Disclaimer: Before I get into this little diatribe, I should point that I actually really enjoy the Uncharted games. They’re a bit slight and frustrating but they manage to be cinematic while still maintaining a game feel and the tone is inviting and immersive. I’m about to say some things that might have you think otherwise. Rest assured, I understand and can give into these games’ appeal.
Nathan Drake is one of the most iconic video game characters of our generation. His name, his image, his games, all have been bored into modern pop culture’s psyche. Sure it helps that the Uncharted series is a juggernaut moneymaker that basically put the PS3 back into the console market but Drake himself is surprisingly well regarded in general.
It makes sense for quite a few reasons, firstly being that his design is agreeable. Handsome in a strapping, Errol Flynn kind of way (modeled after Johnny Knoxville of all people) with slight exaggerations to give him a cartoon-ish enough look to make his physical human qualities more appealing (uncanny valley and all that). It should also be noted that Nathan Drake is the best defined character in a Western third person game. His bulky yet agile movement and vocal tics make him more clearly defined than other character in the subgenre that I can think of. When I first played the games, I was put off by his constant grunting and panting while scaling large monuments. It makes sense to me now though that this was a deliberate choice to make sure the audience knew that they playing as Drake rather than themselves. Drake’s athletic ways and devil-may-care attitudes make him a character worth investing in for a globetrotting adventure. His care free ways makes the game more accessible for players you want the thrill of an adventure without the caked-on intensity most First Person Shooters force the player into. On paper, it makes sense that this character is as popular as he is.
This does bring up something that troubles me. Drake is fully formed character but also a truly reprehensible human being. Some of this is for personal reasons, some is not. On the personal side, I tend to be put off by the Uncharted series’ style of “witty dialogue” which consists of the characters constantly snarking off to each other that makes them sound more like teenagers with a hard on for Joss Whedon. Drake pointing out the absurdity of his situation is something hack writers do once they’ve realized how stupidly a scene plays out. After all, if the characters say it then the audience won’t! While I appreciate Nolan North’s commitment to the role (he has been reported to ad-lib frequently) his smug delivery only further irks me and explains the more clunky one-liners Drake delivers. Without generalizing, there’s a reason most actors are not writers.
On the slightly less personal side, Drake’s motivation bothers me and fails to justify his actions. Keeping in line with modern gaming format, a lot of Uncharted consists of gunning down foreigners to get to the next objective. That this is the norm in gaming concerns me but that’s another can of worms I’ll open later. My problem is that Drake’s wise cracking tomfoolery tends to contrast his full on murder frenzies in a very awkward way. He seems quite remorseless about the men he kills, some of which are just low-level security men. For example, in an early level from Uncharted 2 you are required to stealth your way past some security guards using only a gun armed with tranquilizers. It’s all good and dandy until Drake throws a guard off of a building and leaves him to plummet to his death. Needlessly harsh and disturbingly out of place, this little bit really threw me off guard when I first played the game (pun DEINFETELY not intended). While we’re on Uncharted 2, during a cutscene near the end the villain, whom I’ll name Blandy McGenricson, confronts Drake. Blandy poses the question of whether him and Drake are so different, seeing as they both murdered legions of men to get to where they are. Drake then puts down his gun and swears not to shoot Mr. Genericson. This moment rang false to me. Drake seemed to have little hesitation while slaughtering men earlier in the game then this moment creeps up and throws the character’s normal behavior out the window to restage the climax from every by-the-numbers action movie ever. It felt like a half-assed attempt to justify Drake’s kill-crazy ways.
For the first two games, Drake’s motivation for treasure hunting could best be summed up with, “Just cause” seeing as there’s almost no reason for his adventuring besides an at best goofy plot point naming him a descendant of Francis Drake. The third game, subtitled Drake’s Deception, did actually set a specific reason for him to grab the treasure. Unfortunately, it suggests something very unsettling about Drake. The Francis Drake relation comes full circle as Drake aims to find the lost city of Ubar that Francis Drake was commissioned to find by Queen Elizabeth I. So it’s not the riches or gold, Drake is searching for the city because he’s entitled to it by pure nepotism. Bull-fucking-shit! Drake’s insecurity in his own masculinity is NOT the making of a timeless adventure hero. I constantly hear the Indiana Jones comparison, which is arbitrary at best. Jones sought to acquire the treasures for preservation, hence the classic line, “That belongs in a museum!” Drake is a preening little pissant with all the justification of a five year old having a tantrum. The fact that he is a Caucasian American mowing down hordes of ethnics only makes the subtext more unsettling. It also hurts that Drake himself seems fairly ignorant of other cultures. Take for instant his travels with the Tibetan villager Tenzin in Uncharted 2. Throughout their whole ordeal, Drake’s responses to Tenzin’s Tibetan dialogue consist of snarky remarks about him not understanding the language. Constantly parroting the same, “Speak English, bro” punch line to ad nausea. It’s almost amusing that despite all his travels, Drake has all the cultural savvy as Hank Hill.
If I wanted to go even further, I could say that Nathan Drake as a character reflects poorly on the gaming community in general as he is supposedly one of the classic icons. I could say that man-children like him and the cretins from Gears of War have bred a generation of gamers to becoming loud mouthed and self entitled shits whose instant gratification should be treated as all important. I could say those admittedly hyperbolic statements, but I understand the gravity of behind them so I’ll leave those to fester by the wayside until I have considerable proof of them. I get why Nathan Drake is as well regarded as he is and I do actually enjoy the Uncharted games. I just find the potential of games being squandered when the community settles for third-rate action “heroes” as face of the medium. Yeah, it’s another “don’t settle for mediocrity” piece on video games. That’s not to say that there aren’t great video game characters, just that someone like Drake shouldn’t be the norm. We have and can still do better than this.