Thursday, August 31, 2017

Partners in Quick-Time – Uncharted: Lost Legacy

Nadine (Laura Bailey) and Chloe (Claudia Black) in Uncharted: Lost Legacy.

Uncharted: Lost Legacy is the result of developer Naughty Dog's making a ton of money on Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and deciding to keep that money train a-rollin’, despite the fact that they had publicly declared it to be the final game in the series. You can’t argue with clear market demand, and though the curtain had fallen on Nathan Drake’s personal saga, it was fairly unsurprising to learn this past June that a fifth Uncharted title was in development – this time centering around Chloe Frazer (Claudia Black), treasure hunter and erstwhile Drake love interest. Lost Legacy is a fully stand-alone side story about Frazer teaming up with mercenary Nadine Ross (Laura Bailey) to find an artifact called the Tusk of Ganesh in wildest India and prevent a political fanatic from sparking civil war. It makes determined efforts to function as its own game, whose success doesn’t depend on the famous series protagonist – and at that, at least, it succeeds.

Shifting the focus from Drake to Frazer means, for Naughty Dog, removing Drake from the equation entirely. He’s mentioned with regard to his past relationship with Frazer, but he never appears, and his presence is never missed. This is absolutely Frazer’s story, and though it might seem wrong-headed to drop Drake from a branded Uncharted title – it’s easy to see it like an Indiana Jones spinoff movie about Marion Ravenwood, in which Indy doesn’t appear (which actually sounds great) – it becomes very clear very quickly in Drake’s absence that his singular snarky “charms” are actually as grating as they are endearing, and that the series doesn’t necessarily need him in order to sell its particular brand of swashbuckling cinematic action. All the better for Naughty Dog, if they want to continue spinning off this franchise, and all the better for Chloe, whose first (and possibly only) game benefits greatly by its focus on her personal development and her relationship with the prickly Nadine. 

Lost Legacy is a game in which the two leads are women of colour, and this fact is not remarked upon, treated as a plot or character device, or otherwise pointed to in any way. I cannot overstate how refreshing it is to play a triple-A game that ditches its cis-het white protagonist for not just one but two such ladies, who not only hold their own as action heroes, but who (literally) outdo Drake at his own game. The game doesn’t blaze brave new narrative trails with its straightforward storyline, its undercooked villain, and its familiar adventure-story tropes – Chloe and Nadine’s stereotypically odd-couple pairing has them circling each other like wolves with their hackles up for most of the story, tossing barbed witticisms even when they’re getting along – but in their willingness to hand the entire Uncharted brand off to a third-tier character, I think Naughty Dog displays an adventurous spirit that suits the stories they love to create. Chloe and Nadine are just as, if not more, likable than Drake and his male chums, and they make a strong case that a white male protagonist is simply not needed in this (and probably any) kind of story.

I think Uncharted, as a series, walks a fine (and fascinating) razor’s edge between a fully-featured gaming experience and a cinematic story that might be better enjoyed as an actual film. I agree with my friends who claim that if someone can watch a Let’s Play of a game on YouTube and get the same emotional reaction as if they had played it themselves, then it should probably just be a movie. Yet I also think that Uncharted creates a unique tension with its QTE-heavy sequences, where the player’s desire not to screw up is as much rooted in not wanting to spoil the cinematic momentum as it is in not wanting to have to do a section over again when you die. In this way, the player becomes a sort of “director” of the cinematic moment, motivated to not just execute the necessary inputs but do so in as flashy and flawless a manner as possible. There’s value in this formula beyond the scoffing “interactive movie” epithet that gamers love to spit at this series and others like it, but to me Uncharted is the only one that actually makes a convincing argument. Lost Legacy can’t contribute much to the debate other than its offer of more of the same, but when it’s as reliably entertaining as this, more is certainly welcome.

That said, Lost Legacy is still an Uncharted game, and therefore still trips into the pitfalls of its predecessors. I continue to think the tacked-on combat sections, in which you eradicate squad after squad of nameless mercenaries, feel extremely inappropriate for the overall tone of the series, and do its characters a tangible disservice by undercutting both the logic of the world they inhabit and the good will they earn with their audience as sympathetic people. I think Lost Legacy’s marriage to conventional exploration, navigation, and puzzle-solving mechanics, even when highly polished, shines a light on how stale these gameplay elements have become since the series began. I think that after the nuanced and challenging storytelling of A Thief’s End, which deconstructed the “wisecracking treasure hunter hero” archetype by showing the damaged and self-destructive human being beneath that façade, it’s bizarre and jarring to return to those tropes as though it’s business as usual. Comforting, yes, like slipping into a favourite sweater. Worthy of a series that outdid itself in the last, supposedly final installment? Maybe not. There are several arguments to be made for Lost Legacy’s value, despite its faults, but perhaps the strongest is this: at a $40 price point and an 8-hour time commitment, it doesn’t overstay its welcome the way its predecessors often do. It’s breezy and exciting, with unusually engaging protagonists, and it was over before its problems had a chance to settle in and start to really bother me.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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