Editor’s note: this article does contain spoilers for Uncharted 4. You have been warned.
Video games can be loud, over-the-top epics that dwarf the senses and blow away all expectations of what was possible. Yet, they are also capable of producing genuine quiet moments of bliss, sorrow, terror, and humor, that more perfectly capture the humanity of their characters than nearly any other medium.
I love games for a variety of different reasons, yet the small and strikingly powerful moments they are capable of producing is easily one of my favorites. There are many games and many studios who have produced stellar quiet, tiny moments, yet for the purpose of this story, I will be looking into a single studio: Naughty Dog, and the evolution of its singular ability to move us and connect us to its characters through small, quiet moments.
If you ever talk to me for more than five minutes about great game moments, large or small, I will inevitably bring up an early moment from Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. As the third chapter of the game is winding down, you find yourself running through a forest. In the background you can hear what sounds like water falling, rushing waves. Running quicker the trees begin to thin out, you round a corner and with a stunning view you are welcomed to the fourth chapter of the game and the true beginning of Uncharted’s magic.
What you find waiting for you is a sight imprinted in my mind. A long since abandoned German U-Boat hanging over the edge of a roaring waterfall, overlooking a breathtaking, lush jungle vista. Climbing to the top of the cliff to look out on the whole incredible thing as the sun rises in the background, was one heck of a way for Naughty Dog to show us what the PS3 was capable of.
This scene is special for a number of reasons, but among the biggest to me was the simple fact that Uncharted was the very first game I played on PS3. That was my introduction to the new generation of consoles, with one stunning vista and a misplaced U-Boat, I was transported away, to something I never imagined a game doing. Then there’s the fact that it was this moment that let us know that Uncharted was going to be something special.
I went back and played through all of the Uncharted games before A Thief’s End release in May, and getting back to that moment, there’s just something about it. It’s a very barebones experience. No music, no real dialogue. Just Drake, climbing, swimming, and jumping around, until he stands high above everything, looking out on what seems like the edge of the world. The water falling, the cling of it hitting the metal of the U-Boat, this is what Uncharted is all about, those amazing moments.
That was Naughty Dog’s genesis of producing well-crafted quiet moments though, the full realization of it would come with The Last Of Us. Now, in writing this, I jotted down memorable moments from a series of Naughty Dog games to remind myself of, I had to stop doing it for The Last of Us because I was basically writing down every moment from the game. There’s a reason it’s my favorite game of all-time, there’s just something breathtaking, beautiful, and awe-inspiring from every corner here. I could of course go to the easy route and describe arguably the game’s most iconic scene with Joel and Ellie looking out on Giraffes over a sunset, and while I believe that’s arguably gamings most beautiful, perfectly realized scene, I’ve talked about it before and it’s well-known. No, no, for The Last of Us, I wanted to dig deep and talk of two moments very different.
The first is a moment so easy to miss as a brilliantly crafted quiet moment that it’s true magic may be lost. During the Pittsburgh section of the game, Joel and Ellie are navigating the ruins of a skyscraper, during which Joel gets sent to the bottom of the towering building and forced to explore the basement for a way back up. Everything is nearly pitch black, water fills the various rooms up to your waist, the ruined debris of what once was is everywhere, and worst of all you can hear odd clangs and rumblings from elsewhere. The exits are blocked but eventually you find a path where you can swim down using the stairs, summoning up some courage and some gulps of air, you dive down and everything stops.
The music playing stops. All outside noise stops. Everything becomes deathly quiet, then to almost hammer this home further, among the first things you see while swimming are lifeless bodies just floating by, still nothing. All you are allowed to hear is the soft sound of Joel swimming deep beneath the water, it is a haunting moment and then struggling for air you finally reach your destination and break the surface.
All of the noises come flooding back, seemingly ten times louder now, the bangs and clangs from earlier, the screeching and crying of clickers from off-screen, everything. It is a jarring and distorting re-entry to the world. And then you walk, you eventually find yourself in a large, open area, with side rooms, and stairwells. You’re looking for a generator, something to turn the power back on and get out. Truly pitch black now, even the flashlight only makes it marginally better. With every footstep the music grows louder more ominous, there is not a soul to see, but the yelps and bangs from outside noises only grows louder. You will finally stumble upon the generator and when you do with a breath of relief you start it up and banging, wheezing, and half-heartedly it roars up and in a moment of horror you realize that it may in fact be the loudest thing ever created. Screams and screeches from beyond your limited view cascade down on you. Terrified, you bang away at the generator, anything to make it start up quicker. But it’s all in vain. Dozens of clickers come descending down on you, they’re coming from everywhere, every angle, doorway, staircase, everywhere. It is one of the most genuinely unnerving experiences I’ve ever come across and the resulting fight for your life and all its surprises, have brilliantly built off a series of moments carefully building tension until you believe you’ve managed to find a way out cleanly, and then terror from all angles. It still gives me chills.
As an epilogue to the Last of Us, Left Behind’s tale was fantastic for many reasons, perhaps none were greater though, then its story of Ellie and Riley simply exploring an abandoned mall. There are an impossible number of tiny, quiet moments to choose from; really the whole DLC is just small, quiet moments, yet there’s one moment that is too good to pass up and that’s how their story ends.
Riley and Ellie are bitten. As far as they are concerned they are going to die. As Riley so wonderfully puts it, they have two options: option one, take the quick way out and kill themselves to avoid turning. Or, option two, to be all poetic and lose their minds together, to fight for every single moment, every single second they can get with each other. They of course choose option two. The fact that her narration is overcut with images of Ellie in the future healing and watching over Joel’s badly wounded self, makes the scene and its message that much more resonate. Textbook Naughty Dog, making me catch all the feels.
The Last of Us was masterful in how it handled its story, characters, and the themes and ideas it was bringing forth. Yet, Naughty Dog’s next game would seek to take the lessons and successes of everything that had come before and mix it with characters we had known and loved for the better part of a decade. The finale of the Uncharted series, would be another excellent notch in Naughty Dog’s belt as storytellers. Again, great quiet moments abound, but the two I want to talk about are in essence one long moment that bookends the game.
The first is a chapter very early on in the game where Nate just explores his house, walks around his attic and sees the highlights of adventures past and then finally walks downstairs and has dinner with Elena. You see the world, the life they’ve created for themselves. Nate and Elena’s interactions in particular are striking in just how real they are. Sitting on the couch, joking, talking, laughing together, the love they share obvious even as they gently tease each other about playing that one game. The reveal of Crash Bandicoot being playable, aside from being amazing fan service, is also important because it ties this series of moments to the game’s epilogue.
Playing as Nate and Elena’s daughter to end the game is powerful precisely because we’ve spent so much time with them over the years. The fact that you do so in an abandoned house, with only a dog to keep you company is one of the biggest. From the second you are given control, you know this is it. You realize you are playing through the final few seconds or minutes of Uncharted. Naughty Dog knows this to. They just let you wander around, to see how Nate and Elena have lived. Notice how similar, yet vastly different these two scenes are.
The first is of Nate and Elena trying to live regular lives. Pretending there wasn’t anything else they wanted out of life. They are happy, but mainly because they have each other, they are longing for adventure though. When you play as Cassie, you are given a look into the happy ending for Nate and Elena. The adventures, huge successes, and joy they have managed to get out of life.
It’s key to note that during an early section of the game, young Drake and Sam explore a mansion and see how a family was torn apart by one’s desire for adventuring and exploration. Indeed throughout the game you are led to believe that may in fact be the fate that awaits Nate. Instead he takes these lessons, learns from them and very importantly, in a crucial moment chooses his family, in this case, Elena, Sam, and Sully over glory and treasure. Nate was never looking for gold and riches, he was looking for family, the love he missed out on as a kid. Getting to play as his and Elena’s daughter to end his journey is among the most powerful and effective ways to let us know that he found it, to let us know that for all the times he helped Elena out of trouble, she’s the one who really saved him. I love that ending of old Nate and Elena just happily together. And it was all told, save for the final scene with no words.
Video Games are a medium like no other. In some ways they pull from everything else. Taking the cinematic nature and grand scope of films. The episodic and more personal nature of Television, and finally the mystery and idea of letting your imagination run wild, that is a key to novels. As I mentioned at the beginning, they are capable of moments that awe and stun the gamer. Yet, their greatest strength, the thing that helps to elevate their stories and tie their characters closer to us, is their ability to craft brilliant little moments of wonder, humor, or terror. To capture a perfect moment of humanity and all that goes along with that, in the midst of a world gone to shit. This isn’t a new development, games have been doing it since they began, yet no studio has mastered the craft of weaving moving, emotional, and human tales of the best and worst we are capable of like Naughty Dog. A book could be written on just one of the games they’ve created in the past decade, yet the stories above represent Naughty Dog, and by extension video games themselves, at their very best. Funny, gut-wrenching, terrifying, and heart-warming in ways that are hard for other mediums to achieve. They are in short, some of the finest quiet moments in games and why I love playing them so much.