On Emotional Attachments to Electronic Representations: The Uncharted Series

[To celebrate the first gameplay footage release of Uncharted 4 at E3 (here) I decided to share this post from my blog oralrandomly.blogspot.com, originally published 1/17/13]

When I finish a great video game, there is a period of mourning afterward. Just like a book can be reread, a game can be replayed — and many video games augment this reanimation with alternate endings, or by rewarding different playstyles (stealth vs. frontal assault, weapon vs. melee, etc.) — but nothing can compare to that first play/read.

Finishing a good game, I am anxious to find another game to play. Finishing a great game, there is a time afterward where I either don’t want to play games at all, or only play casual games like Angry Birds; games I can quickly pick up, and just as quickly set down.

And when I do start that next game, my initial impression of the new game will always be negative: I’ll get frustrated with the controls; I won’t connect to the characters, and their objectives will seem unimportant. I will play terribly, because I will not want to invest in the new skill-set. When I fail to accomplish their objectives, or get them killed, there is no guilt, no frustration in my failure, no sense of loss, because I am removed from my part in the interactivity. I haven’t been able to connect with the new game only because it is not the old game.

I am undergoing this feeling now, having just finished Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. I played through the game twice: once on Hard for the story and an initial exploration of the world, and then on Crushing for the challenge, to find the remaining treasures, and earn the last single-player medals. I was able to avoid the loss of finishing Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, because I transitioned from one game directly to the next — like reading books in a series. I might have been able to avoid this if I owned Uncharted 3, but with the state of our household’s economy, I have to be strict with the same rule I have for my book purchases: nothing new until I have finished what I already own, or until the stories I peddle bring in wealth — whichever comes first. But my single-player file is at 100% completed, my kids aren’t old enough to join me in co-op, and I have little interest in multiplayer. I’m at that point where playing the game now would be a regression; it would diminish my experience with Nathan’s adventures. In a few years, when my children are mature enough to play the game, I will enjoy the reunion; but if I returned now, it would be like visiting high school too soon after leaving for college: I haven’t established myself fully in a new game environment, and seeking the familiarity and comfort of Uncharted 2 will only serve to make the necessary break more difficult.

So, reflecting on how affected I am by great games begs the question: what makes a game great? Good games abound, games I can enjoy, and then put down without any regret at finishing them, and then move on to the next: Far Cry, Fear, Resident Evil 4, Half Life (1), Starfox 64, anything with Mario in it — these would strongly fit in this category. They were obsessions during my play of them, but not from any emotional connection. Emotional connections are the key.

Now, “emotion” brings the connotation of sadness, but it’s much more than that. When I enjoy a film with my emotions, I usually mean that it has made me feel with the characters; the music definitely helps push me over — but character is key: in Shawshank Redemption I felt the struggle against injustice; in Braveheart I felt loss, betrayal and sacrifice; in Love Actually I felt, well, love (actually). But in every great movie that moves me, it is fraternity that I am affected by most — by the friendships that become family. In The Lord of the Rings, the bravery was stirring, but it was all Frodo and Samwise that brought the water. Andy Duphrain had Red, William Wallace had his warrior poets, and Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series has Sully, Elena, and even Chloe. Sully, who risks himself to let Nate get away in Uncharted 1 & 2; Sully, who is willing to almost bankrupt himself to get Nate out of a Turkish prison; Sully, who will travel the world with his friend, scheming, adventuring, getting him in trouble, and then helping to get him out of it. I covet Frodo his Samwise, Andy his Red, and Nathan his Sully. In the game chapters with Sully, when I would misstep, or my skills would not be enough to keep my electronic representation alive, and the color drained out of screen, the last thing I would hear before the reset to the last checkpoint would be Sully’s anguished voice yelling “NO!” — such a simple word to so clearly express the unbearable shock of losing your friend. It made me play more carefully, so that I wouldn’t break Sully’s heart when I died. In the Borneo chapter, when Sully called out that he was pinned down by gunfire, I immediately darted out from the safety of my cover — no thought for my own safety — to kill any minion who dared threaten my friend.

Me and my buddy, Sully

Then there is Elena. Righteous, strong, capable, opinionated and fierce, alluring even when spattered with mud, willing to put herself in a warzone to expose wrongdoing, Elena makes Nathan a better person by setting high standards for herself: for Nathan to partner with her, he is required to make himself more honorable. I love how the ladies in the Uncharted games are self-sufficient; they can hold their own platforming, and in a gunfight. They are equals in your adventure, and don’t need you to babysit or protect them. And they, like Sully, are traumatized by your death, causing you to build your skill as a player, to spare them the pain of witnessing you die.

Muddy, fierce, lovely.

Much has already been made of Uncharted 2’s action set pieces, circular narration techniques, and enthralling story. So all I will say in closing is, when you play, swim wherever you can, climb whatever you can, stop to play with the mountain children, pet every yak, look at every page in your journal, and enjoy the views (“I was talking about the mountains, really”).

[Update: since this blogpost I have acquired and played Uncharted 3 — Drake’s Deception, which continues Naughty Dog’s focus on compelling video game storytelling and character development, and seriously exploited my emotional attachment to the characters. Also, my eldest son is now allowed to play T for Teen games. So, not only do I get to see him play through the games, engaging with the characters and conflict, but we get to bond playing co-op and multiplayer together; and yesterday as we sat on the couch and watched the Uncharted 4 gameplay footage, experiencing another signature action set-piece, my son summed up our mutual sentiment by saying, “Okay, now I really want a PS4…”]