Game Over

Uncharted 2 came out for the Playstation 3 a couple of years ago. It is a solid entry in the “large scale, high production quality action and adventure” genre that is popular with the bigger developers these days. The game does many things excellently. In fact, in many ways the game is better at what it does than any title in recent memory. Thus it is all the more confusing why the developers feel the need to prove that they hate you and want you to quit playing their game and just watch the cut scenes on You Tube.

I had originally ignored Uncharted 2 because when I played the demo of the first Uncharted game I found the setting to be a pedestrian and the controls to be sloppy at best and difficult not to hate at worst. When I finally got around to trying the second game, I was happy to find out that the controls were much better. In fact, everything was much better. Here are some things that Uncharted 2 does that are simply excellent:

1. Top notch dialog and voice acting. Voice acting is never that convincing in video games, but they come close here.

2. Superbly rendered environments.

3. Integration of gameplay into “action” cut scenes. They don’t do it too much, but the scheme used in the opening sequence, for example, where you climb a train falling off a cliff is pretty cool. Makes you want to play more.

4. Music and sound design.

There is almost nothing in the production values of this video game to complain about. Nothing will put you off. Nothing will make you throw up your hands in disbelief at the arrogance and stupidity of the development studio. Naughty Dog has done a great job.

Unfortunately, my main complaints about the game are all around gameplay and the overall design. Here, sadly, the developers constantly give you reasons to quit. It’s like they wanted to sprinkle a series of “game over” signs throughout the game’s world and make you prove that you could get past each one of them one by one. There are the levels where you have to see the correct 4 pixel wide feature in order to climb a wall and escape. There are the timed platforming sequences that require controls that are tuned to the level of Mario Galaxy, which, sad to say, is far beyond what the control scheme in Uncharted 2 can provide. And of course there are level bosses, mid-bosses and final bosses. Each one of these design elements is the developer saying “I don’t want you to see the rest of my video game unless you can perform this tedious and basically useless task.” That is, “do this or it’s game over.”

It is perplexing to me why games that are otherwise excellent insist on doing this. Even the best games, it seems to me, make it their business to make us work for the right to enjoy the fruits of the game developer’s sweat and blood. I have examples from Uncharted 2, but playing through this game reminded me of my experience with another excellent game with an infuriating game over sign in it. Recall that about six years ago Pete and I both played through parts of Prince of Persia: The Sands of TIme and both stopped at precisely the same spot. Here is my description of the sequence:

1. Run up a wall and hit a switch to make a pillar appear. 2. Run up the pillar and swing on to a pole. 3. Jump over to that platform over there 4. Wall run over to that other platform. 5. Jump down and crawl around to that ledge. 6. Run into the scary spacey area and drink the magic water. 7. Swing through 3 poles to get over to that other ledge. 8. Evade the knives of doom. 9. Wall run under the saws, hit switch on the floor then wall run back under the saws to get through a door before it shuts. 10. Pull out a lever which opens a door one level above me. 11. Evade the knives of doom. 12. Run up the wall to hit a switch which brings up a pillar so I can jump up to it and climb this shaft. 13. At the top of the shaft, wall run through the hall over another set of saws and slide under the door which is closing.

After all this, the Prince is then treated to a long fight with several zombies. This fight is much harder than the zombie fights that have come before it, and you will die several times before you figure out how to finish it.

Here again we have a game that presents you with a fantastic world, great platforming mechanics, and what I am told is wonderful writing. But in the middle of it all the developers feel the need to put this huge “game over” sign right in your path and make you jump over it before you can see any of the rest.

In Uncharted 2 this happens at least three or four times. The most egregious example comes about half way through the game where the game throws you into a long and drawn out set piece in which you navigate from the back of a train to the front, fighting goons as you go. This piece requires that you die many times to figure out the timing, die several more times to figure out the right way to engage in the combat and then die several more times while you figure out just the right sequence of button pushes you need to use to kill the boss at the end of the train. As in Prince of Persia, the checkpoints are also suddenly further apart. And like Prince of Persia the combat suddenly gets harder when you reach the boss guy.

After my fifth try at the boss, I went and looked up my old article on Prince of Persia because I recognized the feeling of rage and frustration that was glowing in the back of my brain. I let the game idle for fifteen minutes while looking up how to fight the guy in the GameFAQ (always a true sign of developer failure). I knew that if I turned the game off at this point I might as well throw it in the trash. Then I got lucky and knocked the guy out on my next try. I did nothing different. It just worked this time where before it had not.

There were several more sequences like this in the later parts of the game. Most involved needing to climb on things quickly. The problem being that the platforming controls feel more like Drunk Mario than Mario Galaxy. Nathan Drake does not jump when you tell him to, does not always run or climb in an intuitive direction, often climbs things you wanted him to jump on or jumps off of things you wanted him to climb. Finally, he does nothing of this sort very quickly or smoothly. This can make for slow going when precision is required.

As is usual with this sort of production, the game ends with a tedious and pointless Boss Fight. This one is at least easy. Or it would be if you could keep Nathan from continually leaping around in the wrong direction. No matter. The pattern is easy to figure out, and things are over soon enough.

Then, as if they wanted to emphasize their hatred of your entire being, Naughty Dog ends the game with yet another shitty platforming sequence that puts the weaknesses of their control scheme into stark relief. Yet again they decide to tell you that you are not allowed to finish their game, even after you have finished it. It’s a final insult in a a game that has dragged on far too long. I wonder how many people put the controller down after falling off that last platform for the fifteenth time and just threw the Blu-Ray in a fire.

In the end and against my better judgement I got past the last game over. But rather than looking back on the experience with a sense of pleasure or excitement, I just think that Naughty Dog took all of the credit that I might have given them and pissed it all away one bad decision at a time. I think game developers need to reassess their approach to pacing and difficulty in games whose major purpose is delivering narrative. Big narrative games are almost universally too long, too tedious, and get too difficult in their later stages. I even played Uncharted 2 on easy, to no avail. Unsurprisingly, I think the template for how things should be done is found in Portal. Here is the only game in recent memory with perfect pacing, a smooth difficulty progression, no filler, no tedious sloppy bullshit thrown in for the sake of “variety” and most of all only a single Boss Fight which was not too stupid. Portal stands out because all you remember of the game is the good stuff. The game does not hit you over the head with the bad stuff over and over again until you hate it. Unlike most other games, it was allowed to remain a tightly paced five or six hours instead of being turned into a ten hour slogfest.

Uncharted 2 does not escape this fate. Instead of remembering it fondly for its awesome environments, excellent writing, and superb production values I think the average player will be remembering which game over sign he stopped at. It’s too bad that all that excellence will ultimately be overshadowed by what Naughty Dog did wrong.