Post Script

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

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