GOTY. We’ll hear this a lot in assessments of Uncharted 4. Naughty Dog’s final game in the series has been reviewed as a commercial’s greatest dream of blurbs: “masterpiece”, “the perfect game”, “masterful design”, and buzzword praise ad infinitum. And it is all those things. The amount of work and talent and money needed to produce storytelling entertainment of this quality justifies all applause. But is a game better for serving story over interactivity?
Dramaturgy 101 and Pyrates
The script is strong, possibly better than the best Hollywood action films. Dialogue is well written and delivered. It’s psychologically thoughtful. We watch Nathan Drake undergo some substantial character growth and introspection. The surrounding character drama is executed in traditionally excellent form.
Gender roles are subverted. Diversity is present. Both displayed without pandering.
And all these story elements are packaged in beautiful graphics and art direction that has us traversing Panamanian prisons, the streets of Madagascar, and stereotype defying pyrate ruins. Yes, that’s how pyrates is spelled.
Uncharted 4 supports its story in every imaginable way, threading atmosphere and parables and pyrate lore into a cohesive narrative whole. No available technique is spared. It combines cinematics, Gone Home style storytelling, acting, GTA style driving dialogue, like seriously incredible action set pieces, to give players a narrative depth usually absent in the medium.
But Uncharted 4’s greatest strength is it’s greatest weakness. Naughty Dog designs with incredible polish in mind, making friction unacceptable. In Uncharted 4, the player is seen as a detriment to the pacing. The excellent flow undermines the intelligence of the player.
If you take just a little too long to come up to a solution to the game’s “puzzles” the NPC will provide you with an answer. Grappling hook prompts come up without needing your awareness. The environmental puzzles in particular literally consist of seesaws and blocks. You find yourself moving to solutions without knowing exactly why because the game’s language is so specific: “oh there’s one of those blocks. I better move it cuz I’m going to need it.” I know it’s weird. Good design being bad. But here we are.
The problem is that Uncharted 4 never trains you to think for yourself. Passive play is reinforced, as automatic as the climbing mechanics.
Sit Back, We Got This
What’s left is a game that lets you sit back without rarely having you lean in. The only time Naughty Dog seems to trust the player is when bullets start flying. But the auto-gaming of everything outside of combat creates an interactive dissonance at odds with the lack of agency. I’ve been playing all types of games for around two decades now and I can say that I’ve haven’t sucked at combat in game maybe ever. And I just beat Dark Souls 3.
For many my admittance of noob status will undercut this argument, but UC4’s gunplay (the stealth is clean and works well) lacks the polish and handholding the rest of the game offers. Breathe. Calm down. No, I don’t want to make the combat casual. But the game may have better served players if it trusted us with interaction outside of guns.
Holistically the design is damn good and tells its story so well, it’s difficult for me to even buy that speculation. But the sentiment remains that although Uncharted 4 hits masterpiece storytelling status in games, interactivity in Nathan Drake’s magnum opus fails to pull itself to the same heights.