A Coda: Uncharted, the Crate Joke, and Rejecting the Drake Legacy

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[Spoilers, by the way]

After four main entries, the hallmarks of the Uncharted series are easy to spot. Handholds will crumble, jokes will be cracked, guys with guns will arrive in waves that last just a little bit too long. It’s a series prone to the bombast of the action/adventure stories it emulates, but also a series with a legitimate interest in its characters — in what they care about, in how they interact, in what their lives might be like outside vehicles for gunplay. In particular, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End uses heavy symbolism to mirror protagonist Nathan Drake’s journey to find himself, to accept who he is/was/will be. I wrote about this in the lead-up to the current spin-off, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and I noted that its uncritical acceptance narrative fails to examine the longstanding critique of the franchise’s violence, despite concessions elsewhere. For as thoughtful as Uncharted can be about its characters, it has never been all that thoughtful about the violence they perpetrate. Until the latest game, it has been an immobile mainstay of developer Naughty Dog’s action pastiche.

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is better at scrutinizing its protagonists than any prior game in the series. But you do wonder how much of that relates to who’s doing the shooting; its starring Indian woman and black South African woman (both portrayed by white women) own up to their actions more than noted straight white dude Nathan Drake ever had to own. This, you or I might say, is our double standard for the marginalized. We do not allow women — particularly women of color — to hold the positions men do without calling their presence there into question. Those positions include, apparently, the treasure-hunting, devil-may-caring harbingers of chaos who headline our video games.

The messy politics of the game’s casting and the context of its story ensure that any self-reflection remains, to say the least, imperfect. But in that self-reflection, The Lost Legacy at least makes some strides to finally confront criticism that Uncharted has ducked for years. It finds in Nate’s old associate Chloe Frazer a fresh POV that either lacks his moral failings or comes to shed them over the course of the game. Things start out as usual: Chloe teams with 4’s secondary antagonist Nadine Ross to find an ancient Indian relic called the Tusk of Ganesh, in which the pair have personal and financial stakes. Chloe’s father died in his obsessive search for the relic, while Nadine — recently ousted as leader of her private military company Shoreline — needs the cash to take back her father’s company. There is, of course, a villain in the rebel Asav who supplies the bad guys to be shot, and they are shot in large numbers with largely the same indifference + flimsy self-defense that defines so many video game shooters, the very same video game-y abstraction that Uncharted and Naughty Dog otherwise reject.

The game begins with Chloe sneaking through an Indian warzone. This contested part of the city is full of precarious rooftops and crumbling ledges, as well as armed guards involved in what she says is “not my fight.” The turmoil is only an obstacle on the way to a quite separate goal. But near the end of the story, Asav sells the Tusk for a bomb that he sends on a train bound for the city. Chloe and Nadine recover the Tusk from his buyers (Shoreline, in fact) and then, in the game’s most dangerous and involved setpiece, Chloe risks her life to stop the bomb. With their feet dangling over the ravine they drove the train into, Nadine announces that she’s done with Shoreline. And Chloe, for her part, makes a decision that Nathan Drake never would have: to give the Tusk to India’s Ministry of Culture.

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We can understand the game’s title in terms of how Chloe and Nadine handle the legacy of their fathers with Shoreline and the Tusk of Ganesh, but we can also understand it in franchise terms: the legacy of the Uncharted series. As their mechanical forefather, Nathan Drake sits in a similar patriarchal role that the women eventually come to reject, abandoning personal gain and the incidental violence that has come with their pursuit of it. Chloe does this most obviously with her decision to donate the Tusk, but Nadine does, too; when she gives up the struggle for her PMC, she gives up the for-profit violence that comprised the legacy of her father as well so much of the entire Uncharted series. At one point, she clarifies that she wanted Shoreline back out of pride, because losing it happened “on her watch” — in giving it up, she rejects legacy for legacy’s sake.

The game reflects this critique of legacy not just in its POV shift and its experimentation with open world structure, but in its treatment of the Drake mentality. Chloe and Nadine’s third partner is late-game arrival Sam Drake, who functions as a Nate stand-in by carrying on the lifestyle his brother left behind. Though he also risks his life to stop the train, he at first voices Chloe’s prior philosophy, of the bomb not being their problem; it’s an obstacle no longer in their path. To position the Drake mentality as something to be left behind, The Lost Legacy turns the brothers into something of a running joke. Nadine and Chloe share an amusing conversation about how irritating they found Nate, and although Sam’s resurgence drives a serious adversarial wedge between the two thanks to his run-in with Nadine in the fourth game, their group dynamic soon flattens into a similar comedic routine. The elder Drake is all but carried through The Lost Legacy; he needs to be rescued from Asav, and he mooches off Chloe and Nadine for their grappling hooks. He even begs them to reconsider donating the Tusk all the way into a mid-credits scene.

The game’s clearest rejection of the Drake approach is actually a brief joke about crates. In keeping with his newfound comic shittiness, Sam is also the lone purveyor of Uncharted 4’s most dreaded mechanic: pushing crates around to reach high places (and presumably mask load times or something). The game references this inane activity with an early crate cameo, as Chloe sends one off a rooftop and crashing through the floor occupied until moments ago by Nadine. “No more crates,” Nadine says, and true to her word, they never use one for hours and hours of play until Sam cheerfully shoves one down from a ledge to not only cement his status as a joke character but tie his methods to something the women have moved beyond.

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The Lost Legacy is tied together through snippets of a Hindu myth. Ganesh loses his tusk when confronted by Parashurama, who wields an axe received from Shiva. Though Ganesh can stop the axe, he allows himself to be cut out of respect for Shiva, his father. As an allegory for the events of the game, it’s a bit muddled since it only reflects Chloe’s relationship with her father while ignoring Nadine, but it does temper the game’s critique of the series — out of similar deference to what came before, The Lost Legacy does not entirely jettison the traditional Uncharted format. Chloe does not, after all, give up hunting for treasure or using the accompanying action hero skillset. Instead, she abandons the narcissistic approach while making peace with her father’s wishes. In this, the game contends that some legacies are worth continuing. Others, however, are better off lost.