Saturday, 30 January 2010

Don't Call Uncharted 2 A Film

Why do game critics keep calling Uncharted 2 a movie, and grandly insisting that it ranks among the year's best films? Kotaku's writers recently repeated this claim, with Luke Plunkett arguing Uncharted 2 was "2009's best action movie" and Mike Fahey claiming it could "easily stand toe-to-toe with any action movie"; other critics have said many similar things.    

Granted, Uncharted 2 leads gaming's current push toward more heavily scripted, spectacle-driven design. It uses the common tricks employed by Gears of War and other games to mimic camera focus (you know, the effects you turned off to get better visibility). The voice acting and script are highly professional. But comparing the whole production to a great movie, or to any movie, is insane. To its fans, the game's modest narrative is a masterwork, its stock characters are rare orders, and the whole experience rivals Raiders of the Lost Ark as popular entertainment. But as much as Uncharted 2 imitates the movie aesthetic, it remains a game; if you judge it on the same terms you would a film’s narrative, it comes up short. Comparing Uncharted 2 to a good film is unfair and ridiculous, but many game critics have insisted that their readers should make the comparison, so I will.  

The Hurt Locker is a great action movie. Uncharted 2 isn't.

Everyone does remember the awesome film The Hurt Locker, which succeeds as both an action movie and a character study, released in 2009, right? Everyone does remember the indelible moments found in great action films -- Bruce Willis walking barefoot over broken glass in Die Hard, Indiana Jones demonstrating his impatience in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schwarzenegger intoning "I'll be back" in Terminator, the exhausting, virtuoso horizontal hallway fight in Oldboy, etc. etc. List continues forever. But I can't think of a single sequence or gag in Uncharted 2 that displayed the sheer imagination, grit, or power I remember from those films. At its best the game gives you capably rendered spectacle -- oh shit, a helicopter's chasing me; oh shit, this building is falling down; oh shit, this bridge is collapsing -- recycled from games and other media. You can't help but notice that you've seen it done before, and done better, at the movies.

Uncharted 2 owes more to Raiders of the Lost Ark than to any other film. Watch the well-known sequence from Raiders where Indy pursues a truck carrying the Ark. Now watch a sequence from Uncharted 2 where Drake pursues a truck carrying the dagger/key thing and an ancient Nazi:

All credit goes to the original uploaders for this and the other linked videos. 

Eminent film guy David Bordwell makes a persuasive case for considering action scenes narratives in their own right, not just flashes of bright light and blood. Tl;dr: action scenes are a story about the protagonist overcoming a series of obstacles, like a film narrative in miniature. So how does Uncharted 2’s storytelling measure up to Raiders?

It’s not clear who deserves the credit – Spielberg, Lucas, Kasdan, or their 2nd unit director – but Indy’s truck chase is packed with clever ideas presented with great economy. A series of quick shots gives us the initial setup – the soldiers in the truck carrying the ark, the three other vehicles escorting them, and Jones in pursuit on a horse. The editing breaks up the action and the camera jumps between the different parties, capturing a number of great touches: the excited gunner who starts firing through his own allies, the man thrown from the back of the truck to crash through a car’s windshield, etc. The best of these starts as Indy struggles with the driver for control, and a falling bystander makes him pause and laugh. It’s a brilliant moment of recognition, when both Indy and the driver crack up…but just for a beat, and then Indy savagely throws the guy out of the cab. It’s a hilarious idea, the timing and execution are perfect, and it even gives us a bit of insight into Jones’s character. As the chase goes on there are many more distinctive gags, details and complications (the wind knocking a Nazi’s cap off his head, Indy bending the Mercedes emblem).

And what happens in Uncharted 2? Well, Drake jumps from truck to truck. He kills some samefaced generic guys who tend to stupidly approach the side of the truck he jumped to. Later, he gets a big gun and shoots a lot of vehicles (although they seemed to be exploding pretty much of their own accord earlier, when he moved across them). It’s the same thing over and over and over. It’s shamelessly repetitive, and there’s no style to it at all. The bad guys in Raiders were also just cannon fodder, but the film gave them personality, as it gave personality to every character and feature of the production.

You won't find a scene this good in Uncharted.

I’m not blaming Naughty Dog for failing to match a real action movie. A game just can’t do it. How many unique animations would you have to load before you could do something like the Raiders sequence? How much processing power and manpower would it take to make all the people and vehicles involved look distinct? How much work would designers have to do just to include a detail like a hat flying off, because they're madly scrambling to get a level looking even half-decent before E3/demo/corporate presentation/beta deadlines? The limitations aren't just technical; in a committee-driven development culture like the American game industry, developers rarely find the time to get whimsical about resource-intensive details.

Raiders isn't the best film ever made, or even the best action film. You can compare plenty of good action sequences from other films to Uncharted 2, and the game will always look like a weak imitation.

If you blow up one truck in a game it can look spectacular. Blow up three more identical trucks and you start boring me. Maybe Uncharted is aimed at Alzheimer’s patients, and I’m just outside their target demo; if you do not habitually forget things that you just saw you may also have issues with their design philosophy.  I stopped counting the number of “cliffhanger” scenes where a character is rescued from a deadly fall when someone grabs their hand at the last second, but it happens somewhere between five and one million times. And it never changes! It’s the Uncharted handshake.  (Despite its ludicrous story, even Modern Warfare 2 had the decency to turn this cliche on its head.)

Of course video games are repetitive by necessity, and it’s hard to imagine a game composed of wholly unique moments. But game critics keep insisting I should judge Uncharted 2’s narrative as a film narrative, which makes it one of the dullest movies I’ve ever watched. Films are not inherently better than games, but they will always surpass games that slavishly imitate films. 

Anyone who bothers to look closely at a good action film can see the intricate planning, choreography, and stunts that make a great action sequence unique; Uncharted 2 has all the charm of an assembly line.

Uncharted 2 employs plenty of cinematic techniques, but seems to forget that these techniques actually serve a purpose in movies besides “looking movie-like.” If you told a room of film fans and critics that the following scene was from one of 2009's best films, they would laugh you out of the theater:

Here's the exposition scene, the valley that follows the peak of the showcase opening sequence. First, the obvious: this could never pass for film. Objects look flat and lack detail. There's very little movement outside of the foreground, and the background is clearly faked. It’s not stylized enough to call animation, but not detailed enough to look “real.” In other words, it’s still a video game cinematic, and looking at it too closely makes me feel like I’m kicking a guy while he’s down. 

Extras are conspicuously absent. Is Drake just lifting those bottles from an unattended bar? Shouldn't there be a bartender, customers, people on the beach? Who decided to replace all of the character's eyes with the eyes of insects?

Technical deficiencies aside, this dialogue-heavy scene should play to Uncharted 2's supposed strengths. After all, as Plunkett wrote, "there is not a single video game in history that has such professional voice acting, such chemistry between its stars and such confident, capable senses of both drama and humour running throughout." Yet none of the actors make much of an impression in this important introductory scene (other than "don't I already know these people in Dragon Age:Origins?") They're all professionals doing perfectly serviceable readings, but it doesn't seem like they're really there inhabiting the character the way a good actor does. As a rule they're highly animated, excitable, they gesticulate like a motherfucker, they overwork their eyebrows. The actors and/or their mo-cap directors were so focused on coaxing an appropriate level of expressiveness out of their dead-eyed marionettes, they wound up emoting all over the place.

The pervasive exaggeration here throws the whole scene out of whack. Actors need to react to each other to create a good scene, and they need to have some genuine source of tension or conflict to work with. Many gamers apparently found that in Uncharted 2, but I don't see it. The camera circles around the table restlessly, but it's not working to punctuate the dialogue in the way that a good director and editor make it work. (For a recent example, check out the camera movements during the sit-down at the start of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, after Landa's interrogation of LaPadite begins.) And why wouldn't Drake jump at the chance to go off on some dangerous adventure, instead of shooting off lame excuses? Does he really have much going on, hanging out alone on an empty beach and pounding back drinks he gets from an invisible bartender? The scene doesn't establish characters with needs and problems and quirks; it's a barrage of chummy dialogue, a phony disagreement, and one on-the-nose signal of a past relationship.

My real problem with this expository scene is what it doesn't say about its characters. Again, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a handy point of comparison. Raiders introduces its protagonist in a spectacular action sequence, then follows his escape with an expository scene in a calmer setting; Uncharted 2 follows the same pattern. However, we're re-introduced to Jones as he teaches an undergraduate archaeology course. This seems hilariously implausible, given the action that precedes it, but it also gives us insights about  Jones's character, many of which contradict our earlier assumptions. He has a life outside of raiding tombs. He insists (unconvincingly) that "folklore" is as dangerous as the life-and-limb threats of his pulp-serial archaeology. When one of his students makes a (weird) pass at him, he has no idea how to react. 

"What would Nathan Drake do?"

After class, Dr. Jones's conversation with a colleague again plays on the disconnect between the classroom and his work in the field ("I'm sure everything you do for the museum conforms to the international treaty for the protection of antiquities"). When he hears that military officials want to see him, his first thought is that he's in trouble with the authorities, hinting at his independent character. When he hears the news about the Ark, he immediately turns to his colleague in excitement, but remains openly hostile to the visiting morons from the government. When they ask what he's so excited about, Jones becomes extremely condescending, talking down to them like children ("Either of you guys ever go to Sunday School?") rather than the college students he was just lecturing.   

Exposition with a sneer

So you really learn a lot about Jones over the course of this sequence. He gets flustered when his students come on to him! He can be condescending and sort of mean (also note sadistic grinning in truck chase above). He sometimes has trouble spelling words on the chalkboard. All of these moments help us get to know him, and the character seems more like a real human being as a consequence. Even if not all of a character's personality traits are pleasant, they make us more attached to the character.

The elegant exposition sequence Raiders accomplishes much more, in my eyes, than the corresponding sequence in Uncharted 2. The plot of the game thickens afterward, but its characters never surprised me or took on an unexpected dimension. (Plenty of other games, like the recent Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, are much more accomplished in their characterizations and script, although their cutscenes themselves are less polished than Naughty Dog's.) I guess Nate Drake does spend a lot of time commenting on women's asses as they go up ladders, and he is often willing to climb things that other people people don't want to climb first? That's about all I can remember about Drake, who was otherwise a typical wisecracking jackass. Harry Flynn's suicide, in particular, struck me as a total plot contrivance to give urgency to the last section of the game. All we knew about Flynn was that he was a bit stupid, liked Chloe, and was willing to sell out old friends for money. So instead of trying to weasel his way out and survive, he blows himself up just to spite the protagonists? 

Finally, nearly every game critic has celebrated Uncharted 2's script, and the writing is by no means bad. If you recently sat through cinematics that demonstrably hate all forms of thought (in Bayonetta, for instance), it's a relief when a game's writing doesn't constantly insult you. That said, there are still some scenes like this:

You may have watched this scene before if you have ever seen The Most Generic Film of All Time. Lazarevic is not a character; he's such a lame stereotype that there's nothing you can say about him that is not also a stereotype. Why does Drake bother taking some poor bastard hostage, when he's already seen enough of war criminal Lazarevic to know that the bad guy doesn't give a shit about anyone? I guess the cinematic director wanted to include a super cool scene where Lazarevic shoots one of his own troops, motivation be damned. He was only sticking to the Uncharted Golden Rule: Do in your cinematics what you have seen in others' films, dozens of times.  

In short, Uncharted 2 makes for a terrible movie and a decent game. I have no idea why it has been held up as a near-perfect accomplishment or some kind of ambassador to the mainstream. Its achievements are purely technical, and they never reach "film quality." Its compulsion to imitate stifles whatever innovation might have made its way into the game's narrative or design. With varying success, other 2009 releases explored gaming's potential to do what films can't -- Dragon Age's character approval system, Demon's Souls's enigmatic and harsh world, Assassin's Creed 2's crazy historical star-fucking plot, Modern Warfare 2's "shoot civilians" outrage-bomb mission. Uncharted 2 wants nothing more than to be a movie, and that's a little sad. 

For purposes of comparison I linked to a number of youtube clips, and all credit for those goes to their original uploaders. Of course, I played through all of Uncharted 2. Email me at


  1. Great post, I think I'm going to like this blog, seeing as I've already learned to wait for the "post-review" reviews of AAA games for both a higher level of objectivity and a chance to dig into more specific elements of the game.

    Films are effective in their economy; how can I say a lot in a short span of time? Games have the luxury and responsibilty of time; even a short game usually out lasts a long movie. That's why it's disheartening to see the two mediums imitating each other so much. Sure, games are more known for their film-lust, but many newer action films make me think their directors would rather be working in the games industry. The Protector's staircase scene comes to mind, with the camera always following right behind the protagonist as he chop-sockys his way through them.

    Kind of an obscure reference, I know, but I thought an example was necessary.

  2. Well that was unneccesarily long and kind of derrivative. Of course, Uncharted 2 isn't a movie, but what the writers at kotaku were getting at is the feeling you get playing it is very similar to the feeling you get watching a good action movie.

    In fact they even asserted that this game brought the best "action movie feeling" of any piece of media in 2009.

    And you should play the game again. It's kind of amazing.

  3. Great article, especially to as your debut. When all the reviews flooded in for UC2 last year claiming its movie-ness, I was extremely sceptical. Having finally played the game last week, I agree with all the major points you raise. It's too repititious, derivative and contrived to be anything like a film. But, as you said, it's definitely a decent game.

    Don't stop here -- this blog shows real potential.

  4. Video games have plots just like films, no difference besides the fact that it's interactive. It won the Writer's guild award. I don't see a problem with comparing it to a movie because it's good enough but they need gameplay to back it up. Metal Gear Solid series gives me a similar feel. Max Payne the game was 10× better than the film adaption. A decent video game to film adaption, I'd say Hitman. Besides movies have been here way before video games started to get plots. I think the purpose of plot in games should be looked at like a movie always. That's half the point of their entertainment.