Friday, January 8, 2010

Uncharted 2, Avatar, and Mistaken Mediums

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.


  1. Hi Scott (& Jorge), I'm just starting out with listening to your podcast and reading your blog.

    I can't comment on Avatar because I haven't seen it yet, but I've heard so many conflicting views on it now that I'm very keen to watch it.

    Regards Uncharted 2, I do get some of what you said. Certainly the overuse of film tropes was something that hindered the sense of drama in the script. However, in terms of pure interaction, whenever the game wrestled control away from me in the midst of action to show off a very brief dramatic cut scene (as done many times in the opening scene), I found it thrilling - and fresh. That kind of action can only be done in games.

    And I think that's where some of this argument comes unstuck. I don't think that, just because games can deliver non-linear storytelling. something as linear as Uncharted 2 should be rejected. Yes, sometimes it does enforce its linearity with little grace, but there is still scope for creativity within most of the approach - the stealth level, for example, can be done more than one way, even if it's not up to Metal Gear Solid standards and demands you don't it wrongly. Also, on a more basic level, I loved being able to take the time to just look at my environment in this game, something I wouldn't be able to do in a film. Maybe Naughty Dog should've sought to not translate film design so purely into game design, but touches based on intearaction - like jumping into the pool on the roof or attempting to grapple Flynn at the game's end - could only be done in video games. And those moments made the game brilliant for me.

  2. Scott, Borut Pfeifer recently posted on this same topic, and it's well worth a look.

  3. To some degree, I think your comments about the gameplay in Uncharted 2 is true. There were a handful of times where the ruthlessly scripted sequences were almost more frustrating than thrilling, since I had to replay a sequence over and over again until I did it "correctly" (such as the museum segment in the beginning).

    However I disagree entirely that Uncharted 2 was created for the wrong medium, and I believe the game's opening line explains why ("I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed").

    I think that the interactivity and self-directed experience of a game enhances the explicitly stated theme of Uncharted 2. Nate Drake witnesses a number of absolutely wondrous sights, and those sights are all the more impressive in a video game because it is actually the player who experiences them in real time.

    There are a number of sequences in the game that aren't really "gameplay" sequences per se, but aren't cut scenes either, where you trek leisurely through some scenic locale and make some easy jumps or climb an easy wall. None of these sections are difficult in the least, and you may ask why the designers didn't just present them as a cutscene and get to the action.

    I think those scenes are there because, again, the game is trying to reinforce this sense of wondrous exploration, and you don't get that sense of exploration in film.

  4. Hi Sinan, thanks for visiting!

    You make a good argument about the often-overlooked level of dynamic space within linear games. I also enjoyed the little optional moments of the game (like the pool scene and the little quips about the village). If anything, I wish there were more of these; for me, the game seemed to be rushing me from one epic set piece to the next when I actually just wanted to explore the world for a bit.

    I didn't even know about the Flynn grappling thing! What happens?


    Thanks for directing me towards that post; I keep trying to comment on it without launching into a rant. ;-)


    Thanks for stopping by. A recent Beeps and Boops post actually inspired this week's podcast, so thanks in advance!

    Like both you and Sinan point out, the possibility of interacting with worlds that we usually only get to passively watch is one of the medium's inherant strengths.

    That being said, I'm torn about the way Uncharted handled the relationship between its visuals and its gameplay variety.

    In one sense, everything went by too fast: one minute I'm on a train, the next I'm on a cliff, the next I'm in a huge, ornate temple without ever getting a chance to slow down and explore.

    In another sense, I found myself growing very anxious for the game to end because the platforming and (to a lesser extent) the combat, remains relatively static throughout the game. Once you learn how to climb and jump on ledges, it is nearly impossible to fall and there is relatively little danger of making a mistake (the game sees to this purposefully). I felt that everything I interacted with felt too similar.

    Of course, I feel a bit silly about making the saying that I was both overstimulated and bored, and if (when) they make another Uncharted, I'll definitely be playing it.

  5. "In another sense, I found myself growing very anxious for the game to end because the platforming and (to a lesser extent) the combat, remains relatively static throughout the game..."

    I can agree with this. While I felt that the game did a good job of increasing the difficulty of firefights and climbing/puzzles as the game progressed, there was a sense that the game was winding down long before it actually did. Or rather, I wanted it to start winding down long before it did.

    The game benefits much more from the impressive visual design and set pieces than it does from a smooth graduation of game mechanics, and as such there is the occasional sense of "okay, here's another awesome vista, but let's move on."

    you're right that it's kind of weird to talk about because I don't want to say it's a bad game. It's clearly a tremendous achievement and I knocked it out in a few nights. But there are problems with it.

    and I'll be sure to stop back for the podcast :)

  6. I agree with your observations, especially that Uncharted 2 often forces the player into a single scripted solution, in often very unfriendly manners. This is a trait of many other games too, especially adventure games, but with varying levels of frustration.

    But I'd like to say something about you saying that Uncharted 2 chose the wrong *medium*: I don't really like it put like that, because it would lose a lot of...well, the commenters above expressed it better. There are plenty of other ways to cut a lot of a player's frustration from being shoehorned: you gave one with Metal Gear Solid's alert/cool-down system, which would be much more immersive, flowing, and friendly.

    It comes down to not forcing the player through one solution—instead, I believe that games should *almost always* offer many solutions to their problems. Sorry, actually that's not completely true; I mean that games should offer responses to as many player answers to its problems as possible. This has nothing to do with linear vs. dynamic story. It does has to do with not turning the game into a frustrating movie.

    Surely there are such ways of improving Uncharted 2, without resorting to changing the medium entirely. If Uncharted 2 was a movie, it would probably be yet another American summer action movie. No, as a video game, it can and should be much more unique. As a game, Uncharted 2 is not a lost cause. We just need to think of better ways than restarting the whole level.

  7. @ Joshua

    Thanks for stopping by, and for offering such an optimistic take.

    As you astutely imply, had Uncharted been a summer movie, I probably wouldn't have experienced it at all. Netflix at best. ;-)

    While Uncharted 2 wasn't my favorite game, I'll definitely be playing the inevitable Uncharted 3, which may speak more loudly than my criticism of the game.

  8. Re: the grappling Flynn thing: It's in that final cave before Shangri-la, with the symbols on wheels puzzle. If you attempt to attack Flynn there, it will trigger a mini cut scene where Flynn throws you back to the ground, saying something like "No chance, sunshine! One more time and you're dead". Surprised me as most games just let you punch thin air when it comes to an unattackable onject.

  9. Many of my favorite games are linear, but within their confines they give me room to express myself; linearity isn't the issue, it's flexibility.
    I appreciated the example after the train wreck. Similarly, I tried to use stealth to dispatch all of the enemies undetected, but when I did so I was punished by the game inexplicably calling armed reinforcements on me! I don't mind giving most of the control of the pacing and narrative direction to the developers (if it's as well done as in Uncharted), but I think Naughty Dog crossed the line into back-seat driver territory.

  10. I haven't seen Avatar, but it's nice to know there's someone out there who shares my view on Uncharted 2. It's the title that this medium will seek to imitate for years to come and that's potentially very worrying because it's not really a great video game - rather a slightly above average Hollywood film interspersed by slightly above average linear third person action sequences. Obviously its art direction is refreshingly colourful for that form, but there's no dynamism or anything innovative about it.

    There's a horrible disconnect in there somewhere. It's not even ludo-narrative dissonance, it's just dissonance. The cut scenes were well written and performed, but they're still cut scenes. Half the time we are just spectating Drake do awesome stuff anyway, and when we are trusted to take control it feels like we're just there to plug the gaps in an Indiana Jones story where nothing of much consequence actually happens. We participate to a degree in the linear journey to this plot point or action sequence, but rarely get our hands on it when whatever it was we were traveling to actually happens.

    You mentioned the scene where Drake is injured. Your control over him is limited by this because he himself is limited by it, and that's the sort of thing these linear games should be trying. Achieve something through interaction other than shooting a guy in the head. However, immediately afterwards, he proceeds to get shot to shit and is seemingly unscathed. Same goes for arguably the more egregious example of this in the street-level escort sequence with that cameraman who has just been shot in the gut. Gameplay conventions clash horribly with attempted narrative conceits borrowed from film, and that made me far less likely to give a shit about any of the characters at all.

    The production values are praiseworthy, yes, but I fear it's the unprecedented presentation alone that has secured its high regard.

    Ninety-nine per cent of the time I prefer single player games, but Uncharted 2's multiplayer was actually more impressive than the single player. If you're not going to allow for any emergent narrative construction and force everything down the player's throat, at least allow for some dynamic action. What the multiplayer proves is that on a systems level the moment to moment combat has a lot of potential for this, but it's not employed properly at all in the solo adventure.

  11. @ Fraser

    I'm really surprised you mentioend the cut scenes being more awesome than things Drake himself can do. There are countless moments where I was actually able to interact with the world in a way past games have not provided. The truck sequence, the collapsing building, the shooting while riding a broken wall, some of the train sequences, they all captured the aesthetic appeal of cut scenes while still making me feel like an empowered and active participant.

  12. It certainly did that to an extent, but it didn't go far enough. I'd almost rather that it never gave the player control when falling or climbing from a cinematic angle than some of the time, because often they're not integrated into the game's systems. The collapsing platform bit was very impressive, but there were many other times that Drake did a move that the player could easily have made, though perhaps I exaggerated slightly in my post.

    Oh, and the sporadic QTE prompts bugged me too.

  13. @Justin

    Thanks for stopping by! I think "flexibility" is a great term for what we're talking about here.

    Like you, I don't care if the beginning and end points of an encounter are standardized, I just like some leeway in terms of the path I take through a gameplay zone.


    It sounds like you and I are definitely on the same wavelength when it comes to Uncharted 2. Like you, I'm a bit worried about what kind of message the game's success sends to the industry, but I guess we'll have to wait and see what the future holds.

    I'm glad you brought up the multiplayer: I never got a chance to play it, but the way you describe it makes perfect sense. Battling against enemies that have all the skills Drake has and all the techniques other humans have would make the game feel very different.


    I think you and Fraser (and me, for that matter) have a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing "interacting" with a world.

    May be so bold as to suggest that when you say "There are countless moments where I was actually able to interact with the world in a way past games have not provided" you actually mean "There are countless moments where [it looked like] I was actually able to interact with the world in a way past games have not provided."

    The jeep sequence had the same underlying dynamic as Frogger or Mario. The collapsing building has also been done in games like God of War and Mario. The sliding wall sequence was basically a light-gun mini-game.

    The difference that Uncharted 2 brings is a level of graphical fidelity and aesthetic style that evokes a novel ambiance. I would argue that the mechanics and dynamics of these scenes aren't original, but their presentation is.

  14. Fascinating.

    I loved Uncharted 2 as a one off experience, but couldn't help but feel like it was the presentation that garnered the rave reviews, and not so much the gameplay, good though it is. The combat felt like a fairly competent copy of Gears of War's mechanics - although not nearly as dynamic in its execution - whilst the puzzle/climbing sections felt Tomb Raider lite. But the overall almagamation was very satisfying. It did strike me that one of the reasons the game was able to present you with such lush and detailed environments was because outside of the quasi-on-rails sections (like the train sequence) the gameplay areas were very small concentrated corridors or medium, sized rooms/squares/caverns, enabling an incredible level of detail and texture resolutions that more large scale, ambitious environments would make unfeasable. Your points about linearity are spot on, and it is easily the most linear game I've played in a long time. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but I would share the same concerns that you do, in that if other devs strive to re-produce Uncharted's critical success it could lead to more narrative lead pull-alongs as opposed to the more open types of narrative have set this generation of gaming apart from its elder relatives. I would not want to play another game that channels you into its narrative as heavily as Uncharted 2 does for a while yet. I also find it funny that games like Darksiders are pointed out (although in a positive light in this instance) for being derivative, and yet Uncharted 2 is hardly picked up on for its quite obvious ambitions of being the PS3's casual answer to Gears of War. I don't wish to sound churlish, for U2 is an incredible experience, but I found this blog very refreshing for pointing out that which I felt about the game in that it's overall quite an average game, dressed up in a very fancy suit.

  15. @Hoody

    First of all, thanks for stopping by. Secondly, thanks for reminding me to use the word "churlish" more often.

    Like you, I found Uncharted 2 to be impressive, but I'm surprised as to how much praise it has garnered.

    It seems that everything Uncharted 2 does has been done before, the difference being that Uncharted presents it in a graphically spectacular fashion.

    It makes me wonder about the inevitable Uncharted 3. I'll probably end up playing it, but where can the series go from here? Will they ever change the game's dynamics or will the series always be primarily concerned with presentation?

    Your comparison to Gears of War makes me long for a world in which people were crazy enough to make a Gears vs. Uncharted game, à la Capcom vs. SNK.