Of all the series out there, Uncharted is maybe the one I have the clearest memories of. Jet skiing up rivers in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune with my eventual wife-to-be Elena. Sharing a quiet friendship with Tenzin in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, despite having a language barrier. Briefly ruminating on the morality of Nathan Drake's line of work in Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. The Gone Home-like epilogue to Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.
For those many moments, Uncharted made me feel embedded in its world, something shockingly rare for video games. But the credit it gets is often outside of that realm. All too often, the Uncharted series is attributed to being similar to "movies," something that does it a disservice.
I've always disliked the caginess of the term "immersive sim," which can theoretically apply to, well, any good video game. The phrase was first uttered by Warren Spector in a post-mortem for Deus Ex, used to describe giving players a believable, almost lifelike world to explore. In essence, it boiled down to the world feeling more alive, not stagnant, and you could probably pick up things in it too. That seems to be the clearest line drawn between "immersive sims" like Dishonored and BioShock and other story-driven single-player games: you can pick up shit.
Now, after November 19th has marked a decade of the Uncharted series, I oscillate back to this term, a phrase that wouldn't normally apply to it. When the first Uncharted released back in 2007, the world in it felt more alive than most games around at the time. In Uncharted, the environment is one that crumbles beneath the hero's very feet. Some have called Uncharted a fanciful museum where you can't touch anything; but the series teems more with energy and intricate detail than most action-adventure games like it. I've always wondered: why isn't that immersive enough?
The answer could be that the only way you really engage with its world is by destroying it. You interact with your gun, mostly, when you're not clambering up cliffs and walls. Old structures crumble more often than when they stand. You're a one-person wrecking machine, destroying the remnants of old civilizations in your wake.
That's kind of what has made Uncharted chug along all these years though. Treated as an on-rails action-adventure game with impeccable detail, the Uncharted series seemingly reinvented the action-adventure genre. It took clear nods from popular action movies—like Indiana Jones, of course—and plopped another sarcastic hero into the fray. Nathan Drake was basically young Harrison Ford for the modern age. The video game age.
That was also the fault that's plagued it in the years since. Uncharted, over the course of a decade now, always felt like it longed to be an interactive movie. With bombastic set pieces, a jet-setting hero and acquaintance, emotional sequences, Uncharted has often drawn the most comparisons to the movies it was inspired by, rather than fellow games.
Nowadays, we see other games, whether action-adventure or not, being memorable in other ways. The ways that only games can be, not in being similar to movies or other media. In telling stories that would be impossible to fly in movies or television. In being mechanically interesting in some way. In engaging with the person actively playing said thing beyond a surface point-and-shoot level. Back in the day, Uncharted was rooted in just being polished and pleasant to experience, while not getting much credit for doing anything more.
But it's the moment-to-moment of playing it, things that movies can't replicate, that always made Uncharted stick out. While I wonder if the series would resonate with someone who had never touched them before played them now, there's no denying that there's a reason why they've been often held as the gold standard for video game storytelling. Uncharted games, even if they fumbled to an anticlimactic end with Uncharted 4: My Retconned Brother (and proved there is life yet to them with this year's bite-sized standalone Lost Legacy, which starred side character Chloe Frazer), were the rarity that shined in the quieter moments and its big action setpieces. Uncharted is memorable because it knew how to balance both.
While Uncharted was so often compared to movies like it, it relished in giving players more than just watching another movie-like cutscene: we felt closer to the characters than we would in movies because we were experiencing everything right alongside them. We stumbled through gunfights carrying someone who was wounded. We tripped as child-Nathan Drake. We sighed up until that very last accidental death with someone shrieking "Nate!" in the distance as Nathan became a ragdoll corpse. Unlike movies, we felt like someone actively cared for our hero's mistakes, whether it was Elena or Sully or anyone else. Because in a way, we were them.
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