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.

Nathan Drake Is Crash Bandicoot: Uncharted 4 and Acceptance

(Included in Critical Distance’s “This Week in Video Game Blogging” for May 14th)

See also (after reading this one, preferably): A Coda: Uncharted, the Crate Joke, and Rejecting the Drake Legacy

Nathan Drake’s house is neat but still messy enough to look like people live there. Two floors, nice neighborhood, loving partner lounging on the couch. It’s the familiar picture of domestic bliss that writers have, for eons, used as shorthand for what chips away big chunks of your soul, like cutting an apple with a spoon. Here, Uncharted 4 includes a PlayStation with a brief Crash Bandicoot level, both as an amusing nod to Naughty Dog’s past and an interactive way to establish the dynamic between Nate and Elena as she watches him play.

But Crash is also this tragic prop. As Nate remarks, Crash performs the same runs and jumps that he did in his previous life; the furry, jort-ed mutant even runs from a boulder like Indiana Jones, Uncharted’s most obvious inspiration. These days, Nate only works salvage, a pale imitation of his former treasure hunts. His grand adventures, his life-and-death struggles against morally dubious competitors have been reduced to video game contests that determine who does the dishes. No coincidence that after he fails to beat Elena’s high score (the game is even rigged so that he can’t win, can’t even get the fleeting gratification of victory), she asks him if he’s happy.

Uncharted 4 does not actually break the fourth wall at any point, but putting a PlayStation controller in the hands of its protagonist and having him play an old Naughty Dog title is certainly tapping at the bricks, sledgehammer in hand. This isn’t hidden in a corner of Nate and Elena’s house, either – it’s a requirement to move forward. The game reaches out to the player by making Nate a player himself, who’s similarly unsatisfied with the older video games available to him and itching for a brand-new adventure. Within this context, Uncharted 4’s narrative uses the overarching theme of accepting who you are to address not only the idea of players moving on from Nathan Drake, but the long-standing critique of his sizable death toll. And one year later, as Naughty Dog is poised to make good on their promise with an upcoming spin-off that allegedly doesn’t feature Nate at all, I’m reminded why I’m happy to see them leave the character and their wishy-washy defense of him behind.

Said narrative hinges on a “one last job” setup that comes courtesy of Nate’s long-lost brother Sam, who needs help finding the equally long-lost pirate colony of Libertalia + any treasure therein. Nate believed his brother was dead and thus accidentally left him to rot in a Panamanian prison, but there’s no guilt trip necessary – Nate has stewed so long in his own discontent that he practically jumps at the chance to lie to his wife and go treasure-hunting again.

Libertalia becomes both stage and symbol for much of the resulting conflict – just as the colony let its residents escape the constraints of an ordinary (and decidedly anti-pirate) world, so too does it let Nate escape the steady job and the domestic bliss and the refrigerator with leftover Chinese food. But the fact that everyone in Libertalia killed each other casts a foreboding shadow over his escapism, one that’s only emphasized by an earlier confrontation with Elena over his lies. He tells Sam at one point, “I left my life for you,” and if the pirate skeletons are any indication, it’s not worth it. When Elena tracks Nate down again on the island, she’s less interested in getting him to admit the obvious error of his ways (though he does, and she remains rightfully peeved) than literally meeting him halfway, out on the stage of his escapist fantasy.

Although Elena intends to bring Nate home, she also admits settling down was, on their part, an overcorrection – she runs and climbs and shoots right alongside him because the escapist, adventurous streak runs in her, too, and it’s a hard thing to leave on an attic shelf with the other souvenirs. Once all the fires and explosions of the climax subside, Sam reveals that he’s snagged enough gold pirate coins to set Nate and Elena off into a different sort of retirement, which lets Elena reboot her TV show and Nate pursue a more family-friendly form of treasure-hunting. It’s the complete realization of the island and Libertalia and everything that happens there as metaphor for acceptance – by gaining something from the place signifying their restlessness and escapism, they’re able to move forward without abandoning a key part of themselves. Instead, they build on it.

In other words, the story of Nathan Drake concludes with everyone accepting that Nathan Drake pretty much is who he is. He goes on this long journey to come to terms with his own displeasure with an ordinary life and learns that it’s not something to be cured so much as accommodated. Elena and Nate reconfigure their lives because they accept their mutual need for discovery and globe-trotting. Similarly, Sam learns to accept that his brother is finished; he has a wife, a home, a life beyond crazy suicidal expeditions.

Uncharted 4’s final message for the player mirrors Nate: the person with the controller moves on, accepts the idea of no further adventures. It nudges us in the direction of being OK with the character’s retirement and with Naughty Dog’s presumed impending exit from the Uncharted business (spin-off notwithstanding). Everything wraps up smoothly, without a word for the path of third-person shooter destruction that Nate leaves in his wake on a quest to find himself. The bodies are frustratingly filed next to thrill-seeking and telling lies, as nothing that The Love of a Good Woman can’t fix.

Criticizing Uncharted’s body count is, I realize, such an old argument that the fourth game even includes a joke trophy (“ludonarrative dissonance” for killing 1000 people) poking fun at the idea. But the game’s central theme directly conflicts with that persistent argument. Involving players in a large acceptance narrative and asking them to move beyond Nathan Drake’s adventures, as its characters have, means Uncharted 4 also asks players to accept Nathan Drake’s actions. Conversely, the critique of his death toll is a matter of players outright refusing to accept those actions and demanding a better explanation, which Uncharted 4 never gives. Its trophy for 1000 kills is instead emblematic of a dismissive approach – the game only seems to contextualize its violence within the story when the spiraling mayhem of the gunfights and setpieces reflect just how out-of-control Nate’s lies to Elena become. Death, or at least death in terms of faceless video game henchmen, is little more than a broad, abstract concept used to sporadically color other themes, a parallel to how years of first-/third-person shooter conditioning have taught players to perceive video game kills.

Uncharted 4 not only maintains the status quo, it preaches acceptance of the status quo; violence is just what Uncharted is, what video games are. It does this even when some of its changes are at least adjacent to the criticism, if not a direct response. The game consciously dials back the number of enemy encounters, cutting down on the huge waves that materialize from thin air that had become an irritating series trademark. It presents nonviolent stealth as an occasional option. There are trophies for making it through certain sequences without actually killing anyone. When Uncharted 4 tweaks its approach to death, it’s only in terms of the game mechanics and not the narrative it holds so dear; Nathan Drake may kill less (and has the option to kill even fewer still) than ever before, but the game insists on separating those kills from the story, on still treating them like an abstract video game concept. Observe how, even after Nate and Elena reconcile on the island and the onscreen chaos stops broadly reflecting the chaotic state of their relationship, the death toll continues to tick upward. This pivotal shift remains exclusive to the narrative and its themes; mechanically, things stay the same.

I think back to the video game metaphor near the start of the game. Crash represents Nate in more ways than one: he’s out of date. Contrast such aimless violence with even Naughty Dog’s previous game, The Last of Us, where the body counts are similarly big but manage to fuel a pessimistic vision of the world. For what quibbles I have with The Last of Us, that game takes place in a horrifying, ugly reality, and more kills contribute to its ugliness. Uncharted, meanwhile, clings to kills as a way to occupy the player between story beats – climb a cliff, solve a puzzle, shoot a mercenary in the head with an AK-47. Not that there isn’t room for these types of stories within the broad spectrum of video games, but with all eyes on Uncharted, the poster child for both video game storytelling and how video game violence can screw with video game storytelling, its ultimate response to criticism is both disappointing and exasperating. In what may be the franchise’s final opportunity to address Nathan Drake’s violence, Uncharted 4 offers only a limp shrug: that’s the way it is, so learn to accept it.