I don’t know where Nathan Drake, the protagonist of Uncharted, has done his archaeological field school, but when I take him out for a day in the field, I am somewhat disappointed in my own professors. They did not teach me how to fire guns, dodge cars and climb a train carriage that is dangling precariously over a dangerous precipice. On the other hand, I almost never had any practical use for such skills in our own fieldwork so far (with the exception of a hairy adventure involving a Dominican alcalde and a Total Station).
That about sums up Uncharted and its “Fortune and Glory” approach to archaeology, material culture and heritage. It is one of the best games out there for those who seek a “rollercoaster meets archaeo-adventure”, legendary narrative-driven game. It also has nothing to do with what archaeologists think archaeology is. Everything in these games is action-oriented and used to propel the player and the story forward. Blowing up a sixteenth-century Spanish fort? Finding golden trinkets in nooks and crannies? Raiding a museum? Engaging in fisticuffs with shady art dealers? These are some of the typical things Nate does on a day in the field, before he even had his morning coffee.
Even if it has nothing to do with “real archaeology”, paradoxically, with 21 million copies sold, it still has a huge impact on how the general audience perceives the discipline. The student of the future may have first come into contact with archaeology through Uncharted, just as many current and older generations did with Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones or adventure-pulp magazines.
Do I love these games? Do I love the great character writing? For that matter, do I love the awkward humour that isn’t that awkward? Or the epic set-pieces, including ancient cities, Tibetan villages, museums, as well as trains, planes and ocean freighters? The fluid vertical and horizontal mobility of your character? How gorgeous the games look, with every iteration better than the previous one? Do I love the multiplayer, which for any other developer would be an afterthought but in Uncharted 2 and 3 is an adrenaline-pumping attraction all on its own?
My archaeologist self hesitates to answer this question in the affirmative. Yet Uncharted and other examples of “what seems archaeology, but has nothing to do with real archaeology”, clearly holds a strong grasp on the public imagination. The reasons for this were obvious once, long ago when we could unabashedly and unconcernedly enjoy Indiana Jones and pulp romans. However, many of us lose this understanding the more we immerse ourselves in our professional field. Others, like me, stow away the excitement we feel when we survive falling temple ruins, death traps and gun fights over ancient artefacts. We are somewhat or fully ashamed to admit to our peers, superiors and students that we can still be seduced by “Indiana Jones and the Joystick of Doom.”
This shows that we, the “real” archaeologists, are part of the problem we see in Uncharted and its ilk. Rather than exploring, let alone accepting this face of archaeology, we all too often end up stuck in a professional critique mixed in with a tiny hint of cultural elitism. We problematize it, rather than seek to study it as a thing on its own that perhaps could be used to further the cause of archaeology, the profession, its public and its subject matter. Perhaps it starts with those of us that still feel this fascination to stand up and say: “Yes, I love Uncharted.”
This does not mean I would not love to see a more evenhanded approach to archaeology and its artefacts. Will we see such a thing in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End? Neil Druckmann, the somewhat more subdued creative director of the masterful The Last of Us, is at the helm of the upcoming game. Indeed, we’ve already seen a trailer in which Nathan Drake speaks directly against those who view him as a treasure hunter without scrupules. Only time will tell, but I am not holding my breath.
In short, the question whether it would it be possible to do an action-packed and narratively engaging AAA-game like Uncharted, but still present archaeology in a way that would have more value for professionals and the general public remains. As for now, the answers can only be found in its negative extremes. And that is what makes Uncharted such a fascinating, if from a “real” archaeological professional perspective, flawed game-concept to mull over.