The general consensus seems to be that Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is a bit of a letdown when compared to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. I suppose there’s a whole, gigantic article to be written about why this will always be the case with sequels of sequels (and on and on) but, to be honest, I feel like I’ve been banging on about that kind of thing in a column I write long enough. Instead, I’d rather try to talk a bit about a problem with Uncharted 3 in a a different way.
I guess the first thing to say is that Uncharted 3 is a very, very good game. I liked it a whole lot when I played through it the first time and still enjoyed it a great deal the second time. The only real, nagging issue I have with the game has less to do with uneven pacing (that boat graveyard goes on foreverrrr) and more to do with something that’s been mentioned by critics a few times before*: protagonist Nathan Drake’s casual attitude toward mortal violence.
At the end of Uncharted 2 the big bad guy, Zoran Lazarevic goads Drake by suggesting that he’s a mass murderer. We know this is true because we’ve been active participants in the killing of hundreds of faceless enemies (and, unlike the first game, some of the nastiness has been dulled by there being actual white dudes among them instead of a stomach churning assembly line of every other race but) as part of Drake and Co.’s ultimate goal of tracing Marco Polo’s steps to Shangri-La. This moment demonstrated a level of thoughtfulness on Naughty Dog’s part. It said that they were thinking about the disconnect between the player’s affection for Drake and in some small way reflecting on how, as a character, all of his quips and occasional humility fail to overcome the basic fact that he is something quite like a common war criminal or pirate.
It’s tough though because I like Nathan Drake. He seems like an all right kind of guy who just has some serious emotional and psychological problems. In the context of his life, it’s almost understandable that he has a lot of blood on his hands but we could probably say the same about a lot of truly reprehensible people. It’s the quagmire at the centre of an action videogame: how are we meant to feel real compassion for a guy who thinks so little of the taking of another person’s life?
This is also echoed, rather chillingly, in a scene where a hallucinating, claustrophobic Charlie Cutter fights Drake who he perceives as trying to hurt him. The similaringly charming Sully prepares to shoot Cutter to stop him from choking Drake but, fortunately, the situation resolves itself. When asked if he was really going to pull the trigger, Sully responds with a simple, nonchalant “Just like putting down a rabid dog, right?”. Are we really meant to feel OK about our cast of “heroes” going on like this?
Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days also featured mass murderers as protagonists but at least they were written as desperate, ugly men doing desperate, ugly things (something furthered by that game’s grimy, snuff film aesthetic). Where Kane and Lynch are portrayed as, at best, antiheroes, Drake (and, to an extent, Sully) is held up to his audience as a laudable everyman. Under scrutiny we’re all disquieted by this. That moment with Lazarevic at the end of Uncharted 2 makes us think that, yes, Drake has some thinking to do about the lengths he’s willing to go to uncover historical secrets and, as the series’ stories usually begin, enriching himself.
Considering how Uncharted 3 is, in many ways, the end of Nathan Drake’s story (the game strongly suggests that he’s planning on hanging up his pistols and pursuing a new kind of life with Elena by its conclusion) it would be nice to see part of this decision being based at least somewhat on a repulsion toward the sort of violence treasure hunting entails. Instead of following that thread, though, the game pins Drake’s decision to change his ways on, primarily, the responsibility he feels for constantly putting his loved ones — particularly Sully — in harm’s way. His compassion comes from understanding that his own selfish pursuits actually harm others, which is really great but is still, ultimately, a pretty callous mode of thought. If part of the storyline had had to do with just how awful it has been for Drake to kill so many people — how much of a toll mass murder had begun to take on his conscience — it would have at least showed some level of awareness for the fact that this strain exists so prominently in Uncharted‘s fiction. Because it never appears, I’m left feeling really troubled about some of my favourite games ever published.
I don’t believe any of this is intentional. It’s almost definitely the result of carelessness, of sweeping a pesky aspect of gameplay under the rug so that different parts of the writing could be focused on instead. We probably should care about the message sent by an otherwise lovely series of games anyway, though, because not to do so is exactly the sort of popular omission (“It’s just a game, man!”) that leads to the creation of a problem like this in the first place. The folks who wrote Uncharted 3 still told a really great adventure story that even had the audacity to offer closure to a series with only three games published (it’s unfortunate that you have to call a completed trilogy — with an upcoming Vita-based prequel — audacious in the games industry) but this is no reason to let their narrative off the hook. Just as in Skyrim there’s something to be learned from the games that achieve a lot and, because of their accomplishments, highlight their failures more than a mediocre title ever could.
We care about the fact that Drake may be a psychopath because we can imagine knowing him. If the writing wasn’t so strong then this wouldn’t be the case. We’re able to dismiss other strange disconnects because we usually aren’t urged as powerfully — or skillfully — to root for the scores of killers populating the majority of action games.
I suppose that, ultimately, this is a call for more strong characterization — but strong characterization that has to hold to the same level of social responsibility as any book or film. If Nathan Drake is a genocidal lunatic, fine, just let us know that you know that too, Naughty Dog. Doing otherwise is as good as passively sanctioning these activities.
* As I was editing this piece and looking for pictures to embed I found this (really good) article by Will Porter. I thought about deleting this post entirely because his points are so similar to mine but thought there was enough difference that this is still worth publishing. I sure hope so. I’d only heard the occasional talk about this Drake being a murderer randomly throughout the internet and, I think, a Zero Punctuation review as well.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.