Uncharted 4 and AAA Game Structure

Do AAA games need more trust in their audience, or have my tastes changed to something games can’t truly satisfy?

Uncharted 4 is not a bad game, let me stress this upfront.  Just over a fortnight ago, I finally got to sit down and blitz through the campaign in the final instalment of a series that I have always enjoyed significantly over the years, and I often really enjoyed it, too!  I thought that the deliberately smaller-scale more-introspective story, with directors Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley clearly having taken a lot from their time on The Last of Us, was far better written than prior entries, including being narratively and thematically coherent for once!  The cast were all still lovable and excellently performed, the art design was impeccable, the setpieces exciting yet not overdosed on, and the opening and closing 90 minutes were pretty much the crown jewels of Naughty Dog’s mission statement with the Uncharted series from the outset: to create a videogame version of a Hollywood movie.

Those who have played Uncharted 4, however, will likely have noticed that the specific 90 minute stretches that I’ve highlighted as being the game’s best involved relatively little-to-no combat sequences, whilst even those who haven’t or are yet to play Uncharted 4 (and you don’t need to panic about reading this if that applies to you because there will be no spoilers in this article) may have noticed a lack of praise for the gameplay in general in that previous paragraph.  It’s not because the gameplay is bad, not in the slightest – it’s fast when in the open to create a desperate underdog feel, scrappy but not overly so, and additions such as marking enemies and placing an even greater emphasis on stealth than in previous games demonstrates a better attempt at pacing, in order to make those setpieces really pop – it’s just that I started to really resent their presence as the game rode on.

Specifically, the combat.  Platforming is good as always, puzzles are fine if still carrying an air of rudimentary to their appearances, and driving is passable but hampered by often unfocussed level design and doesn’t show up enough anyway.  But the combat I grew to resent the deeper into the game I journeyed.  Again, technically, the combat is fine, perhaps a little too bullet-spongey but it’s at least an improvement on past Uncharteds.  But in terms of how the combat breaks the pacing and the narrative that the rest of Uncharted 4 works so hard to cultivate, its ceaseless ritual appearance roughly every 10 minutes without fail eventually left me in a frequent state of mild annoyance that was taking away from the parts of the game that I was enjoying.

This is not a rant about ludonarrative dissonance, don’t worry, although that is a problem.  Especially in the late game where the Drakes venturing into a very well-hidden lost city that’s three-quarters cliff and chasm, requiring very exact platforming to get sufficiently deep into, is still, somehow, crawling with at least 20 heavily-armed PMC soldiers who managed to get there before the Drakes did – and also, Naughty Dog, calling a trophy for murdering 1000 enemies “Ludonarrative Dissonance” is not cute and does not excuse you from this practice.  Really, my problem is that their clockwork appearances not only subtract from the attempts at a more introspective narrative, they also feel like the developers don’t have enough faith in their prospective audience to stick with the game and story they are trying to tell without having to constantly interrupt them with another motley crew of goons who conspicuously triple in number the second your attempts at stealth go to hell.

It really is no coincidence that my favourite stretches of the game, the ones that I really enjoyed, occasionally tipping over into outright loving, are the opening and closing chapters (Prologue to 5, and 20 to Epilogue), which are effectively just elongated cutscenes with some setpieces and light traversal thrown in.  They display the audience trust that much of the game’s other segments lack.  Now, these of course have the excuses of being the opening and denouement of the story, so they don’t have to force-feed in combat scenarios because nobody expects them to have any, but this also proves my point, in a roundabout way.  If players expect the intensity to be ramped up as the game progresses, then there are other ways of doing so that don’t involve the game grinding to a halt every 10 to 15 minutes for almost as long to deal with yet another squadron of goons.  (Similarly: forcing another lengthy platforming path or box-finding/pushing/waiting sequence just because [x amount of minutes] have passed without one, although these irritated me less than the combat.)

The Last of Us, still Naughty Dog’s masterpiece in terms of reconciling narrative and gameplay on a coherent thematic level, was also susceptible to this, and too annoyed me around the midpoint of “Summer,” but unlike Uncharted this constant cycle of violence was built into the game’s very thematic core – constant violence, sadism, and how the two can be misinterpreted as “survival” by those who choose to surrender themselves to both after enough exposure.  Hence, whilst still not stopping it from being egregious at times, why I did not greet every appearance of a designated combat arena filled with conveniently-placed boxes and tall fields of grass with an exasperated sigh in that game, but frequently did in Uncharted.  It’s like listening to a cool Pop song only for, every 30 seconds, a minute-long Heavy Metal guitar solo to come blaring through the speakers.  The first few times, it’s a cool novelty.  The fifth to seventh times, it’s starting to irritate you.  Then by the twelfth time, you’re unsure of if the song is ever going to end and why exactly there needs to be yet another 16 bars of triplets right in the middle of the pre-Chorus Bridge.

To me, there’s a sense of obligation to these combat arenas, which differ from the setpieces as those carry the appropriate sense of payoff and timing that the arenas lack.  But, then again, am I merely just projecting my own feelings onto Naughty Dog and Uncharted 4 for them not doing and not being the game that I specifically wanted?  Other than a minor sense of padding, there’s nothing technically wrong with any of the game’s combat sequences, and Naughty Dog must clearly be happy enough with them, since there’s an option to go back and replay your favourite ones isolated from the rest of the campaign.  If one wants Uncharted 4 the way it is, and I know that there are a lot of people who want it like it is with its constant cycle of “quiet bit (platforming/puzzle/story):loud bit (combat/setpiece),” then there really is nothing particularly wrong with it, and maybe I’m just projecting or demanding that it cater to my whim rather than critically engaging it on its terms.

As a similar example, a while back, I finally stormed through United Front Games’ (R.I.P.) 2012 semi-cult classic Sleeping Dogs, and found myself similarly fighting against what the game was providing me with vs. what I personally wanted from it.  The gameplay was fantastic – it really is the best playing Sandbox Action-Adventure game yet made, everything moves and flows like an absolute dream – and the story was quite engaging even if I never fully settled into Wei Shen’s acting.  But the two never coalesced with one another for me, which I put down to the decision to make the game, well, a Sandbox Action-Adventure.  The urgency, focus, and immersion of the story that I could occasionally properly get kept being lost through the between-mission busywork of driving to the next one, or hunting down collectables, or slogging through any number of side-missions and secondary tasks.

Of course, yeah, I didn’t have to do anything other than drive between missions, but, aside from the fact that the game very much seems to resent you for not doing the side stuff since it showers you in much needed XP and health upgrades for partaking, even the act of driving around messes with the pacing.  The breaks between missions create less of a feeling of decompression and allowing the world to feel more alive, and instead more one of a constant stop/start – this is where the series True Crime roots should have taken over and lifted wholesale that game’s semi-Sandbox structure, but that’s a whole other article for another time – that keeps killing the momentum.  And this is all before we get to the game’s second half, where whole chunks of story seem to have been skipped over but we’re expected to not notice because we’re supposed to have spent so long dicking around in the Sandbox as to forget or not care about the specifics of narrative progression.  But I’ve talked with many of my online friends about this and none of them share my complaints.

Maybe my desires when it comes to videogames have just shifted irrevocably as time has gone on, and that said shifts have now moved me further out of the AAA mainstream gaming sphere.  Nowadays, my gaming time is mostly taken up by Rock Band 4 or slowly working through something like Table Top Racing: World Tour (not a half bad game surprisingly) or DOOM, which are mostly pure gameplay, dedicated to doing one thing exceedingly well in a way that acts as a nice escaping comfort food for my frequently fragile mental state.  If I get the time to sink into something a bit deeper, I’ll mainly go for your story-heavy Adventure games/Interactive Experiences like Tales From the Borderlands or Life is Strange – the latter of which almost tanked its final episode by tripling down on a pace-sapping set of gameplay sequences, not a coincidence – which provide me with the sorts of focussed narrative experiences that something like Uncharted or Sleeping Dogs just can’t.  This may be why I’ve gravitated more towards the campaigns of games like Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Mortal Kombat X as of late for that middle-ground: focussed narratives with gameplay that complements them and lengths that understand pacing and therefore don’t outstay their welcome.

There’s no larger point to this article, if you’re expecting one.  I’m not about to sit here and demand that all AAA developers cater exclusively to my very specific and minority tastes when it comes to gameplay structure and narrative.  Plus, games like Uncharted 4 are excellent examples of what they do for the kinds of people who want what they are selling, albeit not at all flawless – Naughty Dog, what was the point of dialogue trees if they didn’t do anything and only came up maybe thrice in the whole game?  Instead, this is more just a self-indulgent observation of how my tastes may have shifted as I’ve grown older and my passions (and available amounts free time) have changed.  It’s why I’m still incredibly hesitant to pick up something like Persona 5, which I so very much want to experience by hand, because I like Atlus stories, but also don’t want to have watch the timer creep up to 100 hours because of endless amounts of patience-sapping combat gameplay getting in the way.  And since I still haven’t gravitated towards Let’s Plays like the rest of the universe, because my Anxiety-riddled brain does not like it when I spend hours of my life on something without having tangible progress made by myself to show for it, I fear that limits my options in terms of games going forward.

At least I made this realisation before wasting money buying Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection.  So, y’know, silver linings and all that.

Callum Petch’s feet are surest on new ground.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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