I have written some pretentious and nobby stuff in my life, I try to reign in a lot of it, especially when talking about videogames, but here I am, about to write a think piece about Uncharted 4, Doom, and Spec Ops The Line, which came out years ago.
Spec Ops The Line wasnít a classic game, it was a bit dull, not actually all that much fun to play. It gets lauded, rightly, for what it does in terms of its narrative and the themes it examines. Set in Dubai, you play as Walker, leader of a special forces team sent it to Dubai to check for survivors after a biblical level sandstorm. What you find is that the 33rd, a US Army force sent to help, is in the midst of a civil war with a faction of Dubaiís residents for control of the city. Initially youíre drawn in to conflict with the insurgents, then the 33rd, then the CIA get involved, itís all very confusing. What the game is really about though is choice, Walker could walk away at any time, report back what heís found, instead he descends deeper and deeper in to Dubai, getting more and more blood on his hands as he does
I think Spec Ops The Line was a fascinating game, not so much the greater finger pointing theme of ďyou, player, you always had a choice too! Why didnít you turn the game off?!Ē It was bullshit when Bioshock did it, great twist that it was, and itís bullshit here. Itís thematically interesting, but the player can just shrug ďI carried on playing because itís a gameĒ. Anyway, itís not that I wanted to talk about, itís actually the smaller details, the examinations on the ingrained tropes of video games. You see Iíve been reading ĎKilling is Harmlessí, a long-form criticism of Spec Ops by Brendan Keogh, and it does a really good job of shining a spotlight on some of the nuance of Spec Ops and Walkerís capitulation. Some of it is small things like language and tone changing; rather than calm and clinical as in the early stages, eventually combat is soundtracked by swearing and ferocity. Itís a thought youíre going to have to hold on to because for this point to make sense I need to go back to Uncharted
The Uncharted series has long had its duality used as a criticism. While heís out on his adventures throwing out quips, Drake is also killing hundreds and hundreds of people. Rarely is he actually defending himself from harm, heís putting himself in harmís way, he could just walk away. Early on in Uncharted 2 Drake is handed a tranquiliser gun because of his reticence to kill people. 10 minutes later he pulls a guy off a roof to his death while Drakeís partner jokes about it. You never get the impression Drake, nor Uncharted itself, cares about these deaths, they donít stay with him. At least in Gears of War youíre at war with leathery monsters, in Uncharted youíre gunning down people hired to stop people like you from stealing shit.
Uncharted is what Uncharted is, and with Uncharted 4 it feels like Naughty Dog have tried to address it. For the first couple of hours gunplay is fairly minimal, and when it does occur itís not Nate behind the trigger, initially at least. Smart, especially how they pitch Nate once we get up to present day. Even when it does kick off youíre encouraged to be stealthy, thereís tall grass to hide in and take people down, and a lengthy section where youíre in combat but trying to remain unseen. Apart from a guy I pulled from a roof to his death, I think without any sort of joke this time, I just chose not to kill people. That doesnít last long though, eventually youíre back to killing people for trying to stop you from stealing stuff. The juxtaposition of the gunplay and tone of Uncharted is kind of redundant, as I said, Uncharted is what Uncharted is, what actually gave me pause for thought was a little more hands on.
Thereís a point in Spec Ops: The Line, something that Killing is Harmless focused on, where Walkerís melee takedowns have gone from knocking people out to beating a man so hard and so often he caves in his skull. Itís brutal and unnecessary. Thereís a point in Uncharted 4 where Drake lands one or two punches too many during his own melee takedown that reminded me of that scene. Similarly, after a while, it dawned on me that all those stealth attacks, the ones where Iíd been choking people out to put them to sleep, were accompanied by a Ďsnappingí sound. Now, maybe thatís just their eyes shutting so fast that you can actually hear it, but I think, think, that Drake might be snapping their necks for no reason other than brevity. That realisation struck me, in amongst this gun fight, when people are clearing away the corpses, it turns out someone, rather than cleanly shoot his enemies, was lurking in the grass to snap their necks. Itís terrifying and ferocious
There were points, and this is where I get a bit nobby, early on in Uncharted 4 where I started to wonder if I was done with games like this. Not with video game levels of killing, I played through Space Marine again the other week, more the violence without consequence. I wondered if my brain had been engaged too much to just turn it off again, if Uncharted was doomed because in every other way it feels more human than most other popcorn blockbusters. That the grounding put it place to make Drake feel human, a likable everyman surrounded by likable people like you, a man who can return home to a normal job with a studious wife, a happy, normal life, whether that extra connection to reality compared to something like Space Marine, means that it doesnít have as much room to just be a video game.
Fortunately it seems not, but I think we may be reaching the point where games like Uncharted have to solve their contradiction of violence and personality. I want to stress, itís not the violence itself thatís the issue. Iíve been playing Doom alongside Uncharted 4 and I love it, it may well end up being my game of the year. I love it for the absolute nonsense of it. Thereís a moment early on where the narrative is being set and Doom guy literally tosses it away, he, and you, donít need it. I donít want every game to be like Doom, Doomís refreshing because of what itís not, but it does highlight why the (I got this far without using it) ludonarrative dissonance caused by chatty nice drake ruthlessly breaking the necks of people who donít know heís there is a problem but Stevie Space Marine (actually called Titus) and Doom Guy killing monsters, orcs and the corrupted isnít. To borrow a term from Killing is Harmless, those enemies are never anything more than Ďothersí, theyíre never anything more than targets, the very thing that makes Uncharted stand out adds a dimension to the world that raises an eyebrow. Not everyone will care, but I think weíre starting to see this problem get addressed, either weíll have better justifications for the violence, ways around it, or weíll have more things like Doom