National Treasure, Indiana Jones, James Bond – these are the films to which Uncharted is most commonly compared. The first two games in particular, are reminiscent of summer blockbusters. More specifically, they're a by-product of Hollywood's Golden Age, the glittering years between 1950 and the mid-1960s when biblical, Western and adventure epics dominated the box office.
Movies like Ben-Hur, Around the World in 80 Days and Shane helped shape the iconography of the lone male hero. Charismatic, indomitable and with a rough and ready approach to adversity that would never be assailed, the leading man became a staple of big budget movies. This is the Nathan Drake of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. His easy-going humour and everyman good looks are matched only by his ability and bravery.
But just as cinema eventually rebelled against its heroes, with films like Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider and McCabe and Mrs Miller depicting cinematic icons – the gangster, the outlaw, the cowboy – as either dead or over the hill, Uncharted 3 finds Drake at odds with his own identity. The Naughty Dog game's subtitle, "Drake's Deception," is deliciously ambiguous. Does it refer to Francis Drake, and the mystery that he left uncovered? Is it the trap into which Nathan Drake is being unwittingly led? Or is it something more personal – has Drake been lying to his friends and to himself? Can he actually live up to his own legend?
In Uncharted 3's opening, as part of a ruse to draw his enemies out of hiding, Drake fakes his own death – when we see him lying "dead", in an alley, covered in blood, it's as if the old Drake has been symbolically killed off. We then return to his childhood, his first meeting with Victor 'Sully' Sullivan and how his career as a treasure hunter, and his legend, began. Sullivan becomes a father figure, and Marlowe, the game's scheming villain, who constantly refers to Drake as "boy", as a stern, disciplinarian mother figure by association. This dysfunctional pseudo-family reflects Drake's complex relationship with treasure hunting: compelled to defeat, or in other words impress, Marlowe, and encouraged by the avuncular Sully, Drake's identity is founded on strained relationships and childhood neuroses. He is not, as such, his own man. Treasure hunting becomes a way to live up to both his "parent's" expectations.
From thereon, Uncharted 3 starts to undermine the traditional standards of a male hero. Drake tackles a guard in the French château level, and where typically he'd win the fight, this time he's shot in the arm and immediately backs off. In the boatyard section, when Drake rushes to save Sullivan, it's discovered the pirates never had Sully hostage in the first place – they've used Drake's heroic reputation, his need to rush in and save everyone, against him.
Even ostensible tough guy Charlie Cutter can't maintain his image. He's terrified of tight spaces and when the going gets tough, he drops out of the mission. One of Uncharted 3's best sequences comes when Cutter, under the influence of a mind-controlling drug, tries to murder Drake. It's Drake's heroics, his flattery and his convincing that have gotten Cutter into this situation in the first place. When he turns it's as if, rather than hallucinating, he's seeing things clearly, seeing through Drake's deception. Sure enough, Cutter is later cornered and ends up jumping from a building and breaking his legs – Drake's heroic pretences lead him into a trap.
Character's identities are routinely questioned. In one scene, Talbot is shot and killed. In the next, he re-appears entirely unscathed. Arriving in Yemen, Drake and Sully are issued fake ID badges. After hallucinating from the same drug as Cutter, in a sequence that represents the closest players have ever gotten to seeing inside Drake's mind, the first thing Drake sees is his phoney ID – his own false identity staring into him. "Nathan Drake," says Marlowe whilst perusing her file. "Of course, that's not your real name." This plot twist is never again mentioned. Drake never confesses to his friends that he is using a false name, nor is his real name ever revealed. All that becomes clear is that Drake, quite literally, is lying about who he is. The surname which until this point has endowed him with ancestral, genetic heroism is not his own. Like the role of treasure hunter, pushed onto him by Sullivan and Marlowe, heroism and the adventurer's spirit are things that Drake has merely adopted. Now, the player sees what Cutter saw: Drake is not the man we thought he was.
In two ways, one deliberate, one accidental, Uncharted 3 – on the mechanical level – reflects this theme of mistaken or broken identity. In the Syria level, the boatyard and most famously aboard the sinking cruise ship, the player and Drake's perspectives are flipped. After falling from a ledge, we grab onto an outcropping, and suddenly find ourselves shooting at enemies vertically rather than horizontally. It's disorientating and makes us question where we are. "Which way is up?" asks Drake as the ship is sinking. In relation to both his surroundings and his own identity, he does not know.
The gunfights themselves are clunky, difficult, unenjoyable, and generally Uncharted 3 feels tired and redundant. But within its scrappy set-pieces lies a serendipitous poetry. This is a game about an exhausted, faltering hero; the game itself is similarly faltering.
When Uncharted 3 reaches its limp climax, writer Amy Hennig make one very smart call. Sinking into quicksand, Marlowe pleads with Drake to live up to his reputation and save her life. Defying Sully, who says they should just leave, Drake throws Marlowe a rope. After struggling with his identity the whole game, he attempts, one last time, to do what he feels he is supposed to do. Then he fails, and Marlowe dies.
Drake emerges only a partial hero: he's done the job, but Cutter and Chloe have abandoned him and he has failed to save Marlowe. It's suitable that at the very end, when Sully leads Drake across an airfield, it's to the plane that the duo used at the beginning of Uncharted 1. Only now it's rusted, cracked and barely holding together. Since he was first introduced to players, Drake's hero status, by this point, has been similarly damaged. What was once an unfaltering, morally unimpeachable hero is now conflicted and ambiguous – Uncharted 3, much more than its predecessors, openly invites us to doubt Nathan Drake.