Thursday, August 13, 2009

Design Lesson 101 - Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

drake.jpgMonsters are a key part of our culture. Whether it's vampires, werewolves, zombies, or any number of weird creatures we've created in video games, monsters have always been a huge draw. Much of Greek mythology revolves around the slaying of monsters such as the Hydra and Medusa.

The concept of something wholly sinister, wholly inhuman, and wholly foreign to us scares us and enthralls us. These creatures don't exist in the real world, so instead we read about them, watch them on film, and of course kill them in video games.

The thing about monsters is they often represent something very supernatural and different. As a result, they can act anyway we want them to and players will buy it. A monster can fly, teleport to any location, or turn you to stone by looking at you and players are willing to suspend any disbelief because monsters don't need to act like humans. However, when we put monsters in a game, this freedom can pose a problem. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, by Naughty Dog, exhibits this problem towards the end of the game with the introduction of monster enemies.

Design Lesson: When introducing new enemies, it's important to build off of the original strategies of combat instead of creating a completely different style of combat that is at odds with the player's original combat strategies

That's a long way of saying, don't make me change the way I play your game completely when you've taught me to play a certain way for the last six hours. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune spends a lot of time teaching you to use cover. It teaches you to stay behind cover, to move from cover to cover, to pick your shots and execute them carefully. It's not Halo, where you run around circle-strafing and firing from the hip.

That is until you get towards the end of the game and the monsters show up. Let's ignore the fact that monsters didn't fit my narrative view of the game world (I viewed the game world as being a realistic world, whereas I've had friends tell me that they viewed it as more of an Indiana Jones style world where monsters do exist). The issue is that the behaviors and optimal way to defeat the monsters is completely at odds with the combat for regular enemies.

The monsters have a melee attack only and frankly it's rather powerful. They also have a tendency to swarm you and move fast, making it hard to aim and take them out methodically. They will attack you at once and kill you fast. You cannot sit still. The monsters encourage a frenetic set of behaviors. In fact, they encourage behaviors that are the exact opposite of what you do the rest of the game.

The first time I encountered the monsters I tried to line up my shots and aim faster, not moving much from where I was. I died an awful lot doing this. Then I picked up the shotgun, started to run around in circles and fired from the hip instead of aiming, letting the auto-aim take control. This is how I succeeded. Combat completely changed with these enemies. There I was running around in circles like an idiot just firing over and over until everyone was dead, instead of jumping from cover to cover, thinking about how to flank the enemy, and being patient.

So why is the run and gun strategy to kill the monsters so bad? Because nothing in the game ever prepared me for this style of combat. In fact, the game actively discouraged this style of combat, by killing me if I tried to run and gun. I was taught, and fast, that I needed to be cautious. Instead of having their monsters build upon the basic behaviors and strategies I had already learned, Naughty Dog opted to have me change the way I played the game dramatically.

Instead, it would have been better for the game to encourage new behaviors and strategies that built upon the previous ones. For example, the monsters could required me to quickly move between cover and take shots instead of being cautious and biding my time, due to a ranged attack they have.

This would still have me using cover, trying to take the careful shot, but make me do it at a far quicker pace and up the tempo of the game. Or the monsters could have been used in conjunction with other enemies to make them stronger and more powerful, making it so I needed to take out the monsters first to make my own life easier. The game would force me to prioritize my enemies due to threat.

There are a number of ways the monsters could have been implemented better in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. It's a shame that they weren't. Fortunately the monsters aren't introduced until late in the game and they aren't too prevalent even late. It certainly didn't ruin the game experience, but there was potential to take the game to the next level and I think the game missed that potential with their decision.

Having the monsters' AI force the player to build upon already taught strategies would have made the enemies more fun, engaging, and fit the game better. Instead, they feel out of place. Hopefully, this will be fixed in the upcoming Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Until then, I can only hope any monsters reading this column will heed this advice and try to “play nice” with the rest of the game.


  1. Cough, cough, Far Cry. Cough, cough, Trigens. The game changed dramatically once they showed up, and not for the better. While I would have liked to see the occasional copter or armored vehicle at times, the sequel handled things much better. Human enemies only, and the difficulty increase is usually "more enemies" or "interestingly fortified ground," not entirely new play styles.

  2. I always dislike it when designers throw an entirely new gameplay concept at you late in their game. It almost invariably comes off as though the team ran out of ideas to keep their gameplay formula fresh, so they threw in a left field gameplay mechanic instead.

    I think it's better to introduce a gameplay mechanic early on, make it extremely cool and fun, and then use it only sparingly through out the game so that when you do reach the endgame build up, you can liven up the gameplay by allowing the player to revisit a mechanic they haven't used in a while. I think the Warthog in Halo 1 is a great example of a fun secondary gameplay device that was used to great effect as the final dramatic action setpiece in the game.

    I definitely felt this problem arose in Uncharted, but almost immediately I realized that all you had to do was be near one of the monsters, and as long as they were on camera and within range of the shotgun, you could just shoot from the hip without aiming and almost always hit them- particularly that bit towards the very end sequence where Drake has to jump to grab onto the helicoptor.

    I also felt that sequence was poorly handled. I died at least five times before I figured out which button I needed to press to essentially initiate and cutscene. No screen prompts, no audio feedback, nothing to even indicate that you could jump and grab the rope as part of your character's move set. Just old school trial and error design, which I felt completely undermined the dramatic context of the game's climax.

    Such a shame that a game like Uncharted, which strikes so many great narrative chords, with a finesse and presentation which so many games can't even come close to achieving, falls flat on it's face in it's dramatic finale due to some seriously out of character gameplay foibles. Still my favorite PS3 game yet though.

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  4. I understand the choice that they made as a part of the intrusion of horror into thier game. Monsters make all sense jump out the window and that adds to the startling revelation of their existence.

    The treatment of monsters in media, especially in games, is very interesting. I'm glad you explore it even if in a cursory way.

  5. Well I thought of it as a section implemented to change the pace, like a stealth section or an on-rails section. Those sections change the way you play the game as well, for a brief time, and do not impact the events after.

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  11. Completely agree with your assessment. Also, felt like they were ripping off FarCry. They needed something new and monsters was the best they could come up with. Ends up taking away from an otherwise beautiful game with excellent cut scenes.

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