Did Drake’s Deception save the Uncharted series?

Having finished Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection I have been left feeling conflicted over what is heralded as one of Sony’s best exclusive series. Perhaps I longed for the feel of action-adventure that was so deftly achieved in Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider. Or perhaps playing The Last of Us before dabbling with Uncharted set the bar too high for well written characters. This is not to say the Uncharted series doesn’t achieve either of these two aspects, however I didn’t believe in the certain praises the series has received until playing the finale of the collection.

Having all three games available to play one after the other for the first time was both a blessing and a curse. It meant that I was able to absorb the story and characters, and register the emotions and feelings quickly to formulate my opinion of the series. Yet this also posed a problem because I may have been quite critical when certain elements hadn’t developed as I would have expected between the years that had separated the original releases. Starting with Drake’s Fortune undoubtedly left a sour taste in my mouth thanks to its dire gameplay. I honestly describe the game in my head as ‘the one where you shoot some bad guys, climb a tower, rinse and repeat’. The only thing that saved Drake’s first outing was the characters. Yet, their characterisation was limited and I couldn’t decide whether I loved or hated them from one minute to the next. The game nailed some aspects of the action-adventure genre and failed miserably in others.

Luckily a lot of my ill feelings were remedied through playing Drake’s second outing, Among Thieves. The pacing and variety of the gameplay was far better this time, and the characters received some much needed attention to the way they were written. In some ways it felt more thrilling than a modern Hollywood action flick, with its range of fantastic locations and action tropes that created a far more engaging experience than Drake’s Fortune. However, possibly being spoiled by playing The Last of Us, I still felt underwhelmed by the characters and this was key to how I would form an opinion on the series. Fellow adventurer-come- father figure to Drake, Sully, is put on the backburner towards the beginning of the game, claiming he isn’t cut out for the adventuring life anymore due to his age, which damaged the game after losing one of the key characters who genuinely made an impact in the first game with his humorous dialogue and jesting relationship with Drake. This is especially cemented when the third instalment comes around and Sully takes part in a highly precarious adventure that the second arguably couldn’t match with the stakes at play. Thankfully, Drake’s cliché love interest from the first game, Elena, is written a lot better this time around, serving a good example of a strong female role in video games. Yet, where she shines in strength and independence, I felt she was boxed in by the ‘good girl/bad girl’ dilemma Drake faces in his conflicted romantic pursuit of both Chloe and Elena. Drake himself was humorous like in the first game, but that is really where he shone the most, making him seem slightly one-dimensional. Admittedly I may be a little too critical of Drake, but the stereotypical ‘white heteronormative male’ lead role he falls into is sorely overdone.

However, by the third instalment Drake’s character is explored in more depth which helps him move away from the stereotypical presentation he received in previous instalments. I believe visiting Drake’s childhood was a key turning point in the series as not only did we get a good explanation for why Drake became a treasure hunter (explanation in previous titles were both questionable and unexplored) but we were able to connect with Drake emotionally, and the portrayal of Drake and Sully’s relationship improved how they are viewed as characters as a whole across the series. Not only that but it introduced the menacing villain, Marlowe, who is by far the best villain of the series and this was aided by the fact that she shared a history with both Drake and Sully. What was also fantastic about Drake’s Deception was that alongside the traditional treasure hunting adventure, support characters delved into Drake’s psyche asking why he was really pursuing this lifestyle with the incredible danger it posed. Although there was never a clear answer to this, this gave the player a chance to come up with their own answers, and it also provides a compelling avenue for Uncharted 4 to potentially take.

What Drake’s Deception also vastly improved on was its portrayal of the supernatural. The supernatural element in Drake’s Fortune was probably one of its only saving graces for me, as it was quite unexpected when you encountered it, and added an element of horror in a game you wouldn’t expect to contain. Not only this but its portrayal of supernatural tied with the longstanding trope of Nazi affiliations with the supernatural, made for a more understandable story typical of its genre. Yet, Among Thieves’ incorporation of the supernatural was quite ridiculous, and almost felt like the writers felt obligated to include it, leading to a tussle between debunking the supernatural to then accepting it. Once again, Drake’s Deception took the supernatural theme and portrayed it in a way that both made sense and also served as a way of analysing Drake’s character. (Mild spoilers from here on) After drinking water that was unknowingly contaminated with a natural hallucinogenic, Drake begins to see his enemies possessed by fire demons known as the Djinn. Whilst hallucinating he also sees Sully get shot, which thankfully is nothing but a hallucination. For me, this represented the guilt and fear Drake felt for including Sully in his dangerous lifestyle, and the Djinn possessed enemies that had to be quelled twice before actually dying represented Drake’s inner demons that are a struggle for him to fight. Obviously, this is just my take on it, but the clever way of portraying the supernatural provided an avenue to explore the characters in this way.

Building upon the idea of Drake’s inner guilt for Sully, the series deftly explored the consequences those who surround Drake had to face. Newcomer to the series, Cutter, is almost out just as he is in with a close dance with death thanks to Drake’s enemies, which also makes Drake’s old flame, Chloe, realise the danger of sticking with Drake particularly with the high stakes and the uncertainty of Drake’s treasure he seeks. When Elena becomes gatekeeper to Drake and Sully’s progression for this treasure, she scolds Drake for taking advantage of Sully, both of them knowing he would “go to the ends of the earth” for Drake (although contradictory considering Among Thieves). However, with the deeper exploration of Drake and Sully’s relationship in Deception we do agree with Elena, and we also sympathise with her as she seems to be donning this role too. For me, one of the most touching scenes of Deception and the series as a whole was after Drake had narrowly escaped death after fleeing a sinking cruise ship. We see Elena desperately pacing, making plans, unsure of Drake’s fate. When a dishevelled Drake appears at her door they settle down on the sofa and Elena lays Drake’s head in her lap. Drake explains what had happened and for once acknowledges the emotional pain he may have caused Elena and apologises, to which Elena replies “I know”. It’s both charming as it is bleak, as Drake is finally showing true affection but deep down Elena knows this is who Drake is and being involved in his life is a risk; a realisation that is cemented as Elena stares into space whilst stroking Drake’s hair. At this point both characters became instantly identifiable, as the series looked past the glamorous Hollywood-esque action adventure, and added a deeper human element to the story.

With a shift from trope filled storylines and characters in previous instalments to a more humanistic approach of presenting its characters and how the story has progressed, Drake’s Deception saved the Uncharted series from possibly becoming a franchise that churns out the same clichéd characters and storylines until the whole series becomes disregarded. Without Drake’s Fortune we wouldn’t have the basis for the characters who have become so iconic by the end of Deception, and Among Thieves set the precedent for a game that’s setting and actual gameplay is one of the most thrilling adventures that can barely be matched in the last decade. Ultimately though, Drake’s Deception took a much loved genre and added a much needed spin, adding a more humanistic and connectable element to its characters, that both saved their previous representations in the series, and created the potential for Uncharted 4 to build upon, which I have no doubt will be the case after Neil Druckmann’s experience with the brilliant The Last of Us.