Editorial: Character Study: Nathan Drake

A lot of people die in seven hours.
More like ‘Drake’s ass-kicking adventure’, amirite?

What the shit? What the fuck? What the shit fuck? That is right, LusiTreasures, I am returning to an old recurring feature. Maybe people can change. Or maybe people are involved in two hundred thousand things that push them to the very brink of sanity such that they have played no video games and have barely even thought about video games. And then maybe said people write character studies on Nathan Drake. But let us ditch the hypothetics, you miserable shits, and dive right into my completely unrelated character study about Nathan “Fucking” Drake.

The Uncharted series is the quickest I have gone from zero to sixty on a game. I had nothing but unbridled apathy for the series from what I had seen and even the demo I had played. But a friend (I shall call him “FlamePod”) convinced me to start from the beginning on his PS3 (I did not have one at the time) and then I proceeded to beat the entire thing in one sitting. And God bless FlamePod, even though I was playing in his room, he never complained that I ignored him and took up his space for seven hours.

Anyway, I was impressed by the writing, scene direction and pacing of the title. Nathan Drake was the modern day badass. A guy who could apparently perform any feat, but still managed to be relatable; largely through humourous situational-based quips. He did not strike me as a particularly deep character, but he was refreshingly more than just a single dimension or stereotype. His chemistry with Elena was real and I believed his motivations.

Uncharted 2 provided much of the same thing. Character work was competent, but most of the tension came from plot points and ridiculous situations as opposed to a character overcoming a flaw. Bonds were strengthened between Drake and Elena, Drake and Sully, and Drake and all those new characters. But it was only breeding a sense of familiarity rather than truly diving into what made these people tick. Nathan Drake has a bit of a breakdown which feels like a very real moment, but while it adds to the character’s authenticity, it does not really show a new side of Drake; rather a natural extension.

The game does attempt to probe deeper, however. During the final boss battle in which [whomever the baddie was in that game] taunted Drake for being a villain himself. And the guy had a point. Nathan Drake had murdered his way through hundreds of men to get to where he was. Sure, he was shooting criminals, but human beings nonetheless. Should Nathan Drake be the arbiter of morality? Why are his intentions automatically pure enough to justify murder without hesitation? And not every kill was in self-defense.

Close, but no cigar.
Uncharted 3’s attempt to make it personal didn’t quite work.

Because this point is brought up at the very end of the game, it does not do much to damper the lack of similar depth throughout the rest of the experience. But in Uncharted 3, Naughty Dog felt it was time to treat Nathan Drake like a full human and not just an unstoppable badass with believable dialogue. Uncharted 3 gives both Drake and Sully a backstory and in doing so, finally gives the villain the potential to be interesting by giving her a personal connection to the heroes.

Unfortunately, Uncharted 3 proved that Nathan Drake is a character better viewed at a distance. He is better as that guy you know and like but would not call your best friend. Naughty Dog attempted to give Drake true personal crisis by giving the villain the advantage of knowing Drake’s past and therefore capable of distracting Drake by pitting him against himself instead of her. While it does not fall entirely on its face, the game does not end up saying any of the bold statements that it is obviously trying to say. Nathan Drake is belittled by the villain and asked stark personal questions by Elena – who ostensibly left him for his inability to be introspective – but there does not end up being any real personal growth.

Naughty Dog always excelled at strong subtext, but it just did not fly this time. In the first two games, the balance was perfect between a lens that was far enough away and character work that was just solid enough for the player to fill in the blanks. In Uncharted 3, the lens zooms in, but the character work does not improve and so the player is just left unsatisfied. But unfortunately not in the intentional way that a game like Limbo leaves gamers emotionally unsatisfied.

The Uncharted series is an excellent adventure serial, but its strengths peaked with the second entry and fizzled a little bit in the third when the character work only went to serve the fact that Nathan Drake is not quite as interesting as we all wanted him to be.

What do you think, LusiRuins? I have only played each game once, so it is entirely possible that I missed something and am not giving Naughty Dog enough credit. Or were you also let down by an attempt to make the story personal that ended up a little flat? These questions are why comments were invented!

7 comments

  1. We should have more objectively likeable, incredibly hot, badass male videogame protagonists without any real depth…I can imagine the depth, believe you me.

  2. Agreed.

    Drake worked initially because he was an unflappable id like Han Solo – if you want to change that formula, then you had best have a damn good reason for doing so, else you only succeed in damaging the brand.

  3. What SN said.

    I do not understand the current trend of companies basically throwing out the successful creations they’ve built a following for, only to replace them with something utterly different, but labelled the same. This is being done with franchises, characters, and even whole genres. All it does is alienate the old fans whilst not bringing in that many new fans.

    If you want to make something wholly different, create a new IP (or character, or whatever), and do it there.

  4. That said, I am intrigued by the promise of a more human Lara Croft, so perhaps it isn’t bad in all of its instances. I just think that you need to know the property [and the audience] well enough to make sound decisions regarding the potential directions of any surprise character growth.

  5. Agreed on all counts, SN. I think it helps that the Lara Croft franchise is less serialized than Uncharted. So because she’s actually existed in multiple forms, this “reboot” fits better than Uncharted 3’s late attempt at a backstory.

  6. I think that the Lara Croft reboot is a pretty radical departure from the original character – it’s just that the original character was so uncompelling that the new one comes as a breath of fresh air.

    Fallible Drake and Emo Dante on the other hand probably do not need to exist, since they divest already popular characters of the characteristics which made them popular in the first place.

    Hell, I’m sure that an exploration of Drake’s fallibility could even be done properly, but you would have to be so careful not to debase the rest of his character in so doing.

    Basically restraint is the name of the game.

  7. ^^^ “restraint is the name of the game.” ^^^ That, that, and more that. As an additional point, flashbacks tend to work best in these sorts of things if you make sure it’s relevant to the rest of the story you’re trying to tell. If you think about “The Last Crusade,” its opening scene does more to set up Indy’s relationship with his father than to tell us anything about Indy himself- in contrast, Drake’s flashbacks do nothing but set up…how he met Sully? It’s just better left to the imagination.

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