Stuck between Reality and Gameyness: Venturing into Uncharted’s Uncanny Valley
by Joel Jordon
[Since I think some readers are (understandably) getting confused by the title, I'd like to clarify that this article doesn't actually really deal with the uncanny valley. I meant to use it more as an analogy: the uncanny valley refers to the dissonance we experience when humanoids start to look too realistic, and this article discusses the dissonance players might experience when realistic game graphics are coupled with unrealistic ("gamey") game mechanics.]
In one scene in Uncharted 2, the player has to fight his or her way across a moving train, all while a lavish jungle and thousands of trees pass by. The train occasionally crosses bridges suspended over lakes, and sometimes, if you look deep into the jungle, you can see little villages made up of a variety of huts. And all of these are background details—it’s pretty hard to focus on any of them because you have to be more concerned with fighting off enemies and not getting killed. At times you’re even inside the train so you can’t actually see any of the jungle, but the developers nonetheless designed it all and it’s all still passing by in real time. The point of making these background environments so detailed seems like it was to create the illusion that you’re actually traveling on a train and passing by unique environments every few seconds.
Uncharted and Uncharted 2 both have game worlds that are filled with a truly incredible amount of detail. The games have received almost universal acclaim from gamers and reviewers, at least partly because they’re prettier than just about any other games that have ever been released. They have ridiculously high production values, and time was clearly spent on developing some believable writing and characters and making the cinematic cutscenes look good. All this helps make the game seem more realistic than any other. But I actually think that this realism might not only be unnecessary, but also that it might not exactly jive well with Uncharted’s* gameplay.
The trouble is that Uncharted’s gameplay is not always realistic. Uncharted has, for the most part, “gamey” gameplay. What I mean by this is that the game mechanics usually follow the odd logic that video games tend to follow. This is a logic that was established a long time ago, when technological restraints meant that games had to be a lot more abstract and couldn’t make any pretenses about being realistic. Mario could defy gravity and jump several times his height to pick up coins magically floating in the air because nothing looked realistic and so no one expected realism. But a good game always needs a set of rules—a logic that it follows—because a game is most fundamentally built on the interaction between player and game, and the tighter this interaction—the more a game seems to react logically and consistently to a player’s actions—the better a game’s mechanics tend to be. So, because Super Mario Bros. couldn’t follow the rules of the real world, it established its own set of rules. Mario always runs at a certain speed, and the height of his jump can be controlled precisely by how long the player presses a button. Picking up a mushroom always makes Mario bigger, and hitting a brick with Mario’s head when he’s big always makes it break. Coins always make the same sound effect when they’re picked up, and getting one hundred coins always gives the player an extra life. And so on. Nothing about any of this is realistic, but it’s remarkably consistent. Super Mario Bros. follows a brand of gamey logic.
Uncharted also follows gamey logic in a lot of ways. Melee attacks take out enemies more quickly than guns do. Drake can get shot a bunch of times and recover simply by hiding behind cover for a few seconds. Weapons that can be picked up shine unrealistically. There’s nothing inherently wrong with following gamey logic—in fact, all of these gamey characteristics of Uncharted benefit the player because they make the rules of the game simple and clear. The best logic for a game to follow usually isn’t realistic logic, but rather a logic that has been built specifically for the individual game and helps establish the tightest possible game mechanics.
The trouble, though, is that as game graphics have gotten more realistic—and Uncharted pretty much represents the pinnacle of realism in game graphics right now—gamey logic hasn’t advanced with it. And these two aesthetics—gameyness and realism—don’t really mix well. That’s because a game with two opposite and competing aesthetics has less clear and consistent rules, and players might not as easily know what to expect from it.
The rules Uncharted is playing by become muddled, for example, when the game transitions into some setpieces. These setpieces—which include stuff like being inside a building that’s falling to the ground—seem aimed at breaking up the regular gun-shooting gameplay and showing off some crazy graphical details and animations. But a lot of these setpieces create unexpected lapses in the game’s established logic. For instance, there are a few larger enemies in the game that can’t be killed with weapons; instead, the player has to approach them and engage in a melee fight with them. This defies the game’s very clearly established rule that says that enemies can be killed by shooting at them, so I at least had no idea what to do during these scenes. I continued to try shooting at these enemies for a while because it didn’t occur to me that I should attempt to approach them.
That’s just one example of how Uncharted can create confusion by mixing aesthetics and failing to follow a consistent logic. Uncharted also frequently creates confusion during its platforming sequences due to the excessive detail in its environments. There are so many details that it can sometimes be unclear as to whether you can hang on to certain ledges or if they’re just meant to be background details. In these instances, the realism of the game’s graphics directly interferes with the gameplay.
The best way to get a sense of how excessive detail can get in the way of platforming is by contrast to an older, much less detailed platforming game. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time—whose platforming probably inspired Uncharted’s, at least in part—has very empty environments. In fact, in some environments almost nothing is visible besides the platforms and ledges the player can directly interact with. This lack of detail isn’t realistic, but it’s clear that the game isn’t aiming for realism: the environments evoke a gamey aesthetic because they come off as having been very deliberately arranged for the player to be able to platform through them with ease. Prince of Persia’s consistent gamey aesthetic makes platforming much tighter and more straightforward than it is in Uncharted, whose realistic and detailed graphical aesthetics come into conflict with the game mechanics and level design.
Uncharted hasn’t just upped the ante for realistic graphics in games, though: the game’s story is also presented realistically. I don’t mean that it has a realistic plot—there’s a lot of crazy action and supernatural elements—but rather that the characters are portrayed as real-seeming people who could feasibly exist, the things characters say to each other come off as the kind of dialogue real people could actually have with each other, and many of the settings are based on real-world places. All of this is a big deal, if only because the state of game narratives right now is so dismal that a game that doesn’t have bad writing, bad voice acting, and a ridiculous story is wildly out of the ordinary. Uncharted’s cinematic cutscenes seem to stand there proudly and assert their own believability with halfway decent writing.
But Uncharted’s cinematic pretensions cause problems that older games—unconcerned with being realistic and without any lengthy cutscenes or setpieces—never ran into. The game has a big moral problem, for one. In cutscenes, Drake is portrayed as a generally nice guy whom the player can feel free to sympathize with, but in the course of actual gameplay, as in most shooters, he kills hundreds of people. In the first game, his motives are even selfish for a while, as he’s doing all of this killing in the name of finding treasure. The cutscenes never acknowledge that Drake is essentially a mass murderer but instead go on portraying him as a friendly protagonist.
Abstraction allows less realistic games to avoid the moral problem Uncharted has. To return to my example of Super Mario Bros., the goombas that Mario jumps on are too much of an abstract evil force to cause the player to experience any guilt for killing them. They have angry faces and will hurt or kill Mario if they touch him, and that’s about all the player has to recognize about them to feel fine about stomping on them. Even as graphics have gotten more realistic, many action games have continued to avoid any moral conundrums by offering up enemies that are similarly abstract evil forces, like monsters or aliens or zombies. But enhanced graphical realism has allowed some games to begin to offer up enemies that are real people. War games like Call of Duty get away with this for the most part because players are placed in the middle of violent, kill-or-be-killed situations. Rarely, designers might actually seem to recognize how having a protagonist kill so many people is a moral issue, and the game might reflect some attempt to deal with it in a mature way. In Metal Gear Solid 3, for example, there’s a psychological nightmare scene in which the player has to see the ghosts of all of the people he or she has killed. The player is also rewarded for getting through the game using only stealth and without killing anyone.
But Uncharted doesn’t make any attempt to justify murder or demonstrate any of the guilt Drake might feel, so there remains a huge divide between the friendly protagonist presented in the cutscenes and the guy with a penchant for mass murder who exists during gameplay. This is where having confused aesthetics in a game becomes more than just a video game–related issue and turns into an actual moral issue. It seems important that designers should be aware of exactly what aesthetic they mean for their game to establish from the very beginning in order to prevent issues like this one.
* When I say “Uncharted,” I usually mean both the first game and its sequel collectively.