Are we too forgiving of narrative weakness in hero fantasy video games?


Since the release of Uncharted 4 on PS4, I have been replaying the first three Uncharted games for the first time since I originally played them. I still maintain that they are fantastically produced action adventures, but something has been standing out to me more and more as I progress through the series.

While I can suspend my disbelief in many regards, some of the plot holes in the Uncharted series are unbelievably egregious, to the point I struggle to understand how they made it to any completed narrative.

In Uncharted 3, Nathan Drake spends multiple days and nights wandering alone in a desert with no food, water or supplies. As the days wear on he is shown to be weak, exhausted, barely able to walk and even begining to hallucinate from fatigue and weakness. This is a narrative plot point made, and reinforced by the gameplay.

Drake eventually stumbles upon an abandoned town in the desert. He struggles to climb a wall into the city, struggles down into an old well, before finding that what little water exists in the well is undrinkable.

Thirty seconds later, Drake realises the town is filled by a small army of enemy soldiers. Drake is unarmed, and on the verge of death. He instantly regains all his strength, beats a man to the ground, steals his gun and proceeds to mow down this small army single handed. At no point does he seem to struggle in the slightest.

I am willing to forgive many of the fantastical things Nathan Drake manages to do. His ability to withstand large amounts of gameplay gunfire make sense from a gameplay perspective and underlies the developer’s ability to make the character compelling as a hero fantasy protagonist. My problem is when the game actively tells me something about the character, then expects me to ignore that for gameplay reasons.

The fact Naughty Dog go to great efforts to show Drake on the verge of death suggests it’s important to his arc as a character. Having him suddenly back on his feet strips that previous section of impact and makes it feel weaker by comparison.

In this particular example, Drake even found a well just before the firefight broke out. What purpose was served by making that water undrinkable? If that water had been drinkable, that would have gone a huge way to explaining the character’s sudden return to strength.

Better yet, why not build your action setpiece around the fact it’s done by a character dehydrated to near death. Have him take out one or two people by sneaking up on them. Have him drink from their canteen and rest up a little. Ramp up the setpiece to be the heroes return to form.

I think that our willingness to hand wave away moments of narrative weakness like this in hero fantasy, particularly male led hero fantasy, is a big part of why video game narratives are struggling to grow compared to other forms of narrative media. Neither gamers or critics hold hero fantasy, a huge section of the most widely played video games, accountable when they take weird narrative shortcuts.

Easily fixable plot holes I can spitball quick narrative solutions for should not be forgivable in modern AAA video game storytelling.

I think it’s worth noting before I go further, I get that for many of you reading, video games are primarily about mechanics over narrative. While I appreciate that difference in tastes, I would argue that in this day and age there is no reason video games that aim to blend narrative and mechanics should not be able to do both well.

It’s also important to note here that I would make a distinction between games aiming for a rich narrative (Uncharted) and those games not interested in narrative depth (Mario). While it’s tough to draw a definitive line in the sand regarding where games should start being held accountable to these standards, I feel most gamers should be able to get a sense of if a video game was attempting to tell a narrative they felt was an important component of the product just by playing it.

The reason why above I specified male led hero fantasy as having a problem with proper critique is that, while not exclusively an issue for male led hero fantasy, hero fantasy featuring female leads tends to see a higher level of scrutiny applied to it.

A great example of this would be the critiques made of Tomb Raider 2013 and Lara’s quick turn around from afraid to kill into skilled murderous machine. I would argue that this is no more or less aggregious a narrative issue than Drake’s magical dehydration recovery, but it saw an awful lot more critique applied to it. You see the same with movies centring on female leads with the use of the term Mary Sue gaining prevalelance.

While there is still a lot we overlook in female led hero fantasy adventures, male led examples see a far lower level of scrutiny in my experience.

While I understand that any power fantasy narrative in any medium requires a degree of suspention of disbelief. I have to accept that Nathan Drake is an expert in weilding an ungodly number of different weapons, that he can magically heal his own wounds and that he can survive taking an RPG to the chest.

I should not have to ignore plot points, built up in the narrative, because the narrative designer now decides it’s no longer important.

I think until we start being critical of these kinds of elements, video game stories are going to stay stagnated at a certain level of quality. I think this is one of the big barriers keeping us tethered to the idea that video game narratives cannot be as high quality as those in other media. It’s complacency, and we need to start holding games to a higher standard in this regard.

How a New Voting System Drained Eurovision’s Positivity

As a life long UK citizen, I’m used to my country entering Eurovision annually and never doing terribly well. Middle of the board is a victory worth celebrating, as is every time a nation gives us even a passable number of points. Eurovision is a night of tiny victories and national pride in victories that we know won’t ever add up to a larger success.

Its not about winning, it’s about celebrating every time a country likes us enough to award us more than nil points.

However, Eurovision 2016 had a very different tone and feel to previous years by its conclusion. While roughly 90% of the contest remained unchanged, a change to the voting system had a big impact on the way the evening ended.

While judges and audience phone votes are usually tallied up together behind the scenes and announced as a single set of scores, this year judge and audience votes were split into two separate categories.

The concept on paper was sound. Break up any chance for non transparent policitical voting from judging panels, give more points across the evening so that more countries feel like winners and aim to make the overall winner more of a surprise.

Unfortunately, in practice, this did not pan out as hoped.

While the new voting system did succeed in making the overall winner less predictable, it came at the cost of a far heavier focus on winning and losing which had a big impact on the tone toward the end of the show.

While the judge votes were announced as per normal, phone votes saw a significant shake up. Gone were the country by country break downs of national vote allocations and the slow drip feed of points, replaced instead with full international phone vote totals announced from fewest international votes to highest.

What this switch achieved in practice was a focus on defeat, loss and failure. What could have been a steady drip feed of tiny victories by a country not expecting to win became “you got the third fewest fan votes, you are not going to rise any higher than this on the score board, thanks for playing”.

The feeling as these scores were being announced was not an air of celebration for the points that had been earned, but a depressing focus on the points that had been missed. Nations would find out their allocated points, realise that winning was impossible in one instant gut punch rather than a slow dawning feeling, and the camera would pan to a defeated nation and their depressed sounding crowd.

A nation could get over 300 points allocated to them in the phone vote, realise they had not won, and have a defeated, depressed sigh all in a matter of moments.

Nobody was cheering the successes happening, only feeling shame they had failed to win.

This shift in focus, and the subsequent shift in tone it caused, really damaged my enjoyment of the ending of Eurovision by flying in the face of what makes the competition great. It robbed us of the chance to celebrate tiny meaningless international victories and instead shifted eyes to a room of nations who failed to do well enough. 

Eurovision is about silly, light hearted fun. The change to the show this year ruined a lot of what made the show amazing.