On the surface, Nathan Drake is unremarkable. The star of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series looks, at least at first glance, like the platonic ideal of a videogame protagonist. Load up a save file and spin the camera around Drake. He’s a white guy with short brown hair. He is neither too tall nor too short; too bulky nor too thin. But spending a moment looking at his face—heavy brow, small eyes, and a good, solid jawline—puts the lie to the idea that he’s a completely average action hero.
It’s his expressions that first set him apart. Though he’s as generically po-faced as other videogame leads, when Uncharted calls for high drama, Drake more often looks concerned. He’s typically worried, thoughtful. In other moments he looks as if he’s internally laughing at a private joke. This last face is the one that lingers in the player’s memory. Smeared with dirt and sweat, skin notched with cuts and discoloured with bruises, Drake’s self-satisfied grin merges with voice actor Nolan North’s spotless, Han Solo-like performance and series’ writer Amy Hennig’s dialogue to create a character as endearing as he is aggravating.
There are multitudes in Drake’s smirk. Disbelief in his gently arched eyebrows, amusement in the slight curl of his lip, and something like disdain in the way he surveys the forgotten temples and natural wonders he finds himself exploring. Drake is in on the same secret as the player who controls him: he’s minimally aware of being a videogame character—the avatar through which Uncharted’s audience navigates fantastic international adventures.
So, of course he’s idealized. He’s an approachably good-looking tabula rasa meant to bridge the divide between someone slouched on a couch, controller in hand, and an impossibly athletic, never-tiring globe-trotting adventurer. Drake doesn’t wear a kevlar jacket or sci-fi bodysuit. Instead, he’s decked out in the sort of men’s casual wear that fills LL Bean catalogues—a pair of loose (but not too loose) fitted jeans, a plain V-necked henley or two-toned baseball shirt, sleeves scrunched up at the elbows. His shirt is only partially tucked in, formal enough to portray earnest professionalism but casual enough to suggest Drake is easy-going—down for whatever. And yet, his outfit is always coupled with leather gun holsters, strapped to a belt loop or slung up in suspenders. Nathan Drake’s holsters are a reminder that, though he looks like a handsome dad out for a Sunday afternoon hike, he’s also exceptionally good at killing.
Over the course of an Uncharted game, Drake will murder a few hundred people. Throughout it all, he remains unflaggingly affable, making self-conscious quips as he beats another person to death with his bare hands or riddles an enemy’s torso with bullets. This is the heart of Nathan Drake’s personality. He’s one of the only videogame characters who’s both violently assertive and endearingly down to earth.
When people talk about Uncharted, Drake is usually passed off as simply “funny” or “charming.” If his fantastic capacity for violence is mentioned, it’s as a supposedly incongruous part of his character (and the games themselves). There’s meant to be a disconnect between someone who is so outwardly humble and charismatic yet also so capable of exploding the heads of dozens of enemies. But the two sides of Drake—his brutality and likeability—aren’t actually opposed. Instead, he can be thought of as an idealized version of the modern man, a complicated embodiment of the fragility of 21st century Western masculinity. In his glib spree-killing and plundering of foreign treasures, the player sees someone who embraces the martial, take-no-shit attitude expected (and projected by) generations of traditionally “masculine” men. But, the extremes of this behavior are tempered with a sarcastic humour meant to make an outmoded form of patriarchal expression more palatable to a modern audience.
The player is urged on to even greater sympathy by the games’ positioning of Drake as a representation of a modern man divorced of parental role models. He’s an orphan (which the player discovers in Uncharted 3’s flashback to young Drake’s time as a thief living rough on the streets of a Colombian city). As he searches for a proper father figure, attempting to model himself after both Sir Francis Drake and his middle-aged, cigar-chomping friend Victor “Sully” Sullivan, the audience is meant to associate the character with a generation of young men who feel apart from the values of their fathers and grandfathers.
His relationships with women are similarly confused. Though Uncharted 2 finds him in a Betty and Veronica love triangle with fellow adventurer Chloe Frazer and photojournalist Elena Fisher, the third installment finds him settling down with Elena, the blonder and more straightforwardly “good” of the pair. After struggling to contend with Chloe, a woman more than capable of matching his violence and opportunism, Drake refuses this “dangerous” romantic choice in favour of Elena. He opts to partner with the woman who, like him, occupies the traditionally “feminine” role. Though she’s tough enough to avoid coming off as a regressive character, Elena still nurtures Drake, is less skilled at killing than him, and occupies just as safely a traditional portrayal of modern femininity as Drake does masculinity.
His characterization as conventional man is furthered by the basic premise of the Uncharted series. Despite his self-effacement, Drake is ultimately a man who, like so many men before and beside him, is completely confident in the moral correctness of his actions. As he travels through Amazonian jungles in search of El Dorado, Tibetan villages and Himalayan mountains ranges to find Shambhala/Shangri-La, and the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula in a journey to Iram of the Pillars, Drake follows, too, in the footsteps of European explorers of “exotic” lands. As a character, he’s indebted to not just the pulp adventure stories of the 20th century, but to real-life figures like the white British explorers Francis Drake and T.E. Lawrence or influential novelists, building on Orientalist myth, like James Hilton.
Regardless of his few modern sensibilities, Nathan Drake is ultimately a white, Western man with no apparent qualms with travelling to foreign lands and quite literally appropriating culture by stealing a peoples’ precious physical artifacts. If, along the way, he has to kill his opposition, bringing war and destruction to the homes of locals, the player is meant to sympathize with Drake’s view that this is just the cost of doing his job.
If anything connects him to the self-serving moral lineage of white masculinity, it’s this. Drake may look and act like our version of a non-threatening, average dude, but the basic purpose behind his actions shows that it’s only his exterior that sets him apart from centuries of aggressive, imperialist masculinity. He’s like most modern Western men in this way—culturally aware enough to reject the outsized bravado and direct sexism of his gender, but still naturally assured to the point that he feels that plunder and feminine support is his right as a man. It’s all there in his smirk. Drake may resemble the typical videogame hero in his outward appearance, but it’s the nuance that enwraps his basically traditional personality that makes him interesting. The Uncharted series, more than most action games, are buoyed by their willingness to wrestle with what masculinity means in the early 21st century. Through Nathan Drake’s adventures, they ask us to assume the role of a more relatable, modernized male action hero and, through him, reflect on the apparent progress such a character may or may not represent.