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Uncharted 2‘s Sloppy Fiction

Uncharted 2

The design of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves should make integrating gameplay and fiction easier in two particular ways. First, it’s linear, so there’s no need to worry about unexpected traversals of the fictional space. Second, it’s almost entirely scripted — a matter of how adeptly things are accomplished, rather than what approach is taken or what tasks are attempted — so there’s little chance of unexpected emergence from game mechanics coming into play in places, times, or combinations other than what the developer intended. Given these advantages/limitations, the game’s creators shouldn’t have much trouble making sure that gameplay action is solidly motivated by, situated in, and consistent with the fictional world.

And it appears to have worked, at least from the game’s reception. As you probably know, the game has been getting great reviews that call it “a rollicking good yarn” that “gives up nothing to the biggest action films you can think of.

I’ve just started playing myself — thanks to winter break — but I’m actually a bit disappointed in Uncharted 2. It seems as though the gameplay and fiction have more disjuncture than even in the first Uncharted, much less a well-written movie.

Consider, for example, the first major chunk of action (after the prologue in the snow). This is set in a museum, and Nathan Drake (the main character) takes pains to explain to his accomplices that he doesn’t want them to bring guns, because they’re just going up against museum guards — and he doesn’t want to kill anyone. This leads to a bunch of non-lethal hand-to-hand. Next it is revealed that one of the accomplices has brought guns. But they’re non-lethal dart guns, so it’s okay, and a bunch of museum guards get tranqed. Then, in the midst of this, Drake is hanging from a roof edge when a guard walks toward it. The game prompts the player to hit the square button — which results in grabbing the guard and throwing him to his apparent death. An accomplice makes a joke of this and Drake makes no mention of this completely out of character action. Others have also found this strange. But the associated joke (the one that starts, “There’s a guy above you!”) also appears to be one of the game’s most-quoted.

The next big chunk of action has an even-odder break between the fiction and the design of the gameplay. Here the scenario involves a set of explosive charges that have been placed around a camp. The player character must arm them so that they can be used as part of a diversion. But the process of arming them requires fighting a camp of men armed with automatic weapons — an accomplice says we’ll have to “clear the place out” — and the game neither prompts nor seems to provide the possibility of doing this via stealth. So the only way to play is to have a large firefight against people armed with automatic weapons and presumably aware of the route back to the main camp to warn their fellows. This seems likely to create at least as large a “diversion” (at the wrong fictional moment) as blowing up a few explosives mounted to the sides of the very platforms around which the firefight takes place. It’s as though the fiction authors said “Let’s have them arm some charges” and the gameplay authors said “Let’s have the associated challenge be a firefight with several waves of goons” and no one checked to see if the gameplay made any sense with the context and motivation of the fiction.

Starting the game this way was leaving me a bit dispirited, though wanting to press on, given the Edge review’s reassurance that the “opening chapters do not see the game at its very best.” But then I heard the questions I was asking myself. “Did they put that guard’s death in there just so they could work in that joke?” “Why didn’t even a single one of the many goons we fought think to run the short distance to the main camp, if they were cut off from their radios?” I realized — these are exactly the sorts of questions I find myself asking after seeing the same blockbuster action movies on which the Uncharted games model their experience.

Arguably this is a sign that the Naughty Dog developers are right on target. It wouldn’t have occurred to me as a goal, but it might be a sign of perfection to have emulated not only the globe-hopping spectacle and history-mashing treasure hunts of well-loved action films, but also their sloppiness in integrating action and fiction. Let’s hope, however, that Uncharted 3 can reconsider this aspect of devotion to its inspirations.

Commenters: Please keep comments civil and constructive. Uncivil comments (like the wonderful death threats) will be removed with joyful abandon. — Chris Lewis


About the author:  Noah Wardrip-Fruin is a Professor of Computational Media at UC Santa Cruz and the author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies. Read more from this author


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37 Comments

  1. Max Battcher
    Posted December 30, 2009 at 7:27 PM | Permalink

    My brother and I were discussing that first guard on a rooftop ledge, and my brother pointed out that the guy splashes into the water below and actually appears to swim to shore.

  2. Noah Wardrip-Fruin
    Posted December 30, 2009 at 8:05 PM | Permalink

    Ah — I must have missed that (and I’m guessing I’m not alone).

    I wish I could go back and check it out without replaying the whole chapter to that point, but I’m stymied by the limited number of save games allowed for Uncharted 2 (same as U1). It means I can’t follow my preferred pattern of leaving a long trail of saves behind to check out any earlier part when a question or idea comes up. With games like KotOR I often finish with a number of saves in the triple digits (so you can imagine how I felt about the limit with Mass Effect).

  3. Mr Ak
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 8:25 AM | Permalink

    Really? I checked a few times and could never see anything.

  4. gildartz
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 8:46 AM | Permalink

    A game is meant to be fiction and so doesn’t have to make sense in every possible way. The no guns part was meant to boost nathan’s character but the player gets too caught up in the action to care about his pacifist moment at the start, after all, the developers won’t drop the whole third-person shooter genre just to make nathan look good.

    It just seems to me that you’re annoyed that uncharted was so successful and are simply picking out every little mistake you can find just to make it look bad. Just accept that it is a good game worthy of praise and is probably the closest thing us gamers have to a playable action movie.

  5. Edward Osborne
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 9:15 AM | Permalink

    I find think you raise some valid points about the disconnect between story and action, and especially in a blockbuster title like Uncharted 2. It is currently my demonstration game: the product I show my girlfriend, or my family when trying to make the argument that games “are a legitimate medium for storytelling.” I often recommend it to first time gamers because it is so scripted/directed that it is hard for them to get lost or screw up. I still believe that games can and should be on par with movies and novels, but there’s still work to be done.

    Maybe this disconnect comes from the large teams involved in video-game making. That rather than one author, or writer there are instead many different sub-groups of people working on different aspects of the final product, and somewhere along the line things lose cohesion.

    I’d be curious to see a similar analysis of story versus gameplay when Heavy Rain comes out.

  6. mark
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 9:51 AM | Permalink

    How could you not notice the guard swimming to safety? Maybe your tv is too small to notice. I even tried shooting him once he was swimming in the water, but the game won’t let you. It’s ironic how not sloppy that part is once you realize your mistake.

  7. Kai
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 11:06 AM | Permalink

    From the main menu, you can use Chapter Select to play any level that you have already finished.

    And yes, the guard you throw over the roof definitely survives.

  8. Crecente
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 12:20 PM | Permalink

    You could argue that Nathan didn’t have anyway of knowing the guard would survive the plummet.

    Either way I think Noah raises some interesting points.

  9. sainraja
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 12:53 PM | Permalink

    Or you could also argue that he did know……and he raises some interesting points? He raises only two.

    One of which is moot, considering how you see the guy swim away.

    You have a point, you could argue that, but that does not matter seeing how the author of the article did not see the guard swim away and thinks that the guard fell to his death….

    And how long could it take Drake to figure, well, heh….there is water down there, let’s toss him there haha

  10. yencid
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 1:24 PM | Permalink

    the very first reply nailed it… the guard doesnt die.. he swims.

  11. Scott
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 1:42 PM | Permalink

    Like what others have said you can see the guard swim away. The game is full of small things like this, some you won’t notice until playing through it again. Also the start of the game is the weakest part. Whenever I replay it I always skip past the first couple chapters so that I start in the Nepal town, that’s when the game picks. The first few chapters mainly sets up the story.

  12. Kobe steakhouse
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 2:50 PM | Permalink

    If we did that, we’d just be grasping at straws to validate a point against Nathan, that is invalid since clearly the guy survives. Sure, you could argue that Nathan had no way of knowing if the guard could have survived. Im sure his intentions were in hopes of his survival. You could also argue that maybe some of the guards who had be tranquilized had died, possibly to some allergic reaction to the knockout drugs. But that would completely be over-analyzing and un-necessary. Just as much as this argument over Uncharted 2 is.

  13. Posted December 31, 2009 at 3:51 PM | Permalink

    I’ve added this to the post, but here it is in the comment thread for people who have skipped to the end:

    Please keep comments civil and constructive. Uncivil comments (like the wonderful death threats) will be removed with joyful abandon.

  14. Nada Nuff
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 4:27 PM | Permalink

    No offense, but this seems a lot like nitpicking. Even fiction writers (who ONLY have to worry about the story, not gameplay, graphics, animation, etc.) make goofs from time to time. Let…it…go……

  15. Posted December 31, 2009 at 4:28 PM | Permalink

    “Sure, you could argue that Nathan had no way of knowing if the guard could have survived. Im sure his intentions were in hopes of his survival.”

    What about the player’s intent?

    Disclaimer: I’ve not played Uncharted 2 yet, but it seems that the scene presented strongly communicates that the guard is going to fall a very long way. The game requests that you perform said move, but doesn’t communicate what intention is going to be achieved: death or survival.

    Lack of understanding the results of actions is a problem for any game. Mass Effect had a similar problem: being too aggressive during dialog led to a firefight resulting in the character’s death. My intent was to aggressively extract information, but the resulting action didn’t match.

  16. dude
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 4:33 PM | Permalink

    since it got game of the year, I hear more people with the, “I like it, but I still would like to point out these flaws”. Not that your points aren’t valid, but the game has been out and has already had its praise and criticism. There really are TONS of articles like this, and a lot of them about this game. I liked Uncharted 2, but like any game, it had some flaws, so what we’re done.

  17. Bereaver
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 5:57 PM | Permalink

    I’m sorry, but like a lot of people are saying. It’s a game. If you want to point out every single problem then every game will look like crap.

    That’s how a pessimist works.

    You my friend, are a pessimist.

    In any movie, in any game, in any book, in any story…. aren’t there places that would make you feel confused on how it happened? Why did they do that? Why didn’t they do that? How could they have possibly did that? Blah blah blah.

    You need to change your outlook on life, especially if this is what you like to do. Unless you want to get older knowing you’ll start judging people the same way you do games, if you haven’t already that is.

  18. Nada Nuff
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 9:11 PM | Permalink

    People did the same thing when The Dark Knight came out. “I liked it, but how did the Joker escape the party so easily?” (?) “I liked it, but Hitchcock would have made a better Dark Knight?” (Huh?) “I liked it, but take out Ledger and it’s just so-so.” (idiotic)

    We live in a society where people purposely tear stuff down. Like this guy below me said, pessimists. Ignore ’em.

  19. metallicats33
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 10:06 PM | Permalink

    the guard does swim to shore. I have seen it with my own eyes… it is hard to see on a SD tv because the guy ends up being so small.

  20. Dirk
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 10:23 PM | Permalink

    Stop thinking so much and enjoy the game. If you’re always going to wonder: “Why didn’t he/she turn right, when it would have made more sense to turn left?” You will drive yourself nuts. When I do the same thing, I’m going to tell you what my father tells me: “That was how the script was written – get over it.”

  21. Cayal
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 11:18 PM | Permalink

    esh, if you go around life nitpicking and analysing everything you simply are not going to enjoy life.

    Games are mindless fun, that’s all. Some are better then others. But sheesh, you are there to enjoy, not dissect.

  22. thewebhound
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 11:52 PM | Permalink

    Max is right, The guard swims away once he hits the water.

  23. name
    Posted January 1, 2010 at 12:28 AM | Permalink

    wait uncharted 2 is scripted and linear?
    wow call the police we have made a break through discovery 😉
    id love uncharted 2 to be a open world game, but the time, effort and processing power required to turn those graphics into open world, i dont think the ps3 has that capability.
    things i would of changed in uncharted 2 is

    1 remove the circle button for roll and take cover.
    have circle as either roll or take cover, not both, i have lost count the amount of times i have died because i went to roll away from a grenade and drake takes cover right next to it instead.

    2 the stealth mechanics dont always work.
    take cover and there is a enemy on the opposite side of the cover sitting on the left corner, i crawl right behind him, drake changes stance indicating i can do a stealth kill, i hit square and instead of doing the stealth kill he stands up swings at thin air and i get killed.

    3 have a dive or roll from cover to cover button.
    i still have to say wanted weapons of fate had the best cover system.
    i like how you can tilt the analogue stick towards another bit of cover than hit take cover and you character will run low or dive to that cover.
    that would come in handy so much in uncharted.

    thats about it, really, i would LOVE! to see uncharted as a open world game, much bigger levels but the amount of time, work, and processing power i really dont think its a reasonable demand.

  24. SlaughterMeister
    Posted January 1, 2010 at 12:41 AM | Permalink

    “The game prompts the player to hit the square button — which results in grabbing the guard and throwing him to his apparent death.”

    Maybe apparent to you, but never to me. I assumed the guard fell into the water and was able to swim safely to shore. It’s an action/adventure/fantasy game, so it’s entirely appropriate that a fantastic approach would be taken to the action.

    Do you forget that later in the game Drake and Sully jump off a cliff in the jungle to the ocean, hundreds of feet below, and then seconds later are seen swimming off? The very next scene depicts drake a few days later driving around in a jeep completely uninjured.

    It seems this supposed plot-hole you’ve found only exists if you ignore the entirety of the game. Obviously Uncharted 2 is not meant to be taken literally true, if it were Drake would be dead in the first shootout, let alone making it through massive battle after massive battle.

  25. Erode
    Posted January 1, 2010 at 12:42 AM | Permalink

    The problem I’m seeing is a lack of observational skills and creativity on your part, Mr. Wardrip-Fruin. This is an interesting read, to be sure, but your points are easily explained.

    First off, the guy you pull off the building lives. Look down after you throw him off and you’ll see the probably confused, but still alive guard swim to safety. There are questions that could be raised about Nate’s intentions when throwing him off, like Crecente mentioned, but the developers have already spelled out his intentions to you on more than one occasion. I’m not going to throw out the “it’s just a game” argument, since I appreciate that you’ve brought some level of artistic scrutiny to the work, but I am going to say that real world logic isn’t exactly applicable here. Gaming logic has to take over at some point.
    There was a gameplay mechanic that needed to be demonstrated, but the developers knew that the mechanic would raise these types of questions. So, rather than ignoring the discrepancy between the action and the character, ND actually reinforced Nate’s intentions by having the poor fellow swim off to safety. Were this truly “sloppy fiction,” the man would have died or the issue would have never been addressed at all. The fact that ND actually took the time to make it clear that the man didn’t die not only reinforces Nate’s character in the sequence, but actually is pretty far off from “sloppy fiction.”

    Your second point makes more sense in that a gunfight might attract attention from the main camp, but you do have the option of stealth fighting for a bit of it. Granted, you can’t stealth fight the ENTIRE sequence as far as I know, but you can take out quite a few goons before they realize you’re there, if you’re sneaky enough.
    Plus, the main camp seems farther away from the first than traveling there makes it seem. If the first camp was that close to the main, then that large explosion would have been MUCH louder. Given that, there’s a possibility that the two camps are farther away than the limitations of the level made it seem, and that gunfire may have not been as audible to the folks at the main camp. Though this is a stretch, it is another possible explanation rather than just writing it off as poor storytelling.

    And your point about running to the main camp would make sense, if Lazarovich wasn’t batshit insane. Tell me, if you were working for a bloodthirsty lunatic, would you want to be the one running to him, telling him that the large company of soldiers he stationed there couldn’t handle two guys with pistols?

    This isn’t “sloppy fiction” as you so deemed it (and incorrectly so, in my opinion). This is ND telling their story and not wanting to hold your hand the entire way. You should be capable of making these types of connections without ND suspending gameplay to explain every detail to you; and even when they DO explain these things (as with the soldier thrown to the ocean) the least you can do is pay attention.

    Still, an interesting read, even if I disagree with your points

  26. TheOne
    Posted January 1, 2010 at 9:07 AM | Permalink

    I think your missing the point, whether or not your a good guy in a movie or life.

    If somebody starts shooting at you, your not just going to stand there and do nothing, you’ll shoot back.

    The guard part was partly to do with the joke i’m guessing and i for one enjoyed it.

    But for films lets see.

    Ahh.

    Bruce willis, in die hard.

    He’s a good guy, is decent and cares about people, but when he’s faced with nasty people, he takes action, with a few jokes in between.

    This type of films work this way. There really isn’t anything to understand, if fun with lots of action.

    I’m guessing Heavy Rain will be much more Drama, with some action scenes.

  27. Noah Wardrip-Fruin
    Posted January 1, 2010 at 3:31 PM | Permalink

    First, happy new year!

    Second, given that there have been more than 500 comments on this post (here and the Kotaku syndication) I can’t reply to all the points that have been raised. But I would like to assure people that, when I write critically about something, it doesn’t mean I think it is bad. In fact, there are very few things I think are worth the time to think/write about critically. The fact that I bother to write about Uncharted 2 at all means I think it’s exceptional.

  28. JB86874
    Posted January 1, 2010 at 8:50 PM | Permalink

    Enemies don’t flee from the player in this franchise as that’s not a mechanic of the cover based/over the shoulder shooter. In any case, I’m sure the main villain of Naughty Dog’s game would probably kill a grunt on the spot for running back to him no matter how beneficial that may actually have been.

    I do agree with your stealth criticism. Too often they limited the mechanic in terms of getting through *entire* sections of the game (when appropriate) scratch free and I think that’s more a testament to Naughty Dog being a by the numbers type who’s true skill is refining rather than creating gameplay mechanics. They play it very safe and aren’t very original outside of the fact they combine different styles making them a jack of all trades master of none. It’s a shame really because the set pieces they’ve come up with in this game is much more ambitious in comparison. I think the spectacle of this game is in a league of its own. But why bother? If you’re getting critical acclaim like this, then there’s no reason to be anything other then safe.

  29. jb911
    Posted January 1, 2010 at 9:19 PM | Permalink

    You suck. Uncharted 2 is the best game ever ferr-shah-hurrr!
    No, seriously. What’s to be dissapointed in? Assassain’s Creed 2, maybe. I was upset how the graphics were 20x worse than Uncharted 2’s.

  30. Jason
    Posted January 2, 2010 at 6:12 AM | Permalink

    It seems like this article was written after you’d only played a couple of hours. Its not a particularly long game, wouldnt it have been more thorough to complete the game before commenting on its ‘sloppy fiction’?

  31. Ben
    Posted January 2, 2010 at 6:46 AM | Permalink

    Hey did anyone mention that the guy swims to safety? Oh right 5 million people did, nevermind I think I’ll mention it again anyway. Why can’t people actually read the other comments before making their own?

    Anyway I was similarly confused by your 2nd point, you go through all this gunfighting to create a diversion with the explosion and then once you’ve got to the place you have to go through a huge gunfight before you can escape, it doesn’t seem like there was much benefit to it.

    I don’t take much issue with the game being heavily scripted though, I hate this idea that all games should be free roaming, there’s a reason why it’s tightly designed. Just like a movie, pacing is important and you don’t want to have all this unnesecary clutter. It wouldn’t do to allow you to have all these free roaming side missions.
    Although if you mean that it would be better if there were multiple ways to solve some scenario’s then I’d agree. Uncharted’s shooting from cover gameplay does get very repetious and dull. Uncharted 2 does at least do a much better job than the first one, by having more interesting set pieces, and a better balance of platforming and fighting, but I think it still needs to do something to make it’s gunplay more interesting.

  32. Noah Wardrip-Fruin
    Posted January 2, 2010 at 11:47 AM | Permalink

    One of the questions here is how much we want games to emulate movies in their fiction. Since Uncharted 2 pushes pretty far in that direction, it’s a good game to look at when asking…

  33. Conor
    Posted January 3, 2010 at 6:54 AM | Permalink

    I know this has been covered but… the camera even pans down automatically to show you the guy swimming away.

  34. xbox 360 error 71
    Posted January 3, 2010 at 10:39 PM | Permalink

    I would also agree there was some confusion at first. I still think all and all it was a pretty good game. Thanks for the post.

  35. B
    Posted January 4, 2010 at 1:03 PM | Permalink

    The goal of a video game is to entertain, as is a movie. If the best you can do for your website is a piece about how halfway dissappointed you are with this game – then I fear for your readers and students. You can poke holes in any major game or movie if you try hard enough.

    People like you should worry less about little issues in continuity, and worry more about what made this title successful and fun. Especially if you’re aspiring to teach people about games.

    Have you assessed why the game has successful character development, gameplay, or even why they are able to do what they do?

    At least finish your playthrough, and form your opinions after.

    Every section that you point out in game introduces and teaches a new method to play. It is a tutorial level. You must learn about hand to hand, shooting, and stealth in order to be successful in the levels ahead.

    The only thing sloppy about this is your half-cocked attempt at journalism. Your article comes off as a weak smear-piece.

  36. Posted January 4, 2010 at 4:05 PM | Permalink

    OK, I have to step in on this one.

    “People like you should worry less about little issues in continuity, and worry more about what made this title successful and fun. Especially if you’re aspiring to teach people about games.

    Have you assessed why the game has successful character development, gameplay, or even why they are able to do what they do?”

    While I am not Noah, nothing could be further from the truth when you claim that our lab doesn’t actually investigate any of these issues. You’ll find that we spend a lot of time thinking about such things, probably at a much greater depth than you expect. Read over the syllabus for our introductory games course.

    “The only thing sloppy about this is your half-cocked attempt at journalism. Your article comes off as a weak smear-piece.”

    It’s a shame that you read any sort of critical insight as being a “weak smear-piece”. Apparently games scholars shouldn’t be afforded the same right to critique as we allow those of other mediums such as literature and film? Not all published prose about a video game needs to be the sort of thing you’d read on Kotaku/Gamespot/IGN.

  37. Danny
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 11:04 PM | Permalink

    I find that uncharted 2 is a joy to play. Your review got down to the bare bones of the game which in my view was good as you show it as it is. Like you said in one of your reply’s you are not bagging the product you are just writing critically and that shows me you don’t have a bias opinion either way. Thanks.