Nathan Drake is not particularly special. There are others out there like him, some driven by greed and others by legacy. I’ve stated in previous articles that Nathan Drake is essentially presented as our hero, shooting bad guys, spitting witty one-liners while barely making it out alive from crumbling ruins of lost societies. There’s no doubt that this makes the Uncharted series pretty damn fun, but what A Thief’s End does that the rest of the series doesn’t is back this all up with the character development of Nathan Drake.
Nathan, Sully, and Elena in Drake’s Fortune are essentially stock character tropes. Nathan is the chronic hero, Sully the cool old guy, and Elena the action girl. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it makes these characters instantly known to the audience without needing extensive prologues or character building. These carry over to Among Thieves, where we have our favorite characters going on another ripping adventure in addition to a few more stock characters. Character building or even character driven story doesn’t even really begin until Uncharted 3. There’s just a taste of character development in Drake’s Deception, where we finally get to see how Nathan and Sully know each other and for how long, along with the audience being exposed to Nathan’s inner demons. However, Uncharted 4 just totally blows that out of the water with the addition of Rafe, Evelyn, and Sam Drake who all subsequently represent the many complexities of Nathan Drake.
Nathan is a blank canvas of sorts in A Thief’s End. I think you finally get a good idea of who Nathan Drake actually is in this game, because of all the ways the other characters are projected onto him. In an interview with VentureBeat, Naughty Dog developer Bruce Straley discussed developing Nathan Drake differently due to his time spent building The Last of Us and wanting to create a more personal story. Straley states that “one of the most interesting things when we were first laying out the outline of [Uncharted 4] that I got excited by, was the conflict in the player’s heart. You know Nate’s lying to Elena. We have scenes where he deliberately lies to her. But at the same time, I want to go on an adventure. I have the joystick in my hand and I’m actively engaging in the adventure. I’m hooked like Nathan Drake is hooked”.
Nathan Drake’s character is allowed to be fleshed out by all these factors, characters, and environments around him. For example, if we look at Rafe, our villain of this installment, he was once Sam and Nate’s partner in the search for Captain Avery’s treasure, but in the following years his obsession to create a legacy for himself apart from his parents has turned him against Nathan Drake – who Rafe ultimately needs. Rafe’s need for glory turns into an obsession as he pours in ridiculous amounts of money and effort to hunt down the treasure, murdering anyone who gets in his way. At the end of it all, he finally loses his life. Rafe is, I think, what Nate would have become if he had never experienced an emotional loss during the process of fortune seeking – i.e. Sam and the rest of his family. Nate is similar to Rafe in that he is obsessively unable to shift focus from treasure hunting and adventure, so much so that he lies to Elena and trusts Sam more than he should.
It makes you wonder what Nathan Drake wants from all of this adventuring. When playing, you tend to think that this is just what Nathan Drake does, because that’s the type of character that is presented. His objective is simple, to find whatever it is he is searching for. So what is Nathan Drake searching for? The obvious answer is that he is searching for treasure in order to make money and create a legacy for himself, but finally, in A Thief’s End, Drake’s objective becomes clear; Nathan Drake just wants a family, and that’s why he is able to effectively change.
Nathan wanting a family becomes apparent even from the beginning of the game with his initial attachment to Sam. Sam essentially rescues Nathan from the orphanage, thus giving Nathan a sense of life for the first time. His first true adventure is exhilarating and, I also feel, relieving in some sense. Adventure then becomes tied to family. The next stop on Nathan’s life changing journey is recovering his mother’s journal from Evelyn’s mansion, the older fortune hunter being another facet of Nathan Drake.
I think Evelyn is the path Nathan was on if he never met Elena, or ultimately chose adventure over love and family. Playing as baby Drake, I personally went around Evelyn’s mansion and read every letter, and picked up everything I could in that place. I like to think that particular experience I created for Nathan stuck with him throughout all this time and made him change to who he is in the epilogue. That Nathan, throughout all this time, remembered how sad and lonely Evelyn was, despite all of her cool stuff, and that ultimately he might end up like her; dying alone amid your successes and failures as the next generation literally rips whatever you have left from your arms. I mean, Nathan did literally watch this woman die. I think this experience makes it clear that Nathan doesn’t want treasure or fame, but rather he’s just trying to fill that void and obtain that rush and emotional security like he did with Sam on that night – the night he became Nathan Drake.
Sam Drake is a curious character because although he is another representation of Nathan Drake, Sam is the most like Nathan. Playing alongside Sam, I thought at times Sam was pretty cool, down to earth and funnier than Drake. Then, of course, Sam lies. A lot. You question whether he actually knows anything or if he’s on sort of a fleeting journey to self-destruction. The curious thing I realized is that you could say the exact same thing about Nathan Drake. With Sam Drake, you get the chance to view essentially Nathan Drake from an outside perspective. What we know about Nathan Drake is that he is incredibly dedicated to his craft, sometimes at a fault, and he charmingly twists the truth in such a way that you can’t be mad at him for too long. Nathan Drake is just Sam Drake-lite.
Nathan Drake is a character I ultimately took for granted. I sort of hate that he is this down-to-earth cheesy but charming action hero. I would laugh at his jokes and I genuinely enjoyed playing as him. But it wasn’t until Uncharted 4 that I realized the kind of complexity Nathan could have as a character. I think that all comes down to the brilliant development and the storytelling of A Thief’s End. To use the pulp action-adventure story as a backdrop, and then form it into a metaphor for our life’s pursuit. Creating Nathan Drake as a trope and a blank slate ended up making him distinctive, which allowed other characters, and my emotions as well, into Nathan. Ultimately, Nathan Drake is not particularly special, and that’s what makes him special.