Nathan Drake & Video Game Character Morality

Nathan Drake and Video Game Character Morality
An Editorial by Figboy
I came across a rather interesting thread on elitist forum Neogaf where the original poster posited the nature of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune’s protagonist, Nathan Drake, and how a seemingly “everyman” guy could proceed to literally mow down hundreds of enemies during his 9 hour gaming adventure, with nary a second thought. The easy answer is, “well, it’s a video game, stupid!” But there are bigger and more important issues that can be addressed. Morality and character development in video games is more conflicting in this medium than in any other because of it’s interactive nature. This conflict is not easily resolved. Below, are my thoughts on where this medium is at in it’s growth, and the quandary game developers must consider when designing their games.
First of all, no, Nathan Drake is not a sociopath. He is still an “everyman” (a very athletic everyman, but an everyman nonetheless). However, he has found himself in a rather extraordinary situation: he is in hostile territory, filled with people that are trying to kill him. A life or death situation such as this would drive even the most stalwart person of incredible moral fiber to defend themself. Nathan Drake is far from a character with incredible moral fiber, but even so, he would be a fool to let the pirates inhabiting the island in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune to kill him, and I’m 100% certain that every single one of you (myself included) would do what it took in the name of self preservation.
So lets tackle that character morality more. Just the fact that some gamers find themselves troubled by Nathan’s gameplay actions in Uncharted is a testament to how well crafted a character he is. Naughty Dog should be commended for creating a character that is likable, 3-Dimensional, and complex enough to generate such an emotional connection with the player that they are jarred by the game aspects of the, um, game.
Nathan Drake, to these gamers, and many that are troubled by his acts of violence, is a human being. He has convinced the gamer that he is a good person, a likable guy with a quick wit and sly sense of humor, and a highly adventurous spirit. The thought that such a seemingly upstanding individual would kill hundreds is startling. As video games get more and more complex, and when developers do what Naughty Dog has done and craft genuine characters, not just templates and cliches of the genre, some of us will probably have this reaction more often.
My question is this, however: why is it ok for, say, Marcus Fenix and company to mow down hundreds, even thousands of Locust in Gears of War, and Sev and company get to slaughter hundreds of Helghast in Killzone 2, and yet no one raises as much as an eyebrow? “Well, it’s war,” you say. “It’s a matter of life and death. It’s different.” No. It’s not. Nathan’s situation is a matter of life and death, just because he is fighting other human beings, and not Locust, or genetically altered humans like Helghast, doesn’t change that fact. I assume it’s ok for a trained soldier to kill to save his life, but the everyman is somehow forbidden to do the same? I don’t think that’s fair or logical.
Nathan Drake, on a morality level, is defending himself. He never actively goes out looking to kill, like in a Grand Theft Auto game, where a lot of the characters display sociopathic tendencies in the game’s story itself, let alone it’s gameplay. Nathan is, I believe, morally “clean.” He fights because he has to. He kills his enemies because to leave them alive would mean death for him. Considering how horribly outnumbered he and his two companions are throughout the game, I have to side with him.
This issue of morality does not have a clear cut solution because of another issue: Game Design. No matter how you try and cut it, a game is designed to be entertaining. There are different types of entertainment, even within the same medium (ie, genres of movies, music, games, art, etc). However, there are certain genres of games that simply must adhere to the standards of the genre. Naughty Dog set out to make a third person shooter in the pulp adventure genre with the production values of some of the best blockbusters of said genre. Outside of creating a compelling character (which they’ve clearly managed to do), they studied the genre and culled the best elements of that genre and applied them to that third person shooter mold.
No, the game isn’t trying to be Gears of War, although it has been stated that it was inspired by some of the things that Gears did right (ie, intense gunfights and action). Even the best pulp adventure flicks (ie, Raiders of the Lost Ark), have gunplay, fisticuffs, and, yes, enemy deaths. The 2 hour run time of the film naturally dictates that there won’t be as much enemy slaughter as it will in a 9 hour video game where the core game design revolves around third person shooting.
In short, you kill people in Uncharted because the game was designed to shoot enemies, and it’s a fun gameplay mechanic. Nobody complained that you could shoot endless enemies in Gears of War, so I don’t see how it would suddenly cease to be an enjoyable mechanic in Uncharted’s case. Naughty Dog had to make a decision when it came to how much gunplay they put in Uncharted, relative to what they wanted to accomplish with the story, and even game length. I’m sure Naughty Dog could have crafted a damn enjoyable game in Uncharted if it just revolved Nathan running around, solving puzzles, and fighting a small, managed number of enemies, but the nature of the genre of story, and game genre, would have resulted in, to be honest, Tomb Raider. Despite genre similarities, Naughty Dog expressly stated that they wanted to craft something unique with Uncharted in comparison to other franchises in the genre like Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones. Nathan Drake is not Lara Croft or Indiana Jones. He’s not an archealogical professor or a rich aristocrat with a penchant for raiding tombs. He’s an intelligent man, sure, but he’s no, well, Indiana Jones. If it wasn’t for Francis Drake’s diary in Uncharted, he probably wouldn’t have been able to solve a single puzzle during his quest.
If you want Tomb Raider, we already have one. Uncharted doesn’t need to be Tomb Raider. What needs to be considered even more is that the Uncharted franchise is known for it’s spectacular production values. It looks and feels like a big budget blockbuster, and it should. It was produced with a big budget. That fact alone affects game design. If Naughty Dog skimped on production values, the character of Nathan Drake wouldn’t affect gamers like they do, because they’d be able to put up that wall they do with other game characters, and lock Nathan away in the role of video game character. Because he looks, feels, and moves like such a real person, we don’t have that detachment.
Because of the production values, Naughty Dog has to factor in return on investment. If they somehow managed to strip Uncharted of the over the top (and frankly cartoony in nature violence; there is very minimal blood when enemies are shot) gunplay and stuffed it full of puzzles, platforming, and exploring, it just wouldn’t go over that well in today’s market. It’s an incontrovertible truth, and just because it’s a crummy truth doesn’t make it any less true. The reality of the world needs to be considered when designing a video game.
Just look at the commercial success of games that have taken a non-conventional, no shooting everything in sight design ethic. They certainly don’t do as good as Call of Duty and Halo. They do well enough because they don’t have $30 million design budgets, and therefore the return on investment isn’t nearly as risky. I’m not saying Uncharted has a $30 million budget, but it certainly cost a pretty penny to create, and if it didn’t appeal to a broader demographic, Naughty Dog would, frankly, be in the shit. Why should they skimp on making Uncharted look and play as good as it does just to alter a gameplay mechanic that is, honestly, very fun?
It’s simply fun to shoot stuff. It’s not required in every game, nor does it need to be there to make a game good, but Uncharted is designed as a third person shooter, not a third person, puzzle solving/exploring/platforming game. Those elements are there, but not the core elements.
The modern gaming market does not foster a taste for the unique. We see this with every release of a sequel to longrunning series that manages to sell in the millions while often better games doing something different get pushed by the wayside.
In my previous editorial, I discussed that gamers need to broaden their horizons and be more open to new things, and I stand 100% by that. But I also think that there is still a place for more conventional game design when it’s produced at such a level as we’re seeing with the Uncharted franchise. I mean, why nitpick the best of the genre when it’s the best of the genre? Complain to the offenders. The ones that are milking a genre/franchise for all it’s worth, and putting out low quality entertainment, but don’t chide the big dogs, or in this case, the Naughty Dogs, for providing a gaming experience of such quality that the only thing you can knock it for is having too much gameplay when many, many games of similar gameplay but less thought to quality and have been given a pass. The film, book, and music industry foster a very large variety of genre types, so why can’t gaming? Not every “Indiana Jones” inspired game needs to adhere 100% to that mold. If Nathan’s game has him popping caps in an inordinately large amount of enemies in the sake of fun, tense gameplay, so be it.
I get it, Nathan Drake is a cool dude. Nobody wants to think of him as a deranged killer. Thankfully, he’s not. And besides, “It’s just a game.”

An Editorial by Figboy

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

I came across a rather interesting thread on elitist forum Neogaf where the original poster posited the nature of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune’s protagonist, Nathan Drake, and how a seemingly “everyman” guy could proceed to literally mow down hundreds of enemies during his 9 hour gaming adventure, with nary a second thought. The easy answer is, “well, it’s a video game, stupid!” But there are bigger and more important issues that can be addressed. Morality and character development in video games is more conflicting in this medium than in any other because of it’s interactive nature. This conflict is not easily resolved. Below, are my thoughts on where this medium is at in it’s growth, and the quandary game developers must consider when designing their games.

Nathan Drake: Sociopath

Nathan Drake: Sociopath

First of all, no, Nathan Drake is not a sociopath. He is still an “everyman” (a very athletic everyman, but an everyman nonetheless). However, he has found himself in a rather extraordinary situation: he is in hostile territory, filled with people that are trying to kill him. A life or death situation such as this would drive even the most stalwart person of incredible moral fiber to defend themself. Nathan Drake is far from a character with incredible moral fiber, but even so, he would be a fool to let the pirates inhabiting the island in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune to kill him, and I’m 100% certain that every single one of you (myself included) would do what it took in the name of self preservation.

So lets tackle that character morality more. Just the fact that some gamers find themselves troubled by Nathan’s gameplay actions in Uncharted is a testament to how well crafted a character he is. Naughty Dog should be commended for creating a character that is likable, 3-Dimensional, and complex enough to generate such an emotional connection with the player that they are jarred by the game aspects of the, um, game.

Nathan Drake, to these gamers, and many that are troubled by his acts of violence, is a human being. He has convinced the gamer that he is a good person, a likable guy with a quick wit and sly sense of humor, and a highly adventurous spirit. The thought that such a seemingly upstanding individual would kill hundreds is startling. As video games get more and more complex, and when developers do what Naughty Dog has done and craft genuine characters, not just templates and cliches of the genre, some of us will probably have this reaction more often.

"Yes! Kill! Kill!"

"Yes! Kill! Kill!"

My question is this, however: why is it ok for, say, Marcus Fenix and company to mow down hundreds, even thousands of Locust in Gears of War, and Sev and company get to slaughter hundreds of Helghast in Killzone 2, and yet no one raises as much as an eyebrow? “Well, it’s war,” you say. “It’s a matter of life and death. It’s different.” No. It’s not. Nathan’s situation is a matter of life and death, just because he is fighting other human beings, and not Locust, or genetically altered humans like Helghast, doesn’t change that fact. I assume it’s ok for a trained soldier to kill to save his life, but the everyman is somehow forbidden to do the same? I don’t think that’s fair or logical.

Nathan Drake, on a morality level, is defending himself. He never actively goes out looking to kill, like in a Grand Theft Auto game, where a lot of the characters display sociopathic tendencies in the game’s story itself, let alone it’s gameplay. Nathan is, I believe, morally “clean.” He fights because he has to. He kills his enemies because to leave them alive would mean death for him. Considering how horribly outnumbered he and his two companions are throughout the game, I have to side with him.

"*sigh* If only this explosion was bigger...I could take out more people that way!"

"*sigh* If only this explosion was bigger; I could take out more people that way!"

This issue of morality does not have a clear cut solution because of another issue: Game Design. No matter how you try and cut it, a game is designed to be entertaining. There are different types of entertainment, even within the same medium (ie, genres of movies, music, games, art, etc). However, there are certain genres of games that simply must adhere to the standards of the genre. Naughty Dog set out to make a third person shooter in the pulp adventure genre with the production values of some of the best blockbusters of said genre. Outside of creating a compelling character (which they’ve clearly managed to do), they studied the genre and culled the best elements of that genre and applied them to that third person shooter mold.

No, the game isn’t trying to be Gears of War, although it has been stated that it was inspired by some of the things that Gears did right (ie, intense gunfights and action). Even the best pulp adventure flicks (ie, Raiders of the Lost Ark), have gunplay, fisticuffs, and, yes, enemy deaths. The 2 hour run time of the film naturally dictates that there won’t be as much enemy slaughter as it will in a 9 hour video game where the core game design revolves around third person shooting.

"These 2 will make what? 350 and 351? I lose count!"

"These 2 will make what? 350 and 351? I lose count!"

In short, you kill people in Uncharted because the game was designed to shoot enemies, and it’s a fun gameplay mechanic. Nobody complained that you could shoot endless enemies in Gears of War, so I don’t see how it would suddenly cease to be an enjoyable mechanic in Uncharted’s case. Naughty Dog had to make a decision when it came to how much gunplay they put in Uncharted, relative to what they wanted to accomplish with the story, and even game length. I’m sure Naughty Dog could have crafted a damn enjoyable game in Uncharted if it just revolved Nathan running around, solving puzzles, and fighting a small, managed number of enemies, but the nature of the genre of story, and game genre, would have resulted in, to be honest, Tomb Raider. Despite genre similarities, Naughty Dog expressly stated that they wanted to craft something unique with Uncharted in comparison to other franchises in the genre like Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones. Nathan Drake is not Lara Croft or Indiana Jones. He’s not an archealogical professor or a rich aristocrat with a penchant for raiding tombs. He’s an intelligent man, sure, but he’s no, well, Indiana Jones. If it wasn’t for Francis Drake’s diary in Uncharted, he probably wouldn’t have been able to solve a single puzzle during his quest.

If you want Tomb Raider, we already have one. Uncharted doesn’t need to be Tomb Raider. What needs to be considered even more is that the Uncharted franchise is known for it’s spectacular production values. It looks and feels like a big budget blockbuster, and it should. It was produced with a big budget. That fact alone affects game design. If Naughty Dog skimped on production values, the character of Nathan Drake wouldn’t affect gamers like they do, because they’d be able to put up that wall they do with other game characters, and lock Nathan away in the role of video game character. Because he looks, feels, and moves like such a real person, we don’t have that detachment.

"You know, this is only fun when I'M the one shooting at YOU."

"You know, this is only fun when I'M the one shooting at YOU."

Because of the production values, Naughty Dog has to factor in return on investment. If they somehow managed to strip Uncharted of the over the top (and frankly cartoony in nature violence; there is very minimal blood when enemies are shot) gunplay and stuffed it full of puzzles, platforming, and exploring, it just wouldn’t go over that well in today’s market. It’s an incontrovertible truth, and just because it’s a crummy truth doesn’t make it any less true. The reality of the world needs to be considered when designing a video game.

Just look at the commercial success of games that have taken a non-conventional, no shooting everything in sight design ethic. They certainly don’t do as good as Call of Duty and Halo. They do well enough because they don’t have $30 million design budgets, and therefore the return on investment isn’t nearly as risky. I’m not saying Uncharted has a $30 million budget, but it certainly cost a pretty penny to create, and if it didn’t appeal to a broader demographic, Naughty Dog would, frankly, be in the shit. Why should they skimp on making Uncharted look and play as good as it does just to alter a gameplay mechanic that is, honestly, very fun?

It’s simply fun to shoot stuff. It’s not required in every game, nor does it need to be there to make a game good, but Uncharted is designed as a third person shooter, not a third person, puzzle solving/exploring/platforming game. Those elements are there, but not the core elements.

The modern gaming market does not foster a taste for the unique. We see this with every release of a sequel to longrunning series that manages to sell in the millions while often better games doing something different get pushed by the wayside.

"Nobody left? Well this blows."

"Nobody left? Well this blows."

In my previous editorial, I discussed that gamers need to broaden their horizons and be more open to new things, and I stand 100% by that. But I also think that there is still a place for more conventional game design when it’s produced at such a level as we’re seeing with the Uncharted franchise. I mean, why nitpick the best of the genre when it’s the best of the genre? Complain to the offenders. The ones that are milking a genre/franchise for all it’s worth, and putting out low quality entertainment, but don’t chide the big dogs, or in this case, the Naughty Dogs, for providing a gaming experience of such quality that the only thing you can knock it for is having too much gameplay when many, many games of similar gameplay but less thought to quality and have been given a pass. The film, book, and music industry foster a very large variety of genre types, so why can’t gaming? Not every “Indiana Jones” inspired game needs to adhere 100% to that mold. If Nathan’s game has him popping caps in an inordinately large amount of enemies in the sake of fun, tense gameplay, so be it.

I get it, Nathan Drake is a cool dude. Nobody wants to think of him as a deranged killer. Thankfully, he’s not. And besides, “It’s just a game.”

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4 Responses to “Nathan Drake & Video Game Character Morality”

  1. “Nobody complained that you could shoot endless enemies in Gears of War, so I don’t see how it would suddenly cease to be an enjoyable mechanic in Uncharted’s case.”

    Agreed. Seriously, what does he expect Nathan to do? Its kill or be killed. /fail

  2. I haven’t played it yet (PS3 purchase pending) but from what I’ve read, I think Naughty Dog merely stayed true to the game’s form and delivered what they set out to deliver: an action filled adventure game in the blockbuster pulp adventure genre style.

    IMO, there’s not a whole lot of grey area here. It’s kill or be killed. And because it’s a pulp adventure game, that’s usually done maybe not in the most realistic way possible, but certainly in the flashiest, loudest and most straightforward way possible in order to keep players entertained.

    It’s not like Uncharted was ever positioned to be a deeply character-driven drama where more realistic character interaction and morality would play a far more important and pivotal role. So exactly what were they expecting?

    • exactly! Naughty Dog most definitely have crafted some great characters, but a deep, complex story about morality was never their intention. hell, Metal Gear Solid 4 has more of that in there than Uncharted.

      the nature of the pulp adventure genre dictates, like you said, a lot of flash and over-exaggeration. the people on Neogaf were so bothered by this that it was actually hindering their enjoyment of the game. i have a feeling those people were just looking for an excuse not to like it, because that thought process could be applied to practically any video game (even Mario just callously stomps Goombas and Koopa Troopas without pause for their lives). i just thought it would be fun to go into a little more deeply, though.

  3. After playing the first few hours of Uncharted 2, I can assuredly state two truths:

    1. Nathan is definitely not a sociopath, although there is one in the game.

    2. Uncharted 2 is fucking amazing! For all the people out there saying that it’s nothing to write home about – they are wrong. The cinematography (it honestly should be referred to as that) is unparalleled in video gaming – the detail in the texture work, the attention to animation, and the fidelity of all the audio samples – it’s just an incredible experience to see what that game does right. Fuck the dumb shit – go buy yourself a PS3 & get Uncharted 2.

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