What We Found in the Ruins

UnchartedIt took me two years to write my novel, though it took twenty to get started. When I was done, I flopped over at the finish line. I’d stuffed every idea—good, bad, and half-cocked—into one project. I did the only thing that came to mind; I replayed Uncharted.

Video Games and Me

My family had an Atari console when I was a kid.

I don’t want to misrepresent myself: my gamer cred is less than zero. I subtracted whatever I might have accumulated when I used the words “gamer cred.” I played Space Invaders and Pitfall as a child, but I didn’t spend much time on video games until I was in my late 30s and obtained a PlayStation 3. Wait, I forgot, I did play King’s Quest on an Apple IIe in my youth. However, more significantly, I did not own or operate a Nintendo. When I got to college everyone was smoking and playing Mario Bros. in their dorm rooms but I was more interested in alcohol and boys. I wish I could say I spent my time learning but I just wanted to get laid, and I’m pleased to report that once I even succeeded.

Although I now possess Steam, I have never been a PC gamer and I know nothing of mods. Uncharted is fun but it’s not hardcore. If I was a serious gamer I’d be shooting strangers online in Call of Duty but I don’t like multiplayer games—I was tired of the creeps on the PS4 Destiny Beta by the second day of the release. Look, I’m old, my reflexes are slow; I play games on Normal or Medium like someone’s mom would. If you are searching for an insider view of the dank basements where the video game sausage gets made, please refer to Vice and Reddit or wherever the kids are hanging out these days calling themselves the “master race” in a non-ironic but what I sincerely hope is ahistorical way.

The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

I finished the book I waited the majority of my adult life to write and felt fulfilled and satisfied with my hard work. Ha! Just kidding. What happened was I discovered I could not read. I don’t mean I lost my grasp of the English language, but I was unable to focus on a sentence, let alone a narrative thread. This phenomenon was deeply frightening, since text is how I make my primary connection to the outside world. It felt like a kind of mourning, as if my mind closed up shop and pulled the curtains. I could only wait for the mourning period to end. Movies, video games, and online magazines and blogs were good substitutes during this fallow period, when my creativity was so drained that even the stories of other people failed to catch my imagination. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy movies and games and blogs at other times, just they were the only thing that succeeded in occupying me during this particular period.

Of course, no video game is a cure for depression. For that I suggest therapy and medication. What I am describing is a coping mechanism that worked for me in the short term.

The World of Nathan Drake

Uncharted is one of the PS3’s exclusive titles, a Tomb Raider/Indiana Jones-style adventure shooter created by Naughty Dog. The game and its two sequels have a cinematic feel, with sweeping landscapes and intricately dressed sets. The player interacts with the game as the hero, Nathan Drake: climbing, running, shooting, and searching for treasure. The games are easy to get caught up in. Uncharted and its sequels are not perfect—Uncharted 3’s final chapters feel like they’ve been transported from the 1999 remake of The Mummy, CGI sand-effects and all; there are two boss fights in Uncharted 2 that made me nuts (the train boss and the general with his eerily accurate shotgun); and don’t get me started on the Jet-Ski sequence in the first game.

However, Naughty Dog is adept at synthesizing the rote structure of combat, puzzle solving, and platforming with character development. As a result, the player engages with the game in much the same way a reader engages with text.

Books are dying, we are warned, but I find that prediction hard to accept. Fan fiction and ebooks seem to be thriving. We want our stories; we will get them or make them somehow. A video game is a story into which we can enter—even the simplest of games. We strive, gain knowledge and skills, and progress on a journey. We find a way to relate to and make sense of the game. Call it escapism, but the elements we select in order to tell stories say more about us than our dreams. We choose them with our values, our fears and fantasies.

The Mass Effect Effect

Naughty Dog is adept at the synthesis of story and action in another of their games, the excellent The Last of Us, which marries the gameplay to the consequences of the story in a way I’ve only seen in 2K’s Spec Ops: The Line. Spec Ops is a smart, subversive shooter that reflects on war-game tropes with what I found to be refreshing self-awareness. Naughty Dog also did not make Bioware’s tragic mistake on the Mass Effect series, of creating the illusion the player could actually determine the outcome.

Mass Effect, like Uncharted, Spec Ops, and Last of Us, simply reveals and highlights the consequences of the actions required to move forward through the story. Video games are a good medium for this kind of storytelling since they are explicitly participatory, a collaboration between the game developer and the player. A twist in a video game can be powerfully shocking because the player’s experience is so immediate and personal. The visuals and the struggle to progress creates an engagement that readers of a book, for example, have to engender for themselves, in their own heads. However, gamers are sometimes misled by the mirage of narrative-disruption into believing they are engaged in a dialogue.

The outcry and frustration over the ending of the Mass Effect series was quite loud and I think entirely misplaced. Don’t mistake me, I sympathize with the pain of Mass Effect 3 players who wanted to the story to end differently. I clearly recall my frustration with the outcome of a storyline that occurred in another Bioware game, Dragon Age: Origins, in which my love interest heartlessly ended our relationship because my character was an elf. I was so furious I couldn’t finish the game for weeks. In Mass Effect 3, if the character Tali had thrown herself off the cliff in my game I’m not sure I would have gone any further.

We are without a doubt allowed to critique our game experience and comment on whether we found it successful. However, as one who has suffered through the creative process and lived to whine about it, I say to those outraged at not getting a particular ending in what they perceived as a Choose Your Own Adventure: write your own story that ends the way you want, but have no illusions when you play a game. You may feel you’re living through it and participating, but it’s someone else’s story. That’s why games are so good to get lost in. A story is determined by its creators, as it should be; that is their gift to us. If you feel engaged in the characters and the story, that does not mean the writers have failed you. It means they have succeeded.

And the Greatest of These Is Indiana Jones

One of the ways Naughty Dog’s writers succeeded is with Uncharted’s protagonist, Nathan Drake, who embodies one of the great adventure archetypes. There are certain let’s call them jobs that lend themselves to a good story, and while the list is long, my top three are the cowboy, the spy, and the archaeologist. There are many, many more: cop, astronaut, and hacker, for instance. There’s the assassin, the smuggler, and the one I used in my own novel—the magician. But the holy trinity is this: Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, James Bond, and Indiana Jones.

And the greatest of these is Indy, in whose footsteps Nathan Drake follows.

The icons of these archetypes have traditionally been men, of course. It took me way too long to understand the world preferred me, a person with tits, to play the role of Bond girl rather than the hero. I don’t believe for a second that evolution or some hormonal voodoo better suits me to wring my hands and mix the martinis. There may be people who prefer to be decorative background or collateral damage, but in my head, I’m the one deciphering the ancient languages and swinging through the windows. In fact, the excellent Tomb Raider reboot featured another Indiana Jones inheritor in Lara Croft, which was as it should be.

The fantasy archaeologists combine intellectual leaps as well as physical ones; they read books, study history and the stars to figures out clues, and search for secrets. The last part is what keeps me thoroughly on the hook—the element of discovery.

There’s a drawback to this aspect of the archaeologist: the undertone of straight-up imperialism that pervades most exploration. In order to posit the unknown, writers fall back on a paternalistic and racist othering of various cultures. I’m not accusing Uncharted of this, per se—in the first game, the monsters turn out to be the explorers themselves, and they are so very white—but it’s a fact of the genre. While I adore the exploration and adventure tropes, it makes me sad when they’re mixed with toxic elements. Don’t get me started on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which, well, it’s not the jewel in Spielberg’s crown. I’d like to believe it doesn’t have to be that way, and the archetype of the adventurer can be carried on without racism at its center, moving away from the “strange indigenous people” trope to depict the process of encountering new cultures with respect.

It’s a challenge worth taking up, though the search for undiscovered treasures and civilizations is sadly limited on this planet—it’s hard to do these days. The vast ruins depicted in the games defy probability: how did the enormous city of Shangri-La in Uncharted 2 escape notice? Didn’t anyone look at a satellite picture of the Himalayas and wonder about the jungle microclimate? But Uncharted and stories like it conjure up glorious unknown spaces: labyrinthian ancient cities with towering statues and architecture, and vast, elaborate machines and gears created apparently in complete secrecy (that still work). It strains credulity, of course, but I love it and the astonishing work done by the set-dressers and background artists, which is worth the price of a ticket all on its own.

History Has Shown Us

The forerunners of the archaeologist archetype include, among others, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and John Carter series, and most significantly for Indiana Jones, H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain. You can see from this truncated list that the adventure family tree branches out immediately into science fiction—another genre that relies heavily on discovery, and contains some hints for the future of the non-imperialist archaeologist. Perhaps the solution is to take a Drake or Croft under the ocean, where plenty of mysteries remain. Maybe I’ll write that one, whenever I get my creative chin out of the dirt. No Atlantis silliness, please, but I am a fan of pirates.

Often, Drake in his adventures and Lara Croft in hers, imitating the template of Raiders of the Lost Ark (as well as Haggard’s She), stumble upon an element of the supernatural. The mysteries of the unexplored culminate in the mysteries of the incomprehensible divine. And in this, the narratives mirror our deepest dreams and fears, presenting a reenactment of humanity’s search for meaning. At the end of the quest, the archaeologists witness a miracle, wonderful and terrible.

The archaeologist archetype in the Uncharted games remains seductive and compelling because it teaches us about who we could be: someone who collects information, understands the past, and takes action—most of all, someone who seeks out mystery.

Where All the Ladders Start

Narrative is more than entertainment; it’s how we create meaning, and we do it constantly, like fish swimming to breathe. Sometimes we have to hold on to other people’s creativity for dear life, to support us in dark times. This is why I love books, comics, movies, TV and web series—and video games. It’s also why I write: it takes time, thought, and energy to construct a story worth getting lost in. All things circle back to text. Language surrounds us like an invisible maze: we feel for or sense the openings in the walls and the dead ends as we encounter them. We are steeped in language inextricably, though we can use it well or badly.

The writing process is the price we pay for stories. Sometimes other people pay it for us, but if we’re lucky and willing to make the effort, we get to pay it for them. So we keep climbing for the chance to step through the waterfall, open the door under the statue, and see what lies beyond.