The hero of 'Uncharted' is likable and self-aware, but he's still running around exotic locales shooting natives.
Nathan Drake. Image: Naughty Dog
The wild success of developer Naughty Dog's Uncharted series heavily relies on its protagonist, Nathan Drake, a funnier, friendlier, less crotchety Indiana Jones. The treasure hunter searches for worldly riches through clues of past, historic treasure hunters. Of course, Drake is never the only one looking for these treasures; villains hoping to rule the world are always racing Drake to the prize.
This leads to a lot of killing.
Furthermore, it leads to a lot of killing of people of color.
The Uncharted games make an effort to confront these issues, but the conclusion is always that you shouldn't worry about it too much. Even if Drake doesn't always know what he's doing, somehow his actions will always benefit the right people—even the natives being killed. Both Drake and Naughty Dog have to believe their ends justify the means in order for the game's key power fantasy to work.
In the first game, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Drake is tied to imperialist history through the blood of English privateer Sir Francis Drake. Drake proclaims himself to be a descendant of the traveler, and even wears Francis Drake's ring as a symbol of pride.
Francis Drake, like Nathan Drake, was a thief to some and hero to others. He was an infamous pirate to the Spanish, where he battled and plundered many cities to return the stolen loot to England. Still, his savagery is forgotten and he is instead known for being one of the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world.
Both Drakes are rewarded for their heroism despite their crudeness, and both feel what poet and pro-imperialist Rudyard Kipling penned as "The White Man's Burden."
The search for treasure is more than just that; it is trespassing into other people's lives
Originally written for Queen Victoria's jubilee, Kipling changed the poem to reflect the status of the United States after winning the Philippines in the Spanish-American war. The poem has been viewed as racist and imperialist, as it suggests that civilized countries have a duty to help underdeveloped countries, whether or not the help is asked for.
Unlike his villainous counterparts, Drake isn't trying to take over the world, but his exploitation of the local people is the same. He has the power to take whatever he wants from whomever he wants. When the people of color or no longer useful, they conveniently vanish.
In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Drake collapses in a snowstorm after being shot and wakes up in a Tibetan village, thanks to Tenzin, a Tibetan explorer who finds Drake lying in the snow. In Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, after following the trail of archeologist and fellow white savior icon, T.E. Lawrence, Drake finds himself weak, alone, and surrounded by enemies in the middle of the desert. Just before succumbing to gunfire, Salim, a leader of a nomad group of Arab men rescues him. Both characters help Drake survive and then conveniently disappear from the storyline.
Yet, as Kipling writes, the "burden" comes at a cost. Spending time to "help" underdeveloped places can destroy the empire as well as the underdeveloped nations it's trying to possess. By the second game, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Drake suddenly begins to understand the weight of his history and actions.
Uncharted 2's main antagonist, Zoran Lazarević, follows Drake to Tenzin's village with tanks, machine guns, and henchmen. The village turns into a battlefield because of Drake, killing many in the process.
During this scene, Elena pulls Drake aside and says "This is our fault. We did this." It's the first real instance where the weight of Drake's actions are made clear. The search for treasure is more than just that; it is trespassing into other people's lives, possibly ending them, just for personal gain. Drake may be trying to save the world, but he still isn't a good man.
The fantasy relies on Drake's conviction that his actions are better for everyone, no matter who dies in the process
The final scene of Uncharted 2 confirms this when Drake finally defeats Lazarević. The villain asks Drake how many men he killed and says, "You think I am a monster, but you're no different than me." Lazarević dares Drake to kill him to confirm that they are equally evil, but Drake refuses, leaving him to die instead.
In Uncharted 3, Drake finally lets his power go, but not without fighting his past. It shows Drake's history, how he stole Sir Francis Drake's ring from a museum, and how desperately he wanted to prove his ancestry. Uncharted 3 pivots on Drake's obsession with Francis Drake's ring and his desire to be extraordinary, versus his desire to live normally, with his partner Elena.
In one of the final scenes, both Drake's nemesis Katherine Marlow and his beloved ring are buried in quicksand forever, thus ending Drake's reign as an imperialistic power. In the end, he returns to Elena, and retires from treasure hunting.
In trying to make an average and relatable character, Naughty Dog created a man with privilege as his superpower. The entire power fantasy relies on his conviction that his actions will better everyone, no matter who dies in the process.
Uncharted makes some horrible missteps by not allowing more people of color to have more prominent roles, but I think the series does work to show Drake is not meant to be idolized; he's as awful as his ancestors, and he cannot escape that, no matter how hard he tries.
But the series is not over. Naughty Dog is currently working on the fourth installment, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. It'll start years after the events of Uncharted 3. Drake is forced out of retirement, once again proving he is trapped by his history. Where will his imperialistic privilege lead him, and at what point will the white man's burden destroy him?