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Uncharted 3

Andy Robertson


The Insatiable Moon
Directed by Rosemary Riddell 
Certificate 15, 97 minsĀ­, DVD
Something is happening in Auckland's suburb of Ponsonby. Arthur, the Second Son of God (Rawiri Paratini), has only to snap his fingers for pedestrian traffic lights to turn from green to red. On finding a $100 bill, he cheerfully rips it and gives one half each to two people in expectation that the two halves will be reunited. Which subsequently miraculously happens. Like many mentally ill people, he hears voices. In Arthur's case, the voice of God his Father. 'We get them all here,' says his down-to-earth, local boarding house manager Bob (Greg Johnson), 'Elvis, Napoleon, the Pope.' Yet Arthur seems to be different: there's nothing unusual in his borrowing $20 from the local vicar (Jason Hoyte), plenty unusual in his paying it back the next day.
Bob, meanwhile, gets shopped to a petty health and safety bureaucrat by a developer trying to buy up Bob's property which Bob has no intention of selling. A local TV reporter picks up the story, which soon becomes more controversial. One of Bob's residents, John (Mick Innes), is a convicted paedophile. We see him loitering momentarily outside the window of some small girls before running off. Elsewhere, we see Arthur praying for him. Then John hangs himself. Meanwhile, the social services worker Margaret (Sara Wiseman), obsessed with having kids with her infertile and disengaged husband, becomes intrigued and then infatuated with Arthur.
The Insatiable Moon has been rightly lauded as an independent New Zealand gem. In adapting the screenplay from his own novel, the writer and producer Mike Riddell deftly walks a magical realist path whereby Arthur could well genuinely be the Second Son of God but could equally be simply a mentally ill person who hears voices. He prays and things happen, but that could be coincidence. One scene that gives particular credibility to Arthur's divine nature, however, is when the mother of a girl John killed years ago turns up to protest at his funeral, and Arthur manages  to console her while paying tribute to the memory of his friend - a remarkable feat of justice and mercy both for Arthur and for the Riddells. It asks us the compelling question, what reason do we have to assume that the Son of God would not come as a person with mental health problems?
The film takes mental illness entirely seriously, but without solemnity. It treats its characters not as issues but as three-dimensional people with stories that are funny, poignant and endearing, and well worth hearing. 
All this is bought a life by a terrific cast, ably directed by Rosemary Riddell, who is married to Mike. With the film's charm and love of quirky characters, one is reminded of that other terrific husband and wife team film-making team from down under, Nadia Tass and David Parker (Malcolm, Mr. Reliable). The sensitively-handled, religious subject matter of The Insatiable Moon, however, marks it out as something very different in the world of international film production. If its messianic and sexual content have the potential to upset some, that probably isn't so different from the story of the First Son of God.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
Naughty Dog Games

Videogames aren't famous for telling stories. They prefer to engage the player with agency and interaction. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception folds this premise back on itself in an effort to combine storytelling and action. The result is a game that is about more than shooting, clambering and saving the world.

Uncharted 3 is the third in a series of games that follow an Indiana Jones-style protagonist as he shoots, climbs and fisticuffs his way through all sorts of  locations to stop a variety of evil villains, each of whom want to use magical artefacts to rule the world. In the videogame world this is pretty standard stuff. It's visually impressive, has a full orchestral soundtrack and needs a high degree of skill (and a good 15 hours) to finish it. This much you would expect.

What you might not expect is that the scenes that appear between the action are fully acted in front of a blue-screen stage, as if for a film. This makes the game as enjoyable to watch as it is to play, something that makes Uncharted 3 stand out from its peers. It leans on both interactive and non-interactive moments to engage the player, rather than focusing on the former at the expense of the latter.

Although this muddying of the videogame waters with cinematic ambitions limits what Uncharted might have been in purely gaming terms, such is the commitment to the idea by developer Naughty Dog that the result is an interactive experience that offers more emotional engagement than we expect from a videogame.

It's an approach that leads to an unusual question not asked often enough about videogames. What is this experience about? Uncharted 3 answers this question surprisingly succinctly as it presents an intelligent, if flawed, study of its infallible hero Nathan Drake.

Like modern Bond films that are no longer able to bear the weight of James' unquestionable confidence in himself, his mission and his country, Uncharted 3 pokes holes in Nathan's unflinching belief in his own ability.

'What are you trying to prove?' asks Chloe, one of his female companions. 'Why Nate, why this obsession?' asks Elena, who knows him better than most with their implied failed marriage since Uncharted 2

Both Chloe and Elena make the same point though: Nate has an unhealthy drive to win no matter the cost to him or those around him - friend or foe. This is underlined painfully when Nate all too easily agrees to call Elena in to help, valuing what she can offer the mission over any feelings he has for her, or her personal safety.

While hints of a broken home and self-sufficient childhood tell us more about Nate than we know about Bond's upbringing, Uncharted 3 wisely stops short of joining up these dots. It's left for the character who has known Nate the longest, since rescuing him from life on the streets, to lay it on the line for him at the end of the game: Sullivan leans in close and says in an uncharacteristically sombre tone, 'Just stop being a wise arse for one second. Real greatness is what you do with the hand you've been dealt.' With half an eye on Elena in the background, Sullivan is clear that people are as important as artefacts in this equation.

Unlike a book or a film where we are unable to observe all this as an onlooker, being a game makes these moments all the more uncomfortable. It is our actions that drive Nate forwards, that steer him headlong into whatever doom the story demands. We may not be in control of the destination but we inevitably take some of the responsibility for arriving at it. We could after all stop playing at any point - but like Nate find ourselves driven to complete the story no matter how many henchmen have to pay the ultimate price for our heroism.

However, this strength is also Uncharted's weakness. Alongside the exchanged glances and dialogue that ask unnerving questions about our protagonist's mental state, the gameplay often seems forgetful of such substantial gains. Even when lost in the desert for days there is no hint of self-doubt or fear, more of inconvenience. Nate meets each insurmountable obstacle - hanging from a plane, escaping a sinking ship or just dispatching the next round of enemies - with unflinching stoic determination.

If the gameplay allowed for even a scattering of moments where Nate refused to go on, or was simply debilitated by doubt it would feel more coherent. Forgiving this is possible though, because the nature of the gameplay itself is more than something to get us from one plot point to the next. Taking the reins turns the hero from a two dimensional character into a real person. In a different way to books or cinema Nate, Chloe, Elena and Sullivan feel real. 

Because you control the action it becomes a story you have ownership of. While this doesn't make me comfortable with the violence in Uncharted 3 or enable me to forgive the lack of narrative follow from the gameplay, I find myself involved in a more intimate manner than other media allow.

This was evident in a number of ways but none more so than how much the game's conclusion mattered. Not whether Nate won or lost, but whether he was able to admit his shortcomings and start to change. Would Nate realise that the real deception here was not that of his nemesis Marlow but a trick he had pulled on himself?

As the credits roll and the orchestra strike up Nate's Theme, an exchange of rings hints that this isn't the end of the story. The ring that led him into this hunt for treasure and revenge is lost and one that ties him to a much more human commitment is gained. It seems there is hope for Nate and Elena yet, and that is a much more important and emotional moment than I expected it to be. 

Andy Robertson


Libby O

Hi Andy. I haven't played this game, but as Thom Dinsdale pointed out it does incite the 'where is the story?' rant (as witnessed on the Twitter exchange last week). Character-driven story is where it's at for me as a fiction writer but, especially with popular fiction, it's hard to confine a character to the pages of their original text these days. (I suspect brand identity works like character-driven story, too. Thom, if you're reading, any thoughts?) In Fiction-Land (as in Film-Land) the reader/viewer brings a certain amount of 'story' to the reading, but doesn't have control over characters' decisions and actions. Enter fan-fic. Just as fan-fic puts agency in the hands of the fan, so it is similar territory to navigate in Games-Land, precisely because games can put plot control in the hands of the player. This blending of media within games is no surprise, then, and I guess we can add Uncharted to the swathe of transmedia storytelling that's coming our way these days. If one medium is exhausted... add another one. And another one. (I'm not complaining, I enjoy it. I have fictional characters doing all sorts of fun stuff including hacking into my author blog.) On a related comment-on-culture note, with regard to this cumulative approach to storytelling, you could see it as curious that we want more and more complexity -- or perhaps texture -- in stories and games and indeed in branded identities. I'm thinking about how it takes a team of people to build up or curate whole worlds of 'meaningful content' to ascribe to, for example, a single young celebrity. What do we want from this? The wisdom of old age fast-tracked into one young personality/brand? I wonder.

Posted: 27 February 2012

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