ROMANTIC AF, or, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

uncharted4

<3 <3 <3 Rated T <3 <3 <3

The recipe for a blockbuster these days is essentially a concoction of action, drama and comedy. For example, you’ve got your Marvel movies, which tend to ratchet up the comedy to great effect, you’ve got the grandiose films of Christopher Nolan that crack up the drama, you’ve got the James Bond franchise, which more often than not seems to be written around action sequences and you’ve got The Force Awakens, which is arguably a near perfect cocktail of the three. But there’s more to life than action and drama and comedy.

Where’s the romance, gang? Where is the romance?

Romance almost seems like a bad word. At its best it conjures up adjectives like “sappy” and “mushy” and at its worst it disproportionately marginalizes women, turning them into tired variables within the machinery of the story. Both are reasons I could see used for straying away from romance in storytelling. Not every story needs to have romance. There’s an endless list of movies that suffer because of the misguided notion that every protagonist needs to have a love interest. Not every hero needs to have a love interest. Captain America: Winter Soldier is proof of that.

But I suspect the real underlying reason that romance is a waning presence in blockbuster storytelling is a lot more straightforward. It’s hard to do.

Films like Jurassic World or Captain America: Civil War sprinkled in a romantic seasoning to jarring, arguably laughable effect. A kiss in Civil War between characters who’ve shared maybe 13 minutes of screen time is particularly peculiar given that the film is built on the poignancy of relationships thirteen films in the making.

Inversely you have the likes of Deadpool, which some have argued is a straight up romance, in which the female love interest, while certainly charming, ultimately feels like little more than a MacGuffin.

Then you have Amazing Spider-Man 2, which does the romance so, so well and everything else so, so poorly.

For a storyteller I can imagine it wouldn’t seem worth it to inject romance into your story. Too much and you turn characters into plot points, not enough and it feels disjointed and silly. Why bother?

Enter Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, a flowing banner for romance done right. It may be a video game, but make no mistake Uncharted 4 is undoubtedly one of the biggest, most exhilarating blockbusters of the year.

The fourth installment in developer Naughty Dog’s action/adventure video game franchise, Uncharted 4 continues the story of Nathan Drake, the most charming collection of pixels and soundbites in all of gaming.

Uncharted 4 finds the former thrill-seeking treasure hunter living a quiet, routine life with former globe-trotting documentarian Elena. We spend time in their quainter life, wandering the relics of the attic, perusing the fridge and generally bandicooting about. It’s a nice, relaxing segment early in the game, but it’s hardly something you’d want to spend ten plus hours playing through and similarly it becomes quickly apparent that while Nathan and Elena’s life is perfectly lovely, it hardly seems like a routine they’d want to keep up for any extended period of time.

It’s that tug of war between nice enough and genuinely fulfilling that serves as the backbone to Uncharted 4’s story, which gets off the ground when, as expected, circumstances drag Nathan Drake back into his old life.

Every set piece and action sequence and headshot in Uncharted 4 is heightened because of Nathan and Elena’s relationship to each other and their respective perceptions of their shared life. I didn’t want Uncharted 4 to end because it was fun as hell (particularly after having spent a month with Dark Souls III) but often enough I found myself wishing the adventure were over because I wanted Nathan and Elena to go back to their life together and find some resolution to that aforementioned tug of war.

Nathan and Elena love each other, but neither of them is being honest with the other or themselves. It’s a compelling enough narrative in its own right but between the dutiful writing of Neil Druckman and Josh Scherr and the untouchable motion capture and voice performances from Nolan North and Emily Rose it’s so good and so poignant that I found myself ruminating on it when I should have been paying attention to the mercenary army I was running over with a jeep.

Every time I entered a new environment or hid at the precipice of an inevitable firefight I found myself at once thinking both “oh hell yeah, let’s bust some skulls/climb some rocks/use some winches” and “Nathan you should not be here, what are you doing with your life.”

Inversely, when Nathan and Elena communicated with each other and got along I found I had a certain spring in my thumbs while I shot antagonists in the chest with a shotgun.
Uncharted 4 is a testament to the power of romance.

I’m really pulling for Naughty Dog to use that blurb for the Game of the Year edition.

Romance is not a mandate. It doesn’t belong in every story. Sometimes you just want to watch a dinosaur eat people, or Nicolas Cage infiltrate Alcatraz, or Harry meeting someone else. But Uncharted 4 goes to show that when romance is injected into a story thoughtfully, with honest consideration paid to all the characters involved, it can throw new colors and cast new shades onto even the lushest, most vibrant pallet.

Romance doesn’t have to be Hugh Grant or a baseless kiss over the corpse of a pterodactyl. It can be so much more. Among the towering heap of praise Uncharted 4 has been amassing, its handling of the romantic should be near the top.

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The Head and the Heart, or, My 2013 Game of the Year

Halfway through the year it became pretty clear to me, and probably a bunch of other folks too, that my game of the year was going to be a tug of war between Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us.

I know about PowerPoint.

I know about PowerPoint.

There was a pretty solid helping of great games that came out in 2013, but none of them took hold of my thoughts and feelings quiet as forcefully as Bioshock and The Last of Us.

Readers may bemoan my omission of Grand Theft Auto V as a contender for the best game of 2013, but for all of Rockstar Studio’s satirical witticism and over the top gameplay the thin venire of sarcasm draped over every moment of GTAV kept it from reaching the earnest emotional or contemplative heights of Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us. GTAV is a terrific piece of pop art, but it never quite punched me straight in the heart or sent my brain into overdrive.

Those thoughtful and emotive heights were reached in large part due to fantastic acting in both games. You can’t have a discussion of The Last of Us or Bioshock without touching on the acting.

The lead in both games, Troy Baker, has been on fire this year, not only taking on the roles of Joel in The Last of Us and Booker DeWitt in Infinite, but also inheriting the role of the Joker form the legendary Mark Hamill in the Batman game Arkham Origins.

Troy Baker: Father of the Year

Troy Baker: Father of the Year

Joel is an older, ragged southerner. Booker is a veteran of the American Indian Wars working as a detective in the Northeast. They’re very different characters who inhabit very different worlds and yet Baker perfectly inhabits both of them, and through Baker, you the player inhabit Booker and Joel as they move through their respective worlds.

Yet Joel and Booker would be nothing without their respective wards, Ellie and Elizabeth. Both are young women with a unique secret, imprisoned by the constraints of dystopia. Ellie, played by Ashley Johnson, just might hold the key to humanity’s salvation in a post-apocalyptic United States. Elizabeth, played by Courtnee Draper, has super secrete theoretical physics powers, but is trapped in a tower on the floating Americana steampunk theocracy Columbia.

They’re both fully realized characters. They talk to you throughout the game, they wander off and are distracted by the world around them, they thank you, they hate you, they save you and you save them. In a medium that can all too often be reduced to shooting stuff, Elizabeth and Ellie put a very real, very human motivation behind pulling the trigger.

Elizabeth and Ellie are also anchors of realism in these games.

Ellie and chilling in gross mushroom America.

Ellie chilling in gross mushroom America.

The Last of Us takes place in a bleak future where America’s been reduced to a handful of military quarantine zones spread out amongst a vast wasteland of raiders and violence and disease. Oh, and mushroom monsters caused by a human-centric strain of cordyceps which has, for all intents and purposes, obliterated the world.

Bioshock Infinite stretches its imagination much further. Its setting, Columbia, is a city of dirigibles floating about the United States. It’s a haven of perverse Christian and American values and straight up old school racism that also happens to house one or two of the most brilliant minds in physics. Oh, and everybody has the ability to alter their genetic code so that they can shoot fire and electricity and crows from their wrists.

Both Columbia and the cordyceps-ridden U.S. are incredibly fleshed out worlds with dense histories and minute details that make them feel real, but it’s inhabitants like Ellie and Elizabeth that make the hearts of these fantastical worlds beat.

But Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us aren’t the same game, despite my lumping them together in nearly every respect thus far. Bioshock is a first person shooter. The Last of Us is third person. Bioshock takes place in the past. The Last of Us takes place in the future. This and that, so on and so forth. The most important distinction between Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us is that the former is an egg head and the latter wears its heart on its sleeve.

Elizabeth and the racist land of Columbia.

Elizabeth and the racist land of Columbia.

The Bioshock franchise has always been smart. The series’ first offering is just as much a first person shooter as it is an Ayn Rand novel. Bioshock Infinite is no exception. Where the underwater city of Rapture in the original Bioshock was a monument to the dangers of unchecked ambition fostered by philosophy and science, Columbia stands in stark contrast, a monument to unchecked authority fostered by blind patriotism and religious fanaticism.

But beyond its socio-political thesis Infinite soars to even greater academic heights. The conclusion of Bioshock Infinite bridges art and science, delves into the mathematical variables and equations of what a narrative is and questions the very construct of story.

It’s dense and dizzying and confusing and awesome.

On the flipside of that coin, The Last of Us asks us to question our morality and values and whether or not they represent the end-all, be-all spectrum of good and evil or the most convenient means of living safe and happy lives in the here and now.

Those questions aside, however, The Last of Us perhaps most memorably asks us to feel. It asks us to fight and kill for those feelings and at the end of it all the game, whether you agree or not, places a price on individual humanity and personal relationships and makes you pay it.

Bioshock Infinite wants you to play with your brain. The Last of Us wants you to play with your heart.

I’m a heart guy.

The Last of Us was my favorite game of 2013.

They wouldn't be making those stupid faces if they knew they were in the Pony Tricks Game of the Year.

They wouldn’t be making those stupid faces if they knew they were in the Pony Tricks Game of the Year.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t adore Bioshock Infinite. Or GTAV. Or Tomb Raider, or a handful of other games that came out this year. But sitting here in December it’s The Last of Us that continues to resonate with me over six months later.

2013 was a pretty badass year for games and that the medium was so effectively able to wield thought and emotion isn’t just impressive for individual games, it’s exciting for the industry as a whole. As my willpower begins to wear and I get closer and closer to shelling out money for a PS4 in 2014, it won’t be fancy graphics or apps or big name franchises that convince me to finally burn a hole in my wallet, it’ll be word of games that make you think and feel and that get people talking about more than just frame rates. Games like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. Are intellect or emotion important to you in gaming?

2. Did you prefer The Last of Us to Bioshock: Infinite, or vice versa? Did you prefer GTA V or another game over both?

3. Am I really going to have to get a PS4 next year?

 

Check out some of the other video game ramblings I partook in this year:

Arkham Origins

Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite again

Dead Space 3

Grand Theft Auto V

Injustice: Gods Among Us

LEGO: Marvel Superheroes

The Last of Us

Tomb Raider

Gaming and Fiction, or, I Enjoyed The Last of Us on Every Conceivable Level

I didn’t do much in the way of gaming before 2006 and I’ve never really regretted that. But few things’ reach and grasp are ever on par with one another, and by 2006 the PS3 and XBOX360 had given game developers the hardware to match their ambition. Kind of like how computer generate imaging gave George Lucas the ability to realize the full potential of the original Star Wars trilogy.

I sat down with a friend and watched him play the original Gears of War and it blew away my perceptions of what video games could be. In hindsight that notion is a little ridiculous because, let’s face it, its Gears of War, but at the time the last game I’d played with any real vigor starred Tony Hawk. 180-nollie-heel-flip-to-manual am I right? Gears had character and (melo)drama and an overwhelming sense of weight and scale. In the seven years since I first took on the locust horde the gaming industry has enhanced those elements tenfold and the results have been spectacular; Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2, Fallout 3, Red Dead Redemption, Bioshock. This generation of gaming has proven to be a wunderkind not only for the medium itself, but for media in general, and for my money The Last of Us is a perfect summation of the massive strides gaming has taken during this generation of consoles.

The Last of Us follows local sad sack Joel, a grizzled survivor in a post-apocalypse America who is tasked with smuggling Ellie, a fourteen-year-old who has known no life before the apocalypse, out of a quarantine zone in a presumably post-Wahlberg Boston and across the dilapidated ruins of America. And ruins have never looked so lovely.

#BBC

#BBC

The Last of Us is a gorgeous game, and a testament to how far console graphics have come in just a handful of years. Whether Joel and Ellie are creeping through blackened, collapsed subway tunnels, bolting through the remnants of a suburban high school or taking in the scenery of a cityscape overgrown with lush vegetation the attention to detail, aesthetic and atmosphere put the player right there with them.

That same attention to detail is put to use in character animations both in and out of gameplay. When Joel strangles some jive turkey to death it looks like muscles are being used and energy is being expelled. When Joel talks with Ellie in the moments free of immediate life-threatening danger the characters’ subtle facial expressions and mannerisms add nuance to the voice actors’ performances. Not that said acts need any assistance.

You cannot talk about The Last of Us without talking about actors and performances, which is in and of itself a testament both to the game in particular and gaming in general. In 2006 the notion of relating dramatic performance to gaming would have been entirely lost on me.

Driving. Just like real people.

Driving. Just like real people.

Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice Joel and Ellie respectively and their performances are the backbone of The Last of Us. I gave a shit about shanking the shiv out of fungus people with great stealth and subtlety because I could hear the fear and caution in Joel’s voice. Inversely, I could tell Ellie was distraught at times because she wasn’t talking. I probably spent more than 12 hours with Joel and Ellie working my way across America. By the end just as I knew how to shiv mushroom folk with a certain apocalyptic sangfroid and how the controls worked when wielding a bow and arrow I knew that even in the most dire of circumstances a relic of pre-pandemic America would invoke equal parts curiosity and disbelief in Ellie and that Joel’s nostalgia for the old world would creep up on him like a half-remembered TV show theme song.

Watching and listening to Joel and Ellie’s emotional journey unfold was every bit as captivating as playing through their geographical trek through the lavishly decaying American dystopia. Both journeys provide for phenomenal stories in their own right and together they prove a regular tour de force of thrilling shootouts, terrifying encounters and brass-knuckled emotional gut punches all culminating in a phenomenal ending that will keep you steeped in contemplation and consideration for days.

The Last of Us’ narrative is thoughtful, well-placed and engaging. It could have been a comic book, or a television show, or a movie. The Last of Us could have been a novel. But it isn’t. A narrative of this caliber is told through a video game with story beat after story beat perfectly executed and characters, themes and exposition fully realized.

In the waning years of the PS3 generation the video game has become a legitimately viable story telling medium on par with any other and The Last of Us is proof of that. Even when compared to post-apocalyptic peers in other media like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or TBS’ Falling Skies, or the multimedia juggernaut that is The Walking Dead, The Last of Us stands as the best piece of literature in the genre today.

It's downright Dickensian yo.

It’s downright Dickensian yo.

Ten years from now, when every other piece of fiction doesn’t revolve around the end of the world, looking back on the current fascination with the apocalypse and all that fascination says about this time and this place, The Last of Us won’t be a novelty footnote, it won’t be some video game, it’ll be a principal example of fiction circa 2013.

I swear.