One Giant Leap, 2009: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we wow the critics with an exotic set-piece sequence where you get to play the entirety of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

In the NES and SNES eras, the platformer was king. Post-Super Mario Bros. it became sort of a default genre for console video games. If you were making a game, it was going to be a platformer of some sort unless you really thought it shouldn’t be. Entering the PS1 era, this began letting up a little; platformers were still quite popular, but the possibilities of 3D led to a branching out. This trend continued and accelerated in the PS2 era. We’ve even noted before that both PlayStation’s platformer trilogies have a habit of being less and less about pure platforming as they progress; Crash Bandicoot is all platforming, Crash Bandicoot: Warped is like half vehicle levels, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is (mostly) platforming action, Jak 3 has guns and cars and such, etc. Developers who were still making platformers clearly had wandering eyes, perhaps feeling constrained by the genre. By the time we hit the PS3 the platformer, while not strictly an endangered species, is firmly no longer top dog, having lost their “default genre” spot to first person shooters. What platformers remained were largely either cartoony mascot games (Mario, Sonic, etc) or else indie affairs. Your average AAA studio wanted to “move on”, as it were, and make realistic games that took advantage of HD hardware. Platformers just didn’t fit the bill.

But wait! Who says platformers have to be unrealistic cartoons? Just a few months ago we covered Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a game which pretty expertly applied the core appeal of platformers in a plausibly realistic context. And though it wasn’t our main feature, 2008 saw Mirror’s Edge, a AAA, HD, photorealistic platformer that pushed the genre’s boundaries. And indeed, it appears platformer stalwarts Naughty Dog might be following in those footsteps. Their designated PS3 trilogy is the Uncharted series, a game that ditches the cartoon style for photoreal humans and environments, but still involves protagonist Nathan Drake doing plenty of running around, climbing, and jumping. So, pretty clearly a disciple of Mr. Of Persia, right?

Well, not quite. Let’s look at the game’s opening. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves begins in media res, with Drake waking up injured in a train car dangling precariously off of an edge. Drake must quickly climb out of this train before it finishes falling down. It’s a tense action set piece worthy of a Hollywood movie. But, the thing about movies is, they don’t have a player. And while the in-universe scenario depicted here is quite dangerous, it’s actually really easy and simple as far as what the player’s doing. Which, of course it is, right? It’s the literal first thing the game asks you to do, of course it’s going to be a trivially involved tutorial that doesn’t ask much of the player. Weird of me to frame this as a negative, right? Except, this sequence is presented in media res, right? 2/3rds of the way through the game you come back to it, and you play it again1. And, it isn’t any different the second time. The tutorial control prompts are gone, but the actions you perform are exactly the same. And the killer? It doesn’t stick out. It’s not a noticeable difficulty valley. It plays exactly like the platforming segments directly before and after it.

Our hero’s in a real bind! Our player, on the other hand…

When discussing Sands of Time, I mentioned how it’s sort of a miracle that the game works as well as it does. The path through the level is obviously pre-determined based on the geometry present, and with the comparatively limited mobility you get from realistic physics it’s easy to imagine a game that doesn’t really feel like it’s involving the player at all. Anyway I lied a little writing that column; I didn’t have to imagine anything, because that game exists and I’m discussing it right now. Uncharted smooths down the Sands of Time formula even further. The wall runs and wall jumps are removed entirely, and while swinging is present in Uncharted it’s featured significantly less often. Removing these timing elements cuts the sense that the player is involved; it’s very rare that you even can make a mistake in Uncharted’s climbing segments. The gameplay consists mainly of identifying the next place the game wants you to go, then pressing the stick in that direction and maybe pressing X or O if you’re feeling saucy.

This feeling of disconnect is exacerbated by the game’s heavy use of contextual actions. If you haven’t before, try jumping in one of these games on the ground, away from anything you’re supposed to be jumping off of. Drake does a pathetic little leap, the sort of jump that I could replicate, a jump that almost feels mocking. But jump off a ledge, especially one on the main path, and suddenly he becomes the fusion of Tom Cruise and Michael Jordan. In Sands of Time your actions were sometimes contextual2 but were always consistent. If you run along a random unimportant wall the Prince will go exactly as far as if you’re running on the critical path. Through this consistency, the player can learn the game’s mechanics and develop an intuitive understanding of what is and isn’t possible. Since Uncharted 2 lacks this consistency, such learning isn’t possible. You navigate the game’s platforming segments by noticing which bricks seem to be a little too conveniently jutting out.

Even if you’ve never played before you see it

Now, there’s a reason we’re specifically discussing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves here rather than any other Uncharted game3. The first Uncharted came out in 2007 to mid acclaim. It had all of the series’ core mechanics in place; the climbing, the cover-based shooting. But it didn’t really have anything extra. Players and critics were impressed with the graphics but found the game to be underwhelming, and in a year as absurdly jam-packed as ’074 Uncharted was undeniably second-rate. But fast-forward two years and the sequel is suddenly on everyone’s Game Of The Year shortlist. The thing that resonated so much was the game’s set-piece moments, newly added to the series. Moments like the train escape mentioned above, or a sequence where you flee a collapsing bridge. These segments are real technical and production marvels, moments that are only possible with the HD hardware of the PS3 and the massive team at a studio like Naughty Dog. But the game’s core mechanics are unchanged from the 3/5-ass Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune5 and to a design pervert like me that shit matters. I don’t care about how cool what I’m seeing on screen is, not when I’m playing a game. If I just wanted to see a cool action sequence I’d watch a movie. I want to play that cool sequence, and the way Uncharted goes about it just doesn’t work for me. It fundamentally breaks the illusion.

And it’d be one thing if this were isolated to just one series. Easy enough to avoid playing 4 or so games. But Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was massively successful, helping turn around Sony’s fortunes after the disastrous PS3 launch and permanently influencing AAA development ever since. And this unfortunately includes their approach to platforming. It seems like a trend that might finally be breaking in recent years6 but for ~a decade if a game of a certain budget featured jumping, that was something that existed outside of the player’s control. Everything had to look cool first, with gamefeel not considered; an animation manager program got to have more fun than you.

hbomberguy demonstrates it best; it doesn’t matter if the animations look cool if I as the player don’t get to actually do anything

And, unfortunately, that’s the story of what happened to the platformer during this era. It’s an old genre, based in mechanics, and it doesn’t quite make sense in a world governed by spectacle and realism. It’s an unsatisfying conclusion, which is why it thankfully isn’t one. The genre will survive its fall from grace, even if it will never regain its preeminence. And AAA spectacle games will eventually get better at making their set-pieces feel “real”. But that doesn’t mean Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is forgiven. Fuckin Dragon’s Lair 3D-ass game.

Stray Observations:

  • Uncharted 2 got a lot of “this is the best action movie of the year!!!” type hype from the gaming press when it released, an illustrious example of “damn the gaming press needs to get out more”. Not quite as good as “Heavy Rain is the first game to live up to the Mature rating” but hey, is anything?
  • I don’t talk about the gunplay because it’s not my lane, but good god is it bland. I hate how realistic gun games all feel the same. You’ve got your AK-47, your M4, your pistols, your shotguns, gotta have grenades to flush people out of cover, there’s probably a minigun that’s too big to carry normally, this game doesn’t have a flamethrower but if it did I bet you’d all remember it exactly the same way (big, ~500 ammo, no reloading, way stronger when used against you vs used by you). It’s like the game comes predesigned, at least on a big picture conceptual level.

Other 2009 platformers of note:

New Super Mario Bros. Wii takes the formula from the DS game and adds in chaotic 4-person multiplayer. On the one hand, this multiplayer would finally give the sub-series an identity. On the other hand, the way everyone bounced off of each other made it pretty hard to play any other way besides “grief your friends into oblivion”. Fun for about an hour, but fully inessential. It probably has one or two cool features but all the New games run together in my memory.

Pure chaos, but not without its charms


Next Time: I throw myself into the meat grinder7 as we play Super Meat Boy