And I make it to the last of my Uncharted essays exploring the themes of each game via it’s title. I like it when a work’s theme can easily be summed up by the work. It’s nice in part, because that means there is some sort of cohesion to it. I’m sure that the titles were chosen in some part because they sounded badass in marketing or something, but they still manage to evoke the core of each game. Now I have written about Uncharted a long time ago and much of the content in that post and this one are very similar. The two posts are different in their central thesis. I wrote this piece back in 2008 under the idea that the design and various elements could combine together to make a more thematically or meaningful whole. Revolutionary idea I know. It just shows how far things have come in the critical community that in some places, with regards to video games, yes it was a revolutionary idea. It still is to some.
The thrust this time around was that I was focusing on the idea of greed itself and what the game was saying. Not very much it turns out. But it doesn’t need to, because Uncharted isn’t a message work, but an explanatory one. The message, if there is one, is greed is bad. Nothing completely Earth shattering nor out of place in a Saturday Morning Cartoon, but it’s the way Drake’s Fortune makes that point that is important. It does it through object metaphor. The nouns of the work are directly representative of the emotions and desires of the players. In essence, it is somewhat like a morality play, a comparison which has just occurred to me and that I should have thought of sooner so I could have included it in the actual essay.
Furthermore, I found this piece much more difficult to write than the one 4 years ago, in part because I was reiterating many point and I don’t like to repeat myself. More so, however, it was because it all seems so obvious. Sure it might not be when playing it, but once I say that El Dorado is the physical manifestation of greed everything else feels like it doesn’t need to be spelled out because everything automatically falls into place.
So check out my piece at PopMatters. Additionally, I would like to note that Multimedia editor G. Christopher Williams chooses all images to be included with posts and this is a minor point, but I thought he would have gone with…
With that out of the way I want to take this opportunity to finally answer a question that was asked over a year ago on twitter. By whom, I forget. The discussion at the time ended up on which Uncharted game people thought was the best and nearly everyone was singing the praises of Among Thieves. I replied without hesitation that it was Drake’s Fortune and stand by that to this day. In fact, the Uncharted series as a whole, while it has been achieving technical improvements, has been in decline since the first game. That’s why I critiqued the Uncharted series in reverse order. I wanted to write in ascending order of quality – worst to best. Now Uncharted 3 hadn’t been released at the time of the twitter conversation, but it has proven itself to be a big fat disappointment in so many regards. If you want to know why, I refer you to my 6 out of 10 review on PopMatters. But that still doesn’t resolve the differences between 1 and 2.
Now Uncharted 2 was a great game. A rollercoaster ride of action and suspense. Drake back in a better than ever adventure. And now I will stop cribbing from the Metacritic page. It was a great game and initially at release I thought it was better than Uncharted 1. But as time has gone on I find myself inexplicably drawn to the first game with a pull the second doesn’t have and I can’t even be bothered to play through number 3 a second time. (I’ve player Drake’s Fortune 5 times, Among Thieves 3 times respectively.) There are three reasons for this.
The first is thematic and narrative cohesion. The second game is lauded for it’s characters and snappy dialogue. This is true, but none of it would have happened if Drake had just stayed home. That is true of every adventure he goes on, but in this case it was particularly egregious. It wasn’t for his own sense of adventure or greed, but in the cause of ripping off someone. Furthermore, as I pointed out in my essay last week, thematically it wasn’t Drake’s story. It was Chloe’s. I don’t know why she got shoved to the sidelines as much as she did. Especially at the end. As great as it was to see Elena again, it focused the drama away from where it should have been. There is no thematic connection from the Drake, Chloe, Elena love triangle to the treasure hunt, but there is a central one from the Chloe, Flynn, Drake triangle to the treasure hunt. The fact is, when I sat down to think on what Uncharted 2 was about, I came up with a blank. I had no earthly idea what Uncharted 2 was about below the surface level adventure and that is in part because it messes up it’s own meaning. It drops the ball.
Drake’s Fortune, on the other hand, is very clear what it is about. The fact that the back story included Spanish Conquistadors and a huge golden statue makes it that much more obvious. And while it is more obvious, it is also more cohesive in that respect. The meaning isn’t muddled, there aren’t any distractions from the central thesis of the game. The visual metaphors are on target and everything just works. The same cannot be said for Among Thieves. Beyond the named cast, I cannot think of anything in the game that ascribes meaning to anything else.
Secondly, tone. The first Uncharted game had a tone of fun adventure. It gave the player the same feeling as watching the Indiana Jones movies for the first time did. We were headed into the unknown and it was exciting. We knew nothing and for our efforts were granted an action/adventure tale and put us in the role of the hero. No movie in recent years other than the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies gave us this sense of vista adventure and swashbuckling action. Yes, Uncharted 2 had better action sequences with the train and the collapsing building. Something I believe Uncharted 3 failed to top. But it lost something that Uncharted 1 had. Uncharted 1 was fun in comparison to Uncharted 2. Drake was irreverent with his snark, but in Uncharted 2 it didn’t have the same level of charm. It was showing a more beaten down Drake, but still tried to maintain the humor of the first. It didn’t go to Linkin Park levels of dark and emo like Prince of Persia: Warrior Within did, thank god, but it couldn’t pretend it was like the old serialized adventure that Indiana Jones was based on.
In addition, Drake’s Fortune has unity of time and unity of place. It was a small self contained adventure. Once you arrive on the island, save for the point where you are knocked unconscious by a grenade and locked up for a little while the entire game takes place in real time. You travel around in a single cohesive map. You can look back and see where you just were and where you are going next on the island. In addition, you arrive and get shot down in the morning, escape prison in early afternoon, go underground in the late afternoon, climb out of the submarine port at sunset and finish the game at evening. The whole adventure takes place over one day. It gives a sense of place to the island and weight behind the drama. The island is a single location and everything feels connected to one another. The fact that you end up crisscrossing the monastery twice further connects the locations. Also, there is no three days later as you cross mountains or 6 months later after you’re bought out of a Turkish prison. The threat is very much in the present and very near. Yes, Among Thieves was a recreation of Marco Polo’s journey and therefore was going to be very location hopping, but it doesn’t use the epic scale that sort of traveling conjures. The failure to connect the adventure and personal drama together leaves the work split and/or empty.
Finally, and this seems to be more of a personal gripe than anything. I hate that they took out the six axis control of aiming the grenades. I hated using the right analog stick in Uncharted 2. Why? Because it also controls the bloody camera. There is one particular parts in that game where you have to use a grenade to take out an enemy, but you can’t because to be in throwing range means the visual arc of the grenade will be out of sight when you move the camera to also adjust the arc. The six axis control of maintaining balance on logs was stupid. But it was perfect for adjusting the throw of a grenade. It was simple, the physical action to adjust the distance matched up well with what was happening on screen and it was faster than using the bloody analog stick. Faster, doesn’t move the camera, more accurate and the motion further connects you to the actions Drake is performing.
That is why I think Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a better game than Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. And as a consequence, the best game in the series.