Among all of the announcements coming out of Sony's PSX event today, Naughty Dog also announced a new standalone adventure set in the Uncharted universe featuring series favorite Chloe Frazer teaming up with mercenary Nadine Ross to, well, I'm not sure. Probably steal some treasure from this bombed out Indian city?
While I've always more-or-less enjoyed the Uncharted series and The Last of Us, the developer's games never seemed to hit me with the same force that they seem to land with for others.
In the past, I'd struggled with explaining why that is the case, though. After TLoU, I pointed to a few key moments in that game where the studio's narrative aims clashed with their gameplay design: a scene where Joel was meant to reunite with Ellie, but which wouldn't complete unless I killed everyone in the level first; an intense sequence against a sniper that "broke" for me when I could see bullets coming out of the side of the marksman's rifle, locking down my creative attempts to approach him from a different angle; a slow walk-and-talk through a survivor settlement built in-and-around a hydroelectric dam, which featured chest-high cover perfectly distributed for the gun fight that was bound to happen (it did).
But despite knowing I didn't like those moments, I never really understood why they bugged me so much. The eight minute long trailer for The Lost Legacy, which tracks Chloe (disguised in Hijab) as she sneaks through the urban sprawl, finally crystalized why I've never been able to connect with these games the way others have.
Early in the trailer, Chloe (disguised in hijab), pulls out a phone to reveal a photo what she's hunting for: A red door. It's a great hook for a short trailer: A, bright clear objective in a grimy, shadowy environment.
At 2:50, after Chloe is nearly caught by a few guards, she slips into a nearby alleyway, all twists and turns. Subtly, in the far distance, her target appears—but the viewer's eye isn't drawn to until she gets a little closer and it is suddenly framed by a small hole cut into a chain link fence, the red door comes into view. It's a fantastic, filmic moment, drawing on the sort of visual storytelling that movie makers have been using for years.
There's her goal, presented clearly and just a short walk away; there is an obstacle between her and the door, but hey, the fence has a hole. It's a simple, but visual metaphor more than anything else, and it's super effective at building tension.
Then as she looks for a method of egress, the camera pans right to reveal another chain link fence, bent in at the bottom, blowing in the wind. And that moment is filmic in this other way, a way that doesn't mesh as cleanly with what I want from the games I play. The protagonist faces a dilemma, scans the area around them, and finds the solution. It calls to mind the sort of adventure films of Steven Spielberg: E.T., Jurassic Park, and (of course) the Indiana Jones series, all movies where the film's hero and the audience go "Aha!" in unison.
But here, for me, that bent fence only reminds me that however well rendered Chloe's surrounding are, this isn't a bombed out city in India. It's a corridor, a straight hallway with really, really nice wallpaper. As far as we can see—and as is in-line with past Naughty Dog games—Chloe can't climb that first fence. Though she'll later move into all-out-combat with some guards, she can't now go back the other way and fight her way to the door. She can't cut her way towards that door through climbing into any windows (besides the one predesignated by the studio.)
And that's fine. A lot of games are linear, and linearity is a design choice, not an intrinsic fault. It's not 2010, I'm not about to make a half-baked argument that all games should be open world games. Linearity offers very specific benefits, after all. And in the case of games like The Last of Us and Uncharted, one of the things it offers is the ability to render environments with incredible detail. But, for me, there's something about that high production quality that clashes with sense of artifice that results in level design like this.
So much work goes into making this city feel real: Clothes hang from drying lines, damp and dirty from exposure to the elements; alleyways are cluttered with boxes and burlap sacks that feel flung into place; old posters fade and tear at the edges. This is a city that—like many of the The Last of Us environments—feels deserted instead of just empty. The last heartbeats of life bounce and echo through these streets. But there is only one way forward.
Some people want hyper-realistic city streets, others want playgrounds.
I didn't feel that this year with Titanfall 2 or Gears of War 4, despite their similar levels of linearity. The Division is technically an open world game, but it also has very firmly structured levels, and it didn't raise this problem for me. But (despite Massive Entertainment's best efforts), The Division's Manhattan never reaches the heights of graphical fidelity that Naughty Dog's environments do. Maybe that's why my brain never stutters at their linearity. Naughty Dog evokes open space better than nearly anyone in the game, and yet, their levels are (often) a straight line of set pieces and gunfights.
I haven't finished Uncharted 4, a game that I know has more open spaces and player-expressivity than past games in the series. But I'm hard pressed to, when this year has given us Hitman's Sapienza, Watch Dogs 2's San Francisco, and Mafia 3's New Bordeaux. None of these aspire to Naughty Dog levels graphical representation of their respective cities (real or fictional), but each has shown me sequences equally as cinematic, yet also offer me the ability to determine where and how to go about my set objectives (just listen to the most recent ep of Waypoint Radio at timestamp 42:00 for an example.)
To be clear, I'm not dissing Naughty Dog here. This is absolutely just a taste thing, for sure. Different players have different tastes and tolerances. Some people want hyper-realistic city streets, others want playgrounds. But while Chloe sees freedom in that broken fence, I see a straight jacket. I'm just happy to finally understand why.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to The Lost Legacy as DLC for Uncharted 4. This has been corrected.