Opinion: How The Last of Us & Remember Me killed the Uncharted series
“The Uncharted series is dead.”
This was one of the many thoughts that crossed my mind after playing through Remember Me, Uncharted 3, and The Last of Us back-to-back-to-back.
Uncharted was caught in the middle of two extremes. On the one hand there was Remember Me, a game that apes Uncharted but lacks the production value to match it, revealing the flaws in both series as a result. Then there’s The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s anti-Uncharted and a game that fixes so much of what’s wrong with Nathan Drake’s adventures.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that linear, cinematic experiences like Uncharted are a passing fad. At the very least they need serious innovation. All it took was a game like Remember Me to poorly copy the best and reveal the smoke and mirrors for what it is.
What makes the Uncharted games so impressive is that they overwhelm players with so many fun moments, truly awe-inspiring set pieces, and quality writing that it’s often hard to tell that players are simply following instructions. Environments are constructed to funnel players down the one correct path and climbing sections are intuitively designed so that you never notice you’re more or less playing a game of Simon Says.
The shooter combat is Uncharted’s one respite from strict follow-the-leader game design, but it’s also the series’ biggest flaw. It’s fun in short bursts, but you’re often gunning down several dozen men with body armor, rocket launchers, and more. By Uncharted 3, combat is simply an exhausting obstacle between the player and an engaging story. It doesn’t help that the story rarely aligns itself with all the murdering Drake does. The series all but coined the term "ludonarrative dissonance," in which the in-game actions don’t align with the story and characterization.
The cynical take on Uncharted would describe it as a series that gives players little choice in their actions and serves up combat as a filler to hit a satisfying playtime. Story and characters are the clear focus, to the point where Naughty Dog might be better served simply making an Uncharted movie. At least when Metal Gear Solid does its 20-minute cutscenes, the gameplay in between has some depth to it. Hideo Kojima may be a film director at heart, but you get the impression that he still really likes making games with some meat to them.
It’s hard to get too mad at Uncharted, though. The storytelling is truly engaging, the environments are awe-inspiring, and the set piece action moments are thrilling despite their linearity. Simply put, the smoke and mirrors that drive Uncharted are so good that even when you know the gameplay is window dressing, you keep riding the rollercoaster with a smile.
When a game can’t quite match Naughty Dog in charm and production, this formula introduces some serious problems. Remember Me is one of those games. It distills Uncharted’s limited platforming gameplay to a series of bright orange indicators and it throws out shooter combat in favor of empty, button-mashy brawler gameplay. What’s worse is it doesn’t tell the story with half the heart or care that Uncharted does. There’s no illusion -- Remember Me is a game constructed almost entirely of empty, simplistic busywork. It’s so obvious about it that it makes Uncharted an easier game to criticize, as it’s pretty much a copycat with a lot the magic stripped away.
These aren’t the only games guilty of this kind of design either. Countless first-person shooter campaigns have distilled themselves down to hallways full of enemies between the player and the next hand-flailing cinematic moment or cutscene. The problem is when the gameplay starts to feel like something the developers begrudgingly shoved into their carefully constructed narrative, rather than something that naturally coexists with the plot.
Not every game has to be an open world full of emergent gameplay either. It simply has to be honest and offer up gameplay that aligns with the storytelling goals. Visual novel games like Phoenix Wright and 999 stretch the definition of what a video game can be, but the gameplay within never feels at odds with the novels' worth of storytelling.
The Last of Us nails it where most other cinematic games come up short. Combat has impact. It has meaning to the characters and plot, and it’s brimming with interesting mechanics and player choice. The kills can potentially pile up as much as any other game but it does a fantastic job of showing how that weighs on the protagonists. It's a bit dishonest to even call them protagonists after a while. Rather than blindly pretending everything is fine like with Nathan Drake, the story revels in Joel and Ellie's moral dilemmas.
I don't hate the Uncharted games; far from it. I always have a pretty good time with them. But it's hard to avoid picking apart what they really are, especially when a copycat like Remember Me makes those issues plainly obvious. The Last of Us proves Naughty Dog can still make an honest video game without losing sight of the cinematic experience. It offers a blueprint for a better way to make cinematic games without sacrificing gameplay.
It also doesn't leave much room for Uncharted as it is. Can Naughty Dog truly follow up The Last of Us with an Uncharted 4 that falls back on all the old framework? I simply can't see it, and I have a hard time believing even the biggest Uncharted fans want round 4 of the same old Nathan Drake either.
As we approach next gen, we're seeing games that broaden the horizons for cinematic experiences with valuable gameplay. The Last of Us feels like an early peek into that bright future. Games like Watch Dogs and Titanfall suggest even more ways to combine a narrative with traditional, unscripted gameplay. Meanwhile, smaller titles like the aforementioned Phoenix Wright offer an option for focusing on a narrative without feeling disingenuous. At the same time, the negative reaction to Ryse: Son of Rome, with its beautiful scripted sequences and QTE button prompts, shows that audiences are starting to move away from flashy cinematic gameplay. Uncharted will have to go somewhere new on PS4, and I truly hope Naughty Dog is willing to mess with the formula.
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