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Highlighted Ledges And Trusting Your Reader | Platforming In "Uncharted"

Outside of writing, one of my greatest loves is video games—as you can probably tell from many posts on the blog.

While I have played some recent titles upon their release, my main focus as of late has been playing games I missed out on when they came out because I didn't have the console needed.

My latest catch-up has been the Uncharted series after picking up The Nathan Drake Collection (games 1-3) and Uncharted 4: A Thief's End at a thrift shop not so long ago.

Uncharted is an action-adventure series following globetrotting adventurer and treasure hunter Nathan Drake as he searches for places of myth and legend.

I had a good time making my way through the games, especially enjoying the puzzles scattered throughout and taking in the scenery. However, the games are not without fault.

I could go into the individual issues I had with each entry, such as my dislike of Chloe as a character or the retconning and continuity errors raised by A Thief's End, but there was one thing I noticed recurring in each game that I feel is worth addressing from a storyteller's perspective.

And it may not be what you think.

(For context, I'm basing this only on Uncharted 1-4, as I've not played the Golden Abyss prequel or Lost Legacy at the time of writing.)

Uncharted features three main gameplay types: solving puzzles, platforming, and combat with the occasional vehicle chase thrown in for good measure. It's the second of these that we'll be focusing on.

Much of the level design of Uncharted is about getting from Point A to Point B and figuring out how to get there without plummeting to your death. This often involves jumping between handholds and ledges on cliff faces.

Platforming has been a staple in gaming for decades, and it makes perfect sense for the terrain Nathan explores. There wouldn't be a straight road to a place like Libertalia that's been lost for centuries.

However, the paths are not all that hard to find as a player. Ledges that Nate can climb tend to stand out from the rest of the surface.

As seen in the image above, the grabbable surfaces are marked by a white discoloration. You'll also find bricks protruding from buildings or a rusted appearance denoting handholds Nate can use. In the fourth game, the walls of ledges you can shimmy across are scratched up.

Story-wise the latter example makes sense, as many explorers have come before Nate and it's doubtful there wouldn't be any trace of their attempts to find pirate haven Libertalia (as evidenced by the many skeletons found). The others, not so much. And as a player, it made things almost too easy in some spots.

In all fairness, I was playing on an easier difficulty because I was more interested in the story and I'm a stealthy melee girlie who sucks at gunfight combat sequences, but I doubt that would impact the level design.

Much of Uncharted relies on the player's suspension of disbelief. Nate and the gang get themselves into numerous perilous situations that they manage to survive with only a few bruises and scrapes to show for it. Scouring up a train car dangling over a mountain. A plane crash in the desert. Various crumbling and exploding setpieces. Booby traps galore. Gunfights with mercenaries, goons, and other treasure hunters. Not to mention the unexpected supernatural enemies thrown into the mix.

As a player, we're asked to believe this is possible or at least be willing to go along with it. But some things are easier to take at face value than others.

That's the flaw of platforming sections in Uncharted. It was kind of like a past explorer made their way through with a paintbrush and did the hard work ages ago so all I had to do was follow the proverbial Yellow Brick Road to El Dorado or to Iram of the Pillars.

It took me out of the moment and broke my immersion. And that effect is not limited to video games.

"Holding the reader's hand" is a term used in the world of writing that refers to occasions where the writer tells the reader what is going on instead of letting them come to their own conclusions along the way. It might include telling rather than showing, "As You Know" exchanges that review information both characters already know but need to explain to the audience, and lengthy blocks of exposition to name a few. Any time information is spoonfed to the reader or dumped in their lap.

In some contexts, holding hands is a pleasant experience, and we as might use the analogy of offering a guiding hand to the reader when talking about worldbuilding. But this hand-holding can be overbearing and intrusive, disrupting the reader's exploration of the story. Those randomly jutting bricks on an otherwise smooth building or convenient planks on the back of a wooden sign.

Game designers want their players to know where to go, just as writers want their readers to be able to follow the events of their stories. But we also need to have faith that our audiences can figure things out for themselves when we don't explicitly tell them everything.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception was my favorite entry, but it also came with the most infuriating examples of the developers holding my hand. It wouldn't be long into a new puzzle before an NPC would chime in with some overly helpful advice.

"Try pulling on this lever."

"Look at the gears."

"Nate, you could climb up to that balcony."

"Check the journal, Nate!"

I was not given much time to assess my surroundings and test the waters. Trial and error is all part of that. Drawing my own conclusions and being proven wrong, working to find the correct solution, that's what I love about puzzle levels.

So to have the game blurt out what the next step was rather than have the option to talk to the NPC if I wanted a hint and trust me to figure out the puzzle on my own felt disruptive. As though I could not be trusted to solve it otherwise.

I actually enjoy tricky levels as a player not because of the frustration they spark in the moment, but the joy of finally figuring it out. That excitement of the door finally opening and getting to see what awaits on the other side. And as a reader, I have a similar experience when I correctly guess the twist of a book or catch on to a motif.

Subtle is better for that kind of thing.

There are going to be instances where readers may benefit from handholding. For example, you might want to go more in-depth when the neurosurgeon protagonist is talking about a tumor and need to explain terminology so your non-neurosurgeon readers can follow along. But if you're writing a romance about a neurosurgeon, you can often just use body language to convey there are in love and not tell the reader directly.

This is something I'll look for in beta and CP feedback, both in a general sense and specific to the historical details of my WIP. Where things were over-explained and what needed more clarity.

That way, readers can have a smooth experience to navigate while some mysteries are left for them to uncover.

Trust your readers to find their way.



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