In one of my more up-to-date spells of gaming, I’ve just finished Uncharted: Golden Abyss (2011) on the PS Vita. My first impressions were that it seemed to ride along with the general high standard of AAAs these days (those days, I guess), without doing much to stand out.
But as I got into it, something started to irritate me: I was somehow made to feel like I was watching the story, not participating in it. As the game went on, this impression grew stronger, until I was so convinced that I was a spectator and not a participant that it somehow really captivated me. After all, watching stories is still fun. It was like going to the cinema but also playing a game.
That sounds impossible
It certainly sounds like quite a trick to pull off. How can you enjoy active play simultaneously with passive viewing? There are a few things Uncharted did to achieve it, and they all boil down to the role of the player in the game, and how that role is represented. Although some of these things sound like they would be bad for a game, the general result is really compelling, so hear me out.
All characters created equal
The first thing that felt new and unusual was the quality of the characters. The voice acting, animation, and writing are all a cut above anything similar I’ve played before. (I haven’t played any other Uncharteds.) The surprising impact of this is that the player character, Drake, loses the typical distinction of being much better drawn than any others. I was as interested in Dante — who follows just the same route, performs just the same actions, and speaks just as many lines — as I was in Drake. The pattern continues with other NPCs later in the game.
On top of that, this not being an FPS, Drake is not privileged as the eyes of the player, and in fact the camera keeps Dante in shot as well as Drake during most of the starting sequence. The normal presentational privileges and priorities of the player character are minimised, and the typical deficiencies in realising the other characters are avoided. I assumed, as usual, that Drake was there just for me to be him, but he’s far from the blank canvas of a Link or a Gordan Freeman, and he seems to be his own personality, not a mere conduit for mine.
Ignoring the player
When the game needs to dish out some instructions, it does it very discreetly. For example, when Drake is exploring with Chase, they exchange instructions back and forth, never to the player directly, and, crucially, never only to Drake, as a proxy for the player.
I define a player character as an entity portrayed in a game that appears to act in correlation to the actions of the player and manifests the powers of the player in the game world. If we consider the very narrow player action of learning what to do, there is no single entity in the world that manifests that action. Some of the player’s learning is being done by Drake, but some of it is being done by Chase, and they swap back and forth in the same scene. As a result, you are represented by Drake with a little less similitude, and feel less connected to him. You’re doing something in the game world, but no character is doing it. You’re engaged in the game, but also disconnected from the agents portrayed in its world.
On the one hand, this is really smooth: since the player is never addressed, the fourth wall isn’t crossed. On the other hand, though, it’s kind of exclusionary. Although you’re learning from Drake and Chase’s conversation, you’re not participating in it. You can’t even pick a side and say “That one’s me,” and pretend to be either the know-it-all mentor or the attentive apprentice.
The well-drawn characters come into play again here, making it easy to feel like you’re eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation. You’re not speaking or being spoken to, you’re just watching in. It’s a fantastic achievement: a polished game world which avoids succumbing to gamey nonsense. The odd and surprising side effect is that it’s more distancing as a result.
And how bizarre, in the face of that subtle execution, to then see such a blunt explanation as this:
Explicit change of player character
The one part of the game in which Drake is the most precise and specific embodiment of the player’s actions is the shooting. You aim with the motion of the Vita and fire with a trigger, matching Drake’s presented actions extremely closely. However, even that opportunity for your identification with Drake is raided by the other characters when your control switches to the otherwise unplayable Sully to launch grenades from a canoe.
The most intimate and concrete association between you and Drake is shown to be mutable and unspecial. Furthermore, during that sequence, Drake is present and carries on with the actions previously managed by the player. You’re not Drake — not always, not necessarily — and you’re not required for him to do what he does.
Your actions are not Drake’s
Another moment of oneness with Drake is interrupted in the next canoeing scene. You begin paddling with sweeps of the touch screen. The action is fairly abstracted from what Drake is actually doing, but the rhythm and repetition of it are the same. You repeat your action; Drake repeats his in time with you. The movement is not mapped precisely — neither speed nor direction matter — it is only the repetition that ties you into Drake’s situation.
However, when the canoe turns past a certain point — a turn not controlled by you — your swipe on the screen changes from top-to-bottom to right-to-left. Drake doesn’t change. He didn’t suddenly spin 90° clockwise. He crossed an invisible line, but otherwise kept on doing what he was doing.
But you’re action is changed. Another reminder: you are not Drake. You are not in that world; you’re just watching.
Total abstraction of player actions
That last point goes one step further in the climactic fight scenes. A sequence plays out in which Drake fist-fights a bad guy. As that goes on, prompts appear on screen for you to swipe your finger in a certain way.
These prompts occasionally match to the onscreen action, as if you’re actually dragging Drake’s fist around with your finger. However, the animations are so fantastically varied, and the inputs so simplistic that your swipes soon become totally abstracted from the action. So much so that you get to situations where your swipes appear to be activating the enemy’s actions.
It’s hard to imagine that this effect is deliberate, but it’s powerful. The story is playing out, and your inputs keep it going, but you’re not controlling anyone or anything in the world, you’re just sweeping it all along in some detached and indifferent way, equally spurring on both the hero and the villain, the winner and the loser.
An extra clue that this is all accidental is that the action on screen is so removed from the required inputs that it’s far easier to play these sequences (and avoid repeating them from the beginning Every. Single. Time.) if you just ignore what’s happening in the story altogether. If you watch the arrows and nothing else then you’ll succeed without any trouble; if you don’t, you’ll be punished. Now the disconnect between player and game’s gone a step too far.
Possibly a fluke, but an enjoyable fluke
Overall, then, I was driven to feel detached from Drake, and from all the characters and the whole world for that matter. They were going to live out their little story together regardless of what I thought about the matter. However, I was allowed to see all the little details of it, and also to drive it forward with my actions — I just couldn’t really choose the direction. I felt detached, but not distant.
I was watching, and sort of playing at watching, and so strong was the filmic appeal of the whole affair that I could even stomach the naff Hollywood-style smoochy ending. It all worked together, just about, and was fun.
I feel like I’m giving Bend Studio a little more credit than they deserve — some of this stuff clearly wasn’t deliberate, and some of it was just tacking on touch controls as a Vita launch game, I’m sure — but that doesn’t detract from the overall success of the experience, whether accidental or by design.
Uncharted shows that although a player character is a natural point for identification in a game, the player role needn’t focus on a single entity — the player needn’t have a place in the world — to enjoy interacting with the story.