This another of my plot reviews for Uncharted 3, like the one for Deus Ex here http://tobyandersen.blogspot.com/2011/09/part-2-deus-ex-human-revolution.html
So, did Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception actually have a good plot?
There has been a lot of talk in the last weeks about Uncharted 3. Did it live up to the promise of Among Thieves? I have to agree with a great many comments and say, no it really didn’t. And the reason? Lack of a coherent and satisfying plot. Uncharted 3 has little to no explanation, exposition, and has plot holes the size of Phurba daggers.
Back in March this year, IGN's Greg Miller posited an incredible theory for the plot of the future game, based merely on a teaser trailer and a couple of hints. His theory was that Katherine Marlowe wasn't a descendant of Christopher Marlowe, but his mother, a 450-year-old villainess, out to find the secret of the fountain of youth once again. His idea had her already having used the fountain once, and now needing to go back. It also had her killing T E Lawrence and bringing him into the story and even an idea about getting supernatural devils in there as the side-effects of the eternal life.
No one can argue that Greg's ideas were uncannily close to the truth. But when the actual plot of Drake's Deception rolled around, it was vaguely unsatisfying. What did Naughty Dog actually give us? Well, no explanation at all. Katherine Marlowe was merely a greedy old woman, with a tentative descendant link to Christopher Marlowe at best, no stronger than Drake's own dodgy claims. She wasn't looking for the fountain of youth, simply an intangible 'power'. The fountain of youth was ditched in this third game completely. T E Lawrence is only used as a very basic following exercise early in the game, no conspiracy theories or alternate histories given, and not even used as much as they then use old Francis Drake himself.
But that is not even plot. That is just the actual basics of a story and its background.
I got to the end of Uncharted 3 with more questions than I had answers.
Who is Katherine Marlowe? The story actually never says she is related to Christopher Marlowe. She seems to know Sully and to have bought his services back when Drake was a boy in Columbia. Great. But there is no exposition there, no actual explanation of who she actually is. All we ever get is that she is the leader of the same secret society as John Dee during the Elizabethan times. It's just not enough. Why use the name Marlowe, which has such great possible meaning, if you then don’t capitalise on it?
Who is Charlie Cutter? Again, a character just barely drawn. Cutter is obviously friends with Drake and Sully, from way back, but where, is never elaborated on. He also seems to have a bad reputation, as Elena doesn’t like him. But again, the script fails to give just the tiniest bits of essential information. How do they know each other!?
Another character without explanation is Talbot, Marlowe's lead henchman. He can use the hallucinogenic water as some type of magician and seems to have some affinity for Tarot cards. But do we ever actually learn anything about him? How he can control others, for instance, where he is from etc? Sorry to repeat myself here but no.
Now for structure. There are three levels of brilliant high seas action in the middle of the story when Drake is captured by Rameses. This section is completely unnecessary to the plot. Who is Rameses? Was he really just hired help? Is that it Naughty Dog?
This entire section is based on the barest of plot devices; Drake is told (with no proof) that Sully is on the ship. Drake accepts this. We accept this. We believe what we are told. But after three levels, Sully isn’t there. He's a stuffed doll.
At best this is a ruse to lure Drake away from the convoy without killing him. This doesn’t work as every guy in the game is trying to kill Drake at all times.
The ship sinks and Drake survives only to wash up by chance back in Yemen. We don’t know where that Ship Graveyard was, but conceivably it was close to Yemen. Trouble is it's all too convenient.
If you look at it from a structural point of view, those three levels are completely superfluous to the plot of the game. They aren’t plot. Did we learn anything new during those scenes? They seem to me an excuse to get three levels of awesome ship-sinking action into the game and if you took them out the plot wouldn’t change.
Plot relies on exposition. Without it, we as gamers have nothing to drive us forward. I don’t know who Marlowe even is, why do I want to kill her? Uncharted 3, even more than its predecessors suffers from an immense lack of exposition.
The Uncharted franchise as a whole relies on coincidence to a level that stretches all believability. Coincidences within a story are fine, at the beginning. Good plots will not use them over and over.
For example the coincidence in Uncharted is usually that Drake gets involved with a treasure hunt, and there is little to no exposition at the beginning. The second coincidence and the one that tests believability is how they keep getting Elena involved. Drake and her practically bump into each other in Among Thieves. And in Drake's Deception they happen upon her twice. At least the first time is deliberate, but even then the chance comes from the fact that Elena just 'happens' to be in Yemen. All very coincidental.
My trouble is that game plots in general are getting better. Lots of studios no longer think they can go it alone, and hire good Hollywood writers or at least novel writers and such. This makes me think, great the plots will be even better, but we barely have to look back half a year to Crysis 2 for evidence that its not that easy. I had high expectations for Uncharted 3 after the action thrillfest, and adequately plotted story that was Uncharted 2. Among Thieves was a fantastic double and triple crossing plot with Chloe jumping between groups the whole time. Sure the games have a supernatural element to them that turns some people off, and sure not everything was perfect in Among Thieves either. Chloe had little to no exposition; we just knew that she was from Drake's past, same with Harry. Getting Elena in the story always seems to be forced and based entirely on coincidence. But within the boundaries of that story, that plot, they weren't glaring holes like the ones in Drake's Deception.
Maybe my expectations were driven too high. But it is not a complicated thing to have someone who knows about plot, read over the script, or road test the game before it is finished. Add a little extra information.
I would have liked a little more of this: A small scene or even conversation about how Drake knew Charlie Cutter. Was he maybe an old acquaintance like Harry was? Elena seemed to know him and disapprove. Perhaps he has a bad reputation, but for what? Screwing over Drake and Sully in the past. Robbing his clients? Being untrustworthy? All I know about him is that Drake knows him and he's scared of tight spaces.
You could do this same idea with Katherine Marlowe, and with Talbot.
The best bit of this plot, and this is what should have been all the way through the back story, was the explanation for what Francis Drake was doing for six months, when he covered up his voyage from the queen, how John Dee and TE Lawrence were involved. But that’s where it stopped. Greg Miller's ideas and links were far better than the eventual story.
The reason we watch Indiana Jones, the reason we like these kinds of Tomb Raider/National Treasure/Da Vinci Code stories, is that they offer a sometimes crazy, sometimes brilliant concoction of events and explanations for ancient relics and traditions we accept but don’t understand. I can’t say all are brilliantly plotted, but most do at least offer something. Uncharted 3 offered little explanation, no introductions to new characters whatsoever, and little back story to its central plot. It didn't link its characters to the actions of their surroundings. Uncharted 3 had the chance to be one of the greats of the genre after Among Thieves, but it dropped the ball, big time.
Don't even get me started on the absolute plot cop-out that is blurred red dream sequences…