability.
It is nearly impossible to craft a personal Drake who occasionally makes a false jump: the game will not let the player make an imperfect leap from one climbing point to another. Attempting to make a false jump while hanging over a precipice results in harmless hop rather than a deadly drop because said drop would not fit the story the game is trying to tell. Drake is only a bumbler when the screenplay dictates him to be, and the player is constantly reminded of this. If the player does happen to fail, they are re-spawned at a point where they must listen to the character's dialogue describing the scene, as if that misstep never happened. By the game's logic, it cannot happen: there is only one way this story can turn out, and in order to preserve the sanctity of the scene, the player must act as if it never happened, as if it is just a take, something to be left on the cutting room floor.
Ironically, Uncharted 2 is refuses to make the boldest leap: the jump from one medium to another. Instead of giving itself over totally to film it attempts to accommodate old gaming conventions into a package that soon gets bloated. On at least a half-dozen occasions, someone is saved from a deadly fall by another person catching their arm at the last minute. While this would be a source of dramatic tension in a film, the novelty quickly wears off: the player knows the game will not end that way and this same trick has already been repeated over the past ten hours. By creating fully-realized characters to stage a script with singular message, Uncharted 2 creates a work whose integrity is dependent on being guarded against outside interference. This is a challenge better met by film than by video games.
Similarly, Avatar is a work unwilling to endorse its own themes. By building a story about inhabiting a proxy body to explore fantasy realms, Avatar invites comparison to experiences that actually allow people to do such a thing, and suffers for it. Without a means to truly inhabit it, Pandora, a supposedly intricate world an abundance of both natural and social complexities to explore becomes little more than a glorified window. An investment that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and spanned decades created a virtual world, complete with virtual characters, and all we get out of it is three hours of rehashed Euro-centric tropes.
Both Avatar and Uncharted 2 are monumental works that showcase stunning imagery and unparalleled technological prowess. It is a shame that, despite all their grandeur, these monuments were erected in the wrong mediums.