Announcing Chasing the Stick

I’ve been writing the history of Naughty Dog during the PS4 era. It is far and away the largest editorial I have ever written. I’ve been working on it for a month now (two months if you count replaying the Uncharted series in my research) and still have another two to go, if The Last of Us Part II releases on time in May. I’ve wigged out my pal Logan by sharing the ever increasing word count.

It started out as “I should write a history on The Last of Us Part II.” Not an entirely foreign format for myself: I wrote a history on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and one for Super Smash Bros. before Ultimate released. I love chronicling and researching games. I’ve been doing it since I made Power Points to convince my parents I was old enough to play Zelda and Pokémon.

My curiosity swelled my ambition. So it has turned into a history, analysis, and commentary on my all-time favorite game studio and their development during the years 2013-2020. I can’t wait to share it with you around the time The Last of Us Part II releases. Thanks.

Uncharted 3’s Chateau and the Art of Escalation

Since I bought my new TV, I’ve been amped for Naughty Dog’s PS4 swan song The Last Of Us Part II. I replayed The Last Of Us last year, but wanted to scratch that Naughty Dog itch before Part II this May. Thankfully, I haven’t played the main Uncharted games since 2016. I only played Lost Legacy when it released in 2017. To top it all off, I’ve never seen what Naughty Dog has been capable of in 4K HDR. Now seemed like the perfect time to replay one of my favorite series.

I’ve always had the opinion that the Chateau in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is the best set piece in the entire series. Over the train, over the cruise ship, over the many caravans, I have always placed the Chateau on top. Having just played it again for the fourth or fifth time, I thought I’d break down why I believe that.

The Chateau perfectly captures the entirety of the Uncharted experience. From narrative design with the classic relationship dynamics, unnatural twists, and grand spectacle to the core pillars of gameplay; puzzle solving, combat arenas, and platforming. It is Uncharted distilled down to 90 or so minutes. And due to this distillation, the entire set paced marvelously: elevating it above the rest of what the series offers.

I want to go through the entire set piece and chart out why I believe the Chateau is the best Uncharted has to offer.

The chapters kick off with Nate and Sully arriving in a jungle in the middle of France. There’s no threat, just navigating the space to find a way to the chateau in the distance. This setting allows Nate and Sully reminisce and have their signature banter. Coming off of Uncharted 2, this dialogue and time was sorely missed. Uncharted 3 is a Nate and Sully journey from the get go and the beginning of this level allows for fans to soak in their storied history. It’s a real treat.

Once you arrive at the manor itself, the platforming and puzzle solving begin. Climb your way inside and the first platforming puzzle presents itself. A straight forward affair, you use a pair of chandeliers to reach an upper platform that allows you to open a door to progress.

Beyond this door is more Nate and Sully quality time while quietly exploring the interior of the overgrown house. Naughty Dog shows off their visual design chops as you navigate this dilapidated home. You’ll eventually arrive in a room with a fireplace and four sets of armor.

This is the first “notebook” puzzle. Using Nate/T.E. Lawrence’s notebook, you’ll rotate suits of armor to reveal a secret passage behind a fireplace. The notebook and platforming puzzles, so far, get players into the head space of Uncharted’s frameworks. These ancient places are navigational puzzle boxes to explore and solve.

On the other side of the secret passage, Nate is separated from Sully and falls down into an underground ravine area. The environmental design drapes the cave walls in sticky cobwebs. The mood turns eery. When squeezing through a gap, a few large spiders descend on Drake, but are quickly removed when he stumbles into a pool of water. The rest of this ravine involves navigating the water, flushing the thought of spiders into the back of your mind. Soon enough you find a wall to climb up toward the light. At the top, you emerge into the first combat arena of the level.

Effortlessly led straight into danger, the tension of the level tightens. The villain has somehow tracked Nate and their edge is lost. But, Nate’s enemies are not aware you are right beneath them inside the well. As the player, this puts you in an esoteric position giving you a combative edge. While nearly every combat scenario in Uncharted games up to this point results in open-fire, the option to silently eliminate enemies at the start allows you both the satisfaction of having knowledge the enemy does not and easing into the new difficulty.

After clearing out the area by the well, you are led to a brief tutorial with grenades. After a couple of well instructed explosions, you emerge into a courtyard where Sully is pinned down. With another quick shoot out over and behind you, the pace shifts back toward the puzzle headspace. This stretch of combat has elevated the stakes in both the narrative and the gameplay. The threat of Marlowe’s men is looming like the electrical charge in the air before a storm. The distant clap of thunder to remind you of the impending storm takes the shape of a rotten corpse belonging to one of Talbot’s men; decaying far too quickly for someone who just arrived. The shift back to puzzles gives you time to breath, keep your tension in check, and ponder your narrative situation.

Nate and Sully soon find a small room with Sabean script laid out on the floor. You’ll flip open Nate’s all-knowing notebook and use the pattern inside to determine the order of tiles you need to walk across. I like this puzzle because it warms you up for what lies ahead. It takes your headspace completely out of combat and gives it all back to puzzle solving.

Yet another secret passage reveals itself, this time to a laboratory where alchemy was practice by the occult’s number one fan, John Dee. The underlying pulse of the unnatural speeds up when you slide the altar table/work surface to reveal a shaft down to the family crypt. This unnatural element had always been a part of Uncharted up to this point and Naughty Dog dropping these breadcrumbs throughout the Chateau feeds that narrative appetite. Your imagination starts to run with the possibilities of what is to come.

Inside the crypt is the most intricate puzzle for the level. Combining elements of the previous puzzles, you have to figure out the placement of four animal crests on a checkerboard of Sabean script by manipulating the light around reflective panels on the floor. I think this puzzle is one of the series’ stronger ones due to how it weaves pattern solving, “block” sliding, the notebook, and manipulating the environment to come up with the solution. It’s not a head scratcher—Uncharted is not about stumping its players—but it is fun to solve. It also brings the puzzles of the Chateau to a satisfying peak, brining this element of Uncharted to a close.

Past the crypt puzzle, Drake and Sully find what they came for. In a very “Last Crusade” like moment, a knight of old guards the key to an ancient city, but only half of it. Upon emerging from the hidden burial location, big bad henchman #1, Talbot, arrives and snatches the all-important amulet. That’s when the spiders return in full force.

Talbot locks the duo in the crypt with the rapidly expanding hoard of spiders. Naughty Dog ushers you into one of their signature rear-facing chases. The threat racing behind, you run toward the screen, unsure of where you are going and only knowing where you’ve been. A small touch in the chase is when Sully trips ahead of you and Nate will stop to pick him up. The importance of their relationship is reaffirmed despite there being this wave of deadly spiders that escalates the excitement and tension to new heights.

The game offers a brief reprieve after the chase for Nate, Sully, and yourself. Around the corner, the grand finale awaits.

From your vantage point on the second floor, you can see Talbot’s men below pouring gasoline all over the premises. The stakes (and player thrill) spike back up immediately. A shootout begins right away, but it cannot stop a fire from being ignited. The Chateau begins to become engulfed in flames.

It is here that platforming and gunplay come together to elevate the set piece beyond what one gameplay system would do alone. There is a frantic nature to finding out where you need to go to avoid the flames, while also dealing with the bad guys popping off shots at every turn. You’ll duke it out with a massive brute, you’ll duck and cover against lackies with all sorts of guns: all with the urgency to escape the building that is burning and collapsing around you.

After clearing the foyer, you’ll begin to climb a set of stairs with the fire licking at your heels from below. Nate’s foot will get stuck and force you to quickly kill two enemies while Sully dislodges your foot. Near the top, the stairs collapse. Nate and Sully hang from the burning banister. Right after gaining their footing on the banister, the whole thing falls down again and forces you to make a final climb up before the whole stair set is swallowed.

A few more enemies stand in your way before you make your way to the roof. The entire Chateau is burning to the ground. You run away from the collapsing tower, chunks of the roof crumbling beneath your feet. In classic action movie fashion, you leap away from the explosion and slide down a gutter to land on the ground in one piece.

The duo recuperates and Sully questions Nate’s pride and motivation in this treasure hunt. It is a moment of discord in what should be a celebratory moment, even if only for their lives. It doesn’t take long for it to dawn on them that their friends Chloe and Cutter may be in the same danger on their mission in Syria, encouraging players to stick around for the next level.

The entirety of the Chateau level escalates marvelously. From the friendly jaunt in the jungle to barely escaping a burning chateau, Naughty Dog paces the whole affair with the cadence that defines Uncharted. It contains all the key elements of Uncharted’s signature gameplay and story telling, while proving Naughty Dog knew the PlayStation hardware better than anyone at the time. The Chateau is refined, elegant, ambitious, all while encompassing the soul of a beloved series. There are grander set pieces throughout the series, but I don’t think you will find one more polished than the Chateau.