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The untold truth of Uncharted

Uncharted broke new ground in gaming in 2007 as a hybrid of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, with a refreshing 21st century protagonist in Nathan Drake, who hit the action star sweet spot with his disarming charm and relatable flaws. In the decade that followed, Uncharted grew increasingly cinematic and immersive, with storylines and thrills that rivaled big summer blockbusters, supported by gameplay as simple as it is addictive.

But casual fans may not know a lot about what went into making Uncharted the critically acclaimed and best-selling series that millions of gamers now know and love. This is the untold, uncharted truth behind Sony and Naughty Dog's exceptional PlayStation exclusive.

The series wasn't conceived as a shooter

While clever platforming and puzzles help break up the chaos, frequent, T-rated gunplay has been the bulk of Uncharted's gameplay since the very beginning. But it almost didn't start out that way. The first Uncharted title, 2007's Drake's Fortune, was initially conceived more as a "brawler," according to Uncharted 4 director Neil Druckmann. Guns were part of the picture, but there wasn't any aiming, which is a huge departure from the bullet-filled mayhem Uncharted fans know and love.

"You had a gun, and you could lock on to enemies and shoot at them. But we thought we could create a game that had that kind of pulp-action feel, where you would just run around without having to worry about moving a second analog stick and aiming," Druckmann told Rolling Stone.

Third-person "lock-on" shooters may seem old-fashioned in the age of Overwatch, but there were all the rage at the dawn of 3D gaming, with PlayStation titles such as Syphon Filter and (most famously) Tomb Raider taking aiming out of the equation. The first Uncharted for the PlayStation 3 almost took the arguably outdated gameplay trope into the next generation, but Druckmann says Naughty Dog switched course after "many, many, many months" of experimenting with allowing the player to aim.

"The first iteration was, OK, only when you take cover, we can let you aim. As soon as we put that in, all of a sudden combat became even more engaging," Druckmann explained, noting that Drake's Fortune ended up a bit "overstuffed" with combat for his taste.

Nathan Drake was based, in part, on Johnny Knoxville

Nearly twenty years after his MTV debut, it's hard to believe that, at one time, Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame was practically a household name. This was, after all, a guy best known for enduring extreme pain and humiliation, like letting his friends chuck tennis balls at his testicles, all for a goof. But regardless of your feelings about Knoxville and the rest of crude Jackass crew, you have to admit the guy has an undeniable everyman charm–which is why Hollywood briefly came calling.

"Everyman charm" and "willingness to endure extreme pain and laugh it off" also sounds a lot like Nathan Drake, right? Well, there's a reason: IGN reported in 2008 that Naughty Dog used the "cynical nice guy" Knoxville as an inspiration "when they couldn't get a handle on" Drake's personality. So Drake is based, in part, on the former pop culture sensation, but's there more to the character than just Knoxville's hard-living-yet-easy-going essence.

"Vulnerability" earned Nolan North the part of Nathan Drake

Nathan Drake isn't your average tough guy protagonist. He's charming, a little goofy, and—mowing down scores of bad guys and never really commenting on it aside—he seems like basically a decent person. Voice actor Nolan North is largely to thank for imbuing Drake with this Johnny Knoxville-meets-Indiana Jones vibe.

North won the role by displaying a softer side that Naughty Dog found to be a perfect match for their hero-in-the-making. "Most actors that came in played up the tough guy elements," designer Richard Lemarchand revealed at the 2016 GameCity festival in Nottingham. "But we immediately saw the vulnerability and doubt in Nolan's portrayal. He offered a different conception of masculinity—I think that's one of the most important elements in the success of Uncharted."

It's a good thing North's Drake is so well-rounded and likable, because he does some unspeakably awful things in the name of adventure. In fact...

Uncharted is an example of "ludonarrative dissonance"

As the Uncharted series evolved into the beautiful and cinematic series fans and critics know and love, the increased immersion made it harder to ignore what the game is really all about: a man willing to kill hundreds of people to get what he wants. Sure, it's almost always in self-defense, but Drake knows what he's getting himself into. A lot of bad dudes are going to try to stop his treasure hunting, and meeting their violence head-on is the only way out. This isn't Dishonored or Metal Gear Solid. Drake doesn't use sleeping gas or chokeholds. He literally has to kill to progress.

So how is he not a shell of a man by the time Uncharted 4 rolls around? We finally get to see Domestic Drake, chilling with his wife and playing Crash Bandicoot, and get a cool peek into Drake's attic man cave, filled with little treasures from throughout the series. But while there are fewer gun battles in Uncharted 4, there's no mention of the psychic trauma or PTSD that would surely manifest if you took hundreds of lives in the past decade in a series of increasingly bizarre and Byzantine war zones.

There's actually a name for this phenomenon, and Uncharted is controversially cited as a prime example of it: "ludonarrative dissonance." Coined in 2007 by Ubisoft creative director Clint Hocking, the term describes the feeling a player gets when a game's narrative and its gameplay are in conflict. 

So what does Naughty Dog think of all this? Uncharted 4 director Neil Druckmann, in that same Rolling Stone interview, said the studio doesn't "buy into it," but he fought to include a "Ludonarrative Dissonance" trophy in Uncharted 4 for players who kill 1,000 people as a needling nod to the criticism.

"It's a stylized reality where the conflicts are lighter, where death doesn't have the same weight," Druckmann said in defense of the franchise, noting that many beloved silver screen rogues also have blood on their hands.

"Why is it that Uncharted triggers this argument, when Indiana Jones doesn't? Is it the number? It can't be just the number, because Indiana Jones kills more people than a normal person does. A normal person kills zero people. And Indiana Jones kills a dozen, at least, over the course of several movies."

The stories are written around dramatic set piece ideas

While not nearly as costly as a Hollywood blockbuster, making a AAA video game isn't cheap. So it makes sense that the most expensive and time-consuming parts of an Uncharted game drive the story, according to Naughty Dog, instead of the other way around. Those big action set pieces, like the J.J. Abrams-endorsed dangling train sequence in Uncharted 2, are typically dreamed up before the rest of the story.

"I can't start off with a big script," creative director Amy Hennig told CNN. "I'd rather be given the weird challenge of, 'OK, we're going to do a desert and a cruise ship. Figure out how.'" These show-stopping centerpieces are worked out before Naughty Dog even has a reason to stick Nathan Drake in the center of them.

"The story has to be the most flexible thing in the whole production," Hennig said. "It's way more like working on a television show."

Uncharted is largely directed and written by a woman

If you perked up when you read the name "Amy Hennig" in the previous slide, you're not alone. Just like in Hollywood, it's dishearteningly rare in the video game industry for a woman to write and direct big budget games at all, let alone helm action-heavy blockbusters like Uncharted. But Hennig is the driving force behind much of the Uncharted universe, and has been with the series since the beginning. Hennig was head writer and creative director of the first three Uncharted titles before passing the torch in 2014.

For what it's worth, Hennig is on record saying she doesn't believe sexism is rampant in the industry. "Usually it has been men who gave me the opportunities I have had," she told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. "I think this is a young enough and progressive enough industry that there just isn't any of that."

Hennig also says her perspective as a woman doesn't necessarily mean she's better-equipped to write female characters.

"You just write people, honestly. It's not any different," Hennig said in an interview with Game Informer that same year, in response to praise for her depiction of women. "I think our humanity is the bigger component."

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy passes the "Bechdel test"

Hennig helped lay the groundwork for an important (if underreported) achievement garnered by Uncharted: Lost Legacy, the latest game in the series, and the first to not star Nathan Drake. Lost Legacy passes the so-called "Bechdel test," conceived by feminist cartoonist Alison Bechdel in a 1985 comic strip as a guide for movie-going: "[A movie] has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man." 

Even though it started as a comic strip gag, the Bechdel test has since been used as a legitimate rubric to judge the degree to which any piece of entertainment represents women in a realistic, balanced way, and not just as love interests, spouses, mothers, or sex objects for the male protagonists and antagonists.

Lost Legacy passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. It features two female leads (women of color, to boot) with a whole lot more on their minds than their relationships with men. But they're not gossipy gal pals, either, or any other immediately recognizable dynamic, as Simon Parkin notes in the Guardian.

"Chloe and Nadine neither like one another, nor, when taken in isolation, prove to be especially likable. They bicker and snipe, jostling for both the best lines and the best headshots," Parkin writes, noting that Naughty Dog's The Last of Us: Left Behind similarly "suckerpunch[es] its way through the Bechdel test while presenting a cliche-ducking on-screen relationship."

Uncharted 4 is accessible for people with disabilities

The average gamer doesn't stop and think, "What if I was totally unable to wield this controller effectively?" Once you're adept at handling a DualShock or a JoyCon, it's like riding a bike. But for disabled gamers, the right accessibility options can make all the difference in the world. For Uncharted 4, Naughty Dog was inspired by one passionate disabled gamer and went the extra mile to ensure their latest AAA title could be enjoyed by as many people as possible.

Spurred by Josh Straub's website and rating system known as DAGER ("Disabled Accessibility for Gaming Entertainment Rating"), Naughty Dog added options such as lock-on aiming, easier quick time events, and even the ability to play the entire game using only one analog stick. Straub ultimately praised Uncharted 4 for its exceptional accessibility, calling it "barrier free" and "an absolute joy to play and a must buy for anyone who owns a PS4 regardless of physical ability."

Uncharted 4 almost had more genre deviations

Uncharted 4 has several sequences meant to differentiate it from the rest of the series. There's the adorably meta Crash Bandicoot mini-game. The flashback sequences with Sam and Nate as teens feature moments of Uncharted action and platforming, but largely resemble "walking simulators" such as What Remains of Edith Finch, with atmosphere and world-building taking priority over gunplay and dramatic set pieces.

But it was almost even more of a deviation, according to Druckmann. "There used to be a cooking sequence, where you were actually mixing in ingredients," he told Rolling Stone. "You could make the food too spicy, and they would have different dialogue, depending on how spicy you made it."

But that's not all: Naughty Dog almost included some friendly winter hijinks, Witcher 3-style, but then decided against it.

"In Scotland, you could do a snowball fight. This was actually fully working. You could pick up snow anywhere and throw it at Sam, and he would throw snowballs at you. But tonally, that just felt wrong."

Nathan Drake's "half-tuck" style was planned from day one

Nathan Drake's choice to sport those physics-defying half-tucked shirts was no accident. Naughty Dog included the "half-tuck" in its original prototype pitch to Sony, and Sony Worldwide Studios development head Scott Rohde mentioned on a 2015 PlayStation Blogcast that he considers the artfully disheveled look "totally" central to Nathan Drake as a character.

In 2011, Sony sought to capitalize on the legitimate real-world trend of "half-tucking" in the high fashion world by setting up a "Half Tuck Truck" during New York Fashion Week, even hiring Kourtney Kardashian "to help spread the word about this cool new styling move," according to Seventeen. The tongue-in-cheek stunt was primarily a way to promote Uncharted 3, but it appears that the irony may have been lost on Kardashian and at least some of her cohort. The magazine reports that she "thinks it's cool that video game characters can be stylish too," which is hilarious to Uncharted fans who have stared at Drake's ratty sweat- and dirt-stained shirts and cargo pants (not to mention Sully's oversized, Hemingway-inspired safari shirts) for 100+ hours. A cool scarf does not a fashion icon make.