Like many, (indeed most), videogame protagonists, Nathan Drake is a man fighting the odds. With alarming regularity, Drake will be forced to jump between moving vehicles, make it by the skin of his teeth, fight off any well-armed aggressors, solve ancient puzzles, save the girl and make his get-away as some semi-mythical paradise collapses around him. It all works out in the end.
On top of it all, Drake is funny. The man can crack a witty retort with the best of them, but equally self-deprecate and provide humorous asides that make us warm to him with the kind of empathy that no handsome, strong, funny, self-destructive man-child should be able to command. Comparisons with Indiana Jones are, of course, apt. Drake is clearly a graduate of the Dr Jones School of Extreme Archaeology, (Lara Croft being the other famous alumna). Like Jones, Drake borders on playing the fool, particularly in the most recent installment, Uncharted 3. On his way through various exotic locations Drake tumbles through ceilings, falls bodily from ledges and even shuts his fingers in a window when attempting to stealth through an airport hangar. If he graduated in Extreme Archaeology, Drake at least showed up for a few lectures of Laurel and Hardy’s Introduction to Farce.
The Uncharted series, then, is primarily an ongoing narrative of the disruption of powerful forces by a comedic but determined underdog. Nathan Drake is the very epitome of the clown, stumbling through the carefully planned show leaving destruction and chaos in his wake.
Carnivalesque is a term used in literary theory to explore the act of subverting or reversing various given hierarchies. Coined by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin during the Second World War, the simple explanation is that the carnivalesque encapsulates the sentiment of the carnival – when the world is turned upside down, nothing is serious; sex, intoxication and grotesquery come to the fore and all responsibilities are abandoned (or at least abandonable). In carnival, identities can be masked over and forgotten, the magistrate can become the transvestite and the pauper can dress as the king. Dominant social ideals and expectations are temporarily liberated from the authority of the norm and in the ensuing freedom new experiences are made available under the caveat: ‘It’s carnival’.
It seems to me that there are a number of ways in which Nathan Drake and the Uncharted games epitomize the carnivalesque. These are a few thoughts on the way the games might be viewed through this perspective.
As I mentioned above, the narratives of the Uncharted games involve Nathan Drake blowing his whirlwind of destruction through the carefully laid (and intrinsically evil) plans of a given antagonist. In Uncharted 3 this antagonist is Kathryn Marlowe, a cold-hearted British woman at the head of a (literally) underground organization contriving to complete the work of Queen Elizabeth I in seeking the lost city of Ubar. There are, of course, untold treasures and strange powers hidden within Ubar, which is also known as the Atlantis of the Sands. Like many videogame villains, Marlowe is both rich and powerful, commanding an army of culty followers along with mercenary pirates. On top of this she perpetuates a thematic device of the Uncharted series in bringing the past into the present. Juxtaposed with her trickster sidekick Talbot, Marlowe becomes a reference to her predecessor Queen Elizabeth who, within the narrative of the game, is often discussed in partnership with her own court magician, John Dee. While it’s unclear (but unlikely) whether or not Marlowe or Talbot are actual descendants of Queen Elizabeth and Dee, the correlation between their respective roles in the narrative give the impression of history repeating itself, perhaps bordering on a suggestion of reincarnation. Elizabeth and Marlowe are powerful and in control. Dee and Talbot are mystical, protective and advisory to their matriarchs. Francis and Nathan Drake work to come between the antagonists and their goal. The parallels between these past and present characters in their roles, their quests and their relationships set up the game’s villain as a representative of power and the status quo. Marlowe is a re-embodiment of Queen Elizabeth’s high-born empowerment. In addition to this, the mysterious power she seeks in Ubar is a mind-control drug, making her fight with Drake one of freedom vs. control, institution vs. individual. With Drake as protagonist the game firmly states which side of that opposition it comes down on. As Drake, we actively work to subvert the institutionalized power of Marlowe’s organization and, in typical Drake fashion, this is largely through causing absolute chaos.
Another plot device the writers of Uncharted are particularly fond of is what I like to call the Ol’ Loyalty Switcheroo. Repeatedly throughout the series there are characters whose position as friend or enemy is called into question as they switch allegiance between Drake and his enemies. Drake is almost inevitably out-numbered and out-gunned in these games, so when part of the enemy force moves over to Drake’s side detracts from the power of his antagonists. Narratives like Uncharted’s centre around power struggles, as each side attempts to complete certain goals in competition with the other. These deceptions and counter-deceptions regularly cause the high-status villain to concede a degree of the initiative, and Drake is empowered in their place. In Uncharted 3 there are no less than two examples of this: once in a flashback to Drake and Sully’s first meeting when Sully switches to Drake’s side, saving him from death at the hands of Marlowe’s men, and once again when both the player and Marlowe are led to believe that one of her men, Carter, has shot both Drake and Sully dead. The scene is revealed to have been a set-up and Carter an ally of Drake’s all along.
What the Loyalty Switcheroo works toward is a carnivalesque reversal of high and low status. Part of Drake’s appeal is his position as underdog, the witty rapscallion who stands up against the odds. Now, what we know about reality is this- the underdog usually gets shafted. Tellingly it is in our stories that we try to right this unfairness, but the fact remains that in everyday life, regardless of the worthiness of the cause, power is everything. A network of economically and socially powerful individuals like those composing Marlowe’s underground society would no doubt defeat Drake in very little time, in this world we live in. But Drake’s ability to pull the rug out from under Marlowe and score little victories which reverse their dynamic make Uncharted’s game space into something approaching the carnival- a temporary location in which the rules of reality are suspended and the world turns upside down. Here money and an army count for not so much as a good heart and a steely expression. Uncharted creates a new economy in which strength, belief, trust and determination are the currency, an idealized opposition to our harsh reality.
Also helpful, of course, is a practically superhuman handiness in gunplay. Drake’s strategic plotting is kept in the realms of Uncharted’s cutscenes, while gameplay is restricted in the main to gunfights and finding the next ledge to grab. For some players this differentiation between witty plotline Nathan Drake and murderous gameplay Nathan Drake leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, disturbing their grasp on the character. “Ludonarrative dissonance”, they choose to call it, the bastards. But what ought to be remembered is that these games are, and have always been, about the adrenaline rush and the physical spectacle. Individual moments in Uncharted are played out with the speaker turned up to 11, designed to awe and inspire. Rather than literal representations of an event, the gunfights are to real-world fighting what the conveniently placed ledges are to real-world geography, a manipulated simulation. In terms of their meaning the deaths of Drake’s enemies fall somewhere between Punch kicking the shit out of Judy, and the sacrificing of an animal.
What’s clear is that through the comedy of Drake’s actions and encounters the potential darkness of much of Uncharted is alleviated. Drake’s witty banter and physical clumsiness (astounding, given his acrobatic proficiency) detract from the seriousness of the events of the game, making light of physical and mental pain while distancing what we see from reality and placing it firmly in the realm of play(ful). The game’s comedy enshrines it as a space separate and compartmentalized, one in which our actions and reactions need not reflect those of our real lives. Talk of ludonarrative dissonance (that’s twice I’ve had to write that now, a pox on all your houses!) ignores or misunderstands this – Drake’s actions are supposed to be obscene and overblown, they are spectacles which parody reality and are situated outside of and liberated from its consequences.
A small thought on landscape. Since its inception, the Uncharted series’ coup de grace has been its varied and gorgeously realized environments. At its core the series is rooted in its promise to provide a spectacle. Along with providing these sumptuous locales, however, the games also often provide their outright decimation. Drake regularly disrupts the very ground upon which he stands, causing mayhem and destruction. Trains, planes, buildings and whole cities collapse around him through his interference. In Uncharted 3, some of the locations of this environmental violence group together to demonstrate a wider metaphorical importance. A plane carrying Drake is ripped to shreds in the air. A mansion burns and collapses around him. A cruise ship rolls and sinks and Drake flees on-rushing water. Finally, the lost city of Ubar is swallowed into the sands of the desert. In the language of a narrative steeped in ancient, near-magical mythology these individual disruptions add up to a complete disruption of the world of the game as based on the four classic elements: Air, Fire, Water, Earth. What is being performed here is the destruction and renewal of the game’s geography, often we see nature reclaiming space occupied by man-made structures. In the carnival, themes which are usually taboo or forbidden such as death and bodily functions are brought to the fore and represented. Drake’s destructive path through the Uncharted games may well work as a memento mori in that it underlines the temporariness of that which is man-made, and indeed of mankind.
It’s difficult to discuss carnivalesque without strolling into the topic of sex. While Uncharted tends to avoid the subject, presumably so as to maintain a relatively family-friendly appeal, in Uncharted 3 we can see observe Drake existing in a necessarily liberated state. From cutscenes we infer that Drake and his series love interest Elena have, in the period between Uncharted 2 and 3, gotten married and become estranged. By the end of the third game they look set to give things another try. But, tellingly, we can never play as a married Nathan Drake. From Elena’s conversations with Drake in Uncharted 3 we come to understand that the break down in their marriage was caused by Drake’s obsessive adventuring, sealing the impossibility of married Drake ever being the played Drake. To have a game worth playing, Drake must do exactly that which destroys his marriage – insistently place himself in danger, undertaking all sorts of violent and chaotic quests. The gameplay therefore actively rejects the conformity of a socially normalized relationship; Drake is necessarily placed in the position of flux that defines him. Only between games, in a sort of narrative Hinterland, can a married Nathan Drake exist.
Something to remind ourselves about carnival is its essential temporariness. It is impossible for the carnivalesque to be permanent because then it becomes the norm. Carnivals usually exist for a set duration at some predetermined and traditional time, often before or after a period of hardship such as Lent or harvest. Playing Uncharted is like ducking into a society only for its carnival period. We’ve no wish to take the reins of Nathan Drake while he sleeps, cuts his toenails or sits on the toilet. We want to experience the madness and adventure of his quests. We can all sleep, cut our toenails and sit on the toilet in our own lives. What Nathan Drake provides is an avatar through which to safely experience the chaotic excitement of play.