The protagonist of the Uncharted series, Nathan Drake, acts as a mascot for the PlayStation brand. He’s funny, charming, and his hair is perfectly styled at all times. He could crawl out of a swamp and his hair would still be sticking out at the front, nary a strand touching his forehead. One wonders how someone who pays so much attention to his hair could constantly have only one side of his shirt tucked in at any given time.
The series and its characters are almost universally lauded, and there is no question that Naughty Dog has crafted something compelling. However, one criticism that gets brought up often is the divide between the story in Uncharted and its gameplay. Whereas Nathan Drake is presented as a sympathetic and charming character – a modern and polygonal Indiana Jones – during the course of each title he kills hundreds of men. Perhaps even thousands. Nathan Drake, lovable rogue, is a mass murderer. He’s a bad guy.
Indiana Jones killed a few folks, but I don’t recall him wiping out an entire army. Maybe he did in the last one – the one with the aliens. Through sheer force of will I eliminated that film from memory. I buried it with my other unwanted memories. It’s down there hanging out with my fourteenth birthday.
“Whereas Nathan Drake is presented as a sympathetic and charming character – a modern and polygonal Indiana Jones – during the course of each title he kills hundreds of men. Perhaps even thousands”
This revelation is nothing new. The villain in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves even mentions Drake’s kill count. Gamers, and the writers themselves, have been aware of this disconnect for many years. The point remains: there is a very clear and marked difference between cutscene Drake and player-controlled Drake, and this topic deserves a revisit given the upcoming released of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
Naughty Dog’s answer to this criticism arguably came in the form of The Last of Us, which I consider the best game of its generation. I can’t truthfully speak to the developer’s intentions, but it’s as though they took the murderous gameplay of Uncharted and let the story grow naturally around it. Picture a deformed, vaguely humanoid and bearded creature growing around a discarded pistol. The Last of Us is Uncharted without the denial.
But what is even more significant than this is the fact that Joel, the protagonist of The Last of Us, is morally speaking, a better person than Nathan Drake.
No, wait, don’t leave. Hear me out.
Both characters are similar in the fact that they’ve killed many people. Both characters are also opportunistic; seeking material gain. But they differ in two very important ways: first, Joel admits his moral corruption, whereas Drake bottles it up and pretends to be some lovable rogue. Joel grunts and talks about his murderous past, acknowledging it during conversation with an air of regret, but Drake just gives a crooked smile and tells a joke; his psychopathy evident only in his cold, dead eyes. Lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye.
“After the fourth time you wipe out an entire army you have to ask yourself, is this something I enjoy?”
Second, whereas Joel finds something truly meaningful to hold onto, and evolves as a character into someone at least trying to be good, Drake does not experience such a journey. Joel goes from black to grey, but Drake, in his inability to even take note of his own misdeeds, makes no such journey. Sure, he achieves things and does some awesome stuff, but remains relatively stagnant morally.
So, given the evidence above, I believe there is an argument in support of the notion that Nathan Drake is a bad person. It may seem as though he only kills in self-defense, but there are only so many times that works as an excuse. After the fourth time you wipe out an entire army you have to ask yourself, is this something I enjoy? Do I like getting these dank headshots? Do I find it satisfying when I shoot at a red barrel and it erupts into flame?
This does not mean I dislike Nathan Drake as a character. I don’t subscribe to the notion that characters have to be morally good to be enticing. And I still find Drake sympathetic, since (by design) I feel like player-controlled Drake by virtue of me being in control, with cutscene Drake existing as his own, morally untouched entity. In which case I’m the morally corrupt one, here. I do like shooting those red barrels.
But this is a topic that extends beyond Uncharted. Most games have this disconnect – Nathan Drake is only notable because he’s so well written and charming that it’s jarring when you stop to think about his kill-count. It’s honestly difficult to name a story-driven, combat-oriented game that does not suffer from this. And frankly, few games really have the stones to come out in front of it. Spec Ops: The Line did, and was brilliant for it, but the list is otherwise quite short.
At any rate, please don’t misunderstand me; I do not see this as an “issue” at all, or a failing on Naughty Dog’s part. It is merely interesting, and a mostly unavoidable part of game design. I wrote this article for fun, not to admonish or to pick at Naughty Dog’s storytelling. They’re brilliant. The kind of brilliance that makes me uncomfortable, because I’m half convinced that there is a finite amount of brilliance in the world, and they double dipped.
“I’m half convinced that there is a finite amount of brilliance in the world, and [Naughty Dog] double dipped”
I also know there are holes in my argument. Nathan Drake never ambushed and killed innocent travelers like Joel, for example, and in his eyes acted only out of self defence. As such, there is less need for moral evolution. The moral status of Joel at the end of The Last of Us is also a matter of debate, with some seeing his actions during the finale as selfish. So the idea that Joel goes from black morality to grey is not a given.
At any rate, I personally look forward to Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. If the screenshots are to be believed, Nathan Drake’s hair actually touches his forehead in that one. Truly a watershed moment.