Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is an action adventure platformer with heavy third-person shooter elements. The game originally released in 2007 for the Playstation 3, and was later remastered for the Playstation 4 in The Nathan Drake Collection. The game is standard fodder for its era: the player platforms to a location, shoots some enemies, then maybe solves a puzzle. Rinse and repeat. Critics raved about Drake’s Fortune on release despite it’s mediocre structure.
The story has charm, emulating the pulpy Hollywood action and adventure of Indiana Jones. Players are given a unique cinematic experience where they are the hero shooting enemies and climbing death defying heights, even if you can sometimes see the edge of Naughty Dog’s very pretty corridors or shooting galleries.
There is a lot going for this game and I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a fun time on multiple playthroughs. Yet I find myself wanting when it comes to the story. On the surface, the game is competent enough in keeping the player on their toes and wanting to see what happens next. Yet, like so many action adventure stories the game replicates, the narrative fails to feel meaningful. The game’s bombastic tone wants the player to chill out and turn their brain off. It works if you don’t think about it too hard.
The story is simple. It follows Nathan Drake, the supposed descendant of English explorer Sir Francis Drake. After finding Drake’s lost diary with clues about the famed El Dorado, Nate sets out on an adventure to find the lost city, along with his partner Victor Sullivan (Sully) and journalist Elena Fisher. Along the way they discover El Dorado is not what it seems. There is a lot more there than that basic summary (like supernatural creatures!), but that’s the set up. The story wants to do more, but rarely achieves more depth than feeling like a summary of a story throughout. All of the dramatic elements, coded indgeneous folks, and character banter is in vain because the story never becomes interesting.
Nate is an endearing protagonist. He is a rogue explorer but not just a pretty face, having extensive knowledge about history and archeology. He is a charismatic guy and has a down to earth sense of humor which brings a lot of levity to the more intense moments of gameplay. Things don’t always go his way but he is good at winging it and usually ends up on top. Nate also has a sense of depth (albeit not a huge amount) in his attachment to Sir Francis Drake. He wears a ring that once belonged to his ancestor around his neck through the majority of the game, only taking it off once to fulfill a story beat.
Nate is accompanied by two other characters throughout the game. The first is Sully, a womanizer and cigar smoking father figure to Nate. Sully is a nice contrast to Nate. Sully shows more interest in the monetary gain from their explorations than the exploration itself. He also exists to further our perception of Nate as the hero with the heart of gold. Sully makes suggestive comments and is cynical. Nate, however, is interested in discovering things and embodies an enthusiasm that Sully can’t always sympathize with.
Then there is Elena, a journalist who gets roped into Nate’s quest after he and Sully lie to her and consequently ditch her before she tracks them down for retribution. Nice one, guys. Elena works as a foil to Nate as she is empathic and earnest where he is self-absorbed and quippy. Starting out as unsteady strangers, they learn to care about each other and trust one another. Though able to hold her own and a fun character, Elena often feels contrived. She often exists to ruin Nate’s plans to cause more hiccups in their adventures, and to be the love interest by the end of the game. Like James Bond or Indy himself, the girl is the reward Nate wins at the end of the game.
This cast is pretty standard. Nate is the platforming king who performs cartoonish levels of parkour, Elena is the snarky damsel at the end of the game in need of rescuing, and Sully is the gruff older mentor. In a way, they almost resemble the cast of Super Mario Bros. Yet despite their relatively standard character archetypes, Naughty Dog elevates them beyond their tropes. Nate, Sully, and Elena are not particularly unique characters, but they still manage to make the player care about them and remain invested.
With all of this in mind, let’s talk about the plot of this game. The story is weak, especially when compared to other games that came after. It’s an adequate attempt at storytelling, but it lacks some polish and feels predictable, lazy at times. If this were a film, it would be enjoyable enough but forgettable. Being a game allows players to be part of the action instead of mere spectators. Drake’s Fortune places you as the leading role in a movie, which is not something most Triple-A games at the time could say. When similar games evoked the cinematic, they felt robotic in their presentation. Stiff voice acting, awkward character animation, and non-existent cinematography. Games leaned on script alone to tell a story. Drake’s Fortune is well animated with fantastic motion capture, and the voice cast are believable throughout. None of the individual tools are revolutionary, but the presentation feels fresh. The presentation often eclipses the story, making it feel more grand and exciting than it really is. Unique. Unique enough, in fact, to become the basis for Sony’s prestige story game style.
Drake’s Fortune feels tired, a story we’ve seen and read a thousand times: the colonist / white savior narrative. Nate is a “good” white explorer who traverses indigenous lands for treasure. Sure there’s some motivation provided by his ancestor but this does little to make the story less about a “good” white guy coming in to find artifacts that don’t belong to him or his culture.
The game has been critiqued for racist overtones because the protagonist is white and he is almost always shooting at enemies who are people of color. This is true, though, I want to push back on this criticism. The game relies on the action-adventure framework and the chosen setting attracts complex implications about race. This is especially true given that Nate is a straight white man from America. Let me elaborate.
Nate is trying to follow in the footsteps of Francis Drake to find the lost city of El Dorado and the treasure that awaits there. As the game continues, it becomes apparent that there are some supernatural forces at work. Nate learns that El Dorado is not actually a place, but a literal object. Inside are ashes that corrupt those who breathe it in, turning them into literal monsters. Nate knows this is bad and the final level features him actively stopping the statue from leaving the island. A classic trope of colonizer / white savior stories fetishizes native cultures to serve a generic curse storyline, appropriating harmful ideas about native people in the process. There is also a legacy of indigenous cultures being coded in zombie / monster narratives as mindless animals.
We should also take a closer look at our antagonists in the game: Eddy Raja, Atoq Navarro, and Gabriel Roman. Eddy and Roman are both menacing in their own ways, but Navarro ends up being the real villain at the end of the day, and there is a bit to unpack here when it comes to the colonizer / white savior narrative. The game implies Roman is our primary antagonist throughout. Not only does he shoot and almost kill Sully at the start of the game, but he is the character who appears to pull all the strings to make Nate fail. Though Eddy plays a part in this, he is more of a pawn than anything else and is played for laughs at the end of the day, despite his terrible fate. Roman is an older, white man who is treasure hungry. From far away, he isn’t that different from Nate and Sully. All three want to discover uncharted territory (get it?) and find some gold. What sets Roman apart are his motivations. Roman is a conqueror. He wants to exploit the treasure for his own gain and have it all for himself. Thus he is the true colonizer of this story, while Nate, by proximity, is the selfless hero.
One could argue that Roman’s villainy implies that this story is making a commentary on anti-colonizing, and the cursed Spaniards are a testament to this theme. This would be a valid point if it weren’t for two things. First, the Spaniards are less of a commentary on the evils of colonizing and more a force that Nate is up against who can be safely dispensed with machine guns. The game never attempts to make commentary on this trope and frames them as a scary other that you are supposed to fear. Then there is Navarro’s reveal at the very end of the story. Navarro is a character that lingers in the background of Drake’s Fortune for most of the game. He works for Roman who does not treat him as an equal but a peon who is below his status. Roman even references rescuing Navarro from the slums, as if Navarro should be grateful that he was rescued from uncivilized culture. This is where Drake’s Fortune muddles its themes. While the story suggests colonizing is a bad thing when enacted by Roman, it dismisses Nate performing the same activity. At the end of the game, Sully confiscates a pile of gold and treasures, a clear reward accompanied by triumphant music. They still leave with treasures that do not belong to them. But they are the “good” guys, so it isn’t bad.
Navarro, a man with olive skin and distinct ethnic features, ends up being the big bad at the end of the day which both repeats the racist tropes of the genre and undermines its own commentary. Of course the person of color is the bad guy. Two out of the three villains of the game are people of color and both are expendable to the narrative. It is difficult to separate this type of story from the stories that came before. In its execution, the narrative appropriates harmful stereotypes that contribute to dangerous ideologies about what belongs to white men who have money and power.
Drake’s Fortune may have been forgiven for its sins had the story been stronger. At the end of the day, the story is just fine. It isn’t horrible. I find it difficult to talk about what makes it bad, because it ultimately takes no risks. It isn’t doing anything meaningful. It is serviceable – it has great visuals, interesting set pieces, and fairly endearing characters. Its strength seems to be the medium in which it resides. As a full game, it is decent and deserves all of the praise it has and continues to receive. But the narrative is just fine and in a way this is worse than bad because there is little to chew on and think about, leaving you to linger only on the cool explosions, and the reliance on the prejudices of the stories it cribs.
- Naughty Dog. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Sony Interactive Entertainment. PS3/PS4. 2007.