Fun Imbalance in Uncharted 3

by Dave Proctor

So I’ve finally worked through the last of the last-gen Uncharted titles in my very long road to finishing the backlog. Like most, I think 2 was my favourite, but there was something about the pacing of Uncharted 3 that really charmed me. Everything had a flow, a rhythm, and I think the entire experience finally felt like an action movie the way that I think Naughty Dog thought it has for 10 years.

One of the most cinematic experiences is also one of the sources of gameplay imbalance that made the game so fun and so frustrating simultaneously, which introduced me to a very real problem in game design I hadn’t thought of before. If all of the elements of your game are different levels of fun, you might lead the player into situations they don’t want to be in. 

I love the “Bruiser” fights in Uncharted 3. Just when combat hits its repetitive point, a big, heavy, awkward enemy runs in and forces you into a one-on-one semi-scripted combat sequence with quicktime elements. I’m sure most purists would hate that this is something that relies on QTEs and isn’t that “Gamey,” but I think for Uncharted 3 and the pacing design to feel like a film these moments add a much-appreciated Hollywood quality that I can’t get enough of.

These fights are memorable and interesting. I can remember the big British guy I beat up in the bathroom, or the dude on the truck, or the pirate in the shipping container. I loved the way the camera was controlled and the effort put into scripting the new and interesting actions in each experience. It’s a part of the game design to feel like a film, and these sequences WORK. The same can be said for hand-to-hand combat throughout the game, adding some quicktime responses that end with a flourish or a weapon-steal animation. Everything felt alive.

The same can NOT be said for the gunplay. Cover-based shooting has long been my least favourite part of the franchise and it stands out the most in this instalment. These fights aren’t memorable, or interesting, or rarely take the shape of anything other than “initial wall, two enemies on a higher plateau, some tucked around the corner.” The gunplay is kinda rote and repetitive, but the worst part about it is that at any time I can interrupt it by running up to a guy and getting into one of these awesome hand-to-hand fights.

The problem here is that these fights take control of the camera and leave you prone to distant shots and ruin your chance at real threat detection in each combat encounter. Because one of these things is more fun than the other, more engaging, I’m more likely to pick one over the other, which ruins specific elements of the game that the designers want me to engage with, like shooting people that are shooting me back.

There are a couple of things that could be done here.

1) Don’t let me get in fights during gunplay. Save the scripted fights for the special bruisers in between story sequences, but whenever someone has a gun have them kick me away (which they have for special enemy types).

2) (And this is the more drastic one) Lean into this whole “Movie” thing. Finding enemies with my ironsights using a DualShock 3 and slowly getting pegged from off camera doesn’t make me feel like an action movie hero. The quicktime events are actually designed to make it seem like you (as Drake) know exactly what to do at what time. The gunplay in these games leaves you feeling lost and distracted, so there is no surprise that I often chose to run in and take on a guy face to face. These are the sequences where the gameplay matched the theming of the game. Add these events to shooting! Press Circle to notice the guy in the corner, and Triangle to do a really cool spin-and-reload. You can still have shooting with real aiming and trigger pulling, but spice it up with that QTE design that make you feel like a reactive, adventuring badass. Same as in the fights: you can still punch and move, but every now and then the game makes you do what Drake would do.

I know it’s blasphemous to advocate for more QTEs in games, but in my case these moments were more genuinely engaging as per the theming of the game. They are presented in such a way that make the thematic and narrative tone fit the gameplay. Shooting with an analog stick can never do this. I’m not saying that every part of every game has to appeal to everyone, but in this particular title you have to wonder if there were others like me, people who felt less engaged when they were doing the heavier-lifting combat encounters. It begs the question: what do you want your players to feel, and does every part of the game make them feel that?

I think the term “Fun Imbalance” fits here. Different types of engagement take me out of the story and essentially make me feel less Drakely… and who wants that?