Adventure Bros: Nathan Drake and the Awkward Adolescence of the Action Adventure Genre

NOTE: This post contains major spoilers for Uncharted 4.

“Speaking honestly, an all-male party feels almost more approachable for players. Even the presence of one female in the group will change their behaviour, so that they’ll act differently. So to give the most natural feeling, to make them feel sincere and honest, having them all the same gender made sense in that way.”

That’s Hajime Tabata, director of Final Fantasy XV, discussing why that game’s core party is made up entirely of men. I thought of Tabata’s words when I was playing Uncharted 4, much of which is a globe-hopping adventure featuring the trio of Nathan Drake, Nate’s brother Sam and his old pal Sully. Nate has lied to his wife, excluding her from the group without even giving her a chance to decide whether she might want to participate. So she must finally force her way in, but when she does, she brings with her all sorts of gendered complications, representing things Nathan has to face but doesn’t really want to, and that, as players, we aren’t inclined to want him to, either. Her presence, as Tabata suggests, does indeed “change” Nate’s “behaviour.” It’s all so much simpler when you’re just adventuring with your bros, amirite?

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Of course, Uncharted 4 is supposed to be a story of Nate finally growing up. An early sequence has him playing with a toy gun in his attic, still longing for the days of adventure that he thinks are behind him. And when, in the end, he seems to finally find peace in pursuing a less reckless, more responsible way of life, we are meant to admire this change and appreciate that he has grown, that he is no longer the Nathan who lied to his wife to go off and have so much fun with the fellas.

But if we examine how the game functions, I doubt that most players in their heart of hearts were led to a point of actually being critical of Nate’s dishonesty and recklessness. Late in Uncharted 4, there comes a point when Nathan decides to walk away, to abandon his quest despite having come so far and gotten so close to the legendary pirate treasure he has put so much energy into finding. And perhaps at this moment, we are “meant” to admire the growth and responsibility he’s demonstrating. But in truth, we don’t want him to be responsible. That’s not how the game is structured. We’re rooting for him to be reckless, to keep going, to leave Elena behind again if need be, because that’s where the gameplay is, that’s where the fun is. And of course when the game contrives a reason for Nate to keep going (as we know it must), we rejoice in the fact that Nathan gets to keep being reckless for just a little bit longer.

Uncharted Elena look resized

In response to our review, someone tweeted the argument at me that Elena is:

“not a thrill seeker anymore; she wants a normal life, I don’t think it’s a sexist issue. Elena has evolved and ultimately wants a happy marriage with Nate. Elena’s maturity serves the strong purpose of grounding Drake in reality. He would be LOST without her.” 

And I agree that this is the conclusion that the narrative wants us to come to. But if we take the game as a whole, gameplay included, we are encouraged to side with Nate. Those very characteristics of Elena that the narrative wants us to admire in some way–her relative responsibility, the way that she “grounds” Nate–are the very things that make it impossible for her to be part of the carefree, fun-lovin’ core group, and when she shows up, she brings with her heavy conversations about the state of their marriage.

Still, it’s tremendously appealing that Uncharted 4 gives relationships so much weight. It certainly doesn’t give violence very much. Nathan Drake’s relationship to violence is somewhat different than that of many other violent white male game heroes. Where some, like Bioshock Infinite’s Booker DeWitt and The Last of Us’ Joel, are grizzled men who seem steeped in violence, haunted by it and yet inextricably bound to it, Nathan Drake seems utterly unburdened by it. He floats above the violence that he commits. He is a character in the Indiana Jones mold. The famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy shoots a man and nonchalantly walks off perfectly sums up Drake’s own connection to violence. It just rolls right off of him. He can snap a few necks and then make a snappy witticism. (Uncharted 4’s biggest action setpiece, a destructive vehicular romp across a town in Madagascar, takes obvious inspiration from a legendary action scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Uncharted 4
Uncharted 4

The designers have done a masterful job of giving the combat a sense of flow; enemy guns sometimes seem to land in Drake’s hands of their own accord, and his allies have a way of appearing and helping him clobber an enemy with attacks so perfectly synchronized that it seems as if our heroes share a psychic link. All of this contributes to a feeling that Nathan is just breezing through all of this, almost by accident, as if the gods are looking out for him and vanquishing his enemies while he just leaps and swings and fumbles his way through his adventures. There’s no need for him to feel weighed down by any guilt about the deaths that happen along the way. It’s practically fate.

And so this breezy, near-effortless violence of Drake’s becomes just another part of his charm. At one point, the villain Rafe says that Nate and Sam don’t kill anyone in “cold blood” and the game expertly works to construct scenarios that encourage us to actually believe this, as if Drake and his allies kill hundreds of people almost without killing them. It is just something that happens, not something they do. He is incredibly lucky. He is indeed “a man of fortune.” Fortune smiles upon him as the bodies pile up. We aren’t supposed to think about it. We are barely even supposed to notice. Violence is normalized in a way that makes it seem almost weightless, inconsequential. Charismatic. Charming. In this regard, Uncharted 4 is par for the course.

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And yet, there are so many ways in which this game is not content to be just par for the course. Ways in which it tries to do more than we expect a typical action adventure game to do. In the early goings, I was shocked by how willing it was to take its time using gameplay to establish the contours of Nathan’s “normal” life–his job working for a salvage company, his chats at home with his wife over dinner about their respective days at work. There’s an audacity to a massive mainstream action game that spends a level having you just swim around, calmly retrieving crates and securing a shipping container to a crane. And I loved that “The Brothers Drake” is an entire chapter about exploring a house as young Nathan, a house cluttered with details that tell the story of a marriage that comments on Nathan’s relationship with Elena in the present day, only in this marriage, it’s the woman who puts adventure ahead of family. This chapter also deepens our sense of the bond between the brothers, and gives us a crystallized moment to hold onto in the form of a faded Polaroid.

So throughout, Uncharted 4 seems pulled between the need to fulfill the expectations of the action adventure genre and the desire to challenge them, and in its epilogue, it finds a surprising way to both look back and look forward. As Elena and Nate’s daughter Cassie, you play a level from Naughty Dog’s 1996 game Crash Bandicoot in which Crash runs toward the camera, which is also something Nate has done from time to time. It’s an homage to the studio’s legacy that acknowledges how far they’ve come while also simultaneously recognizing that in some ways, things haven’t changed much at all.

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As the spotlight shifts from Nathan to Cassie, and we see that now she may be the one with the treasure-hunting career ahead of her as dad has settled into a less reckless existence, it seems appropriate to me that she is a gangly teen awkwardly caught between childhood and adulthood, not unlike Nathan was (despite actually being an adult) for most of Uncharted 4. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s some small gesture toward challenging the gender dynamics of this game and of so many games. It wants us to imagine a future in which Cassie is the one at the center of her own adventures. And the home you explore in the epilogue is so beautifully designed and rich with detail that you actually do want to be there, in this calmer, more stable place. It doesn’t feel like an afterthought in comparison to all the places Nate explored on his adventures. It feels warm and inviting, like you’ve finally arrived in the place you were looking for all along.

I want games that go further to challenge our expectations and actively disrupt our ideas of what a game like this could or should be. And yet I appreciate that Uncharted 4 is a game that seems to recognize its own point on the trajectory. It may be the culmination of a storied franchise but in terms of where this leaves us for the development of the genre, we’re still all just teenagers, looking ahead and speculating about what the future might hold. And I think there is something beautiful about that, awkwardness and all.

Watch our video review of Uncharted 4