Nathan Drake’s Carnivalesque Tendencies 1

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.

Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.

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