Uncharted Series: The Gameplay Gets in the Way of the Story

Matthew Stewart writes about how the gameplay tends to get in the way of the story in the Uncharted games.

Editor’s note: This article was written prior to the release of Uncharted 3, but the criticism towards the first two games of the series can certainly be applied to the third game, which suffers from the exact same shortcomings—and then some. Don’t even get me started on the melee combat.

Let’s not mince words here: nearly anyone playing Uncharted 2 wasn’t in it for the shooting. People were captivated by the scenery, the characters, and the sense of adventure the game conveys. I’m confident I can make that statement, because I’m an uninformed dick who likes making blanket statements.

Despite all that, I couldn’t help but feel turned off by the game’s difficulty. The tank chase, and fighting the guardians in Shambala stick out as the two points in the game where I hulked out the most—my dozens of deaths were punctuated by enough yelled “fuck(s)!” to make milk curdle. The obstacles in the game can be like someone who knocks the book I’m engrossed with out of my hands. Maybe it’s clever once or twice, but after two or three dozen times, the joke has lost its luster. And you better believe I’d want to punch that rat bastard right in the nose, so I can get on with my goddamn story already.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played a ton of other games that were harder. Games where I’d be happy just to progress through a stage or two. Games like Ninja Gaiden, Quake 3, and World of Warcraft were so brutally challenging, losing a few dozen times was expected. Defeat was part of learning the game.

So why is it that when I run up against a roadblock in Uncharted 2, I throw up my hands in anger?

Well, in those three games, there’s no inherent interest in telling me a story. They’re all a series of challenges that are loosely tied together through some kind of underlying plot. If someone went back in time with the express purpose of removing any narrative from the NES version of Ninja Gaiden, I’m guessing no one would jump into the temporal rift in pursuit of that nefarious individual.

Now, consider the inverse: what would have happened if there were no story in Uncharted 2?

You probably realize the same thing I realized after squeezing the juices out of two or three stress balls – Uncharted 2 needs its story. So, I posit there’s a clear need to keep Uncharted 2 moving.

In my experience, I felt a need to see the story unfold. If I ran up against a boss that requires a sort of approach I wasn’t used to (as I had with those fucking Yetis), it’s about as pleasing as asking me to jam a fork in my eye.

The story is the raison d’etre for a game like Uncharted 2. Naughty Dog should have recognized their baby for what it was, and stop asking it to do calculus when it’s only impressive talent is creating beautiful paintings. I’m OK with an Uncharted game that isn’t blindly throwing me into a pit with an angry tank at the bottom, while I only have a couple of pointy sticks to defend myself (seriously, fuck that tank).

There’s no shame in making a game that’s a bit more forgiving, or at least have it do the gentlemanly thing and take me on a date before having its way with me. Though, Nathan was very charming.

On the other side of the coin, conquering a game that presents a true challenge is exhilarating. I can’t claim to have ever beaten Ninja Gaiden, so I don’t really know what that’s like. But there’s that unbelievable rush that comes from just progressing in a game, like coming in first in a Quake 3 deathmatch, or finally knocking off that raid boss you’ve been butting heads with for months.

The best part of it all is getting to tell someone that you did it. Conquering things in those kinds of games creates all the story you need. Having the chance to tell the tale of your glory back on Kronos is pretty awesome. Bringing honor to your house is pretty sweet, because when it’s all done, someone breaks out the best barrel of Bloodwine and then the bat’leths come out… wait, what?

Anyhow, when you’re playing something like Uncharted 2, you’re talking to people about the game’s story, not your own. You don’t really get to make one. The game already has one, and it’s pretty good. Just, you know, pay attention to it.

When you’re talking to your friends about the best match of Quake 3 you’ve ever played, you’re talking about overcoming challenges, beating the odds, and making your opponents cry tears of shame. That’s your personal story. No one else will have that exact same experience. So you can’t talk about Orbb’s journey of overcoming adversity for all giant-eyes-with-two-arms by fragging everyone in sight, because everyone has a different story for Orbb. Though, I’ll admit they all include mass murder.

See the difference? A game like Uncharted 2 doesn’t really need challenge to for the story to exist. The story is already there. All you have to do is get through it. And let’s be honest with ourselves—watching the plot unfold is the main reason to play through a game like Uncharted 2. I won’t feel cheated if I’m not stomped into the ground by Blue Lou Ferrignoes. Somehow, I’ll be able to live with myself if that doesn’t happen.

Now, if we’re talking about something like World of Warcraft, that’s a different story. I expect, nay crave, getting curb stomped by Internet Dragons. That’s what I’ve signed up for. An MMO isn’t exactly the best vehicle for telling a story – but it’s great for figuring out new challenges with my friends in tow.

Regardless, if a game can spin a yarn like Uncharted 2, stop cutting that yarn up all the time in the name of making things “interesting.” The game is already interesting, just let me see where it goes. That’s all I’m here for. I don’t care how cleverly you can make a Cat’s Cradle, because I’m drawn in by the scenery, characters, and the chance to go on an adventure.