Monday, July 13, 2015

Respecting Your Characters: The Uncharted Series

You know what I like about the Uncharted series? It respects its characters. No, I’m not talking about the waves and waves of pirates, mercenaries, and agents that our hero, Nathan Drake and friends slaughter by the hundreds over the course of the series. I’m also not talking about the villains of the series at all. I’m specifically referring to the “heroes” of the Uncharted series, Drake and his motley crew of buddies. Instead of killing them off in an attempt at drama or motivation for the player, instead of replacing them with a new face every game to keep things “fresh”, the Uncharted series instead focuses on building a core family of friends for Drake. Sure, in many regards these characters are driven by clichés and Drake himself is a character archetype that’s been seen dozens of times in dozens of pieces of media. Much of what happens in Uncharted is utterly ridiculous and nonsensical, and all of it is framed as if from behind the lens of a camera filming the latest summer blockbuster. But because of the way this series treats its characters, they felt like real people to me, and the more the series went on, they felt more and more like friends that I actually cared about. By the way, spoilers for the entire Uncharted series follow.

Let’s start by taking a look at the first game in the series, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Early in the game, Nathan Drake’s mentor and longtime friend Victor “Sully” Sullivan is shot by the bad guy and is presumably dead for a good chunk of the game. Drake then teams up with newswoman Elena Fisher to complete the quest that he and Sully started. If I hadn’t already known he was alive and well thanks to me being super late to playing this series, at this point Sully seemed to be destined for two things: either motivation for Drake and some drama/baggage for him to carry throughout the adventure OR pull a 006 and ending up having faked his death and been secretly working with the bad guys, maybe even secretly being the big bad and Drake’s ultimate main nemesis. The game even hints at this outcome when it finally reveals that Sully is still alive through some video footage Elena manages to capture, but when Drake and Elena finally catch up with the cigar-smoking thief, it turns out it was actually option C: Sir Francis Drake’s notebook, which Sully had conveniently placed in his breast pocket, had stopped the bullet and ever since Sully had just been leading the bag guys along, hoping Drake would come rescue him. After reuniting, Drake, Sully, and Elena team up to search for the treasure, forming the core Uncharted family that would persist throughout all three current main games, though I didn’t know that playing at the time. To be honest, I’d guessed Sully’s life had been spared thanks to the old “thing in the breast pocket stopping the bullet” trick, but nevertheless, I appreciated that Sully was neither destined to be the twist villain nor emotional motivation for Nate, but the faithful buddy he was introduced as. At the game’s conclusion, Nate beats the bad guy and he and Elena almost kiss only to be interrupted by a wise-cracking Sully, before all three sail off into the sunset together, with some treasure Sully managed to swipe from some pirates off-screen.

The crew
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves at first opens with Drake being the only returning character, before we are introduced to newcomer Harry Flynn and then to Chloe Frazer, with Elena nowhere to be seen nor mentioned. I figured that Uncharted would follow the typical male-led adventure movie formula, with Chloe being the new female love interest and Elena just expected to be forgotten about, and us to not worry about what happened between her and Drake after the events of the first game. Sully gets some screen-time a bit later with a mission involving him and Nate that evokes the early moments of the first Uncharted, before he decides he’s “too old for this shit” and leaves the rest of the adventure up to Nate. I figured Sully would just be a character that shows up at the beginning of each Uncharted game during the “tutorial” sections, which would be fitting for his role of mentor, and probably be the only recurring character besides Nate, leaving the rest of the cast to be filled by new faces. The early moments of Uncharted 2 seemed to fall neatly in line with these expectations, but they were pleasantly altered when Nate gets momentarily separated from Chloe fairly early on and (in a fairly large coincidence) runs into Elena Fisher and her cameraman, leading to some humorous and awkward exchanges between the two (Elena evens makes a quip about being “last year’s model” when she introduces herself to Chloe soon after, and I appreciate the jab at the trope on the developers' part). Drake and Chloe then team up with Elena and the unfortunately doomed cameraman, Jeff, to continue jumping across buildings, hiding behind low walls, and shooting waves of faceless mercenaries, at least some of whom must have children or even a girlfriend. This is something else I like about Uncharted (no, not the obscene amounts of thoughtless killing): Drake isn’t always a one-man, unstoppable killing/adventuring machine; he’s often joined by a friend or three that all work together to work out the harrowing situation they find themselves in. Through these co-operative sections, I found myself caring more for my companions than if they had just showed up in cutscenes. The unfortunately doomed Jeff is shot and killed, but not before Drake tries valiantly to save his life, and Chloe, who seems to be constantly switching sides, rejoins the baddies, leaving Drake and Elena once again paired up for adventure. It felt nostalgic almost, once again having the Nate and Elena pair-up dynamic, like these two characters were destined to go on wacky adventures together. I love the chemistry between these two, and I was pleasantly pleased that the creators of Uncharted opted to not waste an established character and instead further build on her and Nate’s relationship in the sequel.

Nate and Elena eventually meet Tenzin, another new character and a native of Tibet. Tenzin, despite not speaking the same language as Nate, quickly becomes a reliable and likable ally. While he and Nate are exploring the Tibetan mountains, they encounter a strange yeti-like creature, which appears to kill Tenzin at first. Tenzin, however, is yet another character not willing to simply become a red shirt and, after regaining consciousness, saves Nate’s life from the monster. The two return to Tenzin’s village later on to find it under attack from Zoran Lazarevic’s goons, with a distraught Tenzin searching for his daughter, Pema. In a cheaper narrative, Tenzin would have probably found his daughter killed in the action and we would have seen a tragic scene play out in an attempt to make the experience more “dark” and “edgy”. Instead, Tenzin fights alongside Nate as they struggle to take back the village in an otherwise destructive sequence where many of the villagers are killed, but that luckily ends with Tenzin happily reuniting with this daughter, safe and sound. It’s nice to see a character like Tenzin, who plays a relatively small role in the larger plot, be treated with respect and be able to get a relatively happy ending. It’s also nice to see a non-English speaking, non-white character get treated in this manner in this series, as Uncharted certainly doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to representing non-whites (typically they’re the “bad guys” Nate is slaughtering in the hundreds, unfortunately).

Tenzin and Drake
Chloe is another story. Throughout the game, she seems to be being set up as a duplicitous character who will end up betraying Drake. She’s the adventurous “bad girl” to Elena’s more reserved “good girl” (not that Elena can’t shoot a gun and jump around on stuff just as well as Chloe). Basically, Chloe to me seemed destined to end up being someone the player is meant to jeer at and probably die some horrible or unfortunate death near the end, leaving Drake and the more morally responsible Elena to pair up. While Elena and Nate do indeed end up together in the end, Chloe at least gets some respect. It’s clear as the game goes on that Chloe is someone who cares about Drake, but is also someone who wants to protect herself. She lets go of this self-interest near the end though and agrees to help Drake and Elena take down Lazarevic. In the game’s final moments, it is Elena, instead, who is on the brink of death (wounded by a grenade explosion; there’s some ludonarrative dissonance for ya) and Chloe, who before was willing to let the unfortunately doomed Jeff the cameraman bleed out in a gutter because he was slowing down the group, now risks her life to carry the wounded Elena while Drake fights off hordes of Lazarevic’s goons. Drake goes off on his own to do the hero thing and take down Lasarevic, now powered up on magic Shambhala juice, while Chloe attempts to get Elena out of the hidden valley. Later on, as Shambhala is crumbling all around them, the final playable moment of the game tasks the player with saving Chloe, falling to her death while being attacked by a big blue monster man. I think this was a smart final moment, and a good demonstration of how the game’s creators still respected Chloe as an important character, despite clearly setting up Elena as Nate’s prime love interest. In these final moments, Chloe is a human being worth saving the life of instead of a selfish, duplicitous archetype that “got what was coming to her”. Even though they’re both involved in a love triangle with the male lead, it’s still sadly rare to see two female leads like this in a story like Uncharted’s, and both treated like important characters. After saving Chloe, the two of them rejoin a battered Elena who seems to be done for.

Not only did this series not simply discard Elena as “last year’s model”, but established her as a character that I really didn’t want to die at this point. The game cuts to what appears to be a funeral scene with a mourning Drake, leaving Elena’s fate purposefully unknown. Chloe shows up, asking Drake if he “loves her” before advising Drake to tell her so and then respectfully bowing out as the camera pans over to an injured, but very much alive Elena being helped by Sully. Once again the game ends with the same three characters, with the final scene this time being shared solely by Elena and Nate, playfully bantering with each other, and seeming like they’re going to stay together this time. At this point, this series had cemented two characters I cared about going forward and I was pleased that neither Elena nor Chloe were haphazardly killed off, but instead treated as characters whose lives mattered just as much as Nate’s or Sully’s. In a series where life is otherwise not treated with any respect at all and the “bad guys” drop left and right without any noticeable guilt or emotional impact on Drake’s part, it was surprising and nice to see that at least the game’s developers were more interested in developing and building the game’s central cast instead of killing them off or trading them off.

The ending of Uncharted 2
I didn’t quite know what to expect from Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, but I was hoping the series would stick with the route it had already established with its characters. The opening moments once again focus solely on Sully and Nate, and it seemed at first like Elena and Nate had once again split ways between games, which I was a bit annoyed by, but I tried to have faith that the game wouldn’t ignore their relationship. Soon enough, we are introduced to a new friend of Nate’s, Charlie Cutter, as well as the return of Chloe, to my pleasant surprise. Even though I praised the developers for treating her character with a degree of respect towards the end of the second game, I still figured that we’d seen the last of her. I was happy to see that Naughty Dog treated her as more than just a throwaway love interest for Nate and in part 3, we see that she, Nate, Sully, and Cutter are all part of a spiffy new thieving team on the trail of some wacky new adventure. The consistency of the characters in this series mixed with a few new ones really works to the benefit of these games in my eyes. This feeling of camaraderie is where the strength of the Uncharted series’ narratives lie (the plots themselves are fairly formulaic and do their fair share of aping from other sources, but I still find them entertaining enough). Despite being happy to see Chloe back, I was also a bit nervous that Elena had now been dropped, in favor of a no-romance plot with a cool gang of thieves, which would otherwise be totally fine, if the previous game had not established Elena as clearly a character who was going to stick around in Drake’s life.

After finding some clues in London, the team heads out on a globetrotting journey to find the keys to yet another legendary lost city. Eventually they end up in Syrbia, where Cutter is drugged and forced to give over some important items to the bad guys. Later, in his delirious state, he tries to kill Nate, but luckily comes to his senses before Sully shoots him. Cutter later finds some redemption by using some clever thinking to outwit the villainous Talbot and his agents, allowing Nate and the others to escape. Unfortunately, Cutter ends up getting caught and finds himself cornered by central antagonist Katherine Marlowe, Talbot and their cronies as his buddies helplessly look on. I figured Cutter was done for at this point and he’d end being a martyr, but once again my expectations were betrayed when Cutter jumped down a high castle wall to avoid getting burned alive, breaking his leg but nonetheless surviving to adventure another day. Unfortunately he and Chloe disappear for the rest of the game from this point on and while this absence is justifiable within the narrative, I still wish they at least appeared in the ending for some closure. Still, I’m glad Cutter wasn’t just fodder for a cheap death due to his status as a new and not as well established character. I’m not saying that characters can’t die (both the unfortunately doomed Jeff and Karl Schafer are killed off in Uncharted 2 after all), just that I appreciate when the characters opposite the lead aren’t all treated like they’re expendable.

Sully, Cutter, Chloe and Nate in Uncharted 3
It’s after this point when Nate and Sully need someone to escort them around Yemen that Sully gets an idea to call someone Nate seems very reluctant to reach out to. Turns out that person, happily, is Elena Fisher, and once again our main trio find themselves scuttling through ancient tombs together. It’s revealed through subtext that Nate and Elena got married in-between the ending of Uncharted 2 and the beginning of Uncharted 3, but separated for some reason, though Elena still wears her wedding ring. When Sully gets kidnapped by the baddies, Elena and Nate set off on a mission to rescue him, sharing some touching moments in-between. I was a bit disappointed that Elena ends up getting left behind for the final chapters of the game and doesn’t show up again until the ending, but given what happens to Nate after he stows away on the cargo plane en route to the Rub’ al Khali desert, I can see why the developers wrote the story this way. Speaking of Sully, he plays a much bigger role in Uncharted 3, and instead of just being Nate’s partner at the beginning of the game this time, he’s along for the ride for most of the adventure and we even get to see how he and a young Nate met, as well as some scenes near the end that strengthen their bond. The game’s ending involves Sully giving Nate his wedding ring back (which he’d kept after Nate “lost it”), which Nate shows to Elena before the two embrace. I liked the idea of Nate replacing Francis Drake’s ring with his wedding ring, symbolizing the shift of priorities in his life…at least until the events of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The three of them walk off towards a plane-ride home, in a similar manner to the way the first Uncharted ended.

Nate and Elena share a tender moment in Uncharted 3
I’m not saying that the Uncharted series has the best characters or the best character development ever. All I’m saying is that it does a fair job of respecting the characters it does have and of focusing on building their bonds and relationships over the course of the three games, and also treats new characters like they are a part of the family as well. It doesn’t trade a new love interest for Nate every game, but instead focuses on a lasting relationship between him and Elena. It doesn’t kill off Nate’s friends or turn them into martyrs; they encounter dangerous situations, but somehow they pull through and this aspect only strengthens their friendship. I got the sense throughout this series that the lives of Nate’s friends were just as important to the games’ creators as Nate himself. It’s nice to see a series where, for the most part, characters aren’t wasted or killed off purely to make something more “edgy” or “shocking” or sacrificed in a lazy way to fulfill another character’s arc. In this regard, I’m pleased with the way that Uncharted handles its cast, and with the way that it builds a family around Nathan Drake, establishing a group of people that I grew to care about. There are plenty of criticisms that can be leveled at the Uncharted series, but besides being a fun combination of thrilling spectacle and exciting adventure, I think it does a fine job with treating its people with a degree of respect and care that I appreciate…the good guys anyway.

1 comment: