The Spectacle of Labor
by Brendan Keogh
Early in California-based game developer Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4, a young Nathan Drake is performing unbelievable acrobatics across the roofs and walls of an orphanage. The game exquisitely animates Drake’s body as he reaches for loose bricks, scrambles over the gutters, and balances precariously on archways. Drake does not reach for each new platform with an identical animated movement. Different contextual flourishes individualize different moments, individualized further by the game’s seemingly exhaustive dialogue. Eventually, Drake reaches his older brother, Sam, on a rooftop. In a brief cutscene Sam takes his denim jacket off and puts it over his younger brother to keep him warm.
It’s a small moment of character building, of identifying Sam as the older protective brother. It’s a moment that, in a film, would be simple and effortless. But in a video game, the effort required is substantially higher. In a video game, one doesn’t simply drape clothes over different actors, one creates entirely different character models. For the second half of the level, both Drake and his brother require different character models than the first half. Someone had to make these models. Just to capture the expressive moment of an older brother offering his jacket to his younger brother.
It’s an effort that few video games bother with, but for which Naughty Dog has made a name for itself across both its Uncharted series and The Last of Us. Each of these games is filled with momentous set-pieces, as many blockbuster video games are. But unlike most of these, the set-pieces are interspersed with touching little moments of character building. And these moments are gelled together by humanized writing and technologically unprecedented spectacle.
Narratively, the adventures of Nathan Drake across the Uncharted games are akin to the journeys of Indiana Jones. Drake discovers ancient tombs and lost cities, solving riddles and leaving the door open for the bad guys to tromp right along after him. Like Indiana Jones, he is a contradictory character capable of lovable, gruff dorkiness and unrepentant mass murder. Drake is accompanied and antagonized by a range of memorable characters: his friend and partner in crime Victor “Sully” Sullivan; journalist Elena Fisher; and, in Uncharted 4, his brother Sam. Each character, like Drake, is written with a delicate care rare in video games, each with his or her own ticks, behaviors, and each talks like an actual adult human, despite the absurd treasure-hunting and army-killing situations they end up in.
The worlds the player visits—tropical forests, Nepalese temples, crowded market places, mountains—are also endlessly stunning. About two-thirds of the way through Uncharted 4, the player climbs onto the top of a dilapidated clock tower, overtaken by vines, and the camera pulls back slowly to show the incredible view that Naughty Dog has produced. Drake, without fail, comments on the spectacular vista.
But neither “technological marvel” nor “great storytelling” is a term that really captures the full appeal of Uncharted. Lots of huge, multimillion-dollar video games look very impressive from the dominant but qualitative perspective of judging digital visuals by how much they don’t look digital at all. Lots of computer-animated films, with predetermined camera angles, look even better. So it isn’t just a technological marvel. Meanwhile, the writing in Uncharted may be several notches above that in your average blockbuster title, but it’s still just a schlocky romp about a ragtag group of bandits searching for hidden treasure.
The true attraction of Uncharted, I think, sits somewhere above these two most commonly applauded aspects: the unmatched attention to detail. Not just the moment when Sam gives young Drake his jacket. But also the cutscene after a black tie event when Drake’s bowtie hangs untied around his unbuttoned collar. Or the way that if you hold an assault rifle, the dangling strap will bump into the guardrail in front of you. Or how in a narrow corridor Drake will reach out and run his hand across the wall as the player walks forward. Or how the glow of the sun shines through Drake’s ear cartilage in just the right way. Or how the dog, appearing on only one stage, has an animation in which it sits and then eats the treat you pass to it.
Uncharted’s reputation for technological marvel and great storytelling are both the results of an attention to detail that helps create believable worlds and humanized characters. As obvious as the statement might first seem: everything in a video game has to be made. Every building, every place, every character, every sound. The very rules of the world have to be built: what happens when two solid objects collide? What sound should they make? Someone has to make this. Most creative forms are helped in some part by the real world they take place in (most films don’t have to create gravity or physics, for example). In video games, everything has to be made by someone.
There are techniques for countering this, of course. Instead of building millions of blades of grass, a flat texture of grass will be painted onto a single flat surface. Instead of thousands of different models for each and every bad guy, the same five models will be copied over and over again. Across the entire world, every single crate you might want to push over to a wall and stand on will look exactly the same. Video games are digital, so everything has to be made from scratch. But video games are digital, so everything can be duplicated easily.
But in the Uncharted games, such shortcuts are well hidden. The player is audience to an endless stream of touching moments in which Drake always has something new to say about this specific situation, always has a new animation for this particular place. This level of detail is rarely seen in video games—not because most developers are lazy, but because it generally isn’t worth the effort.
Uncharted is a spectacle of labor. The strap of an assault rifle interacting with the environment and a hand reaching out to touch a wall are not, in themselves, noteworthy technological achievements. What is noteworthy is that the developers bothered to craft them. Where most video games will reuse as many assets as possible to save on both processing power and development time, Uncharted often uses character models, animations, assets, and lines of dialogue in passing once and never again.
It’s not the question “How did they do that?” that defines technological marvels of special effects in Uncharted, but the spectacle of “I can’t believe they actually did that,” which is more akin to the audience response to practical cinematic effects. Similar to watching a scene from early cinema with thousands of actual extras and gigantic sets, or a recent film such as Mad Max: Fury Road, where the audience is assured that the crew “actually” built these fantastical vehicles, to play an Uncharted video game is to marvel at the actual, physical labor that went into producing it.
Importantly, it’s not just labor for the sake of it. It’s not indulgence—at least not exclusively. Undoubtedly, Naughty Dog has created its own pipelines and procedures for what looks like an extensive amount of effort—just as the physical effects of Fury Road are undoubtedly touched up by computer software after filming. But that sense of spectacle remains. Not just the doubled spectacle of big set-pieces that show off both the actions of the character and the technology used to generate it, but also the spectacle of a digital world and its characters rendered in such detail as to be at once technologically remarkable and touchingly human.