You may think of the Uncharted series as a collection of simple games with a simple hero, buoyed by solid action mechanics and a cinematic sense of style. You’re wrong though: in fact it’s a complex literary narrative exploring classic Freudian ideas of subjectivity and delving into the mindset of a narcissistic obsessive in need of some serious time on the analyst’s couch. Seen in the right light, the Uncharted games have the potential to transform the way we think of our own desires.
Each Uncharted game works thanks to a plot with three or four layers. First, there is the search for treasure and gold, embodied by El Dorado in the initial Drake’s Fortune. Drake is first and foremost presented to us as a ‘fortune hunter’ – something of an Indiana Jones figure. Second, there is Drake’s quest for love with journalist Elena, the ultimate love object throughout the series, and one who is not conquered until the end of the third installment. As the Mexican gangsters tell us in that first game, we (and Drake) are after both girl and treasure simultaneously: “The last man alive gets the gold. Oh, and the girl. Of course.”
So far, so typical of most action games or movies. The third layer is the plumbing of the hidden recesses of history in an attempt to unravel the unsolved mysteries of the distant past. A fourth potential layer: it would be easy to argue that the game (and Drake) is more than a little guilty of what postcolonial academics call ‘Orientalism’ – the fetishization of the objects of the East and the desire to plunder the ‘other’.
“Drake does not have one true desire but instead suffers from a medley of confused and overlapping wishes”
So what does our hero, Nathan ‘Nate’ Drake, really want, out of these three or four things he chases throughout the quadrilogy? Is it the girl, the treasure, or the glory of solving the hidden mysteries of the past/Orient? The first answer the game gives us is that his real passion — his obsession even — is with history, and specifically with Sir Francis Drake, the real historical seafaring hero who is (or who is believed to be) Nathan’s distant ancestor. Nate’s desire to follow in the footsteps of Sir Francis seems to overrun any quest for monetary reward (which is what his partner Sully wants) as well as his quest for love, which he seems more than glad to abandon when given the opportunity to plunder more of the past. The fourth game confirms what we already knew: Drake has money and the girl, but cannot resist the desire to unravel the secrets of the past. This, we are told, is his real desire.
At the end (of each game) Drake gets all four. Predictably, getting one leads to the others — and in the final scene of Drake’s Fortune this is given the perfect symbolic representation in the form of Drake’s ring. The ring symbolizes love, money, the Orient and history all together. Given to Drake by his girl, it is a representation of their love, a foreshadowing of their marriage even. Incredibly expensive, it epitomizes the acquisition of wealth. Belonging to Sir Francis Drake, the ring also signifies the discovery of a lost past. Recovered from the depths of the Amazon, it is most definitely a colonial treasure. This is what Freud calls ‘displacement’: when one desire becomes another, or, alternatively, when all desires get organized around one desire which acts as a stand-in for the rest of them. It also involves the Freudian concept of ‘condensation’: when multiple dream-thoughts are combined and amalgamated into a single element such as particular symbol. In this case, a ring. We can say that the ring is Drake’s ultimate object of desire because it displaces and condenses all sorts of other more repressed and unconscious desires that Drake is intent on burying. It is the symbol of an impossible fulfillment, and a symbol for the eradication of anxiety.
“Drake is a subject in desperate need of psychoanalysis”
The root of Drake’s anxiety and his obsession with the past is spectacularly revealed halfway through the third game in what is arguably the single most important scene of the Uncharted quadrilogy and acts as a real twist in the narrative trajectory. In it we learn that Drake is not a Drake at all and that he constructed the narrative that he is the heir of Sir Francis when he was a lost child in an orphanage. Dedicated players may remember that this is in fact foreshadowed from the first scene of the first game, where Elena questions the bloodline that Drake lays claim to. The player forgets about this, and in Uncharted 3 it comes as a genuine surprise. The revelation changes everything: instead of the new version of his ancestor, the modern treasure hunting Indiana Jones/Francis Drake, Nathan is a lost ‘Dickensian’ orphan who has been missing a purpose from a young age. Placed in an orphanage funded by the Sir Francis Drake foundation, he simply developed an obsession with this historical figure. Walking around museums, Nate becomes driven only by this (imaginary) link, which turns him into a lifelong monomaniac: always in manic pursuit of a single thing which promises to displace all other anxieties and insecurities.
Looking for meaning and purpose in life, little Nathan has latched onto an identity and developed an obsession, becoming fixated on something which, he believes, will provide the fulfillment he lacked as a child and eradicate the anxiety he has long suffered (despite his veneer of bravado). Sully (the missing father) and Elena (the replacement mother), as well as the money from treasure hunting, are all acquired as if accidental symptoms of the more important pursuit of Sir Francis’s secrets, but clearly they have long been sought by Drake’s unconscious. On the surface Drake’s Deception, the game’s title, refers to his deception of others (and of us), but it also subtly refers to the way his own unconscious has deceived him through the processes of displacement and condensation. The game shows that Drake does not have one true desire but instead suffers from a medley of confused and overlapping wishes all repressed and re-organized into a monomaniac love of history.
Drake, then, is a subject in desperate need of psychoanalysis, and someone that warns us to be aware of how our unconscious is structured. He teaches us two classic psychoanalytic lessons. First, that we do not want what we think we want, and second, that there is no true desire buried in our unconscious (something which we really do want which can come to the surface). Instead there are only complex displacements and condensations governed by politics and social norms. We learn that neither his quest for money (capitalism), nor marriage (family values), nor the figure of the ‘other’ (orientalism), nor the past (heroism) are ‘true’ desires, as desire is in fact always inherently political. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it: Drake would make Freud proud.