How to Misunderstand Uncharted 3 (and Still Enjoy It)

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Uncharted 3 arrives tomorrow, or at midnight tonight for those who can't wait, or have tomorrow off, or just plan to roll today and tomorrow into one single, sleepless day. The consensus: Beloved by all, and probably game of the year for several.

At least one critic's sour on the gameplay, however, in what amounts to a pedantic screed about the game's cinematic tendencies. Said critic awards the game an 8 of 10, sending readers who can't see past an arbitrary number into fits, never mind that an 8 of 10's pretty blue ribbon. But that's not my quarrel with the review, which expends much of its space doling out backhanded compliments. It's that the author seems to paint the Uncharted series—and gaming in general—into a corner.

The complaint's that Uncharted's not forgiving or dynamic enough if you choose to deviate from script, that its focus on the "cinematic experience" supersedes its flexibility as a game. If you've played the last two, you probably know what's being referred to: the parts in this series where, playing as quip-a-minute action hero Nathan Drake, you try to zig when the game wants you to zag. Do so and you're gently turned away, or not-so-gently killed, say you drop from a ledge that's too high or miss an action sequence's execution cue. The author's conclusion: Daring design trumps daring spectacle, and freedom of choice "risks ruining the shot."

But Uncharted was never angling for Mario or Tomb Raider's M.O., much less Grand Theft Auto's. It's neither a platform nor a freeform game, where the challenge lies in exacting spatial estimates and edgewise balance, or crafting one of any number of solutions to punitive acrobatic challenges. In terms of this game's action sequences (to say nothing of the freeform gunplay), it wants you to succeed because that's the kind of game it is, which is to say, not a hideously difficult one. If you prefer that sort of game, see Dark Souls, which banishes authorial narrative—in which the design team's narrative rules are more mechanically felt—entirely.

But authorial narrative isn't intrinsically bad unless you're the sort of gamer who hates authorial narrative, or perhaps views gaming as reaching its apotheosis in something like "pure play," i.e. an infinite melange of seamlessly articulated and integrated choices. If you prefer that, fair enough, but understand that gaming, like observing, reading, or listening in relation to any form of art, isn't an either or proposition.

Uncharted 3, like its predecessors, is about inhabiting the sort of iconic milieus it quotes (all the post-Casablanca films and books), each one wrought in a kind of glorious imitative technicolor. It's about exploring those spaces, lingering over the high visual artistry (thus the optional treasure-hunting angle, designed to set you poking your nose into corners you might otherwise bypass). It's about deriving pleasure from the world's beautiful albeit improbable geometries, say a sun-dappled ruin with hunks of stone cover, scalable walls, and shadow-wrapped nooks (the one in particular I'm thinking of doubles as a brilliant tactical battleground). It's about finding the way forward at your own pace, searching for the next path or puzzle solution, each unfurling intuitively and crafted with wizard-like skill. It's also, though rarely, about completing set-piece challenges, like the one involving the out-of-control jeep in Uncharted 2. And it's sometimes about that because that's what games sometimes do. Whether the set piece is well-crafted is one thing, but I can't countenance the notion—and you shouldn't either—that removing choice in games is automatically undesirable, or evidence of towing-the-line design.

Incidentally, if you don't want hints, just disable them. The game defaults to hand-holding, true, but it's a mutable feature.

So no, I reject for choice-related reasons that the Uncharted series has settled for contrivance, or that its focus on propelling me forward, as a player, is artifice in lieu of artistry. These games aren't obstacle courses, they're games of exploration and puzzle-solving punctuated by more than competent third-person gunplay. Quibble about the opponent A.I., the quality of the puzzles, the necessity of the set pieces, or the banality of the environs all you like, but check the false dichotomies at the door.

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