Uncharted 3 captivates with its characters, story and action. Building on strong foundations, for me, this is the pinnacle of how far videogames have come. But, for all its wonderful achievements it still has a long way to go before matching the maturity and self-assuredness found in film, books and even board games.
Quite a claim, I know, but it’s based on a simple premise: Uncharted would be more engaging, convincing and exciting if it depended more on game-play and less on cut-scenes for emotion. The jarring back and forth of action and cinematics is an understandable approach, but will one day seem unnecessary.
While it will be applauded for its almost cinematic aesthetics and filmic storytelling, I worry that for a new medium to define its progress by how close it is to something previous is actually a lack of confidence and maturity.
On first hearing, I know this sounds a little ludicrous. But just because videogame technology is developing fast doesn’t equate to adulthood. Like an unruly teenager fired up with a rush of hormones it may be some time before gaming really matures and learns to make the most of its individuality — not just its raw horsepower.
I grant you, in the short term it’s fine for games like Uncharted to surrender storytelling to cinematics, and it’s undeniable that Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception particularly impresses with dialogue and acting that are as touching as any film.
Uncharted feels assured because it knows these strengths and plays to them. It’s something that has developed with each iteration. The third game is a noticeable step forward, not just in terms of animation and realism, but in the way dialogue draws on relationships and events from the previous episodes.
However, when these cut-scenes end – often so seamlessly that I don’t realize I’m in control – there is a shift of engagement that happens. I’m jarred from a watcher to a player and my suspension of disbelief takes a battering. At times I’m even a little disappointed when the game-play starts again — almost preferring to watch rather than play Uncharted.
In the long term I think we’ll look back at and realize how far games still had to go before they really understood their own identity. It seems much more likely it will be games like Limbo, Flower and Journey (rather than the big budget blockbusters like LA Noire) that I think will stand the test of time.
They create a similarly emotionally charged experience but without resorting to movies or storytelling to capitalize on them. The player remains in control at all times, while the game constructs emotionally charged moments of engagement.
Some may say that these games don’t really tell stories, but that is actually my point. We have let storytelling and emotional engagement be defined by books, movies and theater so much so that videogame can only rehearse those old forms.
In fact games can engage us emotionally and tell stories in entirely new and exciting ways without reference to other media. There is just as much narrative and plot and drama in Flower as there is in Uncharted — but it is experienced in an entirely different way.
Shadow of the Colossus is another interesting example. It took a significant (and largely unnoticed) step forward in this regard. It still used cut-scenes to deliver emotional moments to the player, but it let the you control the camera throughout. This made the in-engine (another important aspect it shares with Uncharted) cut-scenes feel less like a movie and more like game-play.
Videogames create worlds that exist in a way that books and films are unable to. As I run, shoot and explore the world of Uncharted it creates a connection with me. It’s no longer a linear space I pass through at the behest of a director, but because I’m in control, it exists for me. The game-play lends a reality to the world of Uncharted that a film could never generate on its own.
It’s this that makes Uncharted 3 an exciting and emotional proposition. Because the world actually exists within the experience, so do the characters. We’ve run around together, climbed together, got shot at together and even died together in a way that doesn’t happen in a film.
But this is where Uncharted misses an opportunity to do something remarkable. Rather than capitalize on this world in the game-play, it is left to cut-scenes to cash in on all this good work. The irony is that the result is so compelling that it is hard to even imagine how it could be any different.
It’s not until videogames cut the apron strings to other media, and create new experiences that engage the emotions with game-play and interactions, that they will be taken seriously in the world at large. When games are able to capitalize on the emotional equity of their game-play without wrestling control from the player they will come of age. Until then the same mixed message and misunderstanding about what videogames are is likely to continue in mainstream culture.
This is a big part of the reason why I think that motion controlled game-play is actually more important than we realize. More than providing accessibility, it also connects us emotionally to the game in a new way. You see a lot fewer cut-scenes in Kinect, MotionPlus and Move games for this very reason.
This sounds like I’m down on games like Uncharted, but actually that couldn’t be further from the truth. Uncharted 3 will be one of the few experiences that I set aside evenings to play through from start to finish – and with a busy family life, that really only happens a handful of games a year.
The distinction I want to make is that while I’m excited about how far games have come, they still have an awful lot of maturing left to do. Like with my children I’m enthralled to hear what they have done today but also, I can’t wait for them to grow up and become what I know they can be — the reality of which will likely be as much as a surprise to me as it is to them.