I'm beyond hyped for The Last of Us. Could it be a horrible disaster That fails utterly? It certainly could, but I have confidence in Naughty Dog to make an amazing game. Since the PS2 era, this studio has blown me away. That isn't to say however, that their games are without faults. Specifically, I'm talking about their most recent release, Uncharted 3, and how I think Naughty Dog has recently picked up something of a bad habit. It's nothing deal-breaking, but it's a concern I have nonetheless. My one fear for The Last of Us is that the writers will choose style over substance.
We Don't Get Fooled Again
Let me preface this by saying I have high hopes for this game. Don't get me wrong, I haven't convinced myself that it will be good, I just hope it is. To be quite honest, everything I've seen about this game indicates to me that it will be a well-polished and intriguing thrill-ride. However, seeing is no longer believing in the video game industry. Aliens: Colonial Marines looked good, and look how that turned out. Heavy Rain looked good, and its plot is easily the most inane garbage I've seen in any narrative ever. Truth is, as much as I respect Naughty Dog as a developer, there's always the possibility that most of what we're being shown is a lie. With that tangent out of the way, I'll admit that this game will probably be fantastic. However, a quick look at Naughty Dog's last game makes me worry a little. I love how beautiful this game looks, but in truth, I don't care about graphical fidelity nearly as much as gameplay mechanics and storytelling. For some, it's easy to be fooled by pretty graphics and forget the obvious flaws, but I want a game I can feel good about. One I can think about and not slowly realise how poorly it is written.
I think Naughty Dog has some brilliant writers on board. I'd rank the dialogue in the Jak and Uncharted series as some of the best in gaming. The characters they create are nothing short of lovable, even if a certain one is a cold-hearted psychopath. Ludonarrative dissonance aside, I felt that, with their most recent release, Naughty Dog slipped up a little in the plot department.
After the success of Uncharted: Drakes Fortune and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Naughty Dog was convinced people played those games for the high-octane action and big flashy set-pieces. Don't get me wrong, I love those things. I love them a lot. However, I don't believe you should set out building your game around big action set-pieces. A video game is about delivering a certain experience to the player. Story and gameplay come together to make this possible. When you forgo one for the other, you're making needless sacrifices. Some might argue that gameplay is more important than context, and I'm inclined to agree, but I also believe saying you have to sacrifice one for the other is a false dichotomy.
After Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, I can't help but worry the plot will be put on the back burner. For open-ended sandbox games, this might be mitigatable, but for a linear single player campaign, plot shouldn't be brushed off to the side. It's harder to ignore a bad story in a game where all you do is play through the plot. Was the plot in Drake's Deception bad? Not entirely, but it made some silly missteps in the name of more action and crazy stunts. I want The Last of Us to be as good as it can be, and I know Naughty Dog has some serious talent on board, so I don't want any excuses. I want a riveting story filled with action, pathos, logic, drama, pacing, and suspense. Don't sacrifice a single one of these things for one of the others.
The Writing of Uncharted 3
In order to talk about why I'm worried for The Last of Us, I have to talk about how terrible the writing is in Uncharted 3: Drakes Deception. I feel that Naughty Dog ended up being victims of their own success with this iteration of Uncharted, and I don't want these bad writing habits to transfer over to their newest IP. Specifically, most of this game's problems stems from how the game was developed (that sounds more redundant than it should). Uncharted 3 was built from the ground up around big action set-pieces. There's nothing inherently wrong with how you start writing a story, but if you can't make all the pieces fit, it becomes clear you don't know what you're doing.
I hate to say it, but most of Uncharted 3: Drakes Deception feels shallow, rushed, and contrived. Don't get me wrong, there are some brilliant moments, especially when it comes to the characters and their chemistry, but that doesn't affect it's nonsensical plot. Of course, not all the characters are well-written, but a few of them make no sense whatsoever.
Drake’s past and state of mind are brought into question, then immediately forgotten, and ultimately have no impact on the plot. As much as I like Drake’s everyman persona, I don't care for how his character is questioned with no real resolution. It makes him feel like a static void in comparison to Chloe or Sully.
By the end of Uncharted 2, we know what Zoran wants, and what he intends to do. What are the motivations and intentions of the villains in Uncharted 3? All of this is very murky and unexplained. I'm fine with leaving some elements a mystery, such as how Talbot teleports. I don't really want them to go into great detail about Drake and Elena’s relationship. Those things are mysterious. However, plot holes aren't mysteries.
Zoran wanted something. As one-dimensional as he may be, players understood his motives and intent, and were thus motivated themselves to keep playing. He was a threatening and unrelenting villain. Yes, he was static and one-dimensional, but at least his actions were clear and understandable. The same cannot be said of Talbot and Marlowe. What do they want? What are their plans? Are they going to re-establish Britain as the ruler of the world? Will Marlowe become the new Queen of England? Did they even know the treasure was cursed?
To make matters worse, Talbot is very wishy-washy. If he can teleport, doesn't that make a huge chase sequence a little pointless? Furthermore, what reason does he have to run in the first place? He can vanish into thin air. We've seen him magically disappear from dead ends with no explanation. In front of Drake is a competent fighter with magical powers and hallucinogenic drugs at his disposal. Behind Drake is a big burly pirate with a chip on his shoulder, and a mean old lady who seems to have no qualms with hitting Drake. Why is he running exactly? Oh, it’s because they already made the chase scene, and had to write around it. Nice.
Is this an isolated incident? Unfortunately not. Three whole chapters of the game take place on, in, and around a big boat. All three of these chapters are completely irrelevant to the plot. The plot literally takes a vacation on this cruise liner, stopping the second Drake is knocked out, and picking back up right where it left off the second Drake magically washes up on shore. These three chapters do nothing to move the plot forward. We learn nothing about our characters or our goal. Everything that happens in the ship graveyard is a completely self-contained story arc that has nothing to do with the rest of the game. Hell, it could have been an expand-alone DLC with only a few minor dialogue tweaks. Am I saying this part should have been removed altogether? Well, removing these chapters would have made the story as a whole more coherent, but I don't think this is the best solution. Instead, this arc should have been written in such a way that it’s actually relevant to the plot. So you might be asking yourself: why is this here at all? My guess is that they needed somewhere to throw in that sinking ship set-piece, and couldn't think of any good ways to tie it to the story, so they just duct-taped it to the plot and called it a day.
The more the game goes on, the worse the story gets. The ending is rushed and unsatisfying, more so for anyone who’s played Uncharted 2, where everything plays out in much the same way, albeit in a much more enjoyable way. Unfortunately, Uncharted 3 is just Uncharted 2 beat-for-beat, and the latter is executed much better. Let's take a look at some of the plot points:
- The story starts off with a bit of a cliff-hanger (literally in one case) as the opening scenes are split up with flashbacks.
- After escaping danger, Drake and Sully head to the jungle to uncover a lost mystery. This was the case with all three games.
- After a large (and admittedly breathtaking) set-piece, Drake is stranded far from civilisation and is pushed to his physical limits before being saved by a local who teams up with him for a short while. Salim is little more than a cheap Tenzin rip-off. However, Salim is never fleshed out like Tenzin is. With the latter, we get several amusing situations as he and Drake struggle to communicate in spite of the language barrier betwixt them, and an emotional reunion with his daughter. We get the sense that he’s a real person in an extraordinary situation, not unlike Drake. Salim is shallow in comparison.
- After recuperating, Drake fights his way to the front of a convoy to save someone.
- He eventually ends up at a monastery or temple housing an ancient city or fabled treasure.
- Drake then fights a group of extremely powerful supernatural foes.
- Then the whole city starts to crumble for some reason or another, because they couldn't think of any other way to make a climactic getaway scene.
You see how this can get a tad bit too formulaic? Even if you are following a recipe to the letter however, you can still botch the execution, and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception seems to be lost in translation. I fear that the praise laid upon, and the recent successes of this franchise may have deceived the developer into thinking impressive set-pieces is all you need. There are some shining moments, but as a whole, the plot is poorly written, and the game can only really be enjoyed on a surface level. I don’t want The Last of Us to fall into that same trap.
See what I did there? Deceive? Oh, c'mon. It was pretty funny.
Hype and High Hopes
Like I said, I'm fairly confident The Last of Us won't suck. However, Uncharted 3 didn't suck either. In fact, it was still a great game. What I hated about it was it's unsatisfying plot and underwhelming characters. Even if The Last of Us doesn't have the same focus on action, the principle is still the same. You should never sacrifice proper pacing or satisfying storytelling for the sake of surface-level gratification.
I want The Last of Us to be fun to play and look at, but also interesting to think about. I want a game I can feel good about the more I play it. I want a game for which my fondness grows over time. I'm tired of looking back at my experiences in games and saying "that was actually kind of stupid". I want a game we can remember as a masterpiece, not a passing fad.