On May 10, PlayStation gamers will finally get the chance to own Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. It’s the first major entry in the Uncharted franchise in over five years, and fans are eager as ever to see how this latest entry, which developer Naughty Dog claims will be their last, stacks up against its predecessors.
A Thief’s End sees protagonist Nathan Drake retired, an erstwhile treasure hunter now settled into domesticity. He’s married to Elena Fisher, the journalist who accompanied him throughout the first game and served as his romantic interest. When Drake’s older brother resurfaces after being presumed long dead, he asks Drake to accompany him on their greatest (and most dangerous) adventure yet.
The Uncharted series is widely regarded as Naughty Dog’s magnum opus, a collection of some of the best third-person action games of their generation. Their exhilarating action set pieces and brisk action are unforgettable, but it’s Nathan Drake who’s become the core of the Uncharted brand.
But Nathan Drake didn’t burst onto the scene as a great hero, or even a great character. So I’d like to talk about how he became one. In order to do that, let’s go back over ten years, to when Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was still in development.
A Very Likable Hero
When Naughty Dog set out to make a hero for Uncharted, one of their primary goals was to make him relatable. Reading and watching interviews with the game’s dev team, you see that word a lot. “Everyman” pops up frequently as well.
Anyone who’s pitched a work of narrative art, whether it’s a novel, film, TV show, or game, knows that to executives, the words “relatable” and “everyman” are often synonymous with “bland”. And in Drake’s Fortune, Nathan Drake is bland. He fits squarely into the quippy roguish white guy archetype, and his face looks like someone fed David Boreanaz, Nathan Fillion, and Harrison Ford into a facial averaging algorithm. To further his relatable nature, he was dressed simply: jeans and a half-tucked white shirt, both slightly baggy (it was 2007, after all).
But let’s be frank — “relatable” does not mean an action hero in casualwear. How we relate to a character is about their conflicts, and how we understand the stakes of the narrative. It’s about how we empathize with their situation, and how we feel their pain. It’s about the specifics, and how any provided backstory echoes throughout the narrative. Drake claims to be a descendant of explorer Sir Francis Drake, and wears his ring on a necklace. But when he finally uncovers his supposed ancestor’s true fate, the moment lacks real emotional impact. So I don’t think the first Uncharted game, while fun and revolutionary in its day, never really provided a relatable hero. It provided a very likable hero, and that’s important. But Drake’s conflicts in the first game (finding a lost treasure, beating a rival, rescuing a damsel) are as archetypical as Drake himself.
Luckily, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves improved upon the first game in almost every conceivable way, including Drake’s story. The introduction of Harry Flynn and Chloe Frazer fleshed out Drake’s backstory, allowing players to know Drake a bit better. But it wasn’t until Uncharted 3 that Drake’s story didn’t just get longer — it got richer.
A Relatable Hero
When Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception begins, Nathan Drake has married Elena Fisher, but they are now estranged. Then, the game digs deeper into its protagonist’s backstory than its predecessors, flashing back to his early teen years, and his first meeting with Sully.
The game’s antagonist, Katherine Marlowe, later reveals that when he was very young, Drake’s mother committed suicide. Shortly thereafter, his father surrendered him to the state, and Drake then ended up in a boys’ home. We also learn that Nathan Drake isn’t his real name, and Marlowe’s last words ask Nate if he’s truly worthy of the name he’s chosen. As Marlow disappears into a desert sinkhole, she takes Drake’s ring with her.
At the start of Uncharted 4, Drake will be more relatable than he’s ever been. We’ve accompanied him through a deeply personal story, exposing the tragic past that shaped him. And now, as he’s found comfort in life, his past will come back to haunt him.
Humanity and Technology
I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Naughty Dog owes a lot of Drake’s sheer charm to actor Nolan North, who imbued the character with true warmth and humanity. To say that North is prolific in the video game industry is an understatement — the guy’s a juggernaut of voice and acting talent, a master improviser whose attitude comes through the polygons and textures of Drake’s face. And that face, as average-handsome as it was in the earlier Uncharted games, has always been beautifully animated. In contrast to the relative simplicity of Drake’s early facial models, there has always been a wealth of sophistication in his facial animations.
Though they’ve used advanced facial capture to bring some added realism to Uncharted 4, Naughty Dog didn’t do that on the first three games. Instead, they animated their characters’ faces by hand. Reference footage was used, but ultimately it was the talents of the animators that allowed North’s vocal performance to marry so perfectly with Drake’s face.
Now, in Uncharted 4, Drake is a touch more angular and grizzled. It’s like they’ve added a bit of Liam Neeson into the facial averaging algorithm, making Drake a whole lot craggier. When the first detailed close-ups of Drake’s new facial model were revealed, I was flabbergasted by how different he looked. This was a character that, through the evolution of gaming technology, had gained an appearance that finally felt as distinct and nuanced as the character’s backstory.
But what about Drake’s ongoing story? Naughty Dog has dropped big hints that A Thief’s End will be just that — an end to the Uncharted narrative as we know it. Of course, another developer will likely step in if (when, really) Sony wants to make more Uncharted games. But will they be able to do it with Nathan Drake?
I guess we’ll find out next Tuesday, when Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End arrives on PS4.