Did you ever hear the story of Robert Johnson?
Johnson was a blues guitarist, singer and songwriter from Mississippi, born in 1918. An itinerant wanderer, a young Johnson roved throughout the Mississippi delta, playing guitar on the street and in whatever dive bars would take him, but he didn’t exactly set the world alight.
Then the legends say that Robert Johnson, in his early twenties, went walking down the road late at night. He reached a crossroads, and there before him, there shined a shiny demon, in the middle, of the road. AND HE SAID – sorry; it’s impossible to tell that story without slipping into Tenacious D’s Tribute – anyway… to cut a long story short, Robert Johnson made a Faustian deal with the devil, pledging his soul in exchange for prodigious mastery of the guitar. He walked back into the light as the finest blues guitarist the world had seen. Then, a few short and immensely productive years later, Johnson became one of the earliest members of the 100 club, dying of poisoning aged just 27.
And right now, following the release of Uncharted 4, I’m currently wondering if Naughty Dog’s Creative Director Neil Druckmann walked through that same crossroads somewhere between 2009 and 2013.
Let’s examine the evidence for a moment, by way of Druckmann’s creative timeline:
- 2004: Dikki Painguin in: TKO for the Third Reich (gameplay programmer)
- 2004: Jak 3 (gameplay programmer)
- 2005: Jak X: Combat Racing (gameplay programmer)
- 2007: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (game designer, co-writer)
- 2009: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (co-lead game designer, co-writer)
- 2009: Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier (original design and story)
- 2009-2013: …?
- 2013: The Last of Us (creative director, writer)
- 2014: The Last of Us: Left Behind (creative director, writer)
- 2016: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (creative director, lead co-writer)
List unashamedly lifted from Wikipedia, by the way – if it’s wrong in any way, blame the internet’s crowd-sourced bibliography department, not me.
Now, there are some good games on that list. There’s also a degree of career progression, with Druckmann beginning as a programmer, having started his career as a lowly graduate intern with Naughty Dog. And I’m not intending to denigrate Uncharted 2, which is a bloody brilliant game and by far the stand-out title in the upper portion of that list, but when you compare everything on that list before 2009 and everything from 2013 onwards? I smell demon.
The legacy of The Last Of Us
The Last Of Us, together with its heart-breaking DLC, Left Behind, is widely regarded as one of the finest video games ever created. It won a tonne of awards – and given that we’re a British publication that’s a metric tonne, as opposed to a US ton, so that’s even more – but I honestly can’t remember another occasion where both the main release and one of its component DLC won the Story award at the BAFTA Game Awards, as The Last Of Us and Left Behind did in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
Just stop and think about that achievement for a moment. Compared to most DLC – which usually at the very best amounts to things they couldn’t fit in the game proper due to scheduling, and at worst is cynical crap designed to wring every last penny from our wallets – Neil Druckmann’s Left Behind was adjudged to have been the best written of all games released in 2014. That’s like one of the DVD extras from Good Will Hunting, which saw Matt Damon wandering around Bawston in his janitorial outfit solving mathematical problems for lose change* winning the follow-up Best Screenplay Oscar in 1998.
OK, so I’m being facetious, but the fact remains: a Druckmann-written DLC was judged the best-written game in 2014, by a panel of industry experts, on behalf of the UK’s biggest creative-awarding body. A three-hour piece of DLC. That’s nuts. That’s unheard of – but entirely deserved.
Right now though, for the purposes of this article, I’m less interested in heaping further richly deserved praise on The Last Of Us and more interested in the impact that Neil Druckmann’s achievements on his Cormac McCarthy-inspired odyssey actually had on the fortunes of Nathan Drake.
The trouble with Uncharted
Uncharted is, as a series, bloody brilliant. I love it. But I am going to be hyper-critical of it for a few minutes, because quite frankly, it helps to make my point. In fact the list of complaints are so many and varied, it will be easier to list them:
- It’s ludicrous.
- It has no concept of pacing.
- It’s far too much shooting.
- It’s far too much climbing.
- The shooting is repetitive.
- The climbing is repetitive.
- The shooting is repetitive.
- The climbing is repetitive.
- It breaks the repetition with an amazing set piece…
- … but you’ll fail it ten times, so that’ll get repetitive too…
- … and they definitely lose their impact on the eleventh attempt.
- And then the shooting is repetitive, again.
- And fiddly hand-to-hand combat…
- … no, really, it was terrible…
- … what’s with all that counter/combo crap?
- And it had about a quarter of a stealth mechanic.
- Which was fun, but didn’t really work right.
- And zombies. Why did it need zombies?
- And all the other supernatural crap, for that matter.
- And terrible bosses.
- And terrible, supernatural bosses.
You know, I could go around all day on that one, but I still bloody love Uncharted. Yes, you really suffer through some of those weaker aspects, but the Indiana-Jones-on-steroids pay-offs are more than worth it.
It looked to all the world like the series had peaked with Druckmann’s Uncharted 2 though, and it’s fair to say that Uncharted 3 – which featured some cracking action sequences like the French chateau on fire, or that plane crash – is actually a perfect analogy for the series as a whole: so many amazing things happen independently of one another and do absolutely blow you away, but overall it lacks any kind of cohesion and generally sticks around far too long in the third act.
There was a danger of Nathan Drake having outstayed his welcome by the end of Uncharted 3 so in truth The Last Of Us was probably the refreshing tonic we all needed, but it also grew to be the catalyst from which Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End would sprout, transcending everything that had gone before it and climbing to the dizzying heights of its post-apocalyptic half-brother.
How Druckmann put it right
In Uncharted 4, the lessons Druckmann learned in the production of The Last Of Us – and the chops he received for his Faustian bargain – are unimpeachably clear. Hand-to-hand combat is no longer an overly-complex combination of button sequence timings, a poor man’s Street Fighter combo sequence; it is reborn as a brutal, no holds barred scramble for victory, where hammering the ‘square’ button leads to Nate putting people’s heads through plate glass windows or picking up nearby items to beat them with, or simply pounding on them with his fists until they can’t get up. Just like Joel did, defending Ellie in The Last Of Us.
Stealth in Uncharted 4 is no longer a poorly implemented add-on, that in previous games felt like it should have been a powerful tool for progression but for the most part seems awkward and unfinished. Cover is more defined and useful, and the interplay between enemies and that sound they heard in the bushes feels more rounded, allowing you to trick enemies with sound or bypass combat altogether if the situation allows; just like The Last Of Us. And like Druckmann’s magnum opus, if stealth goes wrong then the ability to improvise and scramble through a close-quarters combat situation, just like Joel would, feels long overdue in Uncharted 4.
Finally, one of the biggest – and probably most deserved – criticisms of the Uncharted series as a whole was that it couldn’t get its pacing right. It was so determined to rollick along from one insane action sequence to another and keep the intensity up at all times, it was like listening to a mix tape with no slow songs. The transitions between high-octane action sequences would be filled with fantastic dialogue and wonderful acting, the hallmark of any Druckmann game, but they were always performed to a backdrop of climbing or shooting or generally running for your life. Uncharted 4 has learned from The Last Of Us by allowing the action and the characterisation a little time to breathe – just like Joel and Ellie – and it is an infinitely better game for it.
Did Neil Druckmann really make a deal with the devil somewhere between 2009 and 2013? Probably not, no; but there can be no denying that he went from being an already talented chap with a cracking portfolio to being at the top of his game – hell, he’s at the top of everyone’s game – somewhere between Uncharted 2 and The Last Of Us.
I didn’t realistically think I’d be talking about The Last Of Us and Uncharted 4 in the same breath and in quite so much detail, and in truth the former is probably still the better game because of its powerful story and emotional impact, but without it? Druckmann and co wouldn’t have been able to make Uncharted 4 the farewell that Nathan Drake, and the fans, truly deserved.
We can’t wait to see what he does next.
*Not really, I made that up. Wouldn’t it be amazing, though?
If you haven’t played The Last Of Us, then you really should. Pick up the PS4 Remaster, including Left Behind, from Amazon.