Recently I played my first ever Playstation game: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The hype about this game is well deserved – it’s amazing, and really enjoyable to play. The lead character is Nathan Drake, a treasure hunting archaeology buff who is a little like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft but with a background that is far more criminal than academic. Split into chapters and containing sections of flashback, Uncharted 4 is plotted like a film. It begins with an insight into the childhood relationship between Nathan and his older brother Sam, showing them climbing over rooftops and scrambling up walls to escape their orphanage for a night. The action then shifts to several years later, when Sam and Nathan are in Panama and on the trail of the treasure of the late seventeenth-century pirate Henry Avery. Sam seemingly dies in this endeavour, and so Nathan gets on with his life and the action that features in the first three Uncharted games (which I haven’t yet played). 15 years after Sam’s ‘death’ however, Sam reappears and he and Nathan resume their search for Avery’s treasure.
This involves a globe-trotting adventure that includes segments in an Italian villa, the wilds of Scotland, a Moroccan town, and sun-baked and forest-filled islands. The most impressive environment is surely that of Libertalia, a ruined pirate city full of decaying palaces and abandoned homes. All of these places have been beautifully crafted, and the game is a real feast for the eyes. Even just wandering around exploring each environment is interesting, and the gameplay generally gives you time and space to do this. The landscapes are also responsive, with vegetation that moves in the wind, footprints left behind when you walk through the snow, and rocks that are harder to climb when it’s raining. The main gameplay involves moving through the environment, climbing, jumping, driving and fighting, with occasional sections of puzzle solving. Check points are incredibly frequent, so if you die and need to restart a section you don’t have to repeat too much, and the game can be played on an ‘Explorer’ mode which makes the fighting much easier, and therefore the whole game more accessible for people like me who have slow reactions and a tendency to misread distances and so accidentally throw themselves off a cliff, thinking it’s an easy jump.
Uncharted 4 feels like it’s got the balance right between a game and a more cinematic experience. The overall storyline is cleverly laid out, and the characters are interesting and three-dimensional, but there isn’t a reliance on large numbers of lengthy cut-scenes. Although you play as Nathan, he often has at least one other person with him, meaning that you get proper dialogue rather than just Nathan talking to himself, and the interaction between the characters is naturalistic and therefore often quite funny and sweet.
As I’m a historian of design and material culture, I was interested by the various roles that objects have in Uncharted. If you’re new to the Uncharted series, it isn’t until quite late in the game that you get the sense that Nathan has a wide knowledge of art, history and archaeology, for the quest to gain Avery’s treasure primarily seems to be motivated by its potential financial rewards. These objects are valued purely for their pecuniary value, rather than for their historic or aesthetic value. But the game raises the question of whether objects which can provide great riches are really worth it, as the state of Nathan’s marriage is endangered by his hunt for Avery’s gold, and his path to that treasure is literally littered with the corpses of other pirates and treasure hunters who also sought Avery’s fortune.
Though one big cache of objects is his end goal, Nathan can still pick up other items on the way. Small objects can be collected throughout the game, buried in the landscape, adding another layer of challenge to the dedicated gamer to try and find them all, although you don’t get the sense that Nathan is really interested in these items for their own sake in the same way that say Lara Croft is in Tomb Raider. However amongst the random archaeological finds are also objects which actively form clues in Nathan’s search for Avery’s treasure, prized for the information they contain within them. For instance, a crucifix bearing the figure of St. Dismas found early on in the game leads Nathan to a black market auction in Italy and to a cathedral dedicated to the saint where Avery was buried. More commonly however, Nathan finds letters and other documents which provide more information as to the movements of Avery and his contemporaries, helping him (and the player) to piece together what happened to Avery and therefore where his treasure might be. Nathan ‘archives’ these documents in his journal, meaning that they can be returned to and reread, alongside notes he makes about the more artistic clues he finds, the evidence provided by paintings, sculptures and architecture about Avery’s history.
Nathan often appears to lack a purely aesthetic interest or curiosity in the objects he encounters, but objects do not only have a financial or utilitarian value for him; they can also have an emotional potency. This can particularly be seen early on in the game, when Nathan is at home in his study. Objects he has collected from his previous adventures litter the room, and the player is able to interact with some of these belongings, with Nathan talking about the memories they embody. It’s a clever way of hinting at some of his back story for those who are new to the series and haven’t yet played Uncharted 1-3, but also providing a nostalgia trip for those who have. Nathan may come across at first as a rather roguish treasure hunter mainly motivated by money, but the emotional and memorial capacity of objects has a far greater pull on him than you’d expect, which is fitting for a game full of twists and turns and about character and story rather than just pure treasure hunting action.