I played Uncharted 1 & 2 in the span of a week. It may have been the shortest amount of time I’ve taken to play two games and it’s because I never wanted to leave. This was surprising, even to me, because I arrived at the games with very low expectations.
My low expectations were tempered by my dislike of the Tomb Raider series. The original Tomb Raiders failed to capture my interest due to the clumsy, and frustrating control scheme, and the latter entries seemed a little too adolescent in terms of story and character design for me to really get into.
I was expecting Uncharted to be like Lara Croft with a male protagonist.
Dude Raider he is not. Unlike Lara Croft, Nathan Drake is a multidimensional character–one full of personality. Though he exudes confidence, he isn’t free of insecurities. He has flaws which he tries to cover up with an endless supply of sarcastic quips and a cocky attitude towards life and all the challenges it throws at him, but the flaws are still real. But he’s impatient and he makes mistakes. And not unlike Lara Croft, he’s in it for the loot. Still, he’s more human than most–he’s a regular guy.
Nathan Drake is a living person of flesh and blood. And that made me fall in love with a game I wasn’t expecting to like.
He isn’t alone on his adventures, and is in both games accompanied by the self-possessed journalist Elena Fisher, and Victor “Sully” Sullivan, Drake’s close friend and confidant. The former, a potential love interest, and the latter, a brother. Both are individuals Drake knows he can count on. In the second game, Drake is also joined by the femme fatale Chloe Frazier, and Tenzin, a sherpa mountaineer, both of whom enrich an already ensemble cast of heroes.
What better heroes to face adversaries ranging from an ill-tempered mercenary and a rich art collector with megalomaniacal intent, to a scorned professional rival and a Serbian war criminal… also with megalomaniacal intent?
Like Nathan Drake, each of the characters is a defining aspect of the Uncharted experience, contributing a huge part of the games’ charm.
The companionship of these individuals made Uncharted and its sequel feel like a cooperative effort. Together with Elena, Sully, Chloe and the recondite company of Tenzin’s Tibetan tongue, Drake and I were never alone in our adventures. Their banter was always a welcome addition to the rock-climbing sequences and the harrowing shootouts that punctuated every chapter of the game.
Rather than pulling me out of the action, the dialogue was every bit a part of it — bringing realism and injecting character into an already exhilarating situation.
Exhilaration is a word that defines the Uncharted experience. It’s an experience where every push of a button makes Drake do exactly as I expect. There was no dissonance between my actions and his reactions. I felt his heart racing as we ran across rooftops in Turkey, and I recognized his fear as my own as we scaled the thousand foot walls of stone temples hidden within the valleys of Tibet.
Combat, too, was exhilarating. Bullets hurt–and Drake isn’t bulletproof. To keep both myself and Drake alive, I had to rely on cover, using the terrain to my advantage. As with Drake, I opted to make full use of his agility, sneaking around instead of engaging in a frontal assault and snapping the necks of the unwary foes who sought to kill us. More than just a simple treasure hunter, Drake was apparently gifted with the skills of an assassin (albeit a slightly clumsy one) who could have given Batman a run for his money; he didn’t have to resort to stupid tricks or a tool-belt full of toys. When his fists weren’t enough to do the talking, a gun could open diplomatic channels.
And speaking of opening diplomatic channels, there was a memorable scene in Uncharted where Drake yelled the words “Buka pintu!” over a loudspeaker, which apparently means “open the door” in the Malay language of the mercenaries who were trying to kill him. This scene was precisely the sort of detail that went into crafting the games which make them so remarkable.
Unforgettable, too, were the game’s myriad locations. In the first game, we explored an ancient Mayan temple, crawled through the claustrophobic hull of a derelict submarine, scaled the cliff-sides of an island in the South Pacific, and traversed the flooded waterways of a sunken Spanish colony on the back of a jet ski. In the sequel, we stole our way into a Turkish museum, escaped a flaming train wreck, survived street-by-street battles in the middle of a war torn city, and wandered the ruins of ancient Tibetan temples built to an unfathomable scale, on both hand and foot.
Tibetan temples, designed as gigantic puzzles.
Where most games would offer small, obvious puzzles to solve, Uncharted’s puzzles existed in the giant form of the locations themselves, which one could only solve by manipulating the environment. It gave me the impression I was within the puzzle, manipulating it as a key would with a lock.
In many ways, Nathan Drake was the solution to the puzzle that made up Uncharted’s beauty as both a game and as an interactive experience. The games have been referred to as the realization of movies in the form of games. Rather than piggybacking on the rotten success of movies and calling Uncharted the Citizen Kane of games (or some other shallow comparison), I would argue instead that the Uncharted series is a graduation of games as a medium for storytelling. The series contains all of the elements to tell a great story, and it manages to do so through both its ludic and narrative structures. There have been other games, but Uncharted is a series that has two offerings of the best, to date.
One might ask as to what is so compelling about watching an adventurer trapeze from one ancient temple to the next. Given how boring most ancient temples and ice caves in video games, it’s no wonder why anyone would have to ask this question. It’s a problem common to games whose designers suffer from limited tools or limited imaginations for which to craft an interesting world.
Uncharted is different. It entices the same feeling of awe that I felt when I watched the first Indiana Jones movie, many years ago. There is this almost inexplicable feeling of majesty for the vastness of the game’s settings, their secrets numerous. If only I had some time to examine the place further. I can sense Drake’s desire as an amateur archaeologist and a professional treasure hunter to decipher these secret histories–if only to find more treasure. The anxiety I feel at my unwillingness to depart these grand locations is almost palpable.
I didn’t want to leave Uncharted behind when it ended. It is a fantastic game. Many of its settings were as beautiful and just as amazing as any place I could ever hope to visit in the real world.
In fact, I hope to visit it again sometime soon. Perhaps next time in its third iteration–oh, how E3 disappointed us Uncharted fans.
Oh well, maybe next year.