-A look back at the highs and lows of the Uncharted series-
The Uncharted series came to a close earlier this year with the release of the fourth title in the series, A Thief’s End. Developer Naughty Dog stated that this is the definitive conclusion to the story of smarmy pretty boy treasure hunter/Indiana Jones Academy of Archaeology graduate, Nathan Drake, and his band of recurring allies. After 9 years of globetrotting and fortune-seeking, bullets and bullion, the adventure is over as we drift off with Drake into the sunset. Or something like it.
I thought I’d take this as an opportunity to go over the overarching story, character and plot points contained in each game and evaluate how effectively (or not in some cases) they work as a narrative whole. While the series overall has been lauded for being if not the first, then probably the most high-profile to incorporate “cinematic” and like elements into gaming, it is also noted for the general high quality of its writing and character portrayal. Certainly it deserves credit on this front. The caliber of the cast for the main protagonists and supporting roles are some of the most noteworthy and talented in the business. Veteran and perennial fan-favorite Nolan North supplies Drake’s trademark mix of bravado, charm, and wit, playing off other fantastic actors like Emily Rose (Drake’s on/off again journalist girlfriend and eventual wife, Elena) and Richard McGonagle (his “I’m too old for this shit” mentor, Victor “Sully” Sullivan.) It’s a fairly classic action trio setup, but because of the above talent and combined with the deft writing of original lead and creative director, Amy Hennig and her team, it comes off as more than just a rehash of cliches and tropes.
Where the first game, Drake’s Fortune, offered an introduction to the characters and world, it was still an early iteration of what the franchise would become. The scope was ambitious at the time, but in hindsight compared to the next couple titles, it seems a bit more narrow. Not to say this is a mark against it, but due to the march of time and technology, it plays like a simpler, or at least smaller scale version of the entries to follow it. Nevertheless, it served as the template and framework to lay the ground for the adventures to come. The characters were well-drawn and realized, while the gameplay was perfectly serviceable within the genre. Both combined to establish a base which left many players waiting for the promise of future tales to be fulfilled as soon as possible.
Which brings us to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, widely regarded as the best of the batch (an opinion I also share) for taking the formula of the original and improving upon almost every angle. Among Thieves introduced stealth, streamlined combat, and made the exploration/puzzle-solving more accessible without dumbing any of it down. Realizing these are more gameplay mechanic related than narrative, I do want to explore one of them a bit and attempt to tie them together:
Although the ‘puzzles’ in general have been criticized as being overly simplified, I think that is actually a smartly integrated purposeful design choice as applied to Drake’s character. As mentioned, the series very much wants to impart the feeling of being an Indiana Jones type hero to the player, and if solving puzzles became too tedious or obtuse, then neither they nor Drake would come off feeling as the accomplished intrepid explorer he is set up to be. It makes sense that he, and thus we, should be able to fairly easily solve the elaborate contraptions while en route to the X at the end of the trail.
Beyond all this, the character interactions and dynamics were strengthened and solidified, the motion capture was as lifelike as possible, all producing a tightly woven core story while expanding the scope of the locales and pushing the rendering capabilities of the PS3 at the time; never before had such a story been so fully realized in games with so much believability, style, and satisfaction. Uncharted had come into its own, managing to elevate the ‘third person action’ genre and medium in general.
The third entry, Drake’s Deception, I believe is where the series begins to show the cracks in its facade. It introduces some backstory between a young Drake and burgeoning Sully, showcasing their meeting and partnership formation. Which is my issue, as it is never really explored past the point of superficiality and in service to set up the first set-piece of the game. Meanwhile the main villain, Katherine Marlowe, very shortly comes off as one-dimensional, a standard Bond-villain with less facets and interesting motivations than previous antagonists like Lazarević and Harry Flynn.
Compounding this, side characters like Chloe Frazer and Charlie Cutter are (re)introduced and subsequently dropped midway through the plot, without their presence or absence really affecting much in the end. It’s as if they were obliged to be included, but then overstayed their welcome and had no more room to fill in the plot. In Charlie’s case he is literally shipped on a bus never to be seen again. It comes off as patchwork and haphazard. The gameplay is still solid, but as I am focusing on narrative, I am compelled to point out the above shortcomings.
Which is why by the time we come to the the fourth and final game, A Thief’s End, the plot starts to feel more uneven than ever (arguably due in part to Hennig’s departure from the studio). It attempts to introduce an entirely new character never before mentioned in the previous games, who is ostensibly important to Drake and his history, while simultaneously retconning the reason he was completely absent until this point. Troy Baker, another ubiquitous voice actor, does as good a job as ever as Samuel Drake, Nate’s only slightly less cocky older brother. The problem is that he was never part of the cannon prior, so the feeling as if he’s shoehorned in in order to drive this plot setup is more glaring than ever. Sam supposedly spent the last 15 years in a third-world prison after Drake thought he was killed on an earlier adventure. Now he’s come back because...they needed to make a fourth game, I guess? Drake, now married to Elena, subsequently lies to her about his plans to set off one more time with Sam to find the legendary pirate treasure they dreamt about in their youth. Everything about this is glossed over at best and essentially hand-waved at worst.
Then, about the halfway point, it’s revealed that Sam lied to Drake about his earlier escape from prison because...I’m not really sure, other than again to have forced dramatic split to set up the third act. The plot then aggressively accelerates in a sprint to the end, culminating in the obligatory QTE boss battle and all the characters reconciling in the aftermath, happily ever after. Finally, the epilogue to A Thief’s End has us play a brief chapter as Cassandra, Drake and Elena’s tween daughter who stumbles upon their history as treasure hunting swashbucklers. Realizing they might as well let her in on the family secret, Drake and Elena agree to finally reveal to her their storied past uncovering ancient hidden cities and duking it out with various militias, as Drake starts outlining the details of the first game before the credits start to roll. A fine ending, a little touching and heartwarming perhaps (for those who still have hearts) and wraps things up quickly. It’s just by this point, it also feels forced and abrupt, a microcosm of the entire plot itself. It ends the series on a flat note, a bit wanting in my narrative opinion.
Still, the series must be given its due for attempting and many times succeeding greatly at elevating the quality of storytelling in AAA titles. And perhaps if it’s ever decided to revive the franchise, it could be titled Drake’s Descendents, starring his great-great grandchildren and take place in a post-apocalyptic future where the goal is to uncover the lost and destroyed city of New York, or some such. Naughty Dog-- I’m available!