I recently started playing Uncharted and I was especially interested in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. Uncharted and Archaeology are somehow connected, although it isn’t really. I heard many good things about the game and it also partly played in West Asian locations like Syria or Yemen. So I did it, I played one of the most awarded games of 2011 and with a Metacritic score of 92. I was surprised, that it felt so much like Indiana Jones, only… much worse.
For those who do not know Nathan Drake and the Uncharted series, here is a short summery first. Uncharted is a game series exclusively for the Playstation ecosystem. Uncharted is not Archaeology, rather then a treasure hunt. Nathan Drake is a treasure hunter that searches for no lesser things than El-Dorado, the secret monastery of Shambala but also the mysterious city of Iram of the Pillars. He is constantly in fights with rival parties seeking the same treasures and the stories are always mysterious and also pseudo-archaeological. Uncharted however tells very good stories for an action-game, very well told and transmitted. Playing them feels like watching an action movie.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
In the third part we learn that since his childhood, Nathan Drake was after the riches of Sir Francis Drake. Francis Drake was a real English explorer and also sea captain to whom Nathan is supposedly related. Together with his best friend Victor Sullivan, Drake discovers a map of Francis Drake who searched the mysterious city of Iram of the Pillars. A mythological place known from the Qur’an.
He also discovers a journal from T.E. Lawrence who was also in search of that place, but didn’t find it. After searching for clues in France and Syria, Drake and his team travel to Yemen to search for the city in the Rub al-Chali desert. With the help of a local tribe, they finally find the city, which is deserted, but also full of wonders. They recognise, that their evil counterparts who constantly get into fights with Drake and his team were in search of a bio weapon. In order to stop them, Drake and his team destroy the whole place. Let’s dive into some more details.
Chateau in France
So as we learn that Sir Francis Drake might have found the mysterious city of Iram and that the famous T.E. Lawrence was on his tail, we try to find clues that lead to the location of the lost city. T.E. Lawrence is one of the rare connections between Uncharted and Archaeology. One of the clues hides in an old Chateau in France owned by Lord Godfrey a crusaders knight. It is of course closed, but Drake and Sullivan find their way in eventually, only to search for an old grave, which they finally open to find one half of an amulet. The villain of the story, Katherine Marlowe, is on the same quest and sends her men in. Drake and Sullivan start a firefight that ends in a complete destruction of the Chateau by fire and the loss of the amulet (of which they made a copy before).
Citadel in Syria
In Syria, they search for the other half of the amulet. They are greeted by the villains right away, who use rocket launchers to attack. Naturally, a lot of the citadel gets destroyed and in the end part of it is also getting set on fire. The team escapes (with the other half of the amulet) barely to find some locals standing in front of the citadel. They probably wondered what was going on in their beloved cultural heritage site. Chloe Frazier, one of Drakes team tells them: “Not worth the price of admission, folks.” and adds a thumbs down paired with a lovely fart sound. The team then steals a local bus to escape.
Iram of the Pillars
At the end of the game we will reach our destination, Iram of the Pillars. Originally, Drake and his team searched for Iram to find treasures. At the end, they change their motivation to help a local Arab tribe to protect the city from Katherine Marlowe. In the city, they discover that the water is poisoned and that this is the reason for the decline of Iram. Katherina Marlowe on the other hand tries to steal that water in order to create a bio weapon. Drake and his team stop her by starting some form of chain reaction that destroys the whole city. Thousands of years the Arab tribe was able to protect the city from intruders and after a couple of hours with Nathan Drake, the whole city sinks into the sands of the desert.
I somehow see a pattern here. To be clear, this is not singular to the Uncharted series, but more or less to all archaeology adventure games, films or stories. The protagonist searches for a mysterious secret and by finding it, destroys everything! We know this from Indiana Jones as well as the Tomb Raider series. It seems to me that this is what the audience expects: Break in, steal, destroy, repeat. Why is that? Does this make a good adventure story?
So it seems, we need to find out why. If you look closely to my examples, you already see where I am getting here. Drake takes the stuff he needs, cares not about cultural heritage or the local people connected to it. He does not only takes the artefacts, but by breaking in and destroying what he does not need, he also takes control of the space that he occupies. We call this appropriation. Does that sound familiar?
Well of course: Imperialism! The good old fashioned take-what-you-want mentality of Europe and America. And of course it is connected to Archaeology, the also good old fashioned take-what-you-want mentality of Europe and America. It seems odd tough, that Imperialism makes a good Action Adventure, doesn’t it? I am still not quiet sure why that is though. I myself would not describe me as the imperialistic type, but I do enjoy these movies and video games. There is a wonderful video by Barathan Vidhyapathy about Indiana Jones as a primer on racist film tropes.
He talks about the Indiana Jones movies, but I think what Barathan sais, is true for video games in general and the Uncharted series in particular:
“Am I saying they are bad films? Am I saying that you shouldn’t like them, because what I have talked about? Am I saying that you are a bad person for liking them? No. But I think it’s important to deconstruct the media that we consume to understand what they are saying on all levels.”Barathan Vidhyapathy in INDIANA JONES – A Primer On Racist Film Tropes
I think this also, especially for videogames. This is why we need to talk about them from a humanities point of view. By making racism, imperialism or orientalism visible, we can talk about the problems of depiction. Talking about gender already started to produce a new generation of games and so will talking about imperialistic tropes, hopefully. Uncharted is no Archaeology, but it represents how we think about cultural heritage.