For decades, big budget video games were designed to look like films.
Why not? Films became, in the 20th century, the most popular form of storytelling. Spread across dozens of genres and forms, films can be funny or sad, artsy or pedestrian, unabashedly childish or confidently mature. They play on towering screens in Times Square theaters just as well as they do on bedsheets strung from tree to tree in a backyard patio. People who sit at sturdy tables made of exotic woods and drink tiny bottles of electrolyte water invest hundreds of millions of dollars into films, so that they can screen at massive temples across the world where countless strangers spend their afternoons and evenings watching quietly, communally, and in the dark. Films retain a power and cultural capital that many people who publish video games envy.
For the most part, the people who have made and criticized films over the past two decades have shared little love for video games — which remains to be perceived, by skeptics, as a half-formed medium for puerile loners swilling Mountain Dew and struggling to bleach Cheetos stains from their sweatpants. Studios have occasionally taken interest in video games in the way coastal businessmen eyed mining towns. A series of middling to terrible game-to-movie adaptations tried to harvest games of their audiences, leaving both filmmakers and game publishers bitter and skeptical. Every now and then a studio returns to adapt a video game, like it’s some trendy form of masochism unique to the bouge neighborhoods of Los Angeles. To this day, film critics use video games as pejorative when describing lesser films that are too frenetic or emotionally vacant. When sought for approval, the most famous and beloved film critic of them all, the late Roger Ebert, lifted his nose in disgust, declaring "video games can never be art."
Film’s disinterest was, for the games industry, intoxicating. The one-sided romance peaked in the mid-2000s, alongside the release of consoles that could create emotive, lifelike characters in believable three-dimensional worlds. Cinematic games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto flagrantly pastiched action films from the 1950s to the 1990s, homaging filmmakers from David Lean to Michael Mann. Stylized cutscenes looked like adult versions of popular computer-animated film, and made for effective marketing, the latter of which copied the movie trailer formula down to the second.
Cinematic games helped popularize the medium
Both series, and other cinematic video games, achieved staggering success, accumulating billions of dollars in the decade that followed. Video games began to appear in mainstream outlets, like The New York Times, USA Today, and a hodgepodge of morning and evening news programs.
At this same moment in time, Sony presented its new PlayStation 3 not only as a game console, but also as the heart of the home theater. Along with playing games, it also was the best and most affordable option for the new Blu-ray format. The console, Sony hoped, would entice film lovers to try video games.
A new adventure game, called Uncharted, would be the gateway. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune — the full title — introduced the world to treasure-hunter Nathan Drake, a likable everyman with gelled hair and a thermal sweater. He looked like he got lost on his way to an Old Navy commercial cattle call, and, by gosh, he landed the role! While other games borrowed from war, crime, and sci-fi cinema, Uncharted cribbed liberally from the action serials produced at Republic Pictures in the 1930s. In Uncharted, there was a pleasant cognitive loop: the young video game medium trying to discover itself by imitating film’s own era of self-discovery.
More than its contemporaries, 'Uncharted' plays like a movie
While Uncharted wasn’t the most financially successful of the cinematic game franchises, hamstrung playing on Sony hardware, it quickly became a critical darling. More than any of its contemporaries, the series managed to conjure that sensation of a summer blockbuster — not just in the movie’s story, but in the experience of being caught up in an adventure so compelling that you feel, if only for a moment, that you’re there. The series was transportive, and each release felt, perhaps because of its comparative scarcity, like an overdue vacation.
Uncharted 4, released this week, is both the culmination of the franchise, and the pinnacle of the games-as-films craze. To say one plays the introductory hours of Nathan Drake’s latest adventure — which opens with a beautiful, albeit tedious, boat chase in which the player veers a boat left and right into enemy vessels yielding comical overreaction, detonating into columns of fire and debris — would inspire a pedantic debate on the definition of the word play. The adventure doesn’t rush to be more than a series of cutscenes interrupted by spartan controllable sequences where the player learns how to walk on the game’s invisible path of progress.
Though as far as a trail of breadcrumbs goes, this one is delicious. The dialogue throughout these guided tours has the flow and concision of good theater. The pithy snark of previous games has been replaced with an acute existential angst that evolves Nathan Drake from a quirky matinee hero to the male protagonist de rigueur; the kind of successful middle-aged man that conceals his reprehensible behavior behind good looks, buckets of charm, and moral gymnastics. This is Nathan Drake as the contemplative man torn between the adventures of his past and the domesticity of his present. This is Uncharted in the Netflix age.
This is 'Uncharted' in the Netflix age
Uncharted 4 as a work of film is good, great even, and no less modern in tone and structure than what’s playing on television, let alone at a movie theater. And its minimalistic gameplay, early on, is just enough to keep the player engaged without distracting them from dialogue, which does the heavy lifting of playing catch-up on a story roughly 27 hours in. Were it a film, Uncharted 4 could make a handsome sum in royalties for the number of times it will undoubtedly appear at Hollywood conferences and summits, where it will be picked apart for lessons on how to create the future of interactive cinema.
And were it a film still, it would surely get nominated for those Oscars given before the main festivities, the ones that honor technological and artistic craftsmanship. Technical achievement mixes with impeccable art design to give a generic, mid-construction bridge the gravitas and sunny warmth of of a William Turner painting, and that says nothing of the grandeur of larger set pieces, like a snow-packed Scottish hillside. Like its scriptwriters, Uncharted 4 artists have learned a fine touch is often superior to flash and decadence, letting their landscapes be void of business save for a selective inclusion of small details. A dimly lit castle on the horizon. The froth of the ocean lapping against the rocks beneath our hero, who makes a habit of dangling from precarious rocks. The muddy water built up at the bottom of a hill on the savannah. Uncharted 4 doesn’t look like most movies; it looks better.
Uncharted arrives with surprisingly few peers. The linear, one-time adventures of the past are no longer recognized as a practical investment by most video game publishers. In the last decade, publishers saw linear games as foundations on which to build larger, cross-media ambitions. A game like Uncharted could inspire a comic book or a film, and each would feed into the others’ hype. But Uncharted’s film adaptation (in development for half a decade) is stalled yet again. The same can be said for many of Uncharted’s contemporaries.
For big budget games, being cinematic isn't enough
Destiny, The Division, and Grand Theft Auto V — three of the best selling and most popular big budget games from recent years — feature open worlds and cooperative multiplayer modes that encourage players to replay the same stages ad nauseam, first as narrative experiences, and many more times as excuses to spend time online with friends. If games in the past aspired to be like the movies, games in the present aspire as much, if not more, to be like bars.
Earlier this spring, Microsoft released Quantum Break, its own cinematically aspirational franchise, originally pitched as the merger of film and games for the Xbox One, the company’s would-be all-in-one media machine. The project, which rotated gameplay with live-action TV episodes, suffered numerous setbacks and redesigns, and released to tepid reviews and sales.
Games publishers appear less interested now in adaptations for other mediums. Expanding what can be done with the games themselves is plenty lucrative, and far easier for publishers to control. An expansive, evolving game world — a platform, as publishers call it — can be be used to attract perpetual attention in the worlds of Twitch streams, e-sports, and online adventures that entice players to spend more money on and time with supplemental content long after their initial purchases. In 2011 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of video games as art, granting them cultural cache, along with certain creative and commercial freedoms. Video games no longer need other mediums to leech for relevancy or authority or artistic integrity.
Even 'Call of Duty' has evolved
Call of Duty, arguably the most successful video game franchise ever, is known for its cinematic single-player campaign, and this year’s entry, Infinite Warfare, boasts senior talent that previously worked on the Uncharted series. But even these games, which supplicate before the altar of Bruckheimer, have expanded to include cooperative side-missions, character customization, and, last year, the choice to play any of the game’s chapters in any order, allowing players to scramble the narrative flow. Each new Call of Duty comes with with a full game’s worth of secondary modes, specifically a multiplayer mode, void of story, that has become a popular e-sport.
If any popular, big budget franchise still aligns with Uncharted 4 it’s Tomb Raider. The adventure series, which has seen the games industry change dramatically in its 20-year run, inspired the original Uncharted, and the two franchises have been learning from one another ever since. Both are about young treasure hunters, both skew toward sci-fi conclusions, both are indebted to Indiana Jones, the films that dug into the tombs of the Hollywood Studio lot and uncovered those long dead adventure serials of the 1930s. But the recent reboot of Tomb Raider, along with last year’s sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, provides a picture of what an Uncharted game built for the current industry climate would look like.
In Rise of the Tomb Raider, the player handpicks the abilities of Lara Croft, along with her weapons, ammunition, supplies, and outfits. While missions follow relatively straight lines, the adventure at large is set in an open world pocketed with a bounty of distractions. And each encounter feels like an opportunity for the player to be expressive, albeit through the medium of violence. Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t match Uncharted in terms of memorability. The story is smart B-movie fare, but plot exists in the periphery, like a doting parent that’s watching her children figure out what they want to do on their own. Because the game’s world is larger, and the player’s path is uncertain, Rise of the Tomb Raider lacks the detailing of Uncharted 4, where one walk across a rope bridge feels as if dozens of artists sunk weeks into its each splintering plank of wood — because they almost certainly did.
As if weeks of design went into each splintering bridge
Over its three sequels, the Uncharted series has flirted with design trends. A number of the puzzles in Uncharted 3 partner Drake with a team of allies, and hint at what could have been a co-operative mode. And Uncharted 4’s marketing sells the game as "wide-linear," which is to say there are many moments, particularly in the back half of the game, in which the game loosens the the leash and encourages the player to improvise, rather than reciting the script. But mostly, these moments — which are harrowing and unforgettable — are sleights of hand designed to trick the player into thinking they have control of a movie. An astonishing car chase through a village offers numerous paths, but they don’t branch so much as they funnel, all leading to the same endpoint. The experience is like reading a choose-your-own adventure in which each page has multiple choices, and they all lead to the next page, which offers more choices, and eventually you realize this book is pushing forward in chronological order, and the biggest change you can make would be to quit reading — or in the case of this game, disobey the invisible line of progress, at which point some gun-wielding maniac or loose boulder or unseen booby trap will kill Nathan Drake, and give you a second shot at doing what the game needs you to do. The best way to enjoy Uncharted, like a movie, is to be passive.
The series has, for awhile now, featured multiplayer. It’s a fun sandbox for gunplay, where players are free to create their own action. The mode has yet to approach the level of popularity — and arguably, the creativity — of any of the games mentioned above. Perhaps because Uncharted simply isn’t that sort of game.
In a 2015 interview, the voice of Nathan Drake, actor Nolan North, was asked about the troubled Uncharted films. "My opinion on this — from what I've heard from fans — is they don't want a movie, no matter who's the star of it," North said. "Maybe it's because [the Uncharted series] is such a cinematic experience in and of itself."
"[Fans] don't want a movie"
North’s comments are, it would seem, in reference to the severe fan backlash from years prior, when the Uncharted film was in development with director David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg. The two had just come off the Academy Award-nominated film The Fighter, but the Hollywood A-listers were treated as hostile outsiders. To temper the flames, the director shared his thoughts on video games.
"To grow a game into a movie is an interesting proposition because a game is a very different experience than a movie," said Russell in an interview with SlashFilm. "You guys are playing the game, and it’s about playing the game. It’s not about a narrative embracing you emotionally. You know what I’m saying? So, I want to create a world that is worthy of a really great film that people want to watch and re-watch, so that’s what I’m working on right now."
"I’m very respectful as far as the core content and spirit of the game," Russell continued, "but beyond that it’s my job as a filmmaker to make what I think is going to be an amazing movie. People have to trust that and let that go, I think. There’s not a bunch of movies you can point to that are made from games that are amazing movies, that stand up to time as a franchise or as [individual films]."
Russell's comments didn't win over fans — the director left the project shortly after — though they did, ironically, define the tension on which the series is built. Like Nathaniel Drake living the double life of adventurer and suburbanite, Uncharted is torn between video game and film, interactive and passive, play and plot.
In Uncharted 4, the series’ new directors, Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, have done what David O. Russell originally sought out to do. Their Uncharted is respectful to the core themes of franchise, but rather than design a game that people would want to play and replay, they produced something that will be watched and re-watched. Druckmann and Straley made a fantastic Uncharted movie, and, in some perverse fashion, the first great film adapted from the world of games. That it arrives in an era of Twitch, where watching others play video games online is nearly as common, Uncharted, intentionally or not, has finally, and cosmically, aligned with industry trends.
In the early chapters of Nathan Drake’s purportedly final adventure, he and his wife, Elena, talk about their new, domestic lives as they eat dinner on the couch in front of the TV in their cozy home. The two play a video game to determine who will do the dishes. Elena turns on her original PlayStation — the system that welcomed Sony to the video game industry and gave Uncharted developer Naughty Dog its first success. But to Drake it’s as unfamiliar and foreign as one of the relics he’d find in an ancient tomb, though hardly as interesting. Video games, for him, are playful toys measured in points. Disinterested, Drake sets down the controller, leaves home, and charts his own adventure.