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Ten Years On, Uncharted's Legacy Isn't Lost

The action-adventure shooting museum will never be lost to time, unlike a bridge crumbling under Nathan Drake's feet.

Analysis by Caty McCarthy, .

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.

It all got started in 2007.

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.

Uncharted 2 remains the series' peak.

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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Comments 4

  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #1 donkeyintheforest 25 days ago
    I would love to see a new series launch starring Drake's daughter during grad school or something doing adventurous (and non lethal) exploring as well as repatriating artifacts to their communities (when they still exist) and saving ancient documents from floods, ISIS-like groups, etc. Or entirely new characters is fine.

    I'm not gonna say they are my favorite games, but they def have their moments and are great at showing how a PS4 can have games that look better than much beefier PCs.
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  • Avatar for manoffeeling #2 manoffeeling 25 days ago
    This is, perhaps, the most garbled heading/subheading of all time
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  • Avatar for secularsage #3 secularsage 25 days ago
    The Uncharted games have done an uncommonly good job of making the player care about all of the characters in-game, often by simply injecting personality and perspective into the big - and small! - moments and making the characters feel three-dimensional. In Uncharted 2, for example, there are so many big moments that stick with you long after the game is over, and for me, it's both Nathan shouting "Marco!" at Chloe when he plays around in a rooftop swimming pool and the awful moment of watching the Sherpa village get destroyed by a mercenary squad.

    The weakest aspects of any Uncharted game are the portions where they turn into shooting corridors, because these are the moments where characterization gets lost and the series simply feels like an average shooter with above-average graphics. Fortunately, each iteration has gotten better about keeping the shooting corridors from overwhelming the third act, and Lost Legacy and Uncharted 4 in particular held on to that sense of character throughout.
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  • Avatar for Outrider #4 Outrider 24 days ago
    I've always been interested in playing through the Uncharted games but I haven't had a Playstation since the PS2 (well, except for the PS TV, which doesn't count). I did borrow my brother's PS3 with plan to play through the original Uncharted trilogy, but uh... the first Uncharted isn't a very good game? It's got sloppy platforming and bullet sponge combat encounters and I was not into that.

    I still want to play through the games at some point (maybe just skipping ahead to Uncharted 2) but at the very least I wound up watching the cutscenes on YouTube a couple years ago and that was pretty fun.
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