Here’s how I think it went down.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Nate joked he was “addicted to danger,” in reference to this time, trying the extra hot sauce at Chili’s. He cocked his head and laughed a little as he said it, seeking approval from the other party that his wisecrack was successful. None came.
Elena’s mind was still at work. Her EP had called her into that office that was just a little too clean, and oh so politely told her she was this close to getting fired if her segments didn’t start testing better. The guys in the newsroom had never accepted her as their own, they looked at her with disdain hidden behind a more acceptable form of disdain, bitter that she’d navigated her way into their carefully protected den. She had to go to work every day knowing that her bosses and her colleagues were looking for a way to discredit that little girl from that little show, unable to fathom the possibility that she may just be extremely good at her job.
But no, Nate was clearly the one addicted to danger. The man who was willing to throw himself off a cliff every day if it meant he didn’t have to grow up, and most days, actually did.
Nothing ever goes wrong for Nathan Drake, despite the tremendous effort dedicated to convincing you of the opposite. He flails wildly in the air with each jump, and stumbles when he lands. His plans backfire with such regularity that he eventually stops formulating any. But don’t worry, there’s always a ledge to grab onto, there’s always just one second left to jump before the roof caves in. He will climb out of the wreckage of a mythical city, his arms bruised but never broken, not turning to look at the dust and ash rising from the graveyard of his creation. Nathan Drake will be okay.
Uncharted separates itself from other games by presenting a power fantasy in which you are powerless. Drake is at the whims of his environment, he has no agency in climbing out of the ravine, he must wait for something in the distance to explode, placing the railing within his grasp. And within his grasp it is placed, but by whom is never stated. Despite being the subject of no prophecy, despite not a single ancient alien race requiring his assistance, Nathan Drake is very much the Chosen One™.
The universe visibly contorts to ensure Drake’s triumphant survival, as he freefalls out of a plane (the plane is exploding, but in this series that is always implicit), before
somehow catching a parachute in mid-air, and landing safely on the ground. Drake is permanently accompanied by a literal Deus Ex Machina, the grinding of its gears louder than all the bombast and destruction it choreographs, and yet the camera angles, the soundtrack and pacing are all and perfectly designed to help the player buy into the lie and ratchet up the false tension.
That’s because the fantasy of Uncharted is not to be able to catch the parachute, the fantasy is to fall and pretend for a moment that you were ever in danger at all.
Then the dust will clear, Nathan Drake will make some kind of witty comment, pull himself to his feet, and move onwards to the next disaster waiting to happen. After all, what else is there for the man that cannot die? For the man who’s future is secure? Drake does not grow as a character, for he never needs to. Just as the railing is placed in front of him, so too is Elena. At the end of each adventure he is rewarded with Elena’s love, so that at the start of the next he may lose it again, as we pretend for a moment that his relationship was ever in danger at all.
After their failed marriage, she criticises Drake’s emotional immaturity and unwillingness to commit. She chastises him for selfishness: he may be the immortal chosen one, but Sully sure as hell isn’t. She begs him to be aware of the others in his life, to be aware of the risks they are taking for him, to finally grow up and take some responsibility. It’s blunt screenwriting 101, but it’s functional, setting you up for character growth that unfortunately never comes. Drake and Sully escape this month’s ancient city alive, and Elena flings herself back into his arms, her complaints long forgotten, Drake’s status as centre of the universe re-established. Her character reveals itself as irrelevant, she is merely another cog in the same machine.
Nathan Drake, the Ur-Protagonist of the late 2000s: hot, stubbly white dude with a gun. He’s both immature and insecure, covering his cowardice with false bravado so thick you can see it from space. He blazes through at the centre of his world, whole cultures exist purely to play a part in his riddles, whole cities exist to be his burning playground for an hour, whilst he remains oblivious to the fact this world was all built for him. No wonder he’s so immature. No wonder he’s so insecure. How could he be anything else? Not once does he solve a problem by talking to someone. Not once is he required to do anything other than jump or shoot. Not once is there any long term consequence for the decisions he makes.
As he hangs over the edge of a cliff, he looks down and makes that face to camera he always does, the one that says “how does this shit keep happening to me,” unable to fathom that as the only constant in these equations he may be complicit in some way. Nathan Drake is the hero who’s reward is to think of himself as the victim.
Naughty Dog’s games show a surface level maturation which in reality is simply the same straight, white, male power fantasy growing with its audience. Their games achieve different levels of success with their execution and cohesion, and they may look remarkably different from a distance, but they’re essentially selling the same thing. Jak and Daxter is for boys, you save the world and everybody loves you. The Last of Us is for men, you do what is necessary to protect your daughter figure from a dangerous world.
Uncharted sits at the mid-point between wide-eyed naivete and violent paternalism. Uncharted is adolescent, it doesn’t want you to feel strong, it wants you to feel weak, without any of the nasty side effects like actually being weak. Uncharted is the fantasy for those already on top of the world, like a rich kid with nothing to lose taking up base jumping because why the fuck not, right? Uncharted is a game where you get to play a generic white dude for whom the world seemingly bends and breaks, narratively and mechanically, to allow for his inevitable success, yet every element of the game works to encourage you to ride the adrenaline rush of the danger he appears to be in. Uncharted is in that way perhaps the perfect game to represent where videogames, as a thing, are at.
The world exists for Nathan Drake, but the seductive quality of Uncharted is how easily it allows you to believe it is against him.