Time Ex­tend

Naughty Dog’s tech­ni­cal jour­ney into the heart of a very hu­man tale, Un­charted 2: Among Thieves


The out­go­ing con­sole gen­er­a­tion’s legacy may very well be the per­fec­tion of the tightly fo­cused ten­hour cam­paign. If you de­fine it that way, then

Un­charted 2: Among

Thieves could claim to be the game of that gen­er­a­tion; not the best game, but the one that is em­blem­atic of tightly bound ad­ven­tures built on the thrills of big worlds and bom­bas­tic set-pieces. Naughty Dog’s mat­inée re­vival has mo­ments of tech­ni­cally as­tound­ing ac­tion; a lead character ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing an almost un­heard-of tonal range of ten­sion, com­edy and tragedy, where com­pa­ra­ble block­busters do anger as one long ma­chine-gun burst; plus it em­braces ideas of sto­ry­telling and en­ter­tain­ment that trig­ger a rare in­vest­ment in its cast. It is, in other words, a beau­ti­ful game that is also very good at peo­ple.

In­deed, it’s ac­com­plished at almost ev­ery­thing. Un­charted 2’ s open­ing dis­plays a ca­sual con­fi­dence of craft and an ea­ger­ness for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, break­ing in at the story’s half­way point and rein­tro­duc­ing us to hero Nathan Drake with snap­shot char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion: he’s bat­tered (“That’s my blood”), blithe (“That’s a lot of my blood”), and, sud­denly, he’s up­side down, a per­spec­tive yank turn­ing a sta­tion­ary train car­riage into a ver­tig­i­nous shaft. Drake plunges past seats and into the first of many hy­per­bolic trans­la­tions of cin­e­matic de­vices – here the tee­ter­ing moun­tain­side ve­hi­cle, but later a mov­ing train, the un­pinned grenade, and last-gasp fin­ger­tip hand­holds.

There’s some­thing overtly cin­e­matic in that open­ing: the for­mal­ist in­ter­rup­tion, a trick in­stinc­tively taken from the splice­and-join of film edit­ing; the pre­car­i­ous­ness of the train, a lit­eral cliffhanger. And it’s gen­er­ally agreed there’s some­thing overtly cin­e­matic in Un­charted 2 it­self. The game is sandy ad­ven­ture and sun­set ro­mance as seen down the sights of a pis­tol or on flick­er­ing screens since long be­fore In­di­ana Jones, hark­ing back to the time of Gunga Din. It is also the prob­lem­atic cul­mi­na­tion of Hol­ly­wood’s decades-long flir­ta­tion with games in the ob­ses­sive search for syn­ergy.

All of which is to say that Un­charted 2 not only bears highly vis­i­ble in­flu­ences from the movies, the ba­sic colour of its world taken from the themes and to­kens of bigscreen ro­man­tic ad­ven­ture, but that Naughty Dog’s rev­er­ence for story might have pro­duced the clos­est thing to con­ver­gence be­tween film and games that doesn’t in­volve a cab­i­net spin­ning a LaserDisc to cre­ate a car­toon dragon. The stu­dio has em­braced the craft of sto­ry­telling as taught by the film in­dus­try, and emerged with a new pro­duc­tion process that de­votes a sus­tained, ex­pen­sive amount of time (the irony of that syn­er­gis­tic urge – there is no short­cut to con­ver­gence) to per­for­mance cap­ture, to work­shop­ping and re­hearsal with ac­tors on a dig­i­tal sounds­tage. The re­sult is not a revo­lu­tion. Un­charted 2 does not solve the in­el­e­gance of the cutscene, and still needs to in­ter­rupt it­self in or­der to tell a story. And it does not broaden the cor­ri­dors of that tightly fo­cused ten-hour ex­pe­ri­ence – the game is re­lent­lessly lin­ear, a gilded cage of in­vis­i­ble walls and beau­ti­fully tex­tured bound­aries. This is where Un­charted 2’ s cin­e­matic-ness slides from cool ob­ser­va­tion to crit­i­cism. Is it even a game, re­ally? It’s so on-rails.

Let’s talk about trains, since we seem to be back on one. Wal­ter Murch, ed­i­tor of Apoc­a­lypse Now, once drew a link be­tween the rail­way and film, be­tween click­ety-clack tech­nolo­gies that run along tracks and their shared sense of per­cep­tion and me­chan­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity. It is, he said, to do with a way of see­ing the world. “There is the idea of the voy­age. Ev­ery voy­age is a story.”

This idea runs through Un­charted 2. The train wrecked and sus­pended in that open­ing is re­an­i­mated to be­come the ma­jor ac­tion beat of the game’s sec­ond act, where it car­ries Drake on a jour­ney to catch up with his own story. Con­sciously or not – and it’s hard to think it could have been to­tally un­in­ten­tional – Un­charted 2 has in­ter­nalised one of the great sym­bols of cin­ema, one of the first ob­jects to be filmed in Lu­mière’s L’ar­rivée D’un Train En Gare De La Cio­tat, scat­ter­ing apoc­ryphal au­di­ences ter­ri­fied of the on­rush­ing en­gine, and the heav­ing iron horse cen­tral to the Western. But the train is also a sym­bol of this gen­er­a­tion’s great form, the fo­cused, ten-hour sin­gle­player cam­paign – th­ese rails might leave lit­tle room for de­vi­a­tion,

but they of­fer a hell of a ride. This is still a game, just a dif­fer­ent form of play, one closer to the cin­ema, built on spec­ta­tor­ship and sym­pa­thy, an act of mime­sis.

When it’s not be­ing a sym­bol of am­bi­tion and con­ver­gence, Drake’s train jour­ney is the most as­ton­ish­ing few min­utes of play on PS3. The train rat­tles through a jun­gle so ap­par­ently end­less it ceases to be any­thing other than real, while Drake leaps, slugs and hip-fires his way from car­riage to car­riage, ev­ery­thing feel­ing de­tached and in­de­pen­dent, dy­namic and pre­car­i­ous. This is some­thing Un­charted 2 does with con­found­ing reg­u­lar­ity: de­liv­ers mo­ments that are im­pos­si­ble to play with­out clock­ing a jolt of con­spic­u­ous tech­ni­cal achieve­ment. It’s there in the open­ing, as the cam­era rushes out­ward to re­veal a cav­ernous drop and Hi­malayan scale. It’s there as Drake is hounded by a he­li­copter over the bak­ing rooftops of Kathmandu, rac­ing through cap­siz­ing build­ings and into im­pos­si­ble land­ings. And it’s there as a tank at­tacks a moun­tain-top vil­lage, punch­ing through stone-stacked houses and chas­ing Drake along walls and up stair­ways with spit­ting rakes of ma­chine-gun fire. Un­charted 2 emerges from Naughty Dog’s con­cep­tion of it­self as a company. It’s a company that tells sto­ries, but also one driven by tech­nol­ogy and a belief that tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ment, spec­ta­cle, can be beau­ti­ful in its own right. Ul­ti­mately, though, what makes

Un­charted 2 truly re­mark­able are its peo­ple, who are as bright and mem­o­rable as any of the things that crash or blow up inside it. Take Ten­zin the Ti­betan Sherpa, who finds Drake in the snow fol­low­ing his train derailment and brings the in­jured stranger to his vil­lage in the Hi­malayas (and then, ad­mit­tedly, helps him blow up that tank). His word­less friend­ship with Drake is forged in a sin­gle level (and not even one of the game’s best), travers­ing ice cav­erns and en­coun­ter­ing yetis, a sense of trust built through co­op­er­a­tion. The re­la­tion­ship is in­spired by Ico, PS2’s fairy­tale of com­pan­ions and cas­tles, and went on to in­form The Last Of Us. It’s an act of emo­tional play, of at­tach­ment and sym­pa­thy – and this sym­pa­thy, the game dis­cov­ers, pro­vides a more ur­gent mo­ti­va­tion for game­play than any reg­u­lar power fan­tasy or de­struc­tive urge. When the tank ar­rives, it threat­ens Ten­zin’s daugh­ter, and de­stroy­ing it be­comes an act of loy­alty – it’s not mean­ing­less fury, but di­rected, nu­anced out­rage. This is cin­e­matic play. As well as mys­ti­cal moun­tain men,

Un­charted 2 also de­liv­ers on over­looked ba­sics. The women in Drake’s life are un­usu­ally for­mi­da­ble. Chloe, played by Clau­dia Black, is marked by an un­com­mon depth of mo­ti­va­tion. She’s not de­fined by her feel­ings to­wards Drake, but am­bigu­ously at­tracted to him, another man and, cru­cially, her own best in­ter­ests. She’s be­liev­able, un­pre­dictable, and dan­ger­ous. On the other

hand, se­ries main­stay Elena, played by Emily Rose, is a blonde love in­ter­est in a game about guns and end­less ac­tion. But she’s also scep­ti­cal and strong, and so when the se­ries does fi­nally bring her and Drake to­gether ro­man­ti­cally at the close of this game – the first didn’t con­sider it es­sen­tial – it feels earned and touch­ing. Their re­la­tion­ship is a two-way street of hu­mour and hu­man­ity, and is a greater pay­off than any cli­mac­tic boss bat­tle.

At the very epi­cen­tre of Un­charted 2’ s achieve­ment is Nathan Drake him­self. He is not only like­able, but well liked. This is no easy thing to achieve in videogames, and it makes so many oth­ers pos­si­ble. Bland he­roes pro­lif­er­ate be­cause of the dan­ger­ous logic that we’d rather play as po­lite ag­gre­ga­tions of noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar than as peo­ple who are def­i­nitely not us. Drake over­flows with per­son­al­ity – a func­tion of smart writ­ing, but also, it’s hard not to think, of a per­for­mance process that gives the game’s ac­tors, and Nolan North in par­tic­u­lar, a chance to pour more of them­selves into each character.

When Ten­zin brings Drake back to his vil­lage, and after his re­cu­per­a­tion, Drake wakes up and wan­ders through the houses, moun­tains on ev­ery side. As he meets Ten­zin’s peo­ple, the but­ton for a melee at­tack be­comes the but­ton to shake hands, or to salute, or to play foot­ball with chil­dren. Just for a few mo­ments, a square­jawed hero is ca­pa­ble of in­ter­act­ing with his sur­round­ings by reach­ing out and mak­ing con­nec­tions rather than swing­ing fists and break­ing faces. And just for a mo­ment, Nathan Drake gets to sim­ply ex­ist. It’s so quiet in the vil­lage. He can stand and breathe. He can smile and be hu­man.

This is to call at­ten­tion to Un­charted 2’ s sto­ry­telling and all-round craft, rather than a sug­ges­tion that hu­man­i­tar­ian pos­i­tivism is the bedrock of ac­ing the third­per­son shooter. And it’s cer­tainly not an at­tempt to rec­on­cile the con­tra­dic­tion of this be­ing the stand­out mo­ment of a game about killing hun­dreds of sol­diers – it can’t be done, and

Un­charted 2 doesn’t have all of the an­swers. But it does have the imag­i­na­tion to of­fer us the pos­si­bil­ity that things could be dif­fer­ent, and it re­mains re­mark­able as a game driven by tech­nol­ogy that suc­ceeds on the grounds of its hu­man­ity.

The train is wo­ven through Un­charted 2’ s snaking time­line, pro­vid­ing both a crash-bang open­ing and a su­perla­tive ac­tion cli­max

TOP A trek through icy blue caves is where Drake’s warm friend­ship with Ten­zin grows.

ABOVE There’s a trav­el­ogue mix of set­tings, from white moun­tains to green jun­gles

Des­per­ate es­capes from col­laps­ing build­ings and over­turn­ing ve­hi­cles re­veal the team’s tech­ni­cal mas­tery, and de­liver reg­u­lar jolts of seis­mic, dis­ori­ent­ing panic

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