I’ve been playing Uncharted 4 this past week, and one of the most enjoyable things about it so far has been the focus on fresh types of gameplay. Not that stealth and navigation is all that innovative in general, but after playing shooter after shooter, I’ve loved stepping into the boots of Nathan Drake, a man now happily married whose past is coming back to shake up his post-adventurer, average-Joe life. (No major spoilers — I haven’t even finished the game myself!)
But at some point around the halfway mark, the game gets explosive. Enemies start popping up everywhere, and to deal with them, Nathan starts whipping out his weapons. That’s when I remembered that while the Uncharted series makes a name for itself with its narrative and beautiful environments, they’re still video games. So you shoot people.
For a long time, video games have revolved around violence. For all the stories we experience and characters we love, the vast majority of games spin through levels that require us to commit acts of violence. We’re a soldier, we’re a survivor. There’s always a reason for us to carry a gun or sword or kill people with whatever magical abilities the game gives us. There are bad guys out there, and they need to be destroyed. It’s not a bad thing if you’re the hero of the story, right?
Even if a game doesn’t require violence, I would argue that it still exists in some form. In a platformer, enemies and obstructions whack away at your health. If you fail at stealth, you can bet the guards are going to pull a weapon on you, and the result of your failure will be your demise. Even kid-friendly games often use death as that-thing-you’re-trying-to-avoid, whether or not you’re killing your way through the game. You don’t have to see scenes as gruesome as Lara Croft being impaled to know that you want to live through the next level!
I’m not against violence in games (for adults, anyway). But as I play through Uncharted 4, a game with violence in short spurts that is sometimes optional, I realize how refreshing it is to focus on other gameplay mechanics for a change. Shooting and slicing is all good fun, but it’s also a little tiresome. I’m certainly desensitized to the violence in video games, because so often it’s thrown in there as something to do, rather than something integral to the story. As much as I love games like Bioshock Infinite for their stories, I have to question whether all that shooting is a little superfluous, in the end.
Uncharted 4 has quite a few over-the-top action sequences. Because the first portion of the game doesn’t involve weapons, I found myself feeling uncomfortable with my initial forays into shooting enemies in the game, when that finally happened. It didn’t feel like something Nathan Drake would want to do. However, as these violent sequences become more frequent in the game, my tolerance for them increases.
In parts of the game, there are tanks shooting at you, areas full of armed guards, car chases that pretty much require Nathan to pick up a gun and shoot his way into a jeep or onto the back of a motorbike. (And I’m only halfway through the game.) While these sequences are exciting, they’re also my least favorite parts of the game. To give the player something to do, they rely on the old fallback to just grab a weapon and start shooting. It’s what so many video games do. Sure, Nathan Drake is an adventurer who wields weapons — it’s part of the story set-up, so it’s not out of character or anything. I’m just saying that there’s nothing interesting going on here.
The funny thing is, gameplay is exactly where Uncharted 4 is at its most innovative when shooting isn’t involved. Because that something-for-players-to-do is usually not shooting. Instead, you’re tasked with solving puzzles and traversing environments — scaling walls, swinging across chasms, driving a jeep, and more. You’re also being prompted to interact with the environment and other characters in a way that feels surprisingly natural, putting you right in the story. You hear the buzz of the protagonist Nathan Drake’s phone, and a Triangle button appears onscreen — right on his back pocket — so you know that’s how he’ll reach for and answer it. Players have really taken to a scene where Nate is sitting on the couch with Elena — a husband and wife at home, having dinner, talking, and playing an old PlayStation classic as a bet over who should do the dishes. It’s not boring to us. It’s actually realistic, something relatable, and we lap it up.
Uncharted 4 has a story to tell. While action is certainly the meat of the game, it feels like the gameplay is in service of the story, in a way I’ve never seen in a game before. Even as Nathan progresses through environments toward some distant goal (without a cutscene in near sight), navigation is your gameplay, and conversations feel continuous as you move along with other characters at Nate’s side.
For me, Uncharted 4 does a better job with non-violent action than Rise of the Tomb Raider, though the games are identical in genre. Both feature treasure hunters, exploring amazing environments, and racing against bad guys to get to some precious loot, with great stories to boot. But while Lara Croft of Tomb Raider is alone for much of her adventure, Nathan has company — which means more conversations. Pure exploration and puzzle solving can grow tedious, so Uncharted uses character interaction to break up the monotony throughout. Meanwhile, in Tomb Raider, the exploration is so solitary that the game breaks it up more often with combat instead. If Lara can’t talk to anyone, why not use your weapons?
I want to ask why Uncharted 4‘s story-rich experience isn’t more common in video games. But I think we’re moving in that direction. People have long enjoyed innovation in games, which includes deviation from violence as the primary means of interacting with a virtual experience. We enjoy the non-violent shooting of the puzzler Portal, the quiet exploration of games like Journey and Gone Home, the building of Minecraft, the narrative experiences of Telltale’s games and Life is Strange. We like our indie platformers, our stealth games, our quiet thinkers, our horror experiences. That doesn’t mean we don’t also love mastering the skills of a shooter or combat strategy, but I believe there’s a real craving for something fresh.
The challenge for video game developers is to stop relying so heavily on combat as the primary way for players to take action in games.
The cool thing is that as video games become more graphically gorgeous, we can enjoy their realism more. There’s also a trend towards games that provide real depth, whether that’s an open world experience that favors exploration or a game with moral decisions and multiple paths. New technologies make this possible. As games embrace these new possibilities, I hope we see more varied gameplay design — something that doesn’t always force us to pick up a weapon.