Stolen Moments: Uncharted 2, among other thieves

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I was a big fan of the Ninja Turtles as a kid, which naturally meant I loved the toys. Whenever I spotted one of the figurines in a store, I used to tug at my mother’s arm and beg her to buy it. I would sit on the store floor and look longingly through the plastic cover, imagining what it’d be like to play with after springing it from its commercial imprisonment. Eventually I only needed Leonardo to round out my core collection of Turtles, and one fateful birthday morning, a present sat next to the cake on the serving tray was an aptly-shaped bundle of wrapping paper. Leonardo did indeed lie in wait – all ninja-like – underneath. But something was amiss.

This Leonardo had an indentation in his plastic shell – a button for child-sized fingers to press. Pressing it made his arm perform a chopping motion, and attempts to manipulate the arm manually were met with stubborn resistance, as the spring inside struggled against anything but button-triggered chopping. The idea was obviously to make a toy that circumvented the imagination (or lack thereof) of a child, in order to provide Turtle-tastic chopping action for all. But I was left feeling robbed; this “feature” was just limiting for me.

I was familiar with the concept, of course, having encountered other toys with similar quirks. Toys that played sound samples; toys that sprayed water; toy cars that you pulled backwards on a surface, then let go of to have them drive off. All of those features had one thing in common, however: my utter, complete disinterest. I had made my own gun sounds for my toys forever. I could make them sound however I wanted, whenever I wanted them to. Why would I want the toy to make them for me? Why wouldn’t I want my toy cars to be able to go in reverse without speeding forward afterwards? And why, I wonder, would I want Leonardo to decide for me what kind of chopping motions to use?

Nobody will argue against the notion that video games share characteristics with toys, and many would be perfectly comfortable with simply slapping that moniker on them. But if you’d ask people to describe the evolution of video games over the last 20 years, their distancing from toy-like qualities would probably rank pretty high. It’s ironic, then, that in later years I’m reminded of that Leonardo toy more and more often. In an effort to imbue actions with meaning and moments with context, video games have developed a tendency to add elements that detract and reduce. Unlike the very first instances of platforming, the leap to safety in modern games that should be yours to make is all too often compromised by heavy-handed authoring.

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Ostensibly, a game like Uncharted 2 is about the perils of such death-defying jumps and climbs. The objective and appeal, conversely, is to survive. You’re taught as much, with dangers lurking around every corner. The game is a 12-hour lesson in being wary of danger, and yet much too often when something dangerous happens – a collapsing bridge or crumbling ledge – the game cradles you like a baby. Instead of letting you experience danger and fend for yourself, it is more concerned with showing you its protagonist experiencing danger in spectacular fashion. Much of it is theatrics, and under the ideal circumstances a player is so caught up in said spectacle that he or she may not notice the manipulations of the invisible “guardian angel” that governs the situation. If the spell doesn’t work on you, however, its presence is suffocating. For every near- fall, there is a canned near-save, and the notion of Nathan Drake getting by without you is absolutely palpable.

With all that judgmental-sounding stuff said, let me clarify that I think Uncharted 2 is an expertly-designed game, and its virtues are certainly not lost on me. It is protective because it cares about your experience, no matter if you’re new to games or have had decades to figure them out. With Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog are, in a way, parents that hold their children close. Who knows if a child that runs free will find fun or just plunge to its death along with the same collapsing bridge over and over. It basically assumes you may not be able to make your own gun sounds, or make the car go, or make that arm clock Shredder on the coconut. It wants to make it look like you’re barely escaping with your life, while making sure that you have every chance to.

And it doesn’t even require that degree of scripting to undermine the sensation of managing a situation by yourself. There is a sequence in this year’s Tomb Raider reboot where you walk out on a visibly compromised bridge. I could hear it creaking, so I carefully inched ahead, ready to jump to a nearby wall with “climby video game stuff” on it. As I reached the middle of the bridge, slow motion kicked in, giving me all the time in the world to react as the bridge fell apart underneath me. My readiness was for absolute naught. When I’d been jumping and leaping and climbing for hours, the game still thought I needed assistance with my jumping and leaping and climbing. It wants to be about surviving, but it also wants to make sure you do.

Don’t give me a finger if you plan to keep the hand. For me, the hyper-authored experience is far less intrusive when it’s implemented in a game that doesn’t even give the illusion of agency. In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, your interactions are incredibly simplistic. It is a shooting gallery, plain and simple, but that also clearly establishes what you expect to be able to do, which is essentially just shoot a billion guys. It takes that core and showers it in spectacle you can’t really engage with outside of your clearly defined role. The visual stimuli becomes the entire point of the game — it is, for all intents and purposes, a rollercoaster ride. As such, it’s an experience with crippling diminishing returns, but with its massively popular online component leveling out the overall package, it can afford to be.

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In lieu of a less paranoid way of phrasing it, games don’t just try to govern, direct and manipulate your actions, they’re trying to manipulate your feelings as well – at least the on-screen representations of feelings that you may or may not share. It is an ever-present and awkward trait of narrative-driven video games that they are stuck between wondering how you feel and telling you how you feel.

Stop me if you’ve heard (or played, rather) this one before: Moving down a corridor, you arrive at a dark room. You don’t know what’s inside, and it’s thick with ominous atmosphere. You check your ammo, ready a health kit and equip a suitable weapon. As you cross the threshold, the game slows your movement speed and locks you to a “cautious” pace. The game effectively decides for you that there’s tension, regardless of whether you felt it or not. This mechanical intrusion, this clunky confirmation of “intended suspense,” acts as a warm, comforting embrace in comparison to not knowing if there’s danger.

One of the most notoriously scary moments in video game history is the zombie dog jumping through the window in 1996’s Resident Evil. It is a moment that suddenly emerges from the game’s neutral and unassuming state, in which you, by extension, assume nothing. Afterwards, however, you constantly question whether you’re safe or not and employ real caution. If created today, this moment would be telegraphed far in advance by modified movement speed and animation, and framed by dramatic camera angles in order to get a perfect, cinematic view of the “scene.”

In fact, such a direct comparison exists. In the original Tomb Raider from the same year, your encounter with a giant, stomping Tyrannosaurus Rex comes out of nowhere. It was a genuinely terrifying moment – one that etched itself into the minds of a generation of gamers. In the 2007 remake Tomb Raider Anniversary, the encounter with the T-Rex begins with the camera pulling away to play an elaborate introductory cutscene. Granted, after the cutscene ends, you’re still expected to deal with the situation, but it really isn’t about you experiencing the T-Rex attack through Lara anymore. It’s the game setting the stage for Lara’s encounter with a T-Rex. A fundamental difference.

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And I get why it happens. A game developer can’t be absolutely certain that the audience feels what they want them to feel. It’s infinitely more difficult to build and rely on a true sense of tension, suspense, horror, than heavy-handedly forcing the desired result of tension on the player. The crux of audience unpredictability isn’t exclusive to the medium, illustrated by the fact that some people will outright laugh at a genuinely tragic scene in a movie. The difference is that you don’t see the director launching at them, pulling on their faces to make it look like they are frowning.

The movie comparison isn’t entirely fair, of course. Your reaction to a movie is spontaneous, and by simply reacting, your part is played. With a video game, there is an extra layer. There is your response and also how you choose to respond in the game. There is a difference between physically retreating back out of instinct and guiding your avatar to do the same. Though the latter is second nature to many seasoned gamers, even the lack of experience with a particular input method can prevent intent from accurately translating into in-game actions. Sticking Heavy Rain in the hands of unsuspecting friends, I have borne witness to sweeping, story-defining moments decided by unfamiliar button mapping.

The solution is all too often to push the player even further away; to build a bridge, as it were, between the player’s instinct and the avatar’s reaction, but in the process make it so long that there’s an even greater disconnect. It’s a complicated problem, and I certainly don’t envy those trying to solve it. Essentially, it turns into a matter of familiarity with video games, ranging from basic character control to how well you are trained to pick up on their cues. Some people may play the most finely-crafted first-person shooters and still unintentionally look the wrong way as some grand, perfectly-framed spectacle plays out. It makes you wonder…when games become cinematic, do players become actors?

Early on in 2004’s Half-Life 2, there’s a chase sequence inside a building. You’re funneled between rooms by civilians and herded by enemy soldiers to finally end up on the roof. I honestly can’t tell you whether it feels like being chased or being in a chase sequence. I can’t tell you what parts of my playing through that section is me running to safety or me acting the part of a person chased through a building. The agency given to the player, combined with the desire to tell a linear story, means that there is a certain need for you to play along in order to keep a scene from falling apart, but Half-Life 2 leaves that distinction up to you.

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In fact, Half-Life 2‘s confidence in the player is staggering in retrospect. Its willingness to let you goof around as its most dramatic scenes unfold often inspires the opposite behavior. It demonstrates the most basic understanding of video game storytelling – the fact that if the player isn’t compelled to follow the story when given the opportunity, force feeding it doesn’t make it more compelling. Choosing to engage with it, actively listening to what Alyx is telling you, makes it feel earned – it makes a moment feel experienced. Meanwhile, last year’s Max Payne 3 doesn’t even let you go through simple doors without calling on cutscene Max to make sure it’s done to specification.

As video games keep expanding far beyond something easily defined, sweeping statements about them are becoming more and more meaningless. I can’t say in good conscience that they “should” be this or “should” be that. They are, however, uniquely equipped to allow you to survive their challenges and to be wary of their dangers. But it requires trust on the part of the developers – in themselves and in the game. Trust in the players to have a sincere reaction – at the risk of it being the “wrong one” – and in their ability to translate that reaction into actions. Trust in the game’s ability to establish an atmosphere that is genuinely gripping, exciting or suspenseful to a player – and then merely provide the tools to express fear and caution, instead of putting those on like shackles.

Though the popularity of YouTube “Let’s Play” videos may indicate otherwise, games are experiences for you to experience. There’s opportunity for you to live through adventures by proxy, not just watch virtual actors have them in your stead. When they make a jump, they should share the moment with you, not steal it.

I think we all know this article was really about Turtles. Tell me who your favorite Turtle is on Twitter! @SimonLundmark

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