Few works wear their themes quite as blatantly on their sleeves like the Uncharted series. Those themes are always part of the title. Deep examinations of character and theme aren’t necessary for blockbuster action titles and don’t often use them as a consequence. But when a work does decide to include them into its fabric, it can be understandable that there might need to be a substantially large neon sign indicating that it is in there in order to show us where to begin looking.
With Drake’s Deception, we immediately ask the questions: What is the deception? , Who is Drake deceiving?, etc., etc. The game starts off with a con that is going to go down with some shady buyers that ends with Drake and crew gaining access to the villain’s secret underground London lair. This isn’t the deception referred to in the title, but it does reinforce the theme while moving the plot forward. The real deception has to do with the question that we are soon asking: Who is Drake?
It is a bit strange that this is the third game in which this character stars, and yet, we know so little about him. For as far-flung as the different titles are regarding locales, it is a very small universe with regard to people and their relationships to one another. We have gotten hints before of minor occurrences in Drake’s past, but nothing that defines him as a person. We don’t get too many answers in this installment either, but the revelation that Drake is lying about his own name defines him far more than him admitting his own faults in the first game or that “defining” catchphrase from the second. Here that small revelation that he is not Nathan Drake and that there is no Nathan Drake is the real obstacle to the real drama of the game. The treasure hunt, as it usually is, is the method by which it is carried out.
Drake is deceiving everyone that he meets every time that he introduces himself. He has lied to enemies and friends alike. He has lied to those closest to him, Sully, Elena, and Chloe. But that isn’t as bad as what he is really doing, lying to himself. He was and is so desperate to escape his past identity that he has conjured one out of thin air. “Greatness from small beginnings,” indeed. Several times during the adventure his teammates ask him why they are still doing this, and Drake has no answer because the answer would force him to confront a painful truth, one that threatens his very existence. He is not Nathan Drake. All his life. he has tried to live up to the legacy and mythology that that character represents, but he can’t. And in doing so, he put the people that he cares about in harm’s way. He has always escaped by the skin of his teeth, and everyone has gotten out alive so he continues on. He continues on because he must in order to maintain the deception.
The deception also informs the villains of the game. As underdeveloped and scattershot as their motives and methods are respectively, they do have one core nugget that gives them an edge over Drake. In previous games, the enemies were an exacerbation of Drake’s own desires and a direct counterpoint to Drake’s methods and morality. Marlowe and Talbot attack Drake from a different direction. They attack his deception and try to undermine him with the truth. They drug him and warp his mind, but it is when they are sitting at that café table in Yemen when they finally get under his skin. Marlowe is far more devious in that she doesn’t try to destroy him, so much as she tries to unmake him. Drake never shows quite so much vulnerability as when Marlowe pulls out a file containing his true history.
That is the key to who Drake is. “I wonder what you’re really afraid of. Not bullets, or blood, or broken bones. No, you get off on all this, don’t you?”, Marlowe says to Drake at the beginning of the game. She knows exactly what buttons to push and how to hurt him. He only gives us a human reaction when she cuts Sir Francis’s ring from around his neck. It’s the illusion that matters to him; it’s the legacy that he’s claimed for himself. What Drake fears is being nobody. At the café, she remarks, “Beneath that cocky exterior, you’re still the same scared filthy little runaway, aren’t you?” She cuts him deep. Drake brushes it aside as only mind games, but it wouldn’t be a mind game without an element of truth.
At least that was his greatest fear until confronted with the reality of what he is doing. No one Drake has cared about has ever died on one of his misadventures. They’ve come close, but in previous games, it wasn’t framed as a consequence of his selfish actions, something only coming about when the stakes have risen and his motives remain noble. Here, he watches Sully shot and killed before his eyes. Everyone warned him that his relentless pursuit was going to get them killed by Elena, Chloe and Cutter. It is made even worse that this adventure is about Drake’s past as much as anything else. This quest is to follow in the footsteps in Sir Francis Drake. It is about living up to the legacy. The fact that Talbot kills Sully only further reinforces Drake’s own culpability in his death. He loses his father figure, the man that taught him everything that he knows. Furthermore, the modern day analogs to Queen Elizabeth and John Dee have defeated Drake even though it was the other way around in Sir Francis’s time.
In the final confrontation, Drake loses his ring to the quicksand that takes Marlowe and is a metaphor for him letting go of the legacy. He finally owns his deception and becomes Nathan Drake, not the descendant of Sir Francis Drake, but his own man. He puts the past behind him and goes forward to make up for the mistakes he made in the past. He trades Sir Francis’s ring for Elena’s wedding ring.
Unfortunately, Drake doesn’t have to live with the consequences and the lesson that he learns rings hollow. Sully lives, and Drake can slip back in to being the irresponsible jackass at any point because he is invincible. He has no weaknesses. Drake is no longer living a lie, but he won’t be penalized for it either. So much of the game is about Drake’s relationship with Sully, but always concerns how it affects him, never the other way around. We get vague platitudes that Sully would go to the ends of the earth for Drake, but we don’t know much beyond that or really why. We see the effect that Sully has had on Drake and continues to have, and in that respect, the game is about Drake’s character. The game fails to be about their relationship because it never shows the two sides of it. Likewise, it does a little better job about being about Drake and using the relationship to showcase who he is with the interaction going one way, but there isn’t enough material about him. We get the broad brushstrokes, a few facts about his birth parents and where he’s really from, but we don’t know anything that really exists behind the deception. We know it’s there, but as soon as it’s gone, a new person has emerged from the cocoon. It would have been nice to see what Mr. Drake was hiding all along.