The Treasured Tropes Of Uncharted’s Storytelling
As Naughty Dog’s Nathan Drake story wraps up, I can’t help but notice the lengths in which the Uncharted series has progressed narratively. Uncharted is part of the action genre, but it has established conventions that feel personal to the franchise. Although some may seem like they would be detrimental to the narrative, such as unlikely coincidences or a know-it-all character type, Uncharted uses them so they work with the storytelling in a positive way. Here are some of the reoccurring plot devices in Uncharted, and what they add to the series as a whole.
Warning: This feature contains spoilers for Drake’s Fortune, Among Thieves, Drake’s Deception, and A Thief’s End.
Far-Fetched Coincidences Keep The Action Moving
If there’s one thing that moves plot forward in the Uncharted series, it’s happy coincidences. Present since a pocket-held journal saved Sully from a bullet in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, these fortunate accidents are seen throughout the entire series. It’s almost as if a good-luck fairy sits on Nate’s shoulder. Some prime examples include when Nate coincidentally turned a corner to find a German U-boat in the forest mere feet from El Dorado’s temple or when Elena pulled Nate into a random door in Yemen to avoid Marlowe’s agents and find the well they came to the country in search for.
So how is it that Uncharted’s plot is hinged so closely to far-fetched coincidences, but that doesn’t seem to affect the player’s immersion in the story? Because Uncharted walks the line. The appearance of these is subsequently followed by action or a discovery that leaves the player no time to consider the odds of them happening. After Nate turns the corner and finds the U-boat, he is quickly confronted by Gabriel Roman and his men. Likewise, when they find the well in Yemen it leads them to the discovery of the location of the Iram of the Pillars and subsequently an attack from a terrifying swarm of spiders. In Uncharted, the plot moves quickly and the coincidences in the story allow the pacing of its narrative to stay consistent. Players are willing to suspend disbelief because they want Nate to keep moving, and Naughty Dog includes just the right amount of chance to allow the plot to flow without making the player throw up their hands and question, “What are the odds?”
Exploding Vehicles Are Gateways, Not Just Spectacle
It seems every plane, train, and automobile Nate steps into soon meets its fiery demise. Sometimes you just witness explosions passively, such as the tank while traveling through a Tibetan village in Among Thieves, or the persistent helicopter that follows you along the rooftops of Yemen. However, more often than not, Nate is experiencing an explosion first-hand, desperately reaching for anything he can grab while a train teeters off the edge of a cliff or clutching to a parachuted cargo box as it drifts down slowly, forcing the player to watch the plane you destroyed come crashing down onto the Syrian sands.
Not only does Uncharted use explosions creatively, vehicle explosions often act as gateways to some of the most memorable set pieces throughout the franchise. Even when just witnessing an explosion, it usually leads to a frantic escape while everything comes crashing down around you. By using explosions as gateways rather than spectacle, it makes it so that every time Nate steps onto a form of transportation, you’re just waiting to see how he steps off of it alive.
That “Supernatural” Plot Twist Isn’t Relied On As The Series Progresses
Supernatural oddities frequently show up in the Uncharted franchise. At first things seem straightforward; the treasure hunter is looking for treasure. But about three-fourths of the way through the story, a sudden twist occurs, revealing some curse or magical force has weaved its way into mix. Suddenly, getting that treasure is a lot more complicated.
In Drake’s Fortune, El Dorado bears a curse that has rendered the inbred descendants of Spanish colonists, and whoever else opens its sarcophagus, into zombie-like creatures. In Among Thieves, the Cintamani stone (resin from the Tree of Life) grants whoever drinks it heightened strength and speed while turning them into purple monsters called Shambhala Guardians. In Drake’s Deception, King Soloman casts a brass vessel into Ubar’s water supply, tainting it and causing those who drink it to hallucinate wildly, like Nate when he fought off Marlowe’s men as they seemingly became possessed by the Djinn and engulfed in flames. Surprisingly, A Thief's End opts to completely eliminate the supernatural twist from its plot altogether.
It’s almost like magic has slowly filtered its way out of the Uncharted universe as the series progresses, so that by the time it comes to a close it has disappeared completely and turned into a classic treasure-hunting plot. Perhaps this is because when Naughty Dog was first establishing the Uncharted IP, it wanted something extra to intrigue audiences. It feels like as Uncharted wrapped up, Naughty Dog was confident enough in its storytelling abilities that it didn’t see a need for any out-of-the-blue supernatural elements. Either way, the twist always felt inherently Uncharted.
Venture onto page 2 where we look at how suspense is maintained, the use lost cities, and a character analysis of Nathan Drake himself.
Always Being A Step Ahead/Behind The Antagonist Maintains The Suspense
It seems like every time Nate acquires a new artifact, the main antagonist appears to pluck it from his hands and place him in a dangerous situation – like losing and then stealing back Marco Polo’s golden passport from Lazarević or being followed by Nadine and Rafe’s missionaries in search of Tew and Avery's pirate treasure.
This infuses the plot with a pendulum effect wherein Nate and his companions are continually shifting closer and further away from their end goal. By allowing the antagonists to influence the plot in this way, when the player finally reaches the finale it feels all the sweeter. Always following the enemy, and likewise being followed by them, also adds tension to the plot and spurs the story forward with an exciting sense of urgency.
The Lost City Acts As A Climactic Bookend
Save for the first title, where the city of El Dorado turned out to be a cursed sarcophagus, the remaining three games use lost cities as bookends to each of their plotlines. In Among Thieves, Nate discovers Shambhala, in Drake’s Deception it’s Ubar or the Atlantis of the Sands, and finally in A Thief's End it’s the colonized city of Libertalia.
More often than not, Nate’s arrival in these cities usually leads to their destruction. Shambhala exploded by the resin from its Tree of Life, Ubar’s pillars were destroyed resulting in it being engulfed by a sinkhole by the Rub’al Khali, and although much of Libertalia was left standing despite numerous gunfights, Tew and Avery’s pirate ship ultimately bit the dust.
Every story needs a climax, and these cities provide the location for this to occur. They serve as an exciting end goal, and finding them is when the plot begins to frantically wrap up. They house the narrative conclusions, and their destruction creates a sense of closure for both the player and Nate.
Nate’s Know-It-All Character Type Goes From Stereotypical To Multidimensional
Besides being physically fit enough to do parkour all the time, artistic enough to craft well-drawn and clever journal entries, and downright handsome, Nate is so smart that he seems to know everything when it comes to treasure hunting. A similar scene continually reappears in Uncharted, where Nate and his current treasure hunting partners gather around the newest artifact trying to determine what to do next, and Nate always knows just the random historical tidbit necessary to figure it all out.
Drake’s Fortune had Nate following his claimed ancestor Sir Francis Drake, and at a base level it seems normal that Nate would know everything about Drake’s exhibitions, how he faked his own death, how Queen Elizabeth revoked all his journals and maps. He is a relative and thus Sir Francis Drake’s life has become a fascination for Nate.
In the next two games Nate also has extensive historical foreknowledge on Marco Polo, John Dee, and Lawrence of Arabia, making his fascination with history the root cause to all of his knowledge. A moment in Drake’s Deception pokes fun at the seemingly all-knowing Nate. As Nate rambles about Lawrence of Arabia and points to a foreign language on a map, Sully labels it as Sabean script before Nate can, earning him a fist-bump from Chloe.
While Nate appears to just be a know it all at first, later in the series we begin to learn more about his childhood in flashbacks that rationalize why he is so obsessed with history. After losing his mother and then being dumped into an orphanage by his father, Nate’s family is reduced to his brother Sam. Sam’s own interest in history rubs off on the impressionable Nate, and Sam remarks that Latin and historical figures used to be “dinner conversation” before their mother’s passing. As they walk around the mansion in A Thief's End, the two boys pick up artifacts and expertly summarize their places of origin and approximate age better than most professional historians.
After they learn about their treasure hunter mother’s desire to track Henry Avery before her death, they adopt the surname of Sir Francis Drake and decide to start their lives anew as treasure hunters. At the start of the series it may feel that Nate was a somewhat stereotypical treasure hunter character, but by the end he is fleshed out so much so that his personality and motives for adventure seeking can be traced back to instances in his childhood. By setting up Nate’s vast historical knowledge from a youthful dream to connect with his lost sense of family, every fact he spurts seems less arrogant and more endearing.
What are some of the reoccurring themes you love the most in Uncharted? We’d love to hear from you about what you think makes Uncharted such a memorable franchise.