Innovation and big budget games are often distanced by necessity. Lucrative publishers tend to play it safe with their slates of yearly titles — an annualized sequel here, an open-world game there — in order to better ensure strong profits. Creatively, it means that most developers can’t take risks the same way smaller and more nimble independent projects can. Look at sales records and what’s on store shelves, and the results of that process are pretty obvious: a lot of bigger games on the marker don’t often feel like much of an evolution.
A lot of huge games are also not made by Naughty Dog, arguably one of the few studios that keeps storytelling among the very top priorities of a triple-A experience. Though they already had a great reputation for solid and memorable games by the time the original Uncharted was released in 2007, it was that first step into the PS3 era where they began blurring the line between a movie experience and something interactive. Sure enough, playing either the Uncharted trilogy and The Last Of Us, it’s easy to see Naughty Dog’s love of film and writing.
While Uncharted 4 is made in the same vein, it frankly goes further than any other big budget game ever has toward merging games and film. I’m not just talking about visuals, although Naughty Dog makes the PS4 produce scenes that the hardware probably shouldn’t be capable of. It’s more that in its opening hours, Uncharted 4 is not afraid to take its time. Whereas the original trilogy and The Last Of Us are paced by and large like action games, A Thiefs End’s plot (and gameplay) unfurl just as a film’s would.
The game’s first chapter — following an explosive boat chase in present day — is a flashback to young Nathan Drake, escaping with his older brother Sam over the rooftops of the Catholic orphanage where they grew up. By any typical big budget game’s standards, this would be considered a slow opening. The orphanage itself is linear, offering Nate little action to uncover.
Instead, the chapter is devoted to developing the relationship between Nate and Sam, who talk and joke as they make their way out of the grounds, doubling as Nate’s introduction to the kind of climbing that would become an integral part of his adult life. The player is driven forward by the story, too, lured by Sam’s promise of a surprise he has for Nate. Jumping and swinging is about all you’re going to get in this segment.
As if one flashback wasn’t enough, the chapter ends with another forward jump in time to Panama, though still in the past. Now the game begins to ease into what’s expected of Uncharted, as Drake, on the trail of a relic that may provide clues toward a legendary pirate captain’s treasure, must explore some ruins.
The exploration lasts just long enough to give players a taste of the games new design tweaks (and the chance to solve a small puzzle) before ending with a chase sequence that stops just as the action is ramping up. Getting to this point equals roughly about an hour of gameplay, depending on your speed; that this is basically the game’s cold open is if nothing else indicative of its storytelling ambitions.
The story moves ahead another 15 years, and much like a film, the circumstances of how it picks up aren’t immediately clear. The chapter title scrawls “The Malaysia Job”; schools of fish swim through the reeds. Drake, diving in scuba gear, is searching for the sunken wreckage of something. It’s a brilliant narrative sleight-of-hand as your mind connects scenery to text.
Then you find the sunken quarry: a cargo truck. As Drake chats with his radio operator, it gradually becomes apparent that this isnt another globetrotting expedition. As he is lifted onto the platform along with the salvage, the setting blue collar, industrial and mundanely American (and the retrieved cargo is only spools of copper wire). The rest of the scenes is spent chatting with your fellow salvage crew members.
You can look at these vignettes as tutorials under a very clever narrative disguise, but dismissing them as nothing more that than seems to miss the point. Pointedly, Uncharted 4’s fourth chapter shows Drake at home; once again its purposes seems primarily story-driven, as he drifts around his attic reminiscing over souvenirs from old adventures. It’s as affecting as it enjoyable for fans of the series that have been there throughout the series history, and it exists free of real excitement.
If you’d like, you can also wander around the Drake household, getting a good look at the messy laundry closet or what travel guide Elena is working on. It’s well-known fact in Hollywood that the best films know how to balance out intensity with more subdued or dialogue-driven scenes to lull the action — in triple-A games, this just doesn’t happen (though Uncharted 3’s extended desert sequence now looks a bit prescient). What publisher would let a developer keep more than one brief, reserved gameplay scene that didn’t end in shooting? Virtually none.
Yet the implications Uncharted 4 could have for other games of its ilk are enormous. The game’s fourth chapter in particular is well-written and engaging, and (most important), fresh. Stories told using traditional dramatic structure use a great deal of exposition before the plot begins to reveal itself, and the same is true here; you could argue that, with chapter five delving into another flashback, this time a prison break played as Sam, the main thrust of the game doesn’t start taking form until six chapters in.
It isn’t just the care put into the narrative beats that make this work. Contextual use of story-driven actions do their part, too. It may not seem like it, but the action button (which reloads in battle) also giving Drake the option to pick a drink from the fridge or have a quick conversation with co-worker speaks volumes to what’s possible in a game space that’s often feels practically allergic to shakeups beyond critical gameplay paths.
Yes, you can argue that contextual actions have been around for years, and that there’s ample evidence of that kind of scripting already. You could also point to games like No Man’s Sky as impressive examples of industry innovation (among other examples), and you might be right.
Unlike someone like Hello Games or (even David Cage), Naughty Dog’s interest in games that are very much games hasn’t waned. Uncharted 4 does retain plenty of the shooting, exploration, and adventure elements you’d expect. And where more purely systemic designs are only focused on gameplay, Uncharted’s developers also care enough about story to design their games as interactive pop art, leaving room for narrative to breathe.
And of all the elements of a polished, big budget game, it’s unlikely that scripts will diminish; if anything (and if Uncharted 4 is any example), the increasingly cinematic nature of many triple-A games suggests its importance will only continue to grow.
Will we ever see a game like Call of Duty take several hours to let the bullets start flying? Probably not. Could, say, a future installment begin with some mundane maintenance work on a space station, or perhaps even be given a real dramatic arc? If the industry is paying attention, it’s not out of the question.