When Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was first announced in 2006, it incited both intense excitement and a fair amount of sniggering. Common jabs revolved around the fact that Nathan Drake, the titular protagonist, looked like a perfect-skinned Gap model less suited to jungle hijinks than catwalks. The obvious parallels between Uncharted’s hero and established franchise protagonists like Lara Croft and Indiana Jones birthed the derisive nickname “Dude Raider”. The most common criticism, at least early on, was that the concept was derivative.
A much more alarming issue came to light after the game’s release the following year; namely, every single enemy you kill in the game is either a jungle monster or a person of color. There is an overarching antagonist who is white, but you never directly fight him, and he is served by an army of GOC (goons of color) that serve as handgun fodder in Uncharted’s cover-based, shooting-gallery gameplay.
The developer, Naughty Dog, was adamant that the decision was not motivated by any racial animosity on the part of the developers. Fortunately, they were heavily, and rightfully, criticized for creating a product in which the player occupies the role of an Aryan ubermensch–who can apparently soak up half a dozen bullets at a time, keep walking, and be fine moments later–mowing down Asian, black, and hispanic men.
What is more unsettling, I will argue, is the way in which Uncharted encodes, transmits, and celebrates even more deeply disturbing forms of Orientalism, and seeks to involve the player in doing the same. The protagonist, Nathan Drake, relies heavily on a series of maps and charts produced by the imperialists who, canonically, traveled his routes before him. By doing so, he (along with the developers) adopts the subjectivity of these imperialist forefathers, revising them as tragic victims of the Orient, and therefore siding with them against (heavily erased) natives of the lands they endeavor to dominate.
Into the Void
There is one major problem with saying that anybody, protagonist or creators, “sides against the natives”; namely, there are none to be found. Not once in the whole game does Nathan come across someone who is stated to have lived as part of a culture indigenous to the land he explores. The vast majority of the game takes place on an island well off the west coast of South America that was colonized by the Spanish, with a brief opening aside in the Panamanian jungle, and there are no natives to be found.
What there is to be found is a small army of armed goons, virtually all of them of color. These GOC work for either the game’s primary antagonist and Nathan’s main treasure-hunting competitor, Gabriel Roman, or a secondary antagonist named Eddy Raja who, it is discovered part-way through the game, is helping Roman search for the treasure of El Dorado on contract. Eddy is one of only two named non-white characters that gets any speaking lines, the other being Roman’s second-in-command, Navarro (the only name he is ever given).
For his part, Eddy appears in only two or three scenes, and in all cases he is belligerent, quick to resort to violence and vulgarity, dim-witted, and superstitiously paranoid. Nathan is captured by some of Eddy’s men while on the island and detained in an old Spanish colonial jail. In the middle of questioning, a reporter who came to the island with Nathan named Elena Fisher, uses a Jeep to yank the decayed stone walls of the cell open. Eddy is caught dumbfounded and slack-jawed while leaning on Nathan’s cell bars, allowing Nathan to snatch an important map from his hands and escape. In another instance, Eddy, drawn from the racist archetype of the superstitious and irrational Oriental, complains to Roman that his men are dropping like flies in the face of an unseen threat, and insists that the island is cursed. This pronouncement is treated as a paranoid jump to conclusions and later disproven. Edward Said provides us with a good summary of this patronizing attitude in his landmark work on European scholarship on “the East,” Orientalism, when he quotes Duncan Black MacDonald, “‘It is evident that anything is possible to the Oriental. The supernatural is so near it may touch him at any moment'” (Said, 277).
As for the actual natives of the lands Drake gallivants through, there is only one indication they ever existed in Panama (the island on which most of the game takes place was, presumably, uninhabited before the Spanish colonized it). When Nathan arrives in Panama to hunt for El Dorado alongside his friend and mentor Victor “Sully” Sullivan, he discovers a large ruin that he assumes, reasonably, was built by Native Mesoamerican peoples. The ruins are designed in a style that might be recognizable to any player who took a high school World History class, or from pulpy, 30s-era serial adventures in the vein of Doc Savage or The Phantom (obviously among the main genre predecessors of the Uncharted franchise).
It is in these ruins that Nathan and Sully discover what appears to be a shrine in the ruins of an ancient Mesoamerican temple, evidently looted by the Spanish conquistadores. It is at this point that Nathan surmises that “El Dorado” actually refers not to a city of gold, but to a massive golden idol that the Spanish removed from the temple. Surrounding the now-vacant shrine is a bas-relief mural that depicts humanoid figures prostrating themselves in the direction of the idol, on which Sully comments, “these people–they’re worshipping the damn thing. At least I think they’re people.” The only acknowledgement of the presence–or even relevance–of native Mesoamerican people, historical or contemporary, in a game all about a pre-Columbian Panamanian treasure is from an old white dude casting doubt on the notion that a Mesoamerican temple carving of religious worship even depicts human beings at all.
Eyes Off the Ground
This callous prejudice is important, of course, but has been pointed out before many times and in many places; what has largely been ignored is the relationship the narrative establishes between Nathan and geographical space, which is mediated by a series of Orientalist inscriptions (read: data organized in “hard”, visual form for the sake of analysis and presentation).
The sociologist Bruno Latour is engaged with more or less the same objects in his essay “Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together.” He opens the main body of his piece by discussing the voyage of La Pérouse, a sailor navigating the Pacific in order to bring a better map of the ocean back to Louis XVI. When he lands on the island of Sakhalin off the coast of Russia, he meets some Chinese locals and asks them about whether Sakhalin is an island or a peninsula. To his surprise, an older Chinese man quickly draws an accurate map in the sand. A younger man realizes the tide will soon wash away this drawing, and replicates it on some paper for La Pérouse (Latour, 5).
In this essay, Latour uses this anecdote to launch an inquiry into the origins of the Scientific Revolution in Europe, but in the process he makes some telling allusions to the process of imperial domination. In explicating the importance of the map, to La Pérouse, that the Chinese men draw and discard so casually, Latour comments:
What is, for the [Chinese], a drawing of no importance that the tide may erase, is for [La Pérouse] the single object of his mission…He is passing through all these places, in order to take something back to Versailles where many people expect his map to determine who was right and wrong about whether Sakhalin was an island, who will own this and that part of the world, and along which routes the next ships should sail (6). (emphasis original)
While Latour does not dwell on imperial domination, I will; Louis XVI wants this map not so he can become close friends with the inhabitants of the Pacific islands. Latour states Louis’s–and France’s– goals quite clearly; they want to “own” more of the world, that is, to dominate it for the purposes of garnering wealth from it.
Nathan, his rivals, and all of their predecessors are engaged in the same pursuit of domination, albeit perhaps more temporarily. Following more circuitous clues in the Panamanian jungle leads Nathan and Sully from the looted temple to a WWII-era German U-boat run aground on an inland bed of a river (Nathan guesses it traveled upstream during flood season). When Nathan searches the U-boat, he finds a map clutched in the hands of the captain’s corpse that pinpoints the location of the island that will be the setting for the game’s remaining acts.
This is not the first time in the story that Drake loots an inscription from a place of rest. The game’s very opening scene is of Nathan and Elena salvaging the alleged coffin of Sir Francis Drake, a man Nathan claims as his ancestor. In the narrative, Sir Drake was not buried at sea at all, and in fact hid his journal in his supposed coffin while he went on further secret adventures. Nathan finds the journal when he salvages Sir Drake’s coffin, and finds it full of meticulous notes, drawings, diagrams, and speculative doodles Sir Drake created on his travels.
The core gameplay of the Uncharted franchise has three revolving parts: gunplay, travel, and puzzle-solving. The third part heavily features Sir Drake’s journal, as well as other documents Nathan acquires, like the map he picked off the Nazi captain’s corpse. When the game confronts Nathan with an obstacle and some cryptic symbols, the player will be prompted to open Sir Drake’s journal, where Nathan will find some symbol he should look for, or a relationship between symbols he should try to arrange in the space he is physically in.
In essence, Nathan uses the knowledge of his predecessors (Francis Drake, conquistadores, and Nazis) to draw new conclusions about El Dorado and his environment, physically and intellectually penetrating the island’s mysteries further than they did. Said summarizes this process succinctly:
[A]s a form of growing knowledge Orientalism resorted mainly to citations of predecessor scholars in the field for its nutriment. Even when new materials came his way, the Orientalist judged them by borrowing from predecessors (as scholars often do) their perspectives, ideologies, and guiding theses (Said, 176-7).
It is this ability of Nathan’s–to properly understand and apply the data and theories of his predecessors–that renders him most valuable and impressive to those around him. When he and Elena stumble across an old archive of Spanish-colonial ship manifests, his ability to read them is what elicits Elena’s compliment, “reading 16th century Spanish. Not just a grave robber after all, huh?” Elena also notices Drake pensively thumbing the ring he wears on a cord around his neck. When she asks about it, Drake mentions that it was Francis Drake’s ring bearing his motto (“Sic Parvis Magna”, or “greatness from small beginnings”) and coordinates off the coast of Panama. When Drake explains that, “[Francis] Drake left this as a clue to pinpoint the exact burial site [of his empty coffin],” Elena eggs him on, “For someone clever enough to figure it out.” All of the useful knowledge Drake gleans over the course of the narrative is drawn from the writings of the Spanish colonists, Nazi sailors, or Francis Drake’s notes.
It is not Nathan’s intelligence that is so valuable and impressive as much as it is his ability to transform knowledge into power. The ship manifests he so impressively deciphers are an ideal example of inscriptions or, to use Latour’s more precise phrase, “immutable mobiles”, which encode information in a form that retains its meaning and shape while being easily transportable and presentable. But the manifests also embody another crucial element of the process of colonial domination, which is to go to the places you wish to dominate and take things back, whether those things be trade goods, historical artifacts, or more abstract cargoes of information.
When Nathan reads the manifests, he lists off a massive wealth of jewels and precious metals brought to the colony from the South American mainland, plundered to enrich the Spanish Empire; what is implied, but not mentioned, is that ships had to physically go to those “faraway” places and bring the plunder back. This process of going to-and-fro, which Latour summarizes as “displacement”, is crucial to the process of domination. The Spanish need to do it in order to really acquire the riches they are after, but any colonial power has to do it in order to create and make use of the immutable mobiles Latour analyzes, “without [the voyage to Sakhalin] that required [La Pérouse] to go away and to come back so that others in France might be convinced, no modification in inscription would have made a bit of difference” (Latour, 6).
It is this whole process of displacement and inscription-production that constitutes domination, and the Spanish ship manifests embody the whole process, as do the Nazi’s map and Francis Drake’s journal. All three embody a certain magnitude of displacement in the form of an immutable mobile of some degree of instructiveness. All three directly buttress the ability of their respective administrators to take plunder, to control space, to dominate. Said, again, provides a perfect historical illustration of the relation between knowledge-of and will to power:
As [Lord Balfour] justifies the necessity for British occupation of Egypt, supremacy in his mind is associated with ‘our’ knowledge of Egypt and not principally with military or economic power. Knowledge to Balfour means surveying a civilization from its origins to its prime to its decline–and of course it means being able to do that. The object of such knowledge is inherently vulnerable to scrutiny… To have such knowledge of such a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it. (Said, 32) (emphasis original)
Latour reaches a similar conclusion through his own inquiry:
A man is never much more powerful than any other–even from a throne; but a man whose eye dominates records through which some sort of connections are established with millions of others may be said to dominate. (Latour, 27) (emphasis original)
Latour paraphrases his own observation with a trademark puckishness: “The ‘great man.'” he writes, “is a little man staring at a good map” (Latour, 27). Nathan Drake is exactly such a little man, and it is through the use of a good map drawn from the reference material of his predecessors in domination that he successfully dominates the exotic Oriental space in which he finds himself.
The Void Snarls Back
However, Nathan’s efforts to dominate the island do not go unchallenged, and I do not mean merely by Eddy, Gabriel, and Navarro. Throughout Nathan’s exploits on the island, he notices some oddities about the remains of the Spanish colony. For example, all the ships in the old colonial port are sunken wrecks with their extremities barely peaking above the water; evidently, the Spanish never actually left the colony with all their treasure. The port also has massive structural damage and burns all over it, indicating somebody blasted the port and many of its ships to pieces deliberately. Most disturbingly the final entry in the aforementioned Spanish ship manifest is one on El Dorado. Elena remarks that the idol “gives me the creeps” before Nathan turns the page and finds the remainder of the book blank, as if the record-keeping ended abruptly.
Nathan and Elena also find a Nazi fortification on the island that seems abandoned, but not decommissioned; all of its ships and materiel are still in storage, its electrical infrastructure drained but not dismantled. One of the most sentimental moments in the game is when Nathan and Elena find the corpse of Francis Drake in the catacombs beneath a ruined Catholic monastery. Nathan somberly muses that “He never found [El Dorado]. He just… died here. So much for ‘greatness’. Waste his life… for nothing.”
In all of these cases, a tragic sense of incompleteness is derived from the fact that the twofold process of domination (displacement, then inscription-production) was abruptly thwarted. Francis Drake never truly penetrated the island’s mysteries by plundering El Dorado and taking it back to England. The Spanish abruptly stopped producing their records and were never able to return the plundered riches to Spain. The Nazis were never able to escape the island with any plunder or knowledge either. This is all supposed to be unnerving and generate an ambient feeling of dread, as if what happened to the British, the conquistadores, and the Nazis could happen to Nathan (to us) at any moment.
The game next offers a more direct reason for this anxiety: soon after leaving the port through the jungle, Nathan and Elena find the corpse of one of Eddy’s crewmen, impaled by a crude booby-trap. Nathan quickly rules out the idea that Eddy or Gabriel set these traps, and notices that the trap’s spikes are made from material salvaged from the wreckage of the plane he and Elena traveled to the island in. Nathan almost immediately hushes Elena, urging her to notice the odd silence of the jungle around them, and the vaguely humanoid (but not quite) footprints in the mud near the trap.
The whole scene evokes American anxieties about the jungles of Vietnam, where peasants and farmers fighting for the Viet Cong routinely outmaneuvered American marines by using guerrilla tactics, ubiquitous jungle cover, and all sorts of traps. The images in this scene might as well have been ripped from Apocalypse Now, Predator, or Full Metal Jacket. When Nathan examines the two-toed footprints, he remarks that “something has been here since the trap was sprung.” Whatever kind of monster they are, the natives possess a cunning and savage intellect, matched only by their uncanny animal instinct for thwarting vision. That is, they remain invisible until they eventually swarm in for the kill.
When this finally happens and Nathan is forced to fend off a swarm of these creatures in the catacombs, they reveal themselves to be completely savage, humanoid but certainly not human. They have sharp teeth, communicate solely through guttural snarls, and walk on all fours in a lanky, predatory way. They have the wrong number of toes and fingers, their skin is ashen gray, their eyes are all black and devoid of pupils, and they are, invariably, wearing nothing but a tattered loincloth that seems to stay on by accident. Besides an animal cunning and bloodthirsty instincts, they seem to possess no discernible reason, culture, or agency.
Lines in the Sand
These, we are left to assume, are the creatures that were depicted in the carving in the Mesoamerican temple, the ones whose humanity Sully doubted. That doubt is vindicated of course, and we get a caricature of bloodthirsty cannibalistic islanders who fight like the Viet Cong and snarl like dogs. These creatures are the omnipresent threat, a native insurgency of savages that has thwarted all attempts at colonial domination thus far.
The fact that their eyes are black and lack pupils is particularly interesting. Here Latour recounts another scholar’s work on the “savage/human” dichotomy:
The main difference between us and the savages, [Fabian] argues, is not in the culture, in the mind, or in the brain, but in the way we visualize them. An asymmetry is created because we create a space and time in which we place the other cultures, but they do not do the same. For instance, we map their land, but they have no maps either of their land or of ours; we list their past, but they do not; we build written calendars but they do not. (Latour, 15) (emphasis original)
Without pupils (and therefore, without lenses) the monsters Nathan faces lack the biological ability to focus. That does not stop them from hunting and killing quite a few people, and their biology is never discussed, nor is it relevant. The point is that these creatures clearly lack the ability and inclination to perform what Latour refers to as “vision”, the process of synthesizing immutable mobiles into new formations so as to make them into the basis of policy. They don’t just lack this capacity, they actively halt it in the Spanish, British, and Germans who came before Nathan.
When Nathan explores the Nazi base, he finds a projector (still running, somehow) and a very old letter, written by Francis Drake and found by the Nazis. The projector is playing a reel depicting a man in a WWII German naval uniform, flailing wildly with mouth open, his pupils black, like the monsters. Next to him is the idol, El Dorado, and the letter tells that “the gold of El Dorado bears a terrible curse; the Spaniards have unleashed hell, and become as demons.”
This is all explained, in concrete form when Nathan and Sully (now reunited) chase after Gabriel, who has kidnapped Elena and found El Dorado. When Gabriel examines the idol, Navarro urges him to open it to find “the real treasure of El Dorado.” Gabriel takes the bait, opens the idol at a seam, and promptly breathes in some sort of dust wafting off a mummified corpse inside. Gabriel manages to close the coffin-idol before anyone else breathes in the “curse,” but it is too late for him; he snarls Navarro’s name, swerving around to reveal his slobbering mouth and black, pupil-less eyes. Navarro unceremoniously shoots him in the head for his trouble.
Gabriel, up to this point, has been a straight-backed Englishman with a crisp accent and educated manner of speech. He controls the money that pays a small army of mercenaries as well as Eddy’s crew, and he commands whatever space he is in. He is presented as both smart and perspicacious, predicting and outsmarting Nathan on several occasions. Most importantly, he is engaged in the same process of domination as Nathan; that is, he came to the island to plunder riches by applying the work of prior plunderers. In other words, he is identifiable with colonial plunderers before him. Like Conrad’s Kurtz, Gabriel is radically transformed into yet another Oriental “savage” to be promptly disposed of with a bullet.
Navarro promptly takes charge and reveals his intention to sell El Dorado as a weapon. Nathan, predictably, sets off after him, eventually rescuing Elena and managing to sink both El Dorado and Navarro to the bottom of the ocean. Nathan, Elena, and Sully, meanwhile, sail off together on a stolen boat bearing a crate full of gold loaded by the mercenaries who are now all presumed dead on the island.
The point of this “happy ending” is twofold; first, the evil of El Dorado is that it converts white people (in the form of colonists and conquerors) into native savages, incapable of vision, reason, and, in particular, of domination. Nathan “saves the world” by preventing this insidious contagion from escaping its geographically assigned boundaries, because if El Dorado (and metaphorically, the Orient writ large) were ever examined too closely and covetously by the world, then the Orient might turn us into it.
Said, again, is insightful in explicating this anxiety:
[I]n reading the Orientalists one understands the apocalypse to be feared was not the destruction of Western civilization but rather the destruction of barriers that kept East and West from each other. (Said, 263)
The second element of this happy ending is that Nathan triumphs where all his plundering forbearers failed; he demystifies the island, traverses it without injury (to himself), and makes off with a literal boatload of gold. But, most importantly, he maintains the geographical boundary that separates the threat of the Orient from “the rest” (read: the West) of the world. He completes the journey of domination by applying the inscriptions to their maximum possible capitalization and, most importantly, by completing the displacement necessary to dominate by going back, all while isolating and avoiding the contaminant of the Orient.
The Company You Keep
The Nazis justified their genocidal practices by referring to eugenicist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the pollution of “pure” German blood by insidious outsiders. The Spanish used the concept of “limpieza de sangre“–literally “cleanliness of blood”– to justify the expulsion of Sephardic Jews and Moorish Muslims during the Reconquista. It would only be a few short years after Francis Drake’s (historical) death that the English would colonize Ulster, a particularly brutal predecessor to the genocidal settlement of North America.
When I say that Nathan adopts the subjectivity of a Nazi, I don’t mean that he is somehow indoctrinated into German fascism by a map and proceeds to act as if he were Hitler’s puppet. I mean that he does what a Nazi (or a conquistadore, or a British colonist) would do in a given situation vis a vis the foreign environment he finds himself in, and is motivated by much the same fears and aspirations. Nathan, as an adventuring eccentric, dominates a remote space by building on the work of Nazis and Spanish explorers, motivated by a desire to plunder faraway lands and a fear that he might get too close to the Orient(als) and be converted to a racialized savage himself. The fact that the natives aren’t, in fact, human is a convenient validation of Nathan’s fears; but it is also a convenient validation of the fears of Nazis.
Most disturbingly, because this is a video game, the audience is not just witnessing and vicariously identifying with the fantasy; they are literally performing it. After all, it’s not Nathan that reads Francis Drake’s journal and solves the puzzles of the island, it’s the player that does those things. Nathan–and the whole space he traverses, for that matter–is constructed so that the player may actively embody the fantasy of domination. When Nathan is in the jungles and a gray blur flits across the corner of the screen, it is the player who is responsible for responding should Nathan be attacked.
Most of all, the player’s participation enables him (even draws him in) to taking pride in the protagonist’s actions on their own terms. It is as if the game tells you, “You, player, are better than these savages and chumps. Now prove it by shooting a bunch of them and taking their stuff!” But most importantly, the game constructs a particular fantasy about space and geography:
[I]maginative geography and history help the mind intensify its own sense of itself by dramatizing the distance and difference between what is close to it and what is far away. (Said, 55)
It is comforting to imaginatively prove–through exciting “everyman” hijinks, no less–that the things we have, especially those things that are taken from others, are rightfully ours because of our meritocratic capacity for reason and power. Fantasies of control are (almost) always reassuring. Whether or not we are talking about our real possessions or those we acquire vicariously is not altogether relevant–humans can separate fantasy and reality, but they can also (perhaps, always do) imagine a synthesis of the two. Maybe, if you find yourself fantasizing about doing the things a Nazi would do, it’s a good idea to put down the remote and seek your fortune elsewhere.