Archaeology! The dream job of anyone who saw Raiders of the Lost Ark at a formative age. Lost civilizations! Cool traps! Puzzles and dangers! What’s not to love? No wonder video games were quite keen on using archaeology as a theme for quite a few titles of the last few decades.
There is, however, a “but” involved in this, and it’s a “but” of significant size and importance. These movies, and by extension: games are not great at archaeology. They are wonderfully fun, some of the best adventures anybody could hope to experience in a medium, but they create a flawed perception of the profession.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about them. We’re just saying that we’re going to present a few games which are great games with debatable archaeology, and a few great games with good archaeology, to keep it balanced, as all things should be.
|Shadow of the Tomb Raider (Definitive Edition)||2018-09-14||SQUARE ENIX||82%|
|Tomb Raider||2013-03-05||Crystal Dynamics||77%|
|Rise of the Tomb Raider 20 Years Celebration||2016-02-09||Crystal Dynamics||86%|
|LEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures||2008-06-03||Traveller's Tales||81%|
|Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection||2022-10-19||Naughty Dog||56%|
|Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (PS4)||2017-08-22||Naughty Dog||68%|
|Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (PS4)||2016-05-10||Naughty Dog||55%|
|Minecraft Java Edition||2011-11-18||Mojang||32%|
|Minecraft: Java & Bedrock Edition||2022-06-07||Mojang||33%|
|Minecraft: Story Mode - A Telltale Games Series||2015-10-13||Telltale Games|
|Outer Wilds - Echoes of the Eye||2021-09-28||Mobius Digital||47%|
Tomb Raider (series)
Lara Croft is probably the most famous video game archeologist of all time, travelling the world, exploring forgotten temples and sealed-off tombs in search of powerful artifacts. Of course, she’s not the only one doing that, and she often crosses paths with greedy mercenaries, protective locals, and more wildlife than you’d expect. She’s an icon, although her conduct might not be the best.
Lara’s methods tend to be rather invasive, and more focused on overcoming traps than study, this changes from installment to installment. The recent reboot trilogy, for example, lets Lara discover relics and study them to learn something about their history and function. At least she’s formally educated in the field, but whether it’s a mark for or against her, given her methods, is up to you.
LEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures
Indiana Jones is another legend of archaeology. Over the course of his adventures, he’s been all around the world punching Nazis, translating ancient texts, and using a whip with proficiency unexpected from a university professor. While his adventures do get quite destructive, some of the coolest moments in the movies rely on his knowledge, not fists, so cheers for that.
As for the video game part, his most recent incarnation in the medium has been through the Lego-based games recreating the movies in a family-friendly, fondly comedic manner. They are great for co-op, and seeing some famous scenes in a cute Lego form is quite a treat, even if you’re going to be even more destructive than Indy was in the source material.
Let’s make something clear here: Nathan Drake is not an archaeologist. He’s a treasure hunter, and he’ll be the first to tell you as much. At the same time, he’s also really good at treasure hunting, and his knowledge of history is enviable, even if he’s mostly in the field for fun and profit. Much like Indy and Lara, however, he often ends up dealing with mercs trying to exploit old magic for evil.
Archaeological foibles aside, the Uncharted series is all top-tier action-adventure games. It has thrilling cinematic sequences, third-person combat and traversal, and a charming cast of rascals. Uncharted is very close to the kind of adventure Indiana Jones movies delivered, which is absolutely worth checking out, especially since Uncharted 4 is even available outside of PlayStation.
Minecraft (since the Trails & Tales update)
Minecraft doesn’t come to mind as a particularly good archaeology representation, but that’s because you haven’t played the Trails & Tales update yet. Nobody could have expected that a game that is either a complex survival game or a creative sandbox would have archaeology, and yet it’s one of the game’s features. And it’s miles more respectful of the art than the previous three games!
In certain locations you can find blocks called “Suspicious sand/gravel”, looking a bit different from regular ones. By cleaning them with a brush you can get various items, such as resources, armor trim, or pottery sherds (sic) you can then craft into custom pots. Caution is important because if you accidentally break the suspicious sand block, the valuables are lost. It’s surprisingly satisfying.
The Outer Wilds
You have 22 minutes until the star system you’re in is enveloped by a supernova, and you’re in a position to prevent it… eventually. See, you’re stuck in a time loop, and only by investigating the ruins and relics of a mysterious civilization can you find a way to change what’s going to happen. Despite the dramatic stakes, The Outer Wilds is mostly about exploration and investigation.
Due to the system’s size and gravitational anomalies, you have to think creatively about getting access to certain areas. For instance, one region of the game is only accessible once the gravity of the tiny planetary system drags dust away. However, it’s the persistent-across-loops understanding of the world and the Nomai culture that is the key to success, not survival mechanics and reflexes.
We’ve saved the best for last: Heaven’s Vault is not just a game about an archaeologist, it’s a game about archaeology itself. You’re playing as archaeologist Aliya Alasra studying a lost civilization that once was common in the Nebula, a peculiar region of space the game is set in. There are also higher stakes than just knowledge: a person is missing, and Aliya hopes to find them.
It’s an adventure game (as opposed to action-adventure), which provides a good genre backing for believable archaeological practices. A lot of time will be spent translating the hieroglyphs, collecting artifacts for study, and consultations with other people to piece together lost history. It might be the best archaeology representation there’s ever been in video game.
Dig around and find out
There we have it, a list of archaeological and treasure-hunting games. We’ve provided options both for people who want to be (like) Indiana Jones and people who would prefer something more down to Earth…which is funny, because none of the down-to-earth games takes place on, well, Earth. Alas.
Whether you want to seek the lost gold for personal enrichment or excavate the history of civilizations worthy of remembrance, we’ve got you covered.