How Uncharted Creates Emotional Arcs With Weapon Progression

This is a repost from  Stanislav Costuic’s personal blog. Costiuc is game designer at Ubisoft and a contributor to Callvention.

There are many tools we can use to create emotional arcs for the player, as well as the character(s) of the game. The list consists of, but is not limited to, narrative structure, visual design, level design, gameplay mechanics, and many other things. In this particular post, though, I want to explore how weapon progression can play a big role in providing a certain emotional experience, on the example of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Be warned, there will be spoilers.

In Uncharted, the weapons are divided into tiers – standard and powerful. So each type of weapon (pistol, magnum pistol, submachine gun, assault rifle, shotgun) has a standard model and a more powerful model with more damage, range, clip capacity, etc. There are also two tiers of enemies – the standard pirate enemies and the more powerful professional mercenaries.

The first half of the game the progression is pretty linear. You got your standard weapons, fighting your standard enemies, after a while more powerful enemies appear but you also start to get more and more of the higher tier weapons, so you’re on a level playing field.

Now, things start to get played around with when you get into the catacombs which supposedly hold the treasure of El Dorado everybody’s after. There, after completing a set of navigational puzzles, you face off a bunch of pirates led by one of the antagonists, Eddy Raja. These pirates are fairly easy to dispatch with the tier 2 weapons, so you get a chance to feel yourself above the enemies. And in this particular instance, most of the pirates have tier 2 weapons themselves so you can replenish plenty of your ammo.

You then get to a rounded arena-like chamber, where Nathan finds the body of Sir Francis Drake, his alleged ancestor. It’s a nice character moment, and the first thing you notice after it is that all around the chamber there are tier 1 weapons lying around. That’s because this is the chamber where you get trapped with Eddy as you fight the monsters, called the Descendants, for the first time.

The game has provided plenty of foreshadowing for these monsters appearing, so it’s not totally out of the blue. They’re strong, resilient, and also can kill you in several melee hits. And in this battle, there’s a never-ending amount of these guys. So your most powerful tier 2 weapons that you have, you spend them all on killing the monsters that just keep coming. There’s no ammo for tier 2 weapons, so you frantically scramble for the tier 1 weapons to continue the battle.

At a certain point, Eddy dies, so you’re left fighting alone with weaker weapons against these mutants until your ally Elena lowers down a rope letting you climb out of the chamber. But the conflict doesn’t end here.

Next comes a scene where you’re running for your life, gunning down the monsters behind you, and thus spending the last of your picked up tier 1 weapons as well, until you get out of the catacombs into the temporary safety of a Nazi bunker. Yes, there’s a Nazi bunker, but it all makes sense narrative-wise. The Nazis were after the same treasure as you, and it’s actually thanks to one of their findings that you get to the island with El Dorado.

After this, you have to get separated from Elena as you go deep into the powered down Nazi bunker in search of a way to get electricity up. So, closed space, darkness, monsters creeping around, if that wasn’t tense enough, there’s also the fact that the only weapon that you can find down there is an MP40. Which is not even a tier 0 weapon, it’s like a tier -1 weapon.

So the change of the game’s mood from a swashbuckling adventure to a very tense and uneasy experience happens very organically, not just from the point of narrative and level design, but of weapon progression as well as you gradually get stripped down of all the best weapons you had, to the very worst one you can find. Which is better than nothing, but still you’re relatively powerless in comparison to the rest of the game.

After a whole section spent in the bunker, at a certain point, you start finding your way out of it. And you’ll encounter not just the mutants, but the mercenaries as well. So it’s a three-way confrontation between you, mutants and the mercs. The good news is, this is the moment where you can start using tier 2 weapons again. The not so good news, the only source of ammo are the mercs themselves, so you have to be pretty careful how you spend it between them and the monsters.

Eventually, though, you get out of that area, the game returns to its swashbuckling tone, and lots of action and tier 2 weapons and ammo alongside it. You do meet the Descendants again close to the very end of the game, but thanks to the powerful shotgun that you get at that point, and the allies and enemies and chaos all around, it’s exciting and thrilling rather than creepy.

But you know, it all really works. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune doesn’t really have as many set pieces as its sequels, and the scope of the ones it has is much, much smaller. However, if you look at all the lists or surveys or threads of most memorable or favourite moments from the Uncharted series, there’s a 90% chance you’ll see, ‘that part with the zombies in the first game’.

Of course, weapon progression is not the sole reason of the Spanish zombie section success, but I just wanted to show how even pieces we don’t instinctively think about contribute to the overall goal of creating emotional and memorable experiences.

I haven’t played the first Uncharted game until I got the Nathan Drake Collection in preparation for Uncharted 4’s release. Several years ago I played Uncharted 2 and 3 on PS3, but this year was my first experience with Drake’s Fortune. And, you know, I’m not really a big fan of horror or creepiness, it’s the kind of thing that if I decide to experience, I want to come in mentally prepared. Playing an Indiana Jones-like adventure doesn’t really prepare you for turns like that (which is also one of the reasons why this section works so well).

And as I was noticing all these things that I’ve detailed in the post, I kept saying to the game, ‘I know what you’re doing, don’t you dare, don’t you dare, dooooooon’t….sigh. You’ve done it. I’m alone in a creepy unlit bunker now. Well, let’s get this over with.’ And after finishing up the whole section I had to pause the game and just go away from the console for a bit, because it was so intense, even though objectively speaking, it wasn’t as scary or disturbing as an actual horror game, or even that difficult (at least on normal settings). But thanks to the difference in tone and how it was handled, I’m sure gonna remember the monster mutant zombies for a very long time.

Thank you all for reading. All comments are welcome. In my next game analysis post, I’m gonna take a look at how Uncharted 2 handles its pacing to keep players constantly engaged. If you’d like to keep an eye on that post, feel free to follow me on Twitter.