Uncharted: the Curse of Archetypes in Video Game Storytelling

Ever wondered why Nathan Drake can wise crack while shooting down wave after wave of enemies? Here's your answer! Kind of... Take a look at why character archetypes make Uncharted the light-hearted, action-adventure game it strives to be.

         Video game developer Naughty Dog’s Uncharted franchise tells the story of “One ordinary man” on “One extraordinary adventure” (PSU 1). Or at least, that is what headlines the back cover of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The four-part series follows Nathan Drake, a very reckless and even more relatable thirty-something year old with a heart for adventure. Each game allows the player to assume the role of Drake, who travels to locations around the world in search of ancient treasures, and who more often that not knocks heads with a slew of “bad guys” who are hungry for the same riches. Drake is never without company; he can count on people like Elena Fisher, a bold, brazen reporter not afraid to get her hands dirty, or the cigar-smoking, Hawaiian shirt wearing Victor Sullivan, to have his back. While Drake’s exploits may push and tug at the borders of his relationships, sometimes to the point of seemingly no return, Nate and the gang are always poised for another adventure before the end credits roll. Uncharted is filled to the brim with character archetypes, with even Nathan Drake himself adopting an Indiana Jones-esque persona. Nevertheless, Naughty Dog is so purposeful in its use of archetypes that it enables Uncharted to be “One extraordinary adventure” series, simultaneously showing the need for archetypes in the cinematic action genre and revealing the persuasive power of archetypes in video game storytelling.

         Each Uncharted game strives to be more cinematic that the last, and as Naughty Dog attempts to bridge the gap between cutscene and actual gameplay, the true effects of character archetyping can be seen. At its core, Uncharted is a third-person shooter, with short platforming segments breaking up tension and subsequent cutscenes usually leading straight back into gunfire. During cutscenes, Nathan Drake interacts with his colleagues as the story unfolds, often leading to the quick-witted and clever banter that the Uncharted series has become known for.

         Critical Distance writer John Kilhefner explains that it is so easy to invest in characters like Drake because he is someone “we’ve all seen in one shape or another.” Nathan is “questionably moral, undeniably heroic, and absolutely relatable,” and whose most notable quality is that he is “just some guy” (Kilhefner 1). According to Michael Abbott of the “Brainy Gamer,” Uncharted’s hunt for mythical treasure has been seen from Indiana Jones to Tomb Raider to National Treasure, borrows heavily from “30’s serial action movie tropes,” and can even be compared to Casablanca in the way improves upon elements from similar films to create a wholly elevated work. What makes Uncharted so remarkable is that its story “doesn’t try to box outside its weight,” contributing towards an experience that aims to be familiar above all else and nods to a myriad of movies that have spun similar action-adventure yarns (Abbott 1). However, try as it may do, Uncharted is not a film, and therein lies the crux of the issue when cutscene inevitably transitions to gameplay.

         Despite Nathan Drake’s occasional moral dubiousness, he is never meant to be considered a madman. However, when the player has to shoot and kill wave after wave of enemies to progress through the story, the so-called protagonist’s intentions become harder to follow. Drake’s adventures are not without bloodshed; statistics released by IGN reveal that over the course of the first three Uncharted games alone, Nathan Drake kills 1829 people and destroys 68 vehicles, incurring roughly 128 million dollars in property damage in the process (among such statistics were 18 overly complex doors and 4 yaks, but those can be saved for a different research paper) (Barker 1).

         The amount of chaos and harm caused throughout each expedition makes the player wonder why Nathan Drake looks back on his adventures fondly in the first place. In fact, one of the major plot points of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End revolves around Nathan’s restlessness after settling down for a suburban life with Elena Fisher and once again longing for the life of a treasure hunter. Why is he not haunted by post-traumatic stress in the wake of blood spilled in the past? Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins diagnoses Nathan with a “unique sociopathy… which allows him to crack wise between genocides" (Clarkson 1). Steve Gaynor argues that cinematic games like Uncharted “rob violence of its power” unless the victim is a “unique and specific individual.” But is this trend toward what Gaynor calls “specific violence” intentional? (Gaynor 1).

         Many would say that it is, with Naughty Dog fully cognizant of the two-faced nature of Nathan Drake, who on one hand appears to have a heart of gold during cutscenes, and on the other, becomes a mass murderer once placed in control of the player. Upon killing 1000 enemies in Uncharted 4, the player is awarded a trophy aptly named “Ludonarrative Dissonance,” confirming Naughty Dog’s awareness of the issue at hand (Juster 1). Ludonarrative dissonance is a term created by Clint Hocking that describes the discrepancy between a game’s narrative and gameplay (Makedonski 1). In Uncharted’s case, ludonarrative dissonance refers to the conflicting actions of Nathan Drake during cutscenes as opposed to gameplay. Responding to complaints from players who claim that Nathan Drake “kills plenty of enemies . . . while still being an all-around stand up, jovial kind of guy,” Neil Druckmann, Creative Director of Uncharted 4, admits that Drake exists in a “stylized reality where the conflicts are lighter, where death doesn’t have the same weight” (Palumbo 1).

         Writer and video game analyst Joseph Anderson comments on the need for this kind of reality precisely because Nathan Drake is a “likeable hero” and a “force of mostly good.” Anderson explains that due to the current demands of AAA titles, cinematic games like Uncharted are expected to be much longer than a standard action movie. In turn, “gameplay needs a lot more enemies than many movies” in order to have “room for combat” throughout the length of the game. As such, Anderson views the sheer number of enemies that Drake kills as a necessary evil that needs to exist unless Uncharted is stripped of combat altogether (Anderson 1). It is also clear that Naughty Dog designers meant for Uncharted to be an action-oriented game, with many scenarios that offer non-lethal stealth options simply leading to scripted shootouts (2).

         Some players like Destructoid blogger RedHeadPeak have taken a stance that while Nathan Drake is not “especially evil,” he is simply “incapable of doing anything good.” As a result, every Uncharted game repeats a cycle as Nathan approaches a new hunt for an artifact with “honest intentions,” inevitably leaves calamity and destruction in his wake as he “hinders the bad guys slightly more than he helps them,” and somehow survives in one piece after putting himself and his friends in real, tangible danger (RedHeadPeak 1). While such arguments may seem comical at first glance, after seeing Nathan fall through countless rickety floor boards or accidentally setting property on fire for the nth time, the player cannot be blamed for thinking that Nathan Drake might be the world’s most effective bad luck charm (4).

         No matter the explanation for Nathan Drake’s ability to kill wave after wave of enemies without losing an edge for sarcasm, the result is that the plot of Uncharted is told as “a cohesive mix of passive and active storytelling” (Kilhefner 1). As Tristan Kalogeropoulos states in “Beyond Cinematic,” gameplay and cutscene form a “marriage” (Kalogeropoulos 4). On one hand, gameplay acts as passive storytelling, where the player is allowed to perform in ways characters would not usually, and on the other, cutscenes create active storytelling, where characters conform to personalities that are defined by developers and writers. In this way, ludonarrative dissonance is well accounted for in the partnership between gameplay and cutscene; in fact, it is an inherent part of the game.

         While this distinction between gameplay and cutscene does not apply to many titles, it fits quite well into the Uncharted series, with Nathan Drake in the hands of the player and Nathan Drake delivering lines in close-up camera shots appearing to be two different people entirely. Naughty Dog in particular uses archetypes to make the marriage between cutscene and gameplay that Kalogeropoulos describes more seamless. One of the chief ways that archetypes are used is through the negative portrayal of enemies. In an interview with Game Informer, Neil Druckmann comments on the morality behind the series, concisely stating that in Uncharted, “You are a good guy, and you are facing very bad guys” (Game Informer 1).

         Simply put, the bad guys in Uncharted are indeed bad, and their evil archetypes make their deaths carry less moral weight. Antagonists include Gabriel Roman, the head of a group of pirates and mercenaries, Zoran Lazarević, a merciless Serbian criminal, Katherine Marlowe, a cold, calculated thief who tries to kill Drake as a child, and Rafe Adler, a borderline psychopath who is unafraid to eliminate anyone who gets in his way (Concepcion 1).

         Each of Drake’s foes are multidimensional and have unique pasts and motivations, but all share a common thread of not deviating from the personalities and mindsets they are introduced with. While Uncharted’s villains are three-dimensional, they do not change shape; Lazarević is still a ruthless leader until the moment he dies, Marlowe still hates Nathan as she drowns in quicksand, and Adler never solves his anger management issues before being literally crushed by the treasure he is hunting for (McDonell 1). Each villain embodies their individual archetypes and sticks with them until the bitter end, which makes parsing the story simply a task of confirming that the good remain good and the bad remain bad.

         Despite Uncharted antagonists’ unwillingness to change, it is important to note that each villain maintains their archetypes without falling into stereotype territory. In contrast, the nameless enemy henchmen that Nathan Drake spends most of the game fighting against consist of a spread of foreign mercenaries whose seemingly sole goal is to terminate Drake. The player encounters supernatural creatures like the indigenous inhabitants of the lost city of Shambhala, who display no depth beyond being blue monsters who attack outsiders. Many enemies are even faceless, wearing a variety of facemasks to create emotional distance and detract from their humanity.

         The player has no problem recognizing bad guys as distinctly bad, making Uncharted more about the exploding helicopter tumbling towards you and Spielberg-esque chase scenes rather than exploring the consequences of “a life of post-traumatic stress.” Neil Druckmann clarifies that Uncharted is about the “pulpy spectacle” of the game’s set pieces, with relationships between characters existing in a “comic book way, in that there is very clear moral ground you are exploring” (Game Informer 1).

         Archetypes allow the player to focus on the spectacle of Nathan Drake escaping from a train car hanging from a snowy mountain cliff without having to consider the numerous lives he probably ruined getting to that position. By having characters that do not change vastly and carry a handful of unique but familiar characteristics, players can rely on and feel connected to Uncharted’s story while still enjoying the violent, action-packed set pieces that seem to contradict it. Such is the genius of Uncharted, employing archetypes as tools for effective passive storytelling (Kalogeropoulos 4) in order to become what Daniel Bullard-Bates argues is the “best movie-based game of all time” (Kilhefner 1).

         In fact, the Uncharted series’ plot structure is so intentionally predictable and movie-like that Joseph Anderson calls it archetypical of “B-grade action flicks” (Anderson 1). The player can count on Nathan and his crew to plan a new adventure, expect a struggle in a race for time against a nasty villain, and ultimately see Drake emerge empty-handed but in one piece by the end. This is the plot of every Uncharted story. Not only that, the final scene of every game shows Nathan and Elena smiling as the camera pans off into a sunset. The way Naughty Dog ribbon-ties each story is a clear indication of archetypical plot structure; the sense of familiarity that accompanies each adventure helps the player feel grounded in their understanding of the game’s characters, allowing instead for more attention to be paid to combat, which truly evolves and becomes more unpredictable with each successive Uncharted iteration.

         Even the Uncharted box art is reminiscent of action film posters, with the first three Uncharted covers showing Drake in perilous situations or poised to take the next step in his adventure. By marketing the Uncharted series in ways similar to movies, players can instantly gauge what to expect. Naughty Dog’s goal is to make potential players instantly aware of the tone of each story so that upon playing the game, what shines through as fresh and interesting are Uncharted’s best systems—shooting and combat.

         Only Uncharted 4 deviates from this pattern, with the game’s box art picturing Drake in a dark background and with a downward gaze, as if unready to take on his next challenge. Uncharted 4 follows Drake as he struggles to maintain relationships with family and a routine of daily life, presenting issues not tackled in previous Uncharted games. Uncharted 4 shows Drake almost lose his marriage with Elena, risk his brother’s life, and even face death himself. However, the outcome is still the same: Nathan rises victorious over his opponents, Drake’s relationships with friends and family remain sound, and he and Elena enjoy a sunset over a harbor.

         The tendency for consequences to disappear in Uncharted 4 proves the series’ commitment to the archetypal structure of a typical action movie, with stakes getting higher and higher but protagonists eventually overcoming antagonists. With issues of family, marriage, loss, and selfishness on the table, Uncharted 4 is an unconventional story even for Uncharted’s standards, yet Naughty Dog chooses not to punish Drake for his flaws and mistakes. By the end of the story, Drake is virtually in the same position from where he started. The result is a game that is courageous enough to tackle previously unseen aspects of Nathan’s life, but one that still treats story as a fun, light-hearted wrapper over polished third-person shooter combat.

         In other instances, Drake is notably merciful to his enemies and reluctant to kill. Near the end of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Katherine Marlowe falls into a pit of quicksand and Drake does his best to save her, to no avail. Midway through Uncharted 4, Drake’s brother, Sam, holds a villain Nadine Ross hostage, and Nathan intervenes before Sam can shoot her. Moments like these make ludonarrative dissonance all the more definite, but they are established to instill confidence in the player that Nathan Drake is honest and kind at heart. Naughty Dog attempts to distract from the rift between cutscene and gameplay further in Uncharted 4 by introducing “real-time cutscene[s]—where there is a seamless transition between cutscene and gameplay,” with Drake and others continuing dialogue and story throughout battle (Makuch 1).

         In comparison, Naughty Dog’s successor to Uncharted 3, The Last of Us, does not afford any moral legroom to players while they travel as protagonists Joel and Ellie through a dystopian America that is overrun by the zombie-like “infected” (Fenlon 1). Right from the start, characters like Joel’s accomplice Tess admit, “We are shitty people,” with Joel responding, “No, we are survivors” (). Being a survivor in the world of the The Last of Us means not only facing against infected, but also fellow survivors. As such, Joel and Ellie are not granted the same moral buoyancy that Nathan Drake gets as he charges into battle against nameless mercenaries.

         The Last of Us notably lacks character archetypes, with Joel and Ellie constantly changing and shifting perspectives. Without the crutch of static characters, gameplay has to accommodate. Ammunition and supplies are sparse, making every bullet and every death carry more weight. Death animations themselves are more brutal; The Last of Us is Naughty Dog’s first ESRB-rated Mature title. The air is almost laced with paranoia, and Joel and Ellie communicate mostly while on the move, delivering lines that are hushed, practical, personal, and most importantly, during periods where the player has control, eliminating ludonarrative dissonance entirely.

         What makes the shift from Uncharted to The Last of Us so remarkable is how similar their combat systems are. A player familiar with Uncharted’s gameplay mechanics will not have a problem jumping into Joel and Ellie’s shoes in The Last of Us. The only major difference between the two games’ combat systems lies within their respective restrictions on the player. Naughty Dog writer Josh Scherr notes that Uncharted sports a “wid[er] camera for basic gameplay” than The Last of Us does, since Uncharted is about “the grandeur of environments . . .  versus The Last of Us, which is about danger lurking around every corner” (Paras 1). Neil Druckmann explains that the equivalent of a set piece from Uncharted is a simply “bringing the camera in and having Joel be injured” in The Last of Us (Game Informer 1). Ellie voices that she “feels sick” after killing enemies during gameplay, and the moral fiber of both her and Joel are questioned until the very last scene of the game.

         Even non-diagetic elements such as background music contribute to the tone of gameplay. Composer Greg Edmonson’s score for Uncharted draws upon action movie soundtrack tropes and is grandiose in all aspects of emotion. In contrast, Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for The Last of Us is minimal and near silent at times, echoing the quiet restlessness of The Last of Us’s urban environments. Edmonson provides music that is dynamic but familiar in terms of its movie-like quality, and it accompanies gameplay in Uncharted to make the player feel as if they are acting out an action film with each punch, kick, and shot. Meanwhile, Greg Edmonson’s music is much more subtle and demands the listener’s attention, reflecting upon the completely active storytelling of The Last of Us.

         While neither Uncharted nor The Last of Us try to convince the player of a single right way to combine story and gameplay, each invites speculation on the power of archetypes in interactive storytelling. With the exponential growth of video game technology allowing for cinematic action games like Uncharted to exist, ludonarrative dissonance becomes a real problem; Braid creator Jonathan Blow frames the issue precisely, pointing out times “when a character’s death is framed as a huge emotional moment in between bouts of the player killing off hundreds of other characters” (Hillier 1).

         Character and story archetypes like the ones used throughout the Uncharted series demonstrate a unique persuasive power in assuring the player that she is justified in shooting the mercenary around the corner and that Nathan Drake’s adventures are just that—adventures. After all, every Uncharted game has met with critical acclaim, with a Metacritic scores consistently brimming around 90 (SCEA 1). Unless game critics are cold-blooded sociopaths in their spare time, Naughty Dog is doing something right in getting the player to focus on Uncharted’s tight gameplay mechanics and quick-witted dialogue rather than the reality of Nathan Drake’s actions. Meanwhile, games like The Last of Us communicate the factors gameplay needs to accommodate in order for a cinematic game to perform without static, archetypal characters. As far as game designers and writers are concerned, using archetypes is not a bad way to go, especially if more action-packed, cinematic games like Uncharted are to exist in the future. Naughty Dog succeeds in making Uncharted “One extraordinary adventure,” and yet, perhaps Nathan Drake’s path is really just extraordinarily safe, despite all the danger.

Works Cited

Abbott, Michael. “Long Live the Author.” Brainy Gamer. N.p., n.d., Web. 27 Nov. 2016

Uncharted 4 - The Best Story in the Series. Dir. Joseph Anderson. Perf. Joseph

         Anderson. Youtube. N.p., 19 July 2016. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

Barker, Sammy. "Weirdness: Uncharted Hero Nathan Drake's Killed 1,829 People." Push Square.

         N.p., 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

Clarkson, Sparky. "Cinematic Action Games: A Brief Critical Assessment." Game Critics. N.p.,

         n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

Comparing Uncharted 4's Gameplay to The Last of Us. Dir. Game Informer. Youtube. N.p., 12

         Jan. 2015. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

Concepcion, Miguel. "Ranking (and Thanking) Uncharted's 40 Best

         Characters." N.p., 11 May 2016. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

Druckmann, Neil. "The Last of Us." Game Script for The Last of Us. GameFAQs, 10 Jan. 2014.

         Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

Fenlon, Wesley. "The Very Real, Very Creepy Science Behind The Last of Us' Fungus Zombies

         -" Tested. N.p., 27 June 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

Gaynor, Steve. "Specific Violence." Fullbright Design. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

Hillier, Brenna. "Ludonarrative Dissonance Isn’t Just a Games Problem, Says Jonathan

         Blow." N.p., 23 June 2016. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

Juster, Scott. "Nathan Drake In: The Curse of Ludonarrative Dissonance!" Experience Points.

         N.p., 10 July 2009. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

Kilhefner, John. "Critical Compilation: Uncharted 2." Critical Distance. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Nov.


Makedonski, Brett. "Ludonarrative Dissonance: The Roadblock to Realism." Destructoid. N.p.,

         26 Sept. 2012. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

Makuch, Eddie. "Uncharted 4's Real-Time Cutscenes Are "Profound," Dev Says." GameSpot.

         N.p., 15 Apr. 2016. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

McDonell, Jess. "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune Story Recap." GameSpot. N.p., 07 May 2016. Web.

         28 Nov. 2016.

Paras, Archie. "Naughty Dog On Why They Don't Do First Person; Uncharted & The Last of Us

         Camera." Wccftech. N.p., 14 May 2015. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

Palumbo, Alessio. "Naughy Dog Doesn't Get Ludonarrative Dissonance; Uncharted 4 Flashbacks

         Not Part of Original Pitch." Wccftech. N.p., 12 June 2016. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

PSU. "Official PS3 Cover Art Thread." PSU Forums. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.

RedHeadPeak. "How Do We Stop Nathan Drake?" Destructoid. N.p., 26 June 2016. Web. 27

         Nov. 2016.

SCEA. "Uncharted 4: A Thief's End." Metacritic. N.p., 10 May 2016. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

Latest Jobs


Playa Vista, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Senior Level Designer (Zombies)

PlayStation Studios Creative Arts

Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia
Lead/ Senior Asset Artist


Playa Vista, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Senior Gameplay Systems Engineer - Treyarch

High Moon Studios

Carlsbad, CA, USA
VFX Artist
More Jobs   


Explore the
Advertise with
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Advertise with

Game Developer

Engage game professionals and drive sales using an array of Game Developer media solutions to meet your objectives.

Learn More
Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more