In other words, he's a videogame character. As a heap of pixels, Nate is given the capacity for heroism, and the ability to do things real people simply cannot do. His world is controlled by a clearly-defined set of rules, and by our actions as players. There's no potentially "random" aspect to Drake's life - he lives in a fatalist state, one that will always play out the way it is meant to play out, provided that we bring him there. He's a product of fiction, a world-saving, infinitely-respawning, physics-defying object that is, in part, something no mortal being can ever dream of being, because Nate is like a dream in and of himself.
If his father did not abandon him, Nate would assuredly not be the same hero we presently know and love.
But only "in part." Even though he is confined his own personal gaming otherworld, Nate's underlying motivations - namely, making up for his absent father - make his so much realer than he has any business being. Examine the fictional past that has been created for him, and ask yourself, who is Nathan Drake if not someone defined by the personally uncontrollable forces that made him who he is today? If his father did not abandon him, Nate would assuredly not be the same hero we presently know and love.
If his father gave him the love every child is owed growing up, there would be no Cartagena, where, as shown in Uncharted 3, Drake and Sully began their father-son-like relationship. There would be no Navarro or Lazarević or Marlowe to defeat, no self-imposed duty to save all of creation, no need for heroism on Nate's part. There'd be no Sully to learn from, no Elena to marry, no Chloe and no Cutter to fight alongside, no Francis Drake to idolize. Whether or not Nate would be a better or worse man if he was granted a more "normal" childhood is impossible to say. All we know is that he wouldn't be the guy we pay to play as today, and that we probably wouldn't want him any other way.
Time and again, we see Drake do the impossible, and time and again, we learn that nothing Nate does in the present is ever going to change his past. He can take Elena as a wife, Sully as a father, and treasure hunting as a thrill, but none of that will reset the way things fell into place for him, and the way he was denied his dad's affection. He is the most classic of heroes, wrapped and packaged with the hero's necessarily tragic past, fighting an unwinnable battle against a father who isn't tangible, and a past that isn't malleable. That's just who he is.
And that is what makes him "real." When I look at Drake, when I see his unattainable physical perfections and his tragic personal imperfections, borne out of his fatherlessness, I see a hero I can admire, and a brother with whom I can relate. I see a protagonist that transcends the barrier between videogame player and videogame character; I see someone with the same pain I know all too well. Sure, Nathan may not be able to "feel" anything as a computer program, but his created existence is one that touches me, and I'm sure many others, on an empathetic, emotional level.
Who is Nathan Drake if not one of us? Like the rest of humanity, he lives with, as Sully puts it at the end of Uncharted 3, "the hand he's dealt." For him, and for me, that means having a father taken from him far too early. Nate is a symbol of living with any tragedy or loss you can't take back, and making "real greatness" come about in spite of it, and because of it. As a videogame character, Drake is more readily prepared to do "great" things. But as a symbol of humanity, he is a challenge for us to try and do the same. There is strength and inspiration to be found in those things we can't reset. Sometimes a character like Nate is an exceptional reminder of that.
Jeff Dunn is a freelance writer based in Boston, MA. A staff writer for Cheat Code Central, his work has also been featured in such publications as PopMatters, Unwinnable, and other sites you don't read. Follow him on Twitter and he'll hug you.