It’s not ‘sorry’ that seems to be the hardest word in games. It’s ‘goodbye’
There really ought to be a word for it, this feeling of happiness and sadness at the same time – like when you finish a good book and are happy with the conclusion but sad it had to end. The closest is the Malay word ‘sayang’, which depending on the intonation can be used to express love or loss, happiness or sorrow. But it’s most commonly used in the romantic sense, and while Nathan Drake, unlike the HD era’s Hollywood stars, only gets better looking as the years pass and technology improves, ours is not a physical relationship.
But, as the credits roll on a Nathan Drake adventure for what is surely the final time, something close to sayang washes over us. That this is so uncommon a sensation in games is, obviously, a matter of scriptwriting, the one area in which the medium clearly lags behind other forms of entertainment. It’s no surprise that Naughty Dog, the best we have at character and world-building, at wit and heart, at pacing and payoff, should be one of the few studios that’s capable of it. But there’s more to it than that.
For a start, games these days are far more invested in the business of saying hello than goodbye. Storytellers in other mediums set up the world and its context, the characters and their histories and motivations. But they don’t also have to tell you how to make the protagonist move, how they open doors, how you can spend skill points to improve their accuracy with sub-machine guns. A contemporary open-world game, by contrast, might still be teaching you new things after 20 hours, while you’ll be unlocking game-changing new tools right up until the end.
It’s no coincidence the opening hours of Uncharted 4 are its slowest, perhaps its weakest – but that is as much about story as it is systems, since there’s a new character to introduce and a chasm of backstory to fill in, both in terms of Nathan’s history with Sam and his new-found domesticity. That it manages to weave its tutorials into this structure with near-invisible elegance isn’t simply a matter of skilful writing and design, but of the way the game eschews so many of the established conventions of the modern videogame.
There’s no levelling curve, no skill system, no convoluted mass of faction-reputation meters. You learn how to take cover while hiding from a nun in the Catholic orphanage where the Drakes were raised. You’re taught to fire a gun while Nathan mucks about with a pop gun in his attic mancave. Once Sam’s given him the grappling hook in an early flashback scene, our hero’s toolset is set in stone for the entire game, save for the introduction late on of the piton, which offers a gentle expansion to his climbing abilities.
It takes confidence, this, as well as skill. These days so many aspects of a player’s journey through a game are tracked and analysed. A look back at a previous release’s Trophy or Achievement data will show you the dishearteningly low percentage of total players who actually saw the game through to the end; burrow a little deeper and you’ll be able to map out where they gave up, and from there even work out why. A novelist isn’t told how many people put their previous book back on the shelf halfway through; a screenwriter is not presented with stats on how many people walked out of the cinema when the pace dropped halfway through their previous flick. But game creators must obsess over the on-ramp, then on making the subsequent journey sticky enough to ensure that the game stays off the trade-in pile and in the disc tray at least until the launch window, where a game will rack up the vast majority of its lifetime sales revenue, has passed. You’ll have to write an ending, of course, but make sure you leave enough unspoken to encourage people to buy the DLC and enough ambiguity so that your paymasters can change tack in the next game in the series if this one gets terrible reviews. With all that going on, is it any surprise that continuity is so rare? Far Cry introduces a new lead character with every new instalment. Assassin’s Creed binned off Ezio Auditore after three games – a good innings, by modern standards. The Legend Of Zelda series has no continuity, despite reusing the same protagonist, every game telling the same story of the humble boy plucked from obscurity to save the world. In a time of customisable characters, Nathan Drake is a rare breed. He simply is this series, and while Naughty Dog leaves enough loose threads for Uncharted to continue, it wouldn’t be the same game without him.
There’s a frequent complaint about the way videogame studios view the story-building process, which sees writers brought in too late, and forced to do their best with a set of characters and locations that have already been designed, built and put into a running order. Clearly Uncharted 4 benefits from having a writer for a creative director, but it isn’t simply a matter of writing the script first – though Naughty Dog does that too. Instead it’s a matter of putting the story at the centre of every facet of the game, using it to draw players in and keep them there, and actually make them feel something at the end.
So, yes, our sayang comes from the end of Nathan Drake’s best game, and the knowledge that it’s his last. But there’s further sadness, not just at seeing the back of gaming’s most lovable psychopath, but at what he stands for: a focus on story, character and pacing that no other studio or series on the planet seems able, or even invested enough in, to emulate.
In a time of customisable characters, Nathan Drake is a rare breed. He simply is Uncharted