so im gonna be streaming murder daughter 2: the revengening, and i want to be fair, so let’s talk about where i’m coming from

Back in 2012, I thought Uncharted 2 looked like the most amazing video game ever, and because I had just purchased a Playstation 3 from Gamestop, I decided to give it a whirl.

Some part of me was skeptical of all the praise it had got, but I couldn’t really imagine it being bad. The art looked amazing, the characters seemed to get along well, and while I’d heard that the game’s aiming was so bad on launch that they had to patch it (apparently they also did this for the first game?)… I heard the patched aiming was great, so I figured it would be fun.

I had my qualms with the way the fanbase tried to get a guy fired when Uncharted 3 released the previous fall for giving the game, what was it, a 9.3 out of 10? The fanbase was so vile that Eurogamer literally stopped scoring games. Think about how awful their fans are for a second. Just consider it.

But, horrible fans aside, I played it.

I did not like what I played. While I enjoyed the interplay of the characters, the way the villain was a stereotypical, one-note “guy with an accent and a scar” and did a whole “we’re not so different, you and I” in some sort of weird attempt at profundity put me off. Worse still, the game spent a lot of time trying to make you look at the cool shit it was doing, sometimes by taking your controls away from you. It didn’t… really handle my trying to be creative with the gameplay well. This is a game where they mark all the areas you can climb and those are the only areas you can climb, you know? Take that philosophy and expand it to the entire game. This is not a game that wants to be played, it’s a game that wants to be watched.

And the thing is… I heard that a lot. It was a really interesting phenomenon: Uncharted 2 was a game that other people enjoyed watching. Sure, sure, I know, game streaming is a thing now, but it wasn’t then, and the idea of someone sitting down next to you on the couch and watching you play a single player game was pretty unusual.

I also heard people comparing Uncharted 2 to a movie; they said it was better, and this resulted in what I consider to be one of the best pieces of games criticism… pretty much ever. Uncharted 2 is not as good as a movie; it doesn’t even come close.

But we watched this phenomenon play out time and time and time again. Naughty Dog makes a game, people say it’s Oscar-worthy, then eventually they cool on it. Maybe they say “but I wouldn’t play a sequel,” as many of my friends did with Uncharted 3 (like Bioshock, this was a sign people didn’t actually enjoy the gameplay that much — no one ever says “I wouldn’t play a sequel” if they loved the gameplay. One day, Fumito Ueda announces Shadow of the Colossus 2 and you KNOW you’d be lining up to play it). Then Naughty Dog releases a new game and everyone gets really excited again and the cycle repeats itself.

In the aftermath, people usually hold on to what they said — it’s a great game, they loved it, and so on — but they’re much more willing to acknowledge flaws, and, heck, when I streamed a few Naughty Dog games last summer, I recall a few comments where people went “yeah, I don’t know why I liked this so much.”

Personally, I think they’re unremarkable games. They take popular genre fiction — adventure movies like Indiana Jones or zombie/apocalypse movies — and go through the motions. If you’ve watched some classics of the genre, you’ll get that in spades. It won’t always be a direct copy paste, but the intent is clear. I’ll be writing in-depth about The Last of Us this week, so more on that later.

I know, I know, I’ve got idiosyncratic tastes, and this leads some people to call me a contrarian, but I’m not. I was out there calling Modern Warfare 2 a classic and now that the rerelease is out, everyone seems to be agreeing with me. If I can praise Call of Duty, the best-selling game series every year it releases, then I must not be a contrarian, right?

For me, a contrarian is someone who bases their opinions on the beliefs of other people. Me? I just happen to have very specific tastes as a result of my unique upbringing, I figure. There are still moments I love in the Uncharted games — Uncharted 3’s boat graveyard was delightful, and the fight while hanging from a sign in Uncharted 2 is a really clever use of the game’s cover system — but overall, I found these games restrictive with their systems and encounters in a way that isn’t to my taste.

Where Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare presents you with a stealth level and then hands you a rocket launcher and winks at you (and Mohammad Alavi literally created a tumblr account to reach out to me and tell me how he was so glad I understood why he’d included stinger missiles in All Ghillied Up, which was so fucking cool), Uncharted 2, 3, and The Last of Us all do that thing where if you get caught, you instantly fail and have to start over (fuuuck that museum, screw the clickers).

And that’s something that bothers me. What’s with the double standards? Any other game with instant fail stealth would get crucified, but Naughty Dog does it and most reviews don’t even mention it?

Remember last gen how everyone whined about Waist High Cover and how terrible it was, but nobody uttered a peep about it in The Last of Us?

Heck, this meme could literally be referring to any Naughty Dog game from last gen, especially The Last of Us, a game with precious little variation in its encounter design, a game that frequently repeats its “help Ellie get from A to B” puzzles with “move a crate here, move a ladder here, move a board here, move a palette here” things that… don’t have any real depth to them?

If you told me you wanted me to design a game that involves escorting a player through the world, my instinct would be to take some simple “help the NPC do some things” and gradually increase the complexity… but The Last of Us never does that. There’s one puzzle in a sewer with some complexity that I can remember. Everything else is as simple as the first time you move a ladder to climb somewhere.

And that bothers me. It bothers me a lot that people are saying “these games are incredible and brilliant and better than everything else” when we’ve seen so many games do the same things with more depth and attention to detail. If people wanna go whine about unnecessary skill and crafting systems, why do they suddenly pretend those systems don’t exist in The Last of Us?

The systems we see exist because other games do them elsewhere; people literally pay me to sit down with them and help them make their games better. I’ve worked on some of the most critically acclaimed and successful games out there. I am pretty darn good at sussing out design intent and helping people dial that in… but when it comes to Naughty Dog’s games, it just feels like someone went “I saw that somewhere, we should do that here.” The design consideration just isn’t there.

In a vacuum, if you brought a game like The Last of Us to me with no context and said “play it,” I’d be like “predictable cover, instant failure stealth, extremely limited enemy variety, ultra-linear level design… okay, it’s like a prettier Terminator Salvation, I guess? But more polished, and with a crafting and skill system thrown in?”

Then throw in the stories, which themselves seem to be interested in repeating scenes from elsewhere without understanding how or why those scenes exist to establish character and drama (shout out to the whistling sequence; that was good, but at the same time, we’ve got a bunch of sequences like ‘doing the whole racist thing of killing the black guy in a horror game,’ or ‘this guy who seems nice is obviously a cannibal’). It so often feels like a checklist of cool shit that we see in nerd media, rather than natural, organic storytelling.

…and I mean… in the case of Uncharted 3, I’m pretty sure they’ve said that’s what happened? They literally built a bunch of set pieces and made Amy Hennig, one of gaming’s best writers, try to figure out how to justify those set pieces, yeah? That’s… like, why?

Do I love it when a guy asks about “squidgy” wet jeans? Absolutely. Nathan joking about clowns is funny.

But then I go play Uncharted 4, a game where:

  1. You are on a boat with your brother in the present.
  2. You are now a child and the game explains that your brother left, which is why you don’t talk about him, and why he didn’t show up in Uncharted 3 when you were a kid and was presented as being an only child who was totally alone.
  3. But then the game is like “well, actually you DID reconnect and do heists together in the future, I guess, at some point???”
  4. And then it’s like “oh but he died,” but of course you feel nothing because of scene 1, where he is already shown to be alive.
  5. Then you have this really good and sweet bit with Nathan and Elena that’s genuinely great. And then the brother who died, who you knew wasn’t dead, comes back, and you feel nothing because why would you? The game is trying to give you a moment in a clumsy and awkward way; the scene, on its face, is great, but the construction of the game does not actually earn the scene. You see this a lot in games; someone sees a great scene in a movie, wants to capture that vibe, but won’t put in the work to earn that reaction.

All of this happens in a single hour. That’s… like, imagine that happening in a TV show, right? You can’t fully connect with the emotions the game wants you to have because it presented you information you needed not to buy into the moment before that moment even happened. It’s a mess! It doesn’t know what it wants to do!

And… that’s the problem for me.

Not only have these games historically been immensely shallow on the gameplay front, either when being restrictive (climb here! don’t get caught during stealth! the levels and systems don’t support exploration!), or in terms of the encounters not having a lot going on (shoot several waves of dudes! move this ladder!), doing all these things literally any other game would get shit on for, and rightfully so, and having stories that seem less invested in building drama and more interested in just hitting all the bits you’re supposed to.

And I’m literally the guy who played Terminator Salvation from beginning to end! I am someone who is okay with playing games that aren’t perfect. I love finding games that try to do interesting things, even if they don’t always get there, y’know?

But Naughty Dog games rarely seem ambitious beyond their art budget.

Here’s an example: earlier this week, during the marketing hype, Sony dropped a video where Neil, the dude in charge, said something about the game being a lot more emotional ’cause they added a jump button, and I saw people lapping that up. Then a bunch of other people saw that and started laughing because of the obvious absurdity of A) plenty of games having jumps, and B) jumping itself does not inherently make an experience more emotional.

The impression I’m left with is a studio so impressed with itself that it literally thinks it’s doing something that Mario’s done for 30 years.

And there are people who buy into this! It’s crazy!

I know that tons of people worked so hard on these games, but then I watch how the people who work there talk, going all “well I didn’t see women as people until I had a daughter, so I made a game like all the other games where the dad must brutally murder people to protect his daughter, because I would totally do that I bet,” and I look at people breathlessly claiming that, yet again, for the fifth time in a row, but apparently for the first time ever, a game has surpassed movies…

And I just can’t help but be doubtful.

So.

I’m going to be playing The Last of Us 2, because a bunch of you paid money to see me stream it. I’m doing it in part because people I trust, including some who didn’t like the last game, have said “this one is actually different.” I’m going to be doing it because I love being literate in games and I learn as much from bad experience as good (I will never make flying enemies with sporadic movements and enemies which resist damage unless you get behind them as the bulk of my enemies after having finished Terminator: Salvation!).

The way Naughty Dog has comported itself has me feeling confident this game isn’t capable of saying anything nuanced or interesting about the world, but the improvements to the gameplay in Uncharted 4 have me thinking maybe there will be some cool stuff here too.

I’m interested, but I’m doubtful. This is a studio that has made a bunch of 7/10 games with a 10/10 art style. It’s a studio that seems invested in convincing you everything it makes is capital-I Important, and that self-seriousness rubs me the wrong way.

I hope it’s good.

I don’t know if it can be.

I don’t want it to be bad, though.

We’ll find out Saturday.

(ps, some people have suggested that neil is trying to protect the guy who praised his game from harassment, but I would like to point out that not only is he quote tweeting as a way of directing his fans at the guy who criticized the other guy who praised his game, which is inciting more harassment… he’s also never stepped in, to my knowledge, to tell his fans that they shouldn’t be trying to send people death threats and get them fired when those people are critics of his game. He definitely never showed up for me when his fans got mad at me and told me to kill myself, lol. This signals to me me that he’s okay with harassment; what he’s NOT okay with is people criticizing his games. maybe he does hate harassment and just happened to miss how his fanbase literally forced a website to change its review policy to protect their writers, or maybe he actually fought hard against it and I missed that… but what he’s doing today really rubs me the wrong way. when was the last time you had a metascore below 80, dude? are you worried about losing your job? you’re gonna go down as one of the most decorated game designers in history, no matter what I or anyone who agrees with me thinks about your games; why do you care if someone points out that one of your fans said dumb shit? you literally got paid more to work on a zombie game than my entire team got to make our next game. I can’t even afford insulin lmao, why do you care about people not liking your shit?)

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.