Dealing with Dissonance in the Uncharted series

As Naughty Dog changes and evolves as a game developer, will their beloved franchise evolve with them?

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Originally published on September 9.


How many people has our wise-crackin’ hero Nathan Drake gunned down? How many necks has he swiftly snapped with his vice-like arms, or pulled off ledges to their rag-dolled doom? I’m sure it’s in the high hundreds, if not thousands. It’s monstrous how many folks Drake’s killed, even under the banner of self-defense — they probably had families, right?

All of this is an ongoing joke at this point for the Uncharted series, but with the release of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and August’s Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, it’s become a genuine issue that clashes with the maturing and increasingly realistic tone of the series. Uncharted has leaned further and further away from its ‘videogamey’ roots since the first sequel, edging closer to film – to the ‘cinematic experience’ – over the years.

With U4 and TLL, Naughty Dog’s finally reaching their cinematic ambitions and melding the formats together how they wanted. But the now-hyper-realistic visuals impact the gameplay, or at least the perception of the gameplay, more than anyone expected.

How will Uncharted change? Will it? Does it have to at all?

With Naughty Dog finally (or at least very close to) capturing their filmic inspirations, what could this mean for the wider medium as other developers approach the same apex?

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Dropping the ‘videogamey’

For those unfamiliar, the Uncharted series is an PlayStation action-adventure series that follows Nathan Drake and co. as they hunt for ancient treasure around the world. Climbing across forgotten pockets of the world and ruins of lost civilisations, shooting it out against the armies of other treasure hunters who are more than fine with using force and destruction to get their way, to uncover vast, hidden treasures of ludicrous scope (more than once, even). Developed by Naughty Dog, who also created the Crash Bandicoot and Jak series, it’s a modern Indiana Jones that wears its inspiration on its sleeve, just with more climbing and shooting to be an actual videogame.

Over the years, each game has shed the less believable aspects – especially the supernatural – to suit the upgrading visuals and mechanics. The series became more grounded over time, leading to the still-impossible-but-relatively-believable plots of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy – a hidden pirate colony and a forgotten ancient Indian city, respectively.

With U4, however, the series shifted much further into the dramatic and ‘real’ than it had in any previous title.

Uncharted 4’s shift towards realism likely stems from U4’s highly covered change in directors – from Amy Hennig, creative director of the series so far, to Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, following their work on their massively acclaimed The Last Of Us.

While the leap in visuals also play a part, TLOU and U4 are very different beasts compared to Naughty Dog’s previous games – together, they represent a new era for the studio.

They outline their updated focus on cinematic storytelling and character drama, and their confidence in developing games with an overtly artistic vision. They show a studio that’s less willing to cave to expectations of a certain amount of blockbuster-y action per minute.

However, the success and acclaim of TLOU and U4 also makes a lot of sense in today’s market. As television dramas become a bigger part of the average person’s life, of the media they consume day-to-day, it makes sense that the average person would be drawn to games with similar storytelling and tone. It makes sense that game developers like Naughty Dog would write and style their games after them, as much inspired by them as cinematic long-form than they are just following market trends.

Either way, their focus on the cinematic or dramatic experience has gradually changed how Uncharted plays.

As the series’ presentation became more realistic and believable, and as Naughty Dog continued to emphasise the cinematic over the typically ‘videogamey’, Uncharted’s shooting-heavy gameplay has been reined back to suit an increasingly grounded atmosphere and tone. Stealth has had an increasing emphasis since the second title, and Uncharted 4 added open areas to match the more flexible gameplay. The Lost Legacy’s semi-open world even let players avoid and skip entire encounters. U4’s focus on storytelling left whole sections of the game without any gunplay at all, instead focusing on exploration and platforming.

All the bombastic action is still there, about as much as you expect from an Uncharted title, but there’s been a shift from mostly-all-out-action to a quieter, strategic element in the gameplay itself. As the games became more realistic aesthetically, the depiction of violence changed, too. Now there’s a growing dichotomy at the heart of the series: the violent and ‘videogamey’ versus the dramatic and realistic.

As fidelity improves, this clash will only become more obvious. It could even become genuinely uncomfortable, though I’d argue we’re already there (at least a little bit); there’s a brutality to the gameplay in Uncharted – swift, sudden, lethal – that stands out more with each release. Watching Nate brutally and instantly snap someone’s neck with his bare hands (arms?) can be a little shocking after the stretches of witty dialogue and story throughout U4.

This has always been the case, to some extent. Almost all videogames set in the real world have this dissonance, that conflict between its tone and the gameplay. But as the series evolved with Naughty Dog’s focus on creating film-like experiences, these moments of sudden violence, which were ‘videogamey’ and distinctly virtual before and easy to dismiss, can now be shocking and almost disturbing in their realism.

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Selling you a fantasy

In essence, the Uncharted series plays a lot like the narrative-heavy releases from Telltale Games. They’re just more mechanically active; the player is ‘doing’ more, moment to moment.

Like Telltale, Naughty Dog is selling you a fantasy, and in Uncharted’s case, they’re selling you the fantasy of an action-adventure blockbuster, one where you’re ‘in control’. It’s an unchanging roller-coaster with a deliberate path, without a wheel, but it’s your hands on the accelerator. The gameplay serves an overarching illusion.

Now the gameplay clashes with that fantasy.

Before, the pseudo-realistic visuals of the Uncharted games, including its animation and motion-capture tech, let them straddle the line between its gameplay and tone. Gameplay was action-heavy, the dialogue and tone was light-hearted and breezy, and the visuals emphasised this with saturated colours and technology that was, due to limitations from almost a decade ago, difficult to view through a lens of reality. The games looked great for the time, but they still retained a ‘videogamey’ look. By today’s standards, the games have flat and unnatural lighting, heavy aliasing (this stuff), and character models that are still a ways away from photorealistic – they don’t look ‘real’ enough.

Today, the visuals of U4 and TLL have leapt far past this earlier benchmark into the realm of genuine realism. While their light-heartedness and bright colour palette still manage to tap into the blockbuster fantasy the games aim for, the upgrade in technology and animation quality bridges the gap between the games and their cinematic aspirations. They delve into our perception of the real-world.

We watch full scenes directed and edited together cinematically, now with extremely detailed and believable models and performances – not quite photorealistic, but close. They talk to each other naturally, bounce thoughts and ideas off each other. While there’s a few hiccups due to the nature of the medium – swinging on ropes always looks at least a little janky – the animations are natural and human-like. At times, they evoke film or TV dramas more than they do videogames. They place our experience, and our role as the player, further into the realm of typically more serious, reserved mediums.

Then we control and watch our characters violently gun down droves of grunts, spouting light-hearted witticisms at their expense.

It’s a dissonance and conflict that’s always been there; now it’s just harder to avoid. While the games mature in their tone and technology simultaneously, the latter seemingly informing the former, the gameplay can’t seem to match up.

The Uncharted series sells the fantasy of a modern Indiana Jones-esque action-adventure, rollicking across the planet in search of whatever-ancient-treasure-whatever. There’s exploration, chases, gunfights, brawls, comedy – all the stuff you want. But as technology lets Naughty Dog fully emulate their cinematic inspirations, the usual balance of violent gameplay to light-hearted adventure is torn apart into a chasm of difference. The violence becomes disconcerting at times, and it becomes harder (though not impossible) to equate the actions and personalities of these characters.

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Just more realistically

Video-games have been emulating film as long as they’ve been able to, but the difference in action is understandably massive. They’re long-form storytelling (if they tell a story at all) that need or rely on interactivity to move their stories along. Especially the larger franchises rely on action the same way superhero flicks do: it’s what people want and expect; they want to shoot, slash or both.

But if Uncharted is the equivalent to a major blockbuster franchise, do we see every other action star murder hundreds of people across the movie? If Indiana Jones is Nathan Drake’s most immediate parallel, how many Nazis or whatever did he kill? Was it at all similar?

As the visuals improve, this gap between videogame and film will narrow. Players’ expectations of games will naturally lean towards and merge with how we watch and view film and television.  This will change how the typical player views gameplay and their own interaction.

The shift won’t be dramatic, though it is inevitable due to how film-like most larger video-game franchises are. When they all aim for a film-like presentation, or to at least be reminiscent of the films that most influence pop culture, it’s just a matter of time before they properly overlap for audiences. How will game developers respond? Will they?

It’s an interesting issue to me personally, but I’ll admit it’s pretty innocuous: Uncharted is still very, very successful, and so are the rest of the big-budget series, so why would they change?

Frankly, it doesn’t need to change and it probably won’t, but Uncharted highlights an issue that will grow over this generation and the next: as games become more realistic in their visuals and subsequently in their tone, how will they deal with their depiction of violence, or of any subject? Not in the ‘protecting children’ way or anything necessarily (though that issue will likely come up again, in some form), but to maintain the ‘fantasy’ each game franchise is dedicated to. The darker and bloodier stuff – military shooters, horror games – will do fine, being the genres best suited to this gradual change – but what about the rest?

Uncharted, as an example, has largely remained the same. It’s added stealth and open-areas, with different gameplay to fit different scenarios. The tone has matured alongside the visuals, now a little more grounded and serious, but you’re still killing as many people as ever – just more realistically.

It’s likely that most games won’t change – or, rather, they’ll change as much as the Uncharted series has. Games with realistic visuals will become grounded and serious to match, with little change to the gameplay itself. Which is fine. In fact, it’s hard to imagine many people having an issue with it, and most modern franchises lean towards the grim n’ gritty already anyway; it’s just interesting to speculate.

With the potential for genuinely realistic visuals, will anything change? Could this shift, however gradual, determine the next market leaders? Will future players reject new and old series on this basis? Will there be games designed with this issue in mind?

It will be a subtle turning point in gaming, but fascinating to watch unfold.

John Reeves writes about gaming and some other stuff sometimes. Follow him at his blog, TwitterMedium and Tumblr.

All images attributed to Naughty Dog, Sony Interactive Entertainment.

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