This is the second piece on the Uncharted franchise and in an ongoing series on Orientalism in video games. For the first article, on Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, click here.
Upon the release of its debut title, Drake’s Fortune, the Uncharted franchise almost instantly developed a reputation for beautiful environments and cinematic storytelling. Listening to the development team behind the franchise’s second installment, Among Thieves, talk about their work on the title, one hears the words “relatable”, “realism”, “detail”, “everyman”, and “grounded” used to describe a franchise predicated on a chipper treasure hunter’s travels to faraway lands where he (inevitably) defeats small armies of adversaries and demonic forces guarding enchanted relics. The game series, in other words, presents a fantastical spectacle, yet the architects of this spectacle insist on fidelity to “reality.” Among Thieves’ art director, Erick Pangilinan, says this in developer commentary for the game:
Uncharted is–has always been grounded into reality, and we try to the write the fiction in reality. We try to push it as much as possible to the fantasy, but it’s still believable. We’ve always wanted this very lush and colorful world. We want just vibrancy in all of our textures… detail. It’s just all about detail, detail, detail. Some of us have actually been to the gompas in Nepal and Tibet. And you look at the location and the culture and how rich the architecture is and just how they’ve developed their culture, and the colors and the design. And sometimes the reality is better than anything you can create.
However, this assessment doesn’t go over so easily when one actually sits down to play Among Thieves. Pangilinan uses the word “culture” twice, but the game depicts no Nepalese people on screen, with the exception of some background extras in one cutscene. For the time Nathan Drake is in Nepal, the game shows him almost exclusively in a dense, populated urban setting in which Nepalese people are said to be present (fighting a local civil war the central issues of which are never elucidated), but they almost never appear on screen.
Asked to list the most foundational tenets of American culture, one would probably reach first for a list of sociopolitical values: individualism, liberal democracy, the Protestant work ethic, etc. But a player who finishes Among Thieves would be at a loss to produce an analogous list defining Nepalese culture. What he might reach for instead is a series of aesthetic markers and sartorial exteriors. In Pangilinan’s words, he would describe many beautifully rendered “details.”
Pangilinan mentions a visit to Nepal and Tibet, but does not produce any sense that he, or any of his colleagues, actually talked to Nepalese or Tibetans on the trip. When game director Bruce Straley describes the challenges that he believes his team met when they created Among Thieves, he asks, rhetorically, “[H]ow do you create a grounded character in a grounded setting[?]”. And yet, this “grounded setting” includes almost nobody who might actually live on the setting’s ground. Edward Said’s Orientalism helps to elucidate this point by providing a historical analogue:
[T]he nineteenth-century French pilgrims did not seek a scientific so much as an exotic yet especially attractive reality. This is obviously true of the literary pilgrims, beginning with Chateaubriand, who found in the Orient a locale sympathetic to their private myths, obsessions and requirements. Here we notice how all the pilgrims, but especially the French ones, exploit the Orient in their work so as in some urgent way to justify their existential vocation. (170)
A central, foundational element of the Uncharted franchise is spectacular, “cinematic” set-pieces that take place in arresting locales. Hence, Pangilinan uses plenty of words to describe the team’s approach to the environment’s aesthetics: “colorful”, “vibrancy”, “rich”, and “detail”. “Culture”, in Pangilinan’s usage, refers to these aesthetic trappings. If the setting is a character, then the most important aspect of that character for Uncharted developer Naughty Dog is that she is beautiful.
So what does it mean when Pangilinan says that Naughty Dog aims to “push the reality to fantasy” while, in Straley’s words, keeping that fantasy “grounded”. It is my argument in this piece that Among Thieves presents a psychosexually charged fantasy that delivers the exotic yet especially attractive reality that justifies the adventure this iteration of the franchise presents. Nathan Drake’s journey to the Orient masculinizes him, and the game presents his successes in this escapade as essentially a success of sexual domination.
Anything for Love
The adventure starts when an old associate of Nathan’s, Harry Flynn, recruits him for a museum heist on behalf of a wealthy client. The goal is to steal a lamp that was a gift from Kublai Khan to Marco Polo and, allegedly, holds a clue as to the location of a lost treasure fleet. Nathan, Harry, and a third crew-member, Chloe Frazier, hatch a plan to betray the benefactor and find the treasure themselves.
Unbeknownst to Harry, Chloe is also an old flame of Nathan’s, and the two meet up alone to discuss their own plans. Chloe is sleeping with Harry, which stokes Nathan’s jealousy, in spite of the fact (which Chloe brings up) that Nathan was the one to break off their romantic involvement. Nonetheless, Chloe mounts Nathan and propositions him to disappear with her after the three of them find the treasure and split the spoils.
If this dynamic seems more like one from a soap opera than from an action-adventure movie so far, the effect is intentional. The game’s creative director, Amy Hennig, specifically mentions in developer commentary that “There’s [sic] even elements of romantic comedy, which is unusual in games.” Further, Nathan’s impulse to hunt this particular treasure is given an explicitly sexual motive—succeeding in finding these particular riches will result in Chloe leaving Harry for him.
Upon infiltrating the museum, he and Harry find the oil lamp and smash it open to reveal some chips of blue resin and a roll of paper. In a moment of inspiration, Nathan gathers the resin into a pile and lights it on fire, the light of which reveals a map on the paper, with further written instructions to find the lost fleet in Borneo. Furthermore, the instructions hint that Marco Polo discovered the Cintamani Stone and the paradise of Shambhala.
Unfortunately for Nathan, it’s at this point that Harry betrays him, escaping while stranding Nathan without a way out and leaving him to be arrested. The story then skips ahead three months, at which point we see Nathan getting bailed out of prison by Chloe and Victor “Sully” Sullivan. In venting his frustration over the betrayal, Nathan lets slip that at some point during his incarceration, he shared a cell with eight other inmates, where they all had to use the same bucket for defecation. One only has to recall the popularity of prison-rape jokes in American culture to understand the subtext of emasculating sexual humiliation. Harry’s betrayal not only pulls Chloe and the treasure out of his grasp for a short while, but also forces him to spend long stretches of time in close quarters with strange men where he must regularly drop his trousers without privacy.
Chloe and Sully give Nathan an opportunity for revenge, informing him that Harry and his client Zoran Lazarevic have found the shipwrecked lost fleet of Marco Polo, but that they have yet to find further clues as to the location of the Cintamani Stone. It’s worth noting that Nathan, Sully, and Chloe all frequently make jabs at Harry’s intelligence or agree to deprecations against him. Defeating Harry is not just a matter of payback, but also a matter of pride, and not merely for the sexual humiliation Nathan endures, but also as proof of his own aptitude for colonial domination.
When the trio return to Borneo, with Chloe pretending to be loyally working with Harry and Lazarevic, they manage to infiltrate Lazarevic’s excavation site and get some time to examine the historical materials that Lazarevic has gathered. Among these is a series of preserved clippings from Marco Polo’s journals. Pouring over them, Nathan discerns that the 13th-century explorer never took the Cintamani Stone from Shambhala. Following more clues, he, Sully, and Chloe (who slips away from Harry and Lazarevic) find the hidden resting place of the crewmen of Polo’s lost fleet. In the arms of one skeleton is a box that contains an ornate golden dagger wrapped in an antique map.
On this map is inscribed a series of directions to a valley of temples in Nepal, “In all these many temples, only one conceals the secret path to Shambhala–and that path shall only be revealed to the pilgrim who bears the golden passport.” Nathan also informs Sully and Chloe that the dagger is a phurba, a Tibetan ritual object used to destroy spiritual obstacles.
Two words are worth dwelling on here, the first of which is “pilgrim”. The word establishes the game’s resonance with the quote from Said in this piece’s introduction. The phurba‘s role in “destroying spiritual obstacles” reaffirms the fact that Nathan’s adventure in the Orient is meant as a personal fulfillment. In Said’s words, “what matter
not so much Asia so much as Asia’s use to modern Europe” (115), where Nathan stands in for Europe as a representative westerner.
The second word of interest is “passport”; the term implies a privilege of movement and access underwritten by administration. After all, a real passport must be stamped and examined upon departure or arrival, implying a uniformly enforced set of bureaucratic norms for the movement of persons. Without such a document, movement over borders is halted. In defining the phurba as a “passport” to Shambhala, the narrative conveys that the dagger bestows a privilege of movement to “the worthy pilgrim”. Given that the word “pilgrim” so strongly invokes a Westerner’s travels to the Orient (as a devout Christian might travel to Jerusalem), the words taken together imply a unique access to the Orient that is reserved for the European traveler. Said, again:
A certain freedom of intercourse was always the Westerner’s privilege; because his was the stronger culture, he could penetrate, he could wrestle with, he could give shape and meaning to the great Asiatic mystery, as Disraeli once called it (44).
Said’s language is deliberately suggestive; for the Orientalists that Said writes of, colonization and sex–specifically from the dominant position–were metaphorically equated. In summarizing the statements of some representative scholars, Said has this to say:
The point here is that the space of of weaker or underdeveloped regions like the Orient was viewed as something inviting French interest, penetration, insemination–in short, colonization (219).
I showed in my piece on Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune that Nathan is engaged in a process of colonial domination; in Among Thieves, this process gains a carnal charge that is made varyingly explicit at different points in the story. When Chloe and Nathan meet up (Sully has ducked out of the adventure at this point) at the valley of temples–now a large city–it is in a situation where Chloe saves Nathan from a cohort of Lazarevic’s soldiers. After the dust has cleared, Chloe mounts Nathan where he stands, joking, “Oh, is that an ancient Tibetan ritual dagger in your pocket?” Nathan plays along, “Well, maybe I’m just happy to see you.” Chloe hops down from Nathan’s waste and reaches towards his groin to pull the dagger out for examination, eliciting a yelp from Nathan.
The dagger is now not just a passport, but a penis, irrevocably linked to Nathan’s erection and the key to both Oriental riches and romantic bliss with Chloe. When they eventually do find the proper use for the dagger, they realize that they have to plunge the dagger into various holes to open doorways. Some of these apertures are in the mouths of statues, some in the bellies or groins, some in otherwise innocuous places; but the inescapable conclusion is that if the dagger is a penis, then these various openings are yonic, literal orifices of the Orient.
Of course, this kind of promiscuity is part and parcel of the fantasy of domination. In discussing the 19th century French author, Gustave Flaubert, Said discusses the Orient’s use as an escapist fantasy for those who felt stifled by bourgeois sexual norms:
In all of his novels Flaubert associates the Orient with the escapism of sexual fantasy…the association is clearly made between the Orient and the freedom of licentious sex…Virtually no European writer who wrote on or traveled to the Orient in the period after 1800 exempted himself or herself from this quest” (190)
This sexual implication infuses the whole narrative. Almost immediately after their initial exchange, Nathan notices a symbol on the dagger that corresponds to a symbol seen on the city’s architecture, surmising that the temple they must find bears that symbol. When Nathan and Chloe reach a vantage point, looking out over the city through their binoculars, they evoke “the picture of a learned Westerner surveying…the passive, seminal, feminine, even silent and supine East…making the Orient deliver up its secrets” (Said, 137-8).
The intellectual work of colonization, the privilege of movement across political demarcations of space, and the entitlement to fuck that which you desire at will are all inextricably linked. The phurba grants Nathan clues as to how to proceed in penetrating the mysteries of the Orient, a certain privilege of access to the Oriental body, and the ability to almost literally fuck the Orient into receptiveness. But most important is the fact that the narrative presents all three as the same power and privilege.
The Ones Who Got Away
On their way to the temple, Nathan and Chloe run into returning character and reporter Elena Fisher, who is in Nepal with her colleague and cameraman, Jeff (the only name he is given), trying to track Lazarevic. Elena tells Nathan that Lazarevic is a fugitive war criminal; he is presumed dead by NATO after “some bombing raid”. Elena also says that “this guy’s a real monster, Nate. We’re talking torture, mutilation, mass executions.” We are never told who the victims of these actions are, or where these war crimes took place; all that matters is that Lazarevic is suitably evil and threatening to the protagonists.
If Harry is a competitor for possession of the Orient, Lazarevic is even more so. We are given many unsubstantiated significations that he is evil, but the things he actually does in the story revolve around competing with Nathan in particular ways. Chloe mentions that he is “tearing the city apart looking for the right temple,” ravishing the Orient while Nathan goes to all the loverly trouble of perspicaciously locating the sweet spots.
When Nathan and Chloe find Elena, the ensuing banter between the three reveals that Nathan and Elena’s promising relationship at the end of the prior game turned sour in the intervening time; Chloe teases Nathan that Elena “broke your heart”. Nathan denies this, but insists that Elena and Jeff are coming with them. When everyone but Nathan says this is a bad idea or unnecessary, he is immediately validated by the appearance of a helicopter operated by Lazarevic’s troops. The presence of an evil competitor justifies Nathan’s patronizing insistence on shepherding Chloe, Elena, and Jeff around.
With Elena included in the plot, Nathan is surrounded by reminders of sexual failures. He abandoned his romance with Chloe and was initially thwarted in his quest to get her back. His relationship with Elena ultimately deflated. The Orient itself escapes his control when Harry betrays him. Just like Said’s French pilgrim, Nathan is “imbued with a sense of acute loss in the Orient” (169), but his colonial adventure furnishes a perfect opportunity to win all of them back. We might as well substitute Nathan’s name for Gérard de Nerval’s when Said writes, “The Orient symbolizes Nerval’s dream-quest and the fugitive woman central to it, both as desire and as loss” (184).
Jeff is largely extraneous to this quest, and so is almost immediately killed off to facilitate Nathan’s journey in two ways. First, it clears space for him to pursue Elena without the potential complications of a colleague pulling her attentions and priorities in a direction away from Nathan. Second, it allows him to perform the necessary heroism to woo Elena. After all, Jeff is important to her, and making the effort to save him endears Nathan to Elena. After they escape Lazarevic’s men, right after Jeff’s death and Chloe’s betrayal, Nathan and Elena have a tender, huddled moment as if all this trauma were aphrodisiac. From this point, Jeff’s name is never spoken and he is never alluded to again; he’s treated as, at best, a distraction.
Jeff’s death also substantiates a scene in which Nathan and Lazarevic confront each other face to face. Lazarevic’s casual execution of Jeff marks him as suitably evil and threatening for a villain. Even before that, while Nathan and Elena are at gunpoint, Lazarevic calls Nathan “little man”, and then pulls the phurba from the same waist-holster that Chloe did earlier. Where Chloe’s gesture was erotic, Lazarevic’s is emasculating; he is physically taking away the object that enables Nathan’s phallic will-to-power over the Orient. After shooting Jeff, Lazarevic uses his gun to prop up Elena’s journalist’s ID, clipped to her belt, which brings his (obviously phallic) gun within inches of her genitalia while he suggestively smirks at her.
In a single scene, Lazarevic takes Chloe and Nathan’s colonial power over the Orient away from him, and threatens to kill (and figuratively, rape) Elena. And yet, he is aggressively devoid of ideology. He never evinces any actual politics or concrete goals other than raw power-hunger. Nothing is definitively said or shown about him other than that he kills people and is overly cruel in doing so. The only political detail we are given about him is that he is Russian, but that might be enough of a signifier to clarify the ambiguity. Here is Said, writing about Orientalism during the Cold War:
what was clearly at stake, [Mortimer] Graves argued (to very receptive ears by the way), was the need for, “much better American understanding of the forces which are contending with the American idea for acceptance by the Near East. The principal of these are, of course, communism and Islam.” (295)
At the time Graves made this argument, around 1950, Russia (as a synecdoche for the Soviet Union) was practically synonymous with the threat of communism in the eyes of the West. In the modern day, after the McCarthyite Red Scare, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the proxy war in Afghanistan, and the persistent stalemate over the Berlin Wall, Russia and the history of communism are irrevocably linked in the American imagination. We might comfortably substitute “communism” for “Islam”, “capitalism” for “Christianity” when Said writes:
European interest in Islam derived not from curiosity but from fear of a monotheistic, culturally and militarily formidable competitor to Christianity (342-3).
Communism becomes a sort of viral indigenous force of the Orient that threatens to buck Western hegemony; Lazarevic threatens to assert influence that precludes Nathan, as the representative westerner, from dominating that space. This threat is reified when Harry, as Lazarevic’s lackey, takes Chloe away, and when Lazarevic threatens Elena. But Lazarevic is emphatically not another Westerner; as an embodiment of a viral indigenous force, he is, himself, an Oriental, albeit with convincing presumptions of hegemonic power.
So it is predictable that when Nathan and Elena escape and find a moment to breath, Nathan immediately resolves to pursue Chloe, eliciting a knowing scoff from Elena. Nathan ultimately defeats a small army of heavily armed commandos, climbs all over a train traveling over Himalayan precipices, shoots down an assault helicopter, and bests a giant, snarling, inarticulate goon in a fist fight in order to reclaim the phurba and rescue Chloe.
It is an upsetting surprise for Nathan that Chloe refuses to be “rescued”:
Chloe: Get off the train, Nate.
Nathan: What are you talking about? Do you have any idea what I’ve been through–
Chloe: I never asked for any of your bloody heroics.
Nathan: Chloe c’mon, we don’t have time for this.
Chloe: You’re right. So get off the train–while you still can.
Nathan: And leave you with them.
Chloe: You made your choice.
Nathan: What did you expect me to do?
Chloe I expected you to have my back!
Nathan: I had your back!
Chloe: How could you possibly, with the other two on yours?!
Nathan: Well, good luck with Flynn! You deserve each other. Y’know, I can’t believe that y–
Chloe is essentially making an argument about fidelity, insisting that Nathan dishonored a (implicitly monogamous) commitment. Nathan assumes that the labor he put into pursuing Chloe obligates her compliance, and when she disabuses him of this notion he reacts with vitriol and scorn. But Chloe is not just rejecting a romantic overture, she is interrupting the fantasy of promiscuous access that structures Nathan’s whole journey in the Orient. By insisting on singular loyalty, Chloe threatens to circumscribe Nathan’s ability to penetrate space and bodies as he pleases, and therefore disrupts his phallic will-to-power.
This political emasculation is punctuated by a gunshot, which cuts off the dialogue above. Harry appears and shoots Nathan in the gut, a wound to mirror the one that rendered Jeff in need of rescue. In both cases, the wound is near the groin and bleeds profusely, rendering both characters less virile and physically powerful than before. In keeping with the Freudian analysis, the wounds emasculate them by granting them menstruating vaginas. In both cases, this renders the victims in need of rescue; Nathan tries to save Jeff, and Nathan ultimately collapses in the Himalayan snow, albeit only after more acrobatics and gunplay.
“radically, a matter of power”
After collapsing in the snow, Nathan awakes in an unfamiliar home, where he discovers he’s been brought to a remote mountain village. Elena informs him he’s been recovering and unconscious for a few days, and hugs him in excitement, eliciting a pained wince from Nathan, due to his wound. Elena also introduces Nathan to Karl Schafer, an elderly German man who is evidently presented as a source of knowledge and wisdom.
Schafer barely introduces himself before expositing about Shambhala and the Cintamani stone; he, too, once pursued the legend as the leader of an expedition 70 years prior. When he tries to impart to Nathan the importance of completing his quest, Nathan balks, saying he’s done with the adventure. When Schafer insists Lazarevic won’t give up, Nathan scoffs, “Oh, yeah? Well, more power to him.” Schafer portentously admonishes:
Power is precisely the problem. Some of the most fearsome rulers through history have possessed only a fragment of the Cintamani Stone. Men like Tamerlane, Genghis Khan…If a mere sliver could bestow such power, what would a man become if he possessed the Stone itself?
Schafer convinces Nathan to go with a local named Tenzin to find the remains of his expedition in a cave near the village, and when they do, Nathan realizes the frozen bodies all have bullet wounds. Nathan also discovers that Schafer’s expedition were SS, and that Schafer shot them all. In the intervening time, Lazarevic razes the village, kidnaps Schafer, and takes the phurba, the purported “key to Shambhala”. When Nathan finally catches up to Lazarevic’s soldiers at an old mountain monastery, Schafer explains that he had to kill his expedition; if they found the stone, it would “change the course of history.”
Here, one might assume that Schafer stopped his SS colleagues from acquiring the Stone to stop the Third Reich from winning the war; an Allied victory, from a contemporary standpoint, is a crucial event in “the course of history”.
But this is a nonsensical contortion. Schafer, as per the story, was an SS officer who led an expedition to enrich and empower the Third Reich; he already went out of his way to promote an Axis victory. Moreover, the Uncharted games aggressively avoid concrete political stances, so Schafer never explicitly states any conscientious objection to genocide or military conquest, policies with which the term “Nazi” is almost synonymous.
So what fear would drive Schafer to summarily kill his entire expedition? Or maybe we should first ask, what is the “course of history” that must not be changed? Said gives us one possible answer in a quote from Flaubert:
Modern man is progressing, Europe will be regenerated by Asia. The historical law that civilization moves from Orient to Occident…the two forms of humanity will at last be soldered together (113).
Here, the West is the inheritor of the Orient’s legacy, and is ultimately responsible for the future of mankind writ large. Said shows that the Orientalist’s:
formulation [is] that the Orient proposes and the West disposes: Asia has its prophets, Europe its doctors (its learned men, its scientists: the pun is intended). Out of this encounter…both East and West fulfill their destinies and confirm their identities in the encounter (137).
That is, the Orient is an effusive, productive element upon which the West operates. To the Occident is reserved the agency to make political and rational determinations. It is this relation that both constitutes and impels the “course of history”.
The stone is therefore to be feared because it does something to threaten this political relation. It is telling that Schafer specifically mentions Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, two Mongols. After all:
the Orient is at bottom either something to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominion) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible) (301).
If the Cintamani Stone were merely a valuable jewel, Westerners (be it Italians, Germans, or Americans) could extract and dispose of it safely. But the fact that the Stone conveys power makes it a dangerous influence, specifically because the influence originates in the Orient. If such a force were allowed to shape the decisions of Westerners, it would upend the political relation on which Orientalist (and therefore, colonial) hegemony depends. The exact mechanism of that power is almost irrelevant, because:
For the [Oriental], passivity is the presumed role; for the [Orientalist], the power to observe, study, and so forth…The relationship between the two is radically a matter of power (Said, 308)
This is ultimately why Lazarevic is such a threat, and why Schafer insists that threat demands an answer. As insidiously Oriental, Lazarevic cannot be allowed to wield power that might threaten the hegemonic relation between Occident and Orient. More precisely, to unleash the Oriental magic of the Cintamani Stone at all would be to threaten this power relation.
Lazarevic substantiates this threat in a later confrontation with Nathan where he vaguely praises the “will” of Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. The motley assortment of historical tyrants are metonymous, respectively, for the Mongol hordes, generalized tyrannical evil, authoritarian communism, and Oriental despotism. The references show Lazarevic’s aspirations to a generalized form of tyranny that an American audience might tacitly accept as antithetical to “Western” ideals of individual expression, democracy, and judicial due process. “Saving the world”, here, means preventing a militarily formidable threat to the coherence of Western life materializing in faraway lands. This prevention, inevitably, requires the Orient to be penetrated and dominated by a representative Westerner, so that the threat can be destroyed before it escapes the confines of the Orient.
Bottoming from the Top
Of course, the threat Lazarevic poses is ultimately presented in sexual terms. He forces Nathan to open the secret path to Shambhala by threatening the lives of Chloe and Elena, his love interests. When Nathan is no longer needed, Lazarevic insists that “I want [Nathan] to see Shambhala and die knowing that I have taken it from him.” Once the group has entered Shambhala, and Lazarevic has satisfactorily cuckolded Nathan, he demands that Nathan and Elena get on their knees before shooting them as a last act of humiliation. The posing figuratively enacts a rape as they kneel to receive his phallic power in their faces. He only spares Chloe in order to give her to Harry as recompense for his services.
Nathan, Elena, and Chloe are saved when a group of over-muscled, screaming humanoids with black teeth attacks the group, distracting Lazarevic and his men and enabling their escape. It turns out that Shambhala is populated and guarded by these snarling, inarticulate monsters, who use crude crossbows and are extremely tough. Where the lush valley of Shambhala–heavily foliated despite being nested in the Himalayas at high elevation–suggests an alluring reception, the cartoonishly masculine guardians–apish in expression–are a terrifying deterrent:
the Orient seems still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies (Said, 188)
The fecundity of the Orient is transmuted into literal terrain in the form of Shambhala. Not only is it lush–full of Pangilinan’s beautifully rendered “details”–it is also literally oozing its own fluids. The final revelation of the game is that the Cintamani Stone isn’t a sapphire at all, it’s a giant sphere of amber–in other words, fossilized tree sap. The sap originates from “The Tree of Life”, a massive tree at the center of the paradisiac valley. Shambhala, standing in for the Orient, is a fertile, productive entity pouring forth its dangerous influence in the form of gooey bodily fluids.
Nathan realizes that the monsters are actually people who were changed when they ate the resin from this tree, and that’s where the pervasive sexual threat of this mythologized Orient comes from. Willful consumption of the Orient’s bodily juices turns the recipient into a representative Oriental, incapable of reason (read: colonial vision), constantly overstimulated and aggressive, unable to engage politically with the outside world, specifically with any method other than violence. We could easily generalize Said’s words:
An Arab Oriental is that impossible creature whose libidinal energy drives him to paroxysms of over-stimulation–and yet, he is as a puppet in the eyes of the [Western] world, staring vacantly out at a modern landscape he can neither understand nor cope with (312).
Said tells us that, to the Orientalist, “The earth is seething with incoherent power and unorganized intelligence” (251), and it is these forces that pour forth and change (in the colonial mind, degrade) the recipient of the Orient’s libidinal juices. Incidentally, where the black eyes of the previous game’s monsters represent a dangerous power to thwart colonial vision, the monster’s black teeth signify an analogous Freudian power. The monsters threaten to thwart colonial penetration, namely by using animalistic masculine powers gained by submission to, rather than virile domination of, the Orient’s libidinal excess.
Nathan surmises that exactly such a change is what Lazarevic is seeking, for himself and his army, and sure enough, Nathan catches Lazarevic submitting to the Orient. Nathan confronts Lazarevic at the base of the Tree of Life, a feminine Earth Mother entity (think Gaia, Freya, Demeter, Inara, Ama, etc) from which the Orient’s incoherent power oozes forth. Lazarevic drinks from a pool of sap at the base of the tree, consuming Shambhala’s bodily juices in a metaphorical act of cunnilingus. His reward is a regenerative power and super-strength that erases his battle-scars and renders him almost impervious to gunfire.
Nathan’s workaround is to lure Lazarevic near globs of sap and ignite them with gunshots, repeatedly causing explosions that knock Lazarevic off his feet until he is overwhelmed. Up until this point, burning bits of resin was the way that Nathan created a special blue light that illuminated new clues on his journey to Shambhala. The mechanism for exercising his penetrating colonial vision is repurposed into a weapon to defeat the Orient’s embodied sexual excess. When Lazarevic is finally defeated, Nathan is able to make his escape while the other monsters of Shambhala rip him apart; Lazarevic is punished for getting too close to the Orient’s libido, subject to both Nathan’s penetrating violence and the Orient’s own frenzied sexuality.
Law of the Penis
Among Thieves‘ happy ending sees Lazarevic and Harry dead. Shambhala goes up in flames from the explosions Nathan causes, Nathan reconciles amicably with Chloe, and solidifies a wholesome relationship with Elena. He dominates all three, in the logic of patriarchy, by destroying the first, dispensing with the second on his own terms, and assuming possession of the third.
This domination is the ultimate point of Among Thieves; even when Nathan is emasculated by his gut wound, he never succumbs to the overwhelming danger of the elements. Nathan free-climbs a train car dangling off a mountainside (after he tumbles 20 feet straight down), and then defeats 20+ heavily armed soldiers, all while struggling to stay conscious because of blood loss from his gut wound and the twin dangers of hypoxia and hypothermia from exposure in the driving Himalayan snow. Elena’s hug makes him wince after a few days of recovery, but then a short pep talk and a reminder of the stakes sends him off into more acrobatics and gunplay until he ultimately defeats Lazarevic, all seemingly without his gut wound ever bothering him again.
And what are the stakes that enable Nathan to ignore the limitations of the human body and fulfill his will-to-power over the Orient? Well, that will-to-power and the resultant domination are a self-gratifying mission; to paraphrase Schafer, power is precisely the point. The feminine influence of Shambhala can only be possessed, dominated, and destroyed by a virile colonial power (embodied in Nathan Drake), and using such power to do exactly that is its own fulfillment.
Moreover, failing to exercise that power is an apocalyptic proposition. Lazarevic is debased because he desires to consume the Orient’s sexual essence. He is a threat because his submission imbues him with Shambhala’s own libidinal force, and should he come to exert that force on the world beyond Shambhala (read:the Orient), then he will scramble the patriarchal relations between Occident and Orient. It is the presumed role of the Occident to dominate and dispose of the Orient at its leisure. Lazarevic threatens to bring about an apocalyptic collapse of this relation by pouring the Orient’s libidinal energy beyond its prescribed boundaries, thwarting the Occident’s virile, colonial power and emasculating it:
in reading the Orientalists one understands the apocalypse to be feared was not the destruction of Western civilization but rather the destruction of the barriers that kept East and West from each other (Said, 263)
This is why Nathan and Elena are able to come to identify with a former SS officer in a shockingly short amount of time. It is ultimately more important to Nathan, and the narrative, that he preserve the patriarchal relation between West and East than it is to deconstruct a Nazi’s colonial venture.
Nathan is, of course, successful in this; he completes the journey of domination by forcing his way in and pulling out before he is destroyed by the Orient’s libidinal conflagrations, all while fending off a competitor. Whereas the last game rewarded Nathan for his colonial success with plunder, the reward for this sexualized conquest is, inevitably, sexual. He recovers no riches from the Orient, but ends up in a wholesome romance with Elena and coquettish reconciliation with Chloe.
Nathan, as an avatar of the player’s empowerment fantasy, embodies a particular vision of validation and success. The vision of women as prizes to be won is, of course, sexist; but the fantasy is a bit more disturbing for the alliance it illuminates between colonialism and patriarchy. The fantasy of Nathan Drake is of being a real man who comes where he wants, be it Tibet or a vagina, and conquers what he believes to be his, be that a womanly paradise or a paradisiac woman. Whatever the case, the Orient is fucked.