Uncharted Effect: Video Games and the Portrayal of Archaeology

When thinking about archaeology, much of the public sphere envisions the whip-wielding Professor Indiana Jones, who travels to exotic lands on the hunt for treasures and ancient relics to preserve in his university’s museum. Others may think about Lara Croft, the wealthy gymnast turned adventurer with a penchant for archaeology. Others may even incorrectly assume Jurassic Park (see: paleontology). These popular film storylines include uncovering supernatural artifacts that could destroy the world had someone else gotten their hands on it, but luckily Jones and Croft are there to save the day in the nick of time. These are arguably the most popular archaeological references of the last generation. Many cinematic adventures involve exotic places and archaeological aspects, but I would like to take a more modern look into the representation of archaeology and examine how archaeologists are represented via video games and gaming.

***This essay does not include discussions of the newest Lara Croft series, as I have not played them yet***

Throughout this essay, I will look at the representation of and the public’s (sometimes first) introductions to archaeology as portrayed in video games. Specifically, I will use two game series as my case studies: The Uncharted (NaughtyDog) series and the Mass Effect (Bioware) series, both wildly successful video games within the last decade. Each of the series began in 2007 with subsequent games released within the following years.

Video games provide an exciting and rare perspective in the world of entertainment, which could lean well for future representations of archaeology. Video games can be used as interactive storytelling where the player controls the protagonist or other main characters. In the Mass Effect games, you can control the look, background, and personality of the protagonist Commander Shepard and in Uncharted you control the main character as he goes on his grand adventures all over the world. In films and television shows, the viewer is only able to watch as the story unfolds and have no control over how character interact. While video games can certainly lend to that effect as well, the player can begin to feel more of a connection to the characters they are playing rather than the character they are watching (especially as video games can go up to 20-40 hours of playtime).

From exploring these two video games, I will also focus on two characters who portray either an archaeologist like Mass Effect’s Liara T’Soni, or a thief turned moral treasure hunter like Nathan Drake of Uncharted. One takes place hundreds of years in the future, while the other involves saving the world from supernatural forces, but while “these stories may be fantastic and unbelievable, they also inspire wonder at human drama in the past and ask archaeology and archaeologists to do the same” (Hall 2004: 173). Both series involve their very own brand of occult and pseudoarchaeological themes but they also hold the active imagination of the present, by using active stereotypes and tropes to employ their visions of the past.

The Archaeologists

In popular culture, archaeologist or historian characters are often shown in either two ways: they must either be rugged and cocky (Nathan Drake), or shy and modest (Liara T’Soni). Over the next few paragraphs I will give deeper introductions into the characters of Nathan Drake and Liara T’Soni, on their roles as the archaeologist within these two gaming series, and how well they represent archaeology as a discipline.

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Nathan Drake

Nathan Drake, the protagonist and hero of the Uncharted series, isn’t actually an archaeologist at all. Yet Uncharted is considered one of the top archaeology oriented video games with Nathan being considered the ‘modern day Indiana Jones’, and video game “sibling” to Lara Croft. Like Lara Croft in gameplay, “the archaeological fantasy developed through playing Lara [Nathan] includes potential experiences of voyeuristically enjoying her [his] vulnerability and/or identifying with it, as well as admiring and/or phantasmically sharing her [his] power of penetrating space and appropriating its treasure” (Breger 2008: 57). Coming from small beginnings, Nathan believes himself to be a descendant of Sir Francis Drake. Each of the four games in the series involve real historical figures and places them into fantastical storylines. Drake himself is a quick witted womanizer who seem to be only after the money, and seeks out treasure and ancient legends while fighting so called ‘bad guys’. It is arguable, however, that the antagonists and Nathan Drake’s initial goals are always the same: find the treasure to sell  to the highest bidder– it is only once they discover the treasure or lost city has dire consequences for the world around them, that Drake and the antagonists differ, with Drake choosing humanity over personal wealth or power.

In essence, Nathan Drake isn’t even an archaeologist and the video games themselves hold absolutely zero aspects of legitimate archaeology (even going to far in game as to call archaeologist characters “professional adventurers” in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End– so why is it considered an archaeology game by the public?

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Liara T’Soni

Liara T’Soni is not a playable character in the Mass Effect series, but is the trusted friend and possible love interest to the controllable protagonist of Commander Shepard. The series takes place in the years after 2180, when humans have made contact multiple species outside our known universe and have planted themselves among the galaxy. There are many different alien species introduced with in depth backstories and cultures surrounding them. Liara is an Asari, a monogendered species (seen as females from human perspective) that can live up to 1,000 years. At the start of the first Mass Effect Liara is 106 years old, and is studying archaeology to learn more of an ancient alien race, the Protheans, who were believed to have been the ‘first’ species in the galaxy but had been wiped off the galactic map by an (as yet) unknown enemy, called the Reapers.

Liara represents the hairy chinned (albeit not literally in her case), ‘bumbling fool’ archaeologist. Her knowledge of the ancient civilizations, languages and their destructions leads her to be a valuable member of the team. She is able to interpret findings during missions and help Commander Shepard and other characters better understand the ancient races. Throughout the series she becomes a great warrior, but after the first game she is no longer an archaeologist but an ‘information broker’ as her years of research have led her to be rather good at gathering data. Even when we are introduced to Liara at her research facility, there is no evidence that archaeology has taken place. No grids, or tools; she only has the research cultivated as evidence of years of study.

A perfect example of societal stereotypes leeching into popular culture is a scene from Mass Effect 3. Liara and another character, Garrus, are with you on a mission looking for evidence left by the ancient Protheans and the conversation that follows encapsulates the trope of confusion around paleontology and archaeology as well as another example of Liara’s ‘bumbling fool’ demeanor.

Garrus: “So, Liara, ever dug up a, what do humans call it, a dinosaur?”

Liara: “No. Dinosaurs and other fossils would be paleontology. I’m an archaeologist, I study artifacts left by sapien species. The two fields are completely different and… you were joking.”

Garrus: “A bit, but at least you’re catching on these days.”

While Nathan’s character is similar throughout each game as his “hairy chested”/ Indiana Jones-esque personality that is most popular, Liara’s representation as an archaeologist evolves throughout the trilogy as she gains confidence in her research and somewhat loses the ‘bumbling fool’ persona. For video games, character development is a slow process, taking course over 30 to 60 hours, instead of a film or television’s .5 to 3 hours. In other forms of media, characters must either change drastically through the course of the saga or represent a trusted stereotype. In video games, however, characters can be gradually molded throughout gameplay. Therefore, more research can be done by games creator and story developers to give the character integrity and not rely solely on stereotypes, though they still exist.

The Archaeology

 

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No, not the total station! (Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End)

We never see true archaeology being done, but there are many scenes that take place within “dig sites” within both series. We see glimpses of tools strewn among a site or reports given within dialogue so as to give context. The only semblance of archaeology we receive is the research that was gathered by said dig or a puzzle being done within a site to get the artifact. Nathan Drake has comes close to actual archaeological methodology – he always carries a journal where he marks objects, locations, and things of note. But archaeologists would be very specific with coordinates, calculations, and tons and tons of photographic evidence (and we never loot long dead bodies – think of the knowledge that could be gathered!).

The next trope within these games is that most, if not all, of the archaeological sites are often destroyed with the knowledge or artifacts gained from the sites cannot be shared or made available to the greater public.

Although it would be tedious to showcase a character going through a step by step process of an archaeological excavation, game creators and designers could still leave Easter eggs or background objects (besides dynamite!) to give the air of actual science being performed instead of looting.

Mass Effect actually steeps much of its lore within the archaeological realm. Many important scenes encompass an archaeological or ancient item, or take place in an ancient city or “dig site.” It is just that the locations of the sites and artifacts gathered are pure fiction. During your first scenes playing Commander Shepard, you are on the planet Eden Prime walking towards a site where they have uncovered ancient Prothean technology (archaeology and supernatural artifact). When we first meet Liara T’Soni, she is trapped in one of her “dig sites” where she was researching the ancient Protheans. When we meet her in the third installment of the franchise, she is on uncovering and researching a Prothean Data Drive, or a digital download of all of the older race’s knowledge. Digital archaeology? It seems that for the Mass Effect franchise, archaeology – or the knowledge that can be gained through archaeological research – is the tool used to continue the story.

As an extra dose, in Mass Effect 3′s DLC “From Ashes,” you are able to gain a Prothean party member, Javik. But he is found via an archaeological investigation! (Here is a link to a playthough that you can watch).

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“Dig site” in Mass Effect 3.

Uncharted

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“Archaeology Now” magazine in beginning of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.

Within Uncharted, the action always takes place within smaller sites across the world that left clues hinting to the location of largest, legendary site. All locations are steeped in history, and most “focus on actual events and personages or are simply fictional tales set against exotic backdrops of our shared past” (Noble 2007: 226). Puzzles and mazes along the way set up by the cultures that are in essence hiding the artifact from future treasure hunters. Nathan Drake on multiple occasions must jump on, scale, or destroy objects within a site in order to gain entrance into the main body.

A doctoral archaeology student, Katy Meyers, used twitter to critique Uncharted’s use of archaeology: “Uncharted: Drake pries open a coffin and takes an artifact out, no record of where it came from. Remember kids, context is everything” (2013a). As Meyers mentions, our first introduction to Nathan Drake is watching him pry open the coffin of what is thought to be Sir Francis Drake. We are unsure the methods he went to retrieve it, but we assume he went down himself as he is wearing a wetsuit. With this first scene, we can assume that Drake is not a trained archaeologist, simply a treasure hunter.

As mentioned earlier, throughout the game Drake refers back to a journal of which Meyers remarks, “Uncharted: Drake’s quest based entirely on a single text, a diary… what about bias or political elaboration?” (Meyers 2013b). There could be the possibility of “behind the scenes” research that could have been used, but showing a cutscene of Nathan Drake poring over ancient manuscripts or in the library might be too boring for the players who are ready for action rather than tedious research involved with hunting down legendary artifacts.

Following the trail of the journal and other artifacts, Drake must always find ways around any obstacle within his path to reach what can be considered the prize at the end of the tunnel. “Uncharted: climbing archaeological ruins so I can push a big rock into the middle, destroying the site but potentially finding treasure” (Meyers 2013c). This trope can be seen in many TV shows, movies and even other games (like Mass Effect). Destroying parts of a historic site in order to find the so-called treasure or to look for a bigger, better site to explore. There is some truth behind this trope as well, as archaeology itself can be seen as ultimately destroying a site in order to gain its wealth of knowledge.

Pseudoarchaeology and The Supernatural

As stated earlier, many historical legends are featured in the Uncharted trilogy, whether it is a location, artifacts, or a human being. This notion of involving actual events is common throughout storytelling, as Hiscock notes, “artifacts operated in human past [that] still remain potent” (2012: 160). Uncharted artifacts hold elements of the supernatural and features legends of the past as the sites containing them.

The first game Uncharted:  Drake’s Fortune, introduces Nathan Drake as he follows the clues left by Sir Francis Drake to the legendary city of El Dorado. Within the island that holds El Dorado, a virus broke out long ago that turned the inhabitants into zombie-like creatures, leaving Drake and his friends to defeat not only the bad guys also hunting El Dorado, but the human-less creatures crawling the ancient city. In the second game, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, he is following the trail of Marco Polo on the hunt for the Tree of Life, in which an opponent wants to use the trees’ powers to create immortal super soldiers to take over the world. And in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Nathan Drake is once again on the trial of not only Sir Francis Drake, but author and spy T.E. Lawrence to find out why they stopped hunting for the Iram of the Pillars otherwise known as “Atlantis of the Sands”. When Nathan locates the legendary city, they find that the water is tainted by a legendary Djinn. By just giving a brief summary of each game, pseudoarcheology and supernatural archaeology encompass the games as an important element to the story, as well as using locations and people from our recent past to bring credibility to the zombies, genies and immortality. The final installment to the Uncharted series, A Thief’s End, is the only game that does not revolve around pseudoarcheology of bring up supernatural beings or artifacts, though they do seek out the legendary pirate capital of Libertalia.

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Mass Effect and Aliens

Using aliens within a storyline itself is aligned with supernatural and science fiction. Even the latest Indiana Jones film falls prey to this trope of aliens involving itself with humanity’s past. Mass Effect takes it up a notch while not only using aliens, but introducing new forms of “science” that would be seen as magic in today’s world. There are many tropes within media about the use of aliens within popular culture. One trope is that of aliens having “shaped and perhaps controlled the development of evolution” (Hiscock 2012: 165). Mass Effect uses this, but in this case the Protheans “watched” each race grow, not shifting the human race’s (or any race’s) evolution. The Reapers, however, are there to stop civilizations once the evolution of all species in the universe reach a certain point. The Reapers are not an organic race, but are the oldest known beings in the Mass Effect universe, seemingly created by an unknown organic race. This artificial intelligence held one job, to stop chaos. So it saw that all organics caused chaos, and killed not only its creators, but through a 5,000 year cycle, obliterated all species that evolved within the universe.

A second trope is aliens being used as anthropologists of the human race. As previously mentioned, Protheans didn’t interfere with the evolution of species, only watched. The Protheans and other older species, such as the Asari, can be seen as the researchers or anthropologists of these budding societies on distant planets. There is one specific scene within the games as a Prothean character, Javik, remarks to a newer species that he “remembers when they used to eat flies” and one time mentions to Commander Shepard that around this time, humans were still living in caves.

A third trope featured in the games involves something similar to the first, with a change in evolution of sorts, or aliens changing the ‘destiny’ of the human race. Hiscock mentions “ways to connect purported alien impacts on human history with archaeological evidence” (2012: 166). In Mass Effect, this alien impacted change of history occurs in our future, but the series’ past. A dig site on Mars unearthed an ancient technology that gave way to the human race’s ability to travel out of our solar system, termed Mass relays.

This is important because the “shaped” evolution by aliens would have been using archaeology, such as the the archaeologists’ finding of the ancient technology on Mars that forever altered the future of humanity – the entire storyline begins of the entire trilogy begins with findings during an archaeological survey. And the story itself is pushed and molded by the archaeological findings from Dr. Liara T’Soni.

Conclusions

“It is unlikely that we can ever present the products of archaeology in a fashion that is as entertaining as the visual artistry of good film, but there is no excuse for being boring” (Noble 2007: 241). Archaeology might never be accurately represented because it would become tedious and boring to the general audience, but we seem to be getting there with time; of making it background details where if you look for it, it will be there, a seeming “easter egg” for those that are looking for it.

One argument, placed by Marwick, is if archaeologists want their profession to be accurately represented they themselves must come out onto the public sphere and tell the public the mistakes being made within media, by “working scientists with major reputations and major accomplishments to appear regularly on the media and act as real-world examples, demonstrating what a scientist is and explaining what science is about” will lead to better representation and knowledge of the world surrounding archaeological study and excavations (2010: 401). In this aspect, he was discussing television and film, but the same can be said for video games.

I believe that video games will be the closest to achieving accuracy that can be on par with drama and plot development. As mentioned early, video games have up to 20 to even unlimited hours for a player to explore the universe created, which gives the justification for creators to take time to do the research in order to make their universe as “real” as possible as fantastical as the world they create may be. “When we put ourselves in the context of a compelling film story, identifying with its characters, and vicariously experiencing familiar or exotic locations, it is part of our continuous search to achieve a better understanding of our own lives” (Noble 2007: 237). Uncharted and Mass Effect are wildly popular for valid reasons of being solid entertainment with familiar yet exotic stories and backdrops. One investigates the truth of our past, while one dreams up some possibilities of our future, but each holds a firm grip within the imagination of present day society.

 

Bibliography

Breger, Claudia. Digital Digs, or Lara Croft replaying Indiana Jones: Archaeological Tropes and

Colonial Loops in New Media Narrative. 2008. Aether, Vol. 11. pp 41-60.

Hall, Mark A. Romancing the Stones: Archaeology in Popular Cinema. 2004. European Journal

of Archaeology Vol. 7(2): 159–176.

Meyers, Katy. 2013a, May 17. Uncharted: Drake pries open a coffin and takes an artifact out, no

record of where it came from. Remember kids, context is everything. [Twitter Post]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/bonesdonotlie/status/335444012779581440.

Meyers, Katy. 2013b, May 17. Uncharted: Drake’s quest based entirely on a single text, a diary…

what about bias or political elaboration?. [Twitter Post]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/bonesdonotlie/status/335444892585185282.

Meyers, Katy. 2013c, May 17. Uncharted: climbing archaeological ruins so I can push a big rock into

the middle, destroying the site but potentially finding treasure. [Twitter Post]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/bonesdonotlie/status/335446968606265346.

Hiscock, Peter. Cinema, Supernatural Archaeology, and the Hidden Human Past. 2012. pp

156-177.

Holtorf, Cornelius. From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. 2005.

Altamira Press.

Marwick, Ben. Self-image, the long view, and archaeological engagement with film: an animated

case-study. 2010. Rutledge.

Schablitsky, Julie M, et. al. Box Office Archaeology: Refining Hollywood’s Portrayal of the Past.

  1. Left Coast Press, pp 9-15.

Noble, Vergil. When the Legend Becomes Fact: Reconciling Hollywood Realism and Archaeological Realities. Editor Julie Schablitsky. pp 223-244.

 

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