Film Crit Hulk Smash: UNCHARTED 4 And The Merits Of Cinematic Gaming

HULK dives back into the marriage of movies and gaming.

A FEW MONTHS AGO HULK PLAYED THE UNCHARTED SERIES FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER.

IT WAS PRETTY OKAY!

THE FIRST ENTRY UNCHARTED: DRAKE'S FORTUNE IS PERHAPS BEST DEFINED AS BEING "VIDEO GAMEY" IN A WAY THAT IS FITTING FOR A GAME THAT'S ALMOST A DECADE OLD. IT'S RUNNING AND JUMPING AND SHOOTING WITH A LOT OF RAILS AND NOT MUCH IN TERMS OF BEING DYNAMIC THEREIN. IT PERFECTLY ENCAPSULATES THAT TREND YOU SEE A LOT IN VIDEO GAMES SERIES WHERE THE FIRST ENTRY IS MORE OF A "YOU CAN SEE WHAT THEY'RE GOING FOR" THING AND THE FOLLOWUPS ARE THE PROPER ARTICULATION OF THAT INTENT. TO WIT, UNCHARTED 2: AMONG THIEVES IS THE STANDOUT OF THE BUNCH. IT'S NOT JUST THE SLIGHT-BUT-IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENTS IN BASIC GAMEPLAY, IT'S THAT IT TAKES THOSE FUN CHARACTERS AND CRAFTS A TRULY PULPY YARN; THE WITTY BANTER FEELS MORE ORGANIC, IT SETS UP FUN CHARACTER DYNAMICS. THE CONFLICT ACTUALLY MAKES FOR FAIRLY FUN REVERSALS AND INVERSIONS. IT DOESN'T MATTER THAT THE PLOT IS A RE-TREAD, IT'S A BETTER EXECUTION SO HULK GENUINELY HAD A BLAST PLAYING IT. BUT THE NEXT ENTRY, UNCHARTED 3: DRAKE'S DECEPTION SUFFERS FROM CLASSIC SEQUELITIS. THERE'S SOME GOOD STUFF, BUT EVERYTHING IS SO DESPARATE TO FEEL BIGGER, THE REVERSALS PILE UP WITHOUT MEANING, CONFLICTS GET MUDDIED, AS DO THE VILLAIN'S MOTIVATIONS. IT'S ALL THE CLASSIC PROBLEMS OF VALUING AFFECTATION OVER FUNCTION. ULTIMATELY, IT DOESN'T MATTER THAT THE GAMEPLAY IS EVEN BETTER, THE STORY JUST FALLS FLAT, ESPECIALLY WITH THE GAME'S HO-HUM ENDING.

BUT THIS WEEK HULK PLAYED THE NEWLY-RELEASED UNCHARTED 4: A THIEF'S END AND IT IS SAFE TO SAY THERE IS A NOTICEABLE LEAP IN QUALITY, DEPTH, AND STORYTELLING. AND IT'S NOT JUST BECAUSE IT WAS RELEASED ON A GRAPHICALLY-IMPROVED NEXT GEN CONSOLE. THE GAME IS GREAT FOR A SIMPLE REASON:

IT UNDERSTANDS HOW TO TELL A STORY CINEMATICALLY.

THIS IS PROBABLY BECAUSE THE GAME IS PARTLY THE BRAIN CHILD OF WRITER / DIRECTOR NEIL DRUCKMAN, WHO LEAPT TO THE FOREFRONT OF THE INDUSTRY A FEW YEARS AGO WITH THE LAST OF US, A GAME HULK'S BEEN MEANING TO WRITE ABOUT FOR SOME TIME.

LARGELY BECAUSE IT'S ONE OF THE BEST VIDEO GAMES EVER.

NOW, THESE KINDS OF SUPERLATIVES TEND TO INSPIRE DEBATE AND THAT'S NOT HULK'S INTENTION. IN THE VERY LEAST, HULK HOPES WE CAN COLLECTIVELY ADMIT THAT THE LAST OF US NOT ONLY SHOWCASES AN ADEPT UNDERSTANDING OF CHARACTERIZATION, THEME, AND STORYTELLING, BUT IT ACTUALLY MANAGES TO SHOWCASE THEM WITH SUBTLETY AND NUANCE. FOR THE ROUNDED CHARACTERS ARE WRITTEN WITH FULL-ON PSYCHES AND A RANGE OF EMOTIONAL CAPABILITIES, ALL OF WHICH ARE REVEALED WITHIN A COHERENT DRAMATIC STRUCTURE. AND IT PULLS OUT REMARKABLE PERFORMANCES FROM ITS CAST. WE'RE TALKING BEAUTIFUL, EMOTIONALLY AFFECTING WORK SUPPORTED BY ANIMATORS WHO UNDERSTAND THE CRAFT OF ACTING, FOR ENTIRE EMOTIONAL BEATS CAN PLAY OUT WITH A LOOK OR GESTURE. BETTER YET, IT ACTUALLY UNDERSTANDS HOW TO TAKE THOSE FEELINGS AND MAKE HULK ACTIVELY CARE ABOUT THE GAME'S COMBAT AND FRET FOR SURVIVAL. ON A PURE GAMING LEVEL, IT STRIKES THAT PERFECT BALANCE OF FEELING UNDER-POWERED, UNDER-AMMO-ED, BUT NEVER QUITE HOPELESS. LIKEWISE, IT UNDERSTANDS RHYTHMS OF CONFLICT, TOO. RATHER THAN SLOGGING THROUGH GUNFIGHT AFTER GUNFIGHT (LIKE THE EARLIER UNCHARTED GAMES CAN DO), THE GAME BALANCES THE RHYTHM OF STEALTH COMBAT AND FIREFIGHTS WITH NICE "BREATHERS" OF STORY / CHARACTER DRIVEN BEATS OF PURE LEVEL NAVIGATION. AND THESE BEATS CAN PLAY A NUMBER OF DIFFERENT WAYS, TOO. SOMETIMES THEY AIM FOR TENSION AND HORROR, OTHER TIMES THEY MINE BEAUTY FROM THEIR AWE-INSPIRING LANDSCAPES (THE GIRAFFES!). IT'S A GAME WHERE HULK TRULY FELT THE GAMUT OF EMOTIONS AND EXPERIENCES. BUT THE LAST OF US IS PERHAPS BEST REMEMBERED FOR ITS ENDING; A BEAUTIFUL, SUBTLE STORY CHOICE THAT LEFT DRAMA-SEEKERS TO WHISPER A THOUGHTFUL "HOLY SHIT, THEY WENT FOR COMPLEXITY!" AND ALSO LEFT LOT OF PEOPLE - WHO EXPECT TO SAVE THE WORLD IN EVERY VIDEO GAME THEY PLAY - REALLY CONFUSED AND MAYBE EVEN ANGRY. PERHAPS BECAUSE IT WAS A GAME TRYING TO MAKE A DEFINITIVE STATEMENT ABOUT WHAT "SAVING THE WORLD" EVEN MEANS.

AND NOW IT IS SAFE TO SAY THAT DRUCKMAN AND THE GREAT NAUGHTYDOG TEAM HAS TAKEN THE LESSONS OF THE LAST OF US AND BROUGHT THEM INTO THE UNCHARTED WORLD, WITH AN EFFECTIVENESS THAT SURPRISED EVEN HULK. BECAUSE, SURE, HULK ALWAYS LIKED THE CHARACTERS IN THE UNCHARTED SERIES. THEY WERE BIG, GRUFF, AND FUNNY ARCHETYPES THAT CARRIED THE PULPY SERIES WITH GUSTO. BUT PRIOR TO PLAYING THIS ONE, HULK ACTUALLY THOUGHT THE IDEA OF GOING "MORE SERIOUS" WITH THE SERIES WOULD BE A CRUCIAL MISSTEP.

BUT THANKFULLY HULK WAS AN IDIOT! BECAUSE IT TURNS OUT THEY JUST WENT "MORE HUMAN." FOR IT'S THE SAME NATHAN DRAKE, BUT SUDDENLY HE'S A FULL-ON FLESH AND BLOOD HUMAN BEING HERE. SOMEONE MIXED WITH REGRET, PATHOS, FEAR, AND GENUINE LOVE (SPOILERS AND SHIT THROUGHOUT FROM NOW ON). FROM THAT VERY FIRST SCENE WITH ELENA YOU'RE LIKE "HOLY CRAP, WE'RE WATCHING TWO PEOPLE IN AN ACTUAL MARRIAGE." THERE'S REAL INTIMATACY AND HISTORY HERE. AND IT MANAGES TO CAPTURE SUCH A NUANCED UNDERSTANDING OF THAT CRUCIAL SPACE BETWEEN AFFECTION AND EMOTIONAL DISTANCE; ONE THAT BUILDS TO A HEARTBREAKING LIE THAT ACTUALLY MADE HULK GO "OOOOOOOOOH SNAP" OUT LOUD (THERE WAS NO ONE ELSE IN THE ROOM). 

THE GAME EMOTIONALLY BUILDS FROM THERE. DECEPTION PLAYS FOR ACTUAL HEARTBREAK. AND HULK KNOWS YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, BUT ON A STORY LEVEL WE GENUINELY JOURNEY WITH NATHAN TO THE REDISCOVERY OF EXUBERANCE, TO DESPAIR, TO ATONEMENT, TO THE CLIMACTIC MOMENT OF GROWTH WHERE, AS HULK DISCUSSED WITH A FRIEND, IT WAS ONE OF THE RARE MOMENTS IN A VIDEO GAME WHERE A BIG CHARACTER TURN ACTUALLY REFLECTS HOW HULK WAS FEELING DRAMATICALLY IN THAT SAME MOMENT. IT'S AN AMAZING THING YOU RARELY SEE IN GAMES. GENUINE AND TRUE DRAMATIC CATHARSIS WITH A CHARACTER ARC. AND SURE, THERE ARE THINGS TO COMPLAIN ABOUT SOMETIMES IN THE GAME, BUT ALL THOSE COMPLAINTS ARE VIDEO GAMEY NITPICKS (CAN'T GET OVER THE WALL? DUDE, HULK CAN SEE YOUR ROPE!) - NOTHING BUT MORE PROOF THAT NITPICKS AND "PLOT HOLES" DON'T ACTUALLY MATTER WHEN THE STORY WORKS LIKE GANGBUSTERS.

AND THE STORY WORKS LIKE GANGBUSTERS BECAUSE IT UNDERSTANDS HOW TO TELL THAT STORY CINEMATICALLY.

YUP, ALMOST ALL THIS STUFF IS DONE IN CUT-SCENES. WHICH DRAGS US KICKING AND SCREAMING RIGHT BACK TO THE DEBATE WE'VE BEEN HAVING FOREVER ABOUT HOW GAMES "WORK." ONE OF THE POPULAR ARGUMENTS OF WHICH IS THAT BECAUSE GAMES ARE CENTERED AROUND INTERACTIVITY AND CONTROL, THEN A GAME SHOULD NEVER "BREAK AWAY" TO CINEMATICS. AFTER ALL, CUT SCENES "ALWAYS SUCK" AND ARE SKIPPABLE SO WHY NOT PUT ALL THE STORY INTO THE DIRECT ENVIRONMENTAL EXPERIENCE? IT'S A THEORY SEEMINGLY CONFIRMED BY GAMES LIKE BIOSHOCK AND GONE HOME, WHICH USE ENVIRONMENTAL STORYTELLING BEAUTIFULLY, WHILE CINEMATIC DYSFUNCTION IN GAMES IS SEEMINGLY JUSTIFED BY THE SHORTCOMINGS OF BEYOND TWO SOULS AND THE WORK OF DAVID CAGE. BUT WHILE HULK AGREES INTERACTIVITY IS WHAT CERTAINLY MAKES VIDEO GAMES UNIQUE, IT'S NOT WHAT MAKES THEM "INHERENTLY GOOD." THE TRUTH IS, INTERACTIVITY IS JUST A STORYTELLING / ENGAGEMENT TOOL LIKE ANY OTHER.

ULTIMATELY, FUNCTION IS BUILT OF FUNCTIONAL USE OF AN ASPECT. NOTHING MORE, NOTHING LESS.

THUS, IT ONLY SEEMS LIKE CINEMATIC GAMING IS "WRONG" BECAUSE MOST OF THE CINEMATIC STUFF IN GAMES HAS BEEN TERRIBLE. WE'RE TALKING BIG FLASHY ANIMATIONS THAT MAKE YOUR EYES GLAZE OVER. OR NEEDLESS EMOTIONAL TEXTURE WITHOUT ANY ACTUAL DRAMATIC MEAT. HULK'S SORRY BUT MOST OF THE CINEMATIC STYLINGS AND WRITING OF GAMES IS STUFF THAT LITERALLY UNDERSTANDS NOTHING ABOUT CHARACTER / STORY ON ANY LEVEL, LET ALONE STUFF LIKE PACING AND SUBTLETY. BUT NOW WITH NAUGHTYDOG'S THE LAST OF US, UNCHARTED 4 AND THE OUTSTANDING WRITING OF GAME LIKE WITCHER 3, WE CAN HOPEFULLY DO AWAY WITH THE RIDICULOUS CONVENTIONAL WISDOM THAT CINEMATIC INTEGRATION INHERENTLY MAKES GAMES BAD. BECAUSE AGAIN, IT'S JUST A TOOL. AND THAT TOOL CAN BE USED WELL OR USED POORLY. ALL THE ABOVE GAMES WOULD SUFFER HORRIBLY IF THE GAMEPLAY ASPECTS WERE UNBEARABLE.

BUT THAT "GOES WITHOUT SAYING" TO MOST GAMING CULTURE - WHICH JUST HIGHLIGHTS A TREND OF THINKING THAT HULK'S ALWAYS FOUND WORRISOME: THE IDEA THAT THERE'S SOME INHERENTLY GOOD OR "CORRECT" WAY TO APPROACH MAKING A VIDEO GAME, AKIN TO THE IDEA THAT STORY OR FUNCTION CAN BE "HACKED" INSTEAD OF ARRIVED AT THROUGH DILIGENT, OFTEN DIFFICULT WORK. ANY GOOD PROGRAMMER KNOWS THE MERITS OF TRIAL AND ERROR AND ANY GOOD GAMER WILL READILY UNDERSTAND THE NOTION OF TOILING ENDLESSLY TO WORK OUT THE GAMEPLAY KINKS IN SOMETHING LIKE THE OVERWATCH BETA - WHILE ULTIMATELY MISSING THE LESSONS THAT APPLY TO LARGER POINTS OF STORYTELLING FUNCTIONALITY. CINEMATIC STORYTELLING MAY BE MORE ETHEREAL, BUT UNDERNEATH IT IS A CONFIRMATION OF A LESSON THAT HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE SAME:

TELL GOOD STORIES AND PEOPLE WILL CARE.

TELL BAD STORIES AND PEOPLE WILL ASK WHY THEY AREN'T USING THEIR CONTROLLER TO DO STUFF.

<3 HULK

Related Articles

Comments