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Stuck between Reality and Gameyness: Venturing into Uncharted’s Uncanny Valley

July 14, 2011

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2011 5:57 pm

    I Hate the Uncharted series, its always been because of this logic contradiction. I find the gameplay is really repetitive as well, almost like the team thought of the gameplay as an afterthought to the pretty environments. Even Dark Void, a game with a lot less hype, is a lot better example of what Uncharted should have aimed for. Even though i hate the Uncharted series though, i can still appreciate the design work that went into it, but pretty visuals are not enough.

  2. Andrew permalink
    July 23, 2011 1:18 pm

    I interpret a lot of this differently, I must say.

    First, Uncharted’s inspiration is Indiana Jones, not the real world. It’s a big ol’ adventure globe-trotting story with betrayals and monsters and curses. Uncharted has never looked like the real world. It looks more vibrant, more colorful, more interesting. Its aesthetic is strong for this very reason. Rather than trying to be gritty and realistic like every FPS aping Saving Private Ryan, Uncharted is beautiful, reveling not in graphical fidelity alone, but in a loving attention to every fantastical detail to the point of escapism. I want to explore Nepal, Borneo, Turkey, and Tibet, but I would really love to see them as the painterly dreamscapes Naughty Dog created.

    Second, the morality issue is pressing, but you forget that Uncharted 2 does mention it. SPOILERS …. Just as Drake is about to fight Lazaravic, the fascistic villain says that Drake and he are quite alike. And he asks, “How many men have you killed, just today?” Naughty Dog, specifically the writer Amy Henig, recognized the contradiction.

    That is not to say that they fixed the problem. You kill hundreds of people with a smile on your face for most the time as Nathan Drake. You do not, however, have a penchant for “mass murder.” Murder is a very specific legal term. Killing in self defense or during a time of war is not murder. Now, Drake is killing mercenaries that, in the second game, are officially recognized by the UN as extremists (Elena is tracking them for this very reason). Is that vigilante justice? Yes. Is it wrong? Well, that’s the Batman question. But it sure isn’t obviously murder.

    I do not mean to imply that your analysis is not worthwhile. It is great to examine the moral and ludic contradictions in this series. I personally hope for more unique gameplay decisions and events and less simple cover-based shooting in Uncharted 3. But, it must also be acknowleged that what makes these games special is their feel. Uncharted allows me to ride a train in the Himalayas, to fight a helicopter in a falling building, to explore an ancient, fallen city, to be a part of an adventure instead of simply watch all the cool stuff happen in a cutscene. That is Uncharted’s innovation. Cutscenes, for the most part, are where characters develop and intimate interactions take place. As Drake, I can play the whole adventure. There’s nothing sweeter than that.

    • July 30, 2011 2:17 pm

      I probably shouldn’t have referred to Uncharted‘s graphical style as realism because it isn’t, really. That may have also been part of why some readers got confused by my reference to the uncanny valley. Uncharted doesn’t actually venture into the uncanny valley because its graphics aren’t actually bordering on the realistic—Uncharted is usually more detailed than the real world. You can take a look at any of the settings in the game to realize that, but all you really have to do is look at Drake himself. He has more wrinkles in his clothing and more smudges of dirt on his face than we could probably see on a real person, and he moves more fluidly and acrobatically than a real person ever could.

      But just because Uncharted‘s graphical style is more hyperrealistic than realistic doesn’t mean those logical contradictions in gameplay don’t exist. A lot of the confusion about gameplay arises not from realism but from the excessive amount of detail. I ran into problems with platforming, as I mentioned above, because of all of the detail. As Josh says below, game designers are going to have to struggle with this sort of thing as game graphics get more detailed. Graphically abstract games were just much easier to develop a set of clear rules for because almost none of the game graphics were extraneous to gameplay. In a well-designed graphically undetailed game, the player would always know what to interact with and how to interact with it. Super Mario Bros., for example, only had a few types of platforms, items, enemies, etc., so there was no room for confusion. In Uncharted, you don’t ever really encounter the same kind of platform twice and are constantly interacting with new-looking things that you can’t totally be sure will react in the same way that anything in the past has.

      I briefly mentioned in the post that Uncharted‘s narrative isn’t at all realistic and that I nonetheless think that contradictions arise between the movie logic we see in the cutscenes and the game logic we see in the gameplay. I agree with Josh that games should probably just stop aspiring to be movies. You mention that Uncharted lets us play the whole adventure as Drake, but I don’t think that’s exactly true. A lot of action that could never exist in gameplay is still contained to cutscenes. If Uncharted is the closest video games have come to successfully emulating Hollywood and it has all of these logical contradictions and also keeps some of the action off-limits to player interaction, I don’t think games should be aspiring to emulate Hollywood.

      • July 30, 2011 4:14 pm

        Exactly, Joel. (Oh, btw, I think this is a great article you wrote.) Try this thought exercise: imagine you are playing Uncharted on the Holodeck. How would the game designer resolve the paradox of total player agency with their Hollywood-driven need to tell an Indiana Jones linear edited story? Would you suddenly be forced out of your virtual self and impotently observe your body going through the motions determined by the writers? I think not. This experiment tells me that no matter how fantastic our graphical fidelity, physics, AI, etc get, the act of pursuing a filmic logic inside an interactive procedural environment is a dead end.

        Rather, we ought to be focusing on themed systems that deliver an experience saturated in the atmosphere of a chosen milieu. (such as a supernatural tomb-raiding expedition) A focus on THEME and/or EXPERIENCE rather than STORY would resolve the paradox and restore complete agency to the player. In such an experience, emergent stories would… emerge. But not the kind that linear edited media such as film, novels and plays have. But the kinds of stories that emerge from hiking trips, sky-diving or scuba diving expeditions, and real life conflicts. It’s ironic to me that my industry is so infatuated with linear edited storytelling, when the much more powerful emergent story is at our fingertips waiting to be unearthed. Emergent story is so much more powerful because the cause-effect chain that brings about the plot is of our own doing, and so resonates with us on a much deeper level than the kind of resonance we can find only by empathizing with a protagonist in a linear edited story.

        Heh, sorry for droning on… can you tell I’ve put a lot of time and thought into this subject?

      • Andrew permalink
        July 31, 2011 1:18 am

        Joel and Josh-

        The hyperrealism as you call it is one of the very reasons I enjoy Uncharted. It’s also why I enjoy Assassin’s Creed and probably would enjoy Tomb Raider if I ever played it. Being able to explore nations and cities wholly apart from my experience, especially places like a lost tibetan village in the Himalayas, is invigorating and, dare I say it, educational.

        Let’s talk about this filmic contradiction. Surely, Josh, you don’t believe in “complete agency for the player.” That’s not a game or a virtual experience–that’s life.

        I agree that the industry should pursue true emergence as you say, but think about the adventures that may occur while scuba diving. More likely than not, you’ll see some flora and fauna, maybe even, if you’re really lucky, find some old wood from a lost vessel. But will you find, say, Sir Francis Drake’s journal? On that hiking trip, will you expose a major conspiracy or an environmental disaster waiting to happen? Will you discover a new species? Will you become lost and have to fend for your life?

        Serendipity and random (often tragic) chance lead to these fantastical events. Games make serendipity absolute and chance merely the appearance of chance. I like that. I like escaping into a world where the character is different from me and can change things I cannot so easily change. I like conquering obstacles and being rewarded with a virtual view of Katmandu’s temples glistening in the sunlight. I like that.

        I also like experiences that challenge my beliefs and my actions, that make me think about the most banal and the most important details. I like games that are not like Uncharted. I like adventure games and open-world games and user-created games like Minecraft and Terraria. But Uncharted does not need to become those games.

        Games have the capacity for all this and more. Uncharted does not aspire to freedom; it aspires to exciting and entertaining linear storytelling with gameplay environments and clever AI that can be approached in different fun ways.

        And, really, within cutscenes the following happens: dialogue at a bar, dialogue in a hotel, riding a boat into the sewers under a turkish museum, dialogue with a betrayal, dialogue in a prison, observing the bad guys in Borneo, etc, etc.

        In Uncharted 2, cutscenes are used appropriately as transitions and scene-setters. There are a couple moments that could have been interactive like shooting the propane on the train, but just think about what you can do. You don’t have to. I already listed them. Others: dragging a wounded friend to safety, running unarmed from a whole army in the rain, and running across a massive collapsing bridge.

        Criticizing Uncharted for what it is makes sense. It has fumbles even in what I consider a really well told story. At times, your gun’s ammo is unlimited. Your allies are invincible. Some weapon placement is a bit too convenient. But in what I really believe is a new genre of game, these are but growing pains. The problems with Uncharted are not its inherent qualities–linearity, gunplay, fantastic, traditional storytelling beats–but in where it falters in its execution.

      • August 1, 2011 1:15 pm

        I don’t prefer complete agency in my games myself, mostly because I find this kind of gameplay too free and not as well-made as a more designer-controlled experience. I don’t enjoy most sandbox games.

        The games I currently enjoy the most are typically linear but tell their stories with minimal or no cutscenes. Portal is my favorite game, unsurprisingly. Shadow of the Colossus also impresses me because, while linear, it tells its story largely through its gameplay—the most important thematic details are all subtly implied during the player’s experience rather than explicitly displayed during cutscenes. These games are more interesting to me than Uncharted because they take advantage of what’s unique about video games—their interactivity—to tell narratives in new ways. The designers still have quite a bit of control over the experience in the same way that an author of a book or director of a movie would because these games are linear, but the story is still somewhat emergent because it largely comes through during the play experience.

        With that said, of course there are some amazing opportunities for far more emergent, totally nonlinear storytelling in games that just haven’t been tapped yet. The best example of currently existing emergent storytelling I can think of is a small indie game called Gravitation (, which I think succeeds only because it’s so simple. Most mainstream open-ended games attempt to offer too much freedom, which makes the majority of available paths uninteresting.

        But whether games remain linear and tell their stories through their gameplay or attempt (and fail at many times before succeeding with) greater emergence in storytelling through more nonlinearity, I definitely don’t think Uncharted‘s use of movie cutscenes should be viewed as the pinnacle of what storytelling in games can be. Uncharted beats out much of its competition because its cutscenes aren’t obnoxiously long or badly placed, it has some decent playable setpieces, and, as a whole, it just has pretty good pacing—but cutscenes don’t demonstrate the unique things that games can do and they will, furthermore, virtually always be in conflict with gameplay. With a game, I expect to have complete control at all times because interactivity is what games are all about. If a game must have cutscenes, I think No More Heroes is the best example of how they should be: short, snappy, entertaining, and immediately engaging. Gameplay is constantly engaging to an extent that passive viewership of a movie never can be, so cutscenes will never really ever fit the style of any game, though No More Heroes‘s at least come close because they’re so gamey and stimulating.

        In any case, I think game designers really need to tell their stories using the things that make games unique. Uncharted absolutely succeeds at what it does unlike any game that’s come before—I just don’t think that what it does should be seen as the pinnacle of what games can do.

  3. July 28, 2011 6:49 pm

    I agree with Andrew. Uncharted uses Speilberg aesthetics, tone, and moral universe, not real-world ones. Indy kills many ‘badguys’ in the course of his adventures, but the way it is presented we never see him as a murderer. Same with Drake.

    That being said, the dissonance Joel alludes to IS an aesthetic dilemma that our industry has to come to grips with as the fidelity of the graphics outpaces our physics, AI, and story telling capabilities. I think a large part of the problem lies in our apparently overwhelming need to try to be hollywood by putting in cutscenes that present movie-world rules (such as a gun to your head is an actual threat) that contradict the game-world rules. (As described in the post: you can get shot thousands of times in your adventure as long as you duck behind a wall for a couple seconds between wounds) If we dropped the movie logic pretense and stuck to the the game logic to tell our stories this conflict would end.

  4. August 1, 2011 2:39 pm

    Andrew: “Surely, Josh, you don’t believe in “complete agency for the player.””

    This depends on what you mean by “complete agency”. All agency in all games is confined by the set of verbs that the game designers gives you. This is intrinsic to gaming. I’m not opposed to this. My problem is the conflict between what an interactive experience and a passive one, where the same character can be acting as the player wishes at one moment, then as an author wishes the next. You end up with a schizophrenic protagonist in this situation. I just think that’s bad art.

    As to all the adventure tropes you listed, I agree our games are wonderful because they have them, and it would be hard to make a compelling experience out of a mundane real-world simulation of coral diving. I’m not advocating that. But it sounds like you are saying that a game requires linear edited story in order to bring those adventure tropes into the player’s experience. But that is not the case. There is a story to the world you are put into by the very nature of being a world, such as the research facility in Portal, or the desolate wilderness in Shadow of the Colossus. These worlds tell their own story when combined with the player’s agency to explore them. No cutscenes are necessarily.

  5. shivnadimpalli permalink
    March 3, 2012 12:47 am

    Reblogged this on nshivm.


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