Uncharted 4 and the blurry line between game and film

Uncharted 4 is the rare example of a action adventure game with emotional heft. It’s one thing to match expectations for pretty scenery, tight gameplay, and big set pieces. It’s another to have UC4 generate the emotions and surprise that I associate with a well crafted movie. Technological breakthroughs push the game into new territory.

That’s not to say story, dialogue and acting isn’t important. But gaming has reached the point where strong narratives are no longer revelatory. In recent years we’ve had the superb Tales From the Borderlands, Firewatch, and the Walking Dead series. Until Dawn and Heavy Rain also have their moments. And The Last of Us has a heartbreaking storyline that works on many levels.

UC4’s story is strong, but isn’t a high point for gaming. Graphics are the differentiating factor this round. It’s all in the faces.

Faces, of course, are the key to emotion. But much of it is subtle: a flinch, a dart of the eyes. Games generally can’t pull these smaller touches off. Granted, it’s gotten better; there are big jumps from Metal Gear Solid 2 (PS2) to L.A. Noire (PS3/Xbox 360) to Until Dawn (PS4). But these titles still have a believability gap.

UC4 pushes motion capture to a new level. Facial mapping is excellent; you see extra fluidity in the cheeks, eyes, and forehead. And it’s all done in engine, with seamless transitions between cutscene and controlled action. Aside from the initial boot into the game, there’s no loading screens. The extra horsepower also powers a more dynamic camera. There’s many shot reverse shot patterns, wide establishing shots from a crane, and other nods to film-like cinematography. (Warning: spoilers for UC4 below.)

Better fidelity gives UC4’s big twist – Sam Drake as unreliable narrator – its impact. Early in the game, Uncharted’s hero Nathan Drake is visited by his presumably dead brother Sam. Sam claims he escaped from prison with help from a criminal kingpin named Hector Alcazar. There’s a catch; Sam’s on the hook to deliver a long lost treasure from famed pirate Henry Avery within three months, or he’s dead.

It’s the story beat that drives the rest of the game’s narrative forward. You even play a chapter of the game controlling Sam through his prison escape. But as Nate finds out late in the game, none of this story is true; it’s all a fabrication to get his brother onboard with the race to Avery’s fortune. The reversal floored me.

For movies, this makes sense. Modern audiences are used to narrative twists, but not formal twists in cinematic technique. When we see something happen on screen, we’re conditioned to assume it actually happened. Showing unreliable narration on screen is rare, but when done well, it’s effective. Consider the punch of movies like The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, Memento, and Gone Girl.

Yet I almost never apply cinematic rules to a game. The graphical realism doesn’t cut it. I pick up a controller, and something feels different. But with UC4 the realism of the action and visuals tricked my brain into treating it like a good movie.

Again, it’s in the faces. I saw a threatening, sociopathic Alcazar threaten Sam with a knife to the throat. Sam plays a cool alpha male for most of UC4’s runtime, but with Alcazar, Sam looked rattled. And no loading screens or stutter from cut scene to action deepened the cinematic effect.

In fact, because I’m playing as these characters over an extended period – several films or an entire season of TV – the emotional attachment can be especially deep. It’s one thing for a cinematographer to use follow shots to have us sympathize with a character’s perspective. It’s another to actually control that character during the follow shot over a long period of time.

This doesn’t mean I’ll swap the Criterion Collection for my console anytime soon; game time is generally where my brain shuts off. But the fact that more games, especially those rooted in linear action adventure, can move me, is a great sign. One of UC4’s central themes is about getting older, settling down, and growing up. It’s great to see gaming move in a similarly mature direction.